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New Union President Ready for Big Issues

An educator for 34 years with solid union experience, Baxter M. Atkinson, new president of the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA), is ready to tackle education issues in the national arena. Helping principals cope with the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and educating the public about the law's effect on children are among his priorities. Included: Descriptions of AFSA programs that support principals.

Baxter M. Atkinson, President, American Federation of School Administrators

In an atmosphere of leaner budgets and heftier responsibilities, administrators -- especially principals -- have greater need for a national support network, according to Baxter M. Atkinson, new president of the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA).

"With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, increased accountability, budget cutbacks, and the challenges they face, administrators are in a fish bowl," Atkinson told Education World. "I see more of a need for administrators to have a support network, someone to represent them during these challenging times."

The only national union for public school principals, assistant principals, administrators, and supervisors, AFSA currently has about 20,000 members in the U.S. and U.S. Virgin Islands.

Educator unity is critical at a time when "public schools in America are under attack," according to Atkinson. "We're facing some very serious issues -- one of them is No Child Left Behind. This law deeply impacts principals, and directly affects the education of their students. We also hear more talk about vouchers and tax credits for private schools, which are direct assault on public schools. These undermine our nation's commitment to a free public education for all children."

Atkinson, who is on leave from his job as principal of Mark Twain Elementary School in Hartford, Connecticut, said pushing for revisions of the No Child Left Behind Act is one of the priorities of his three-year term. "I feel it's greatly flawed and massively underfunded. It will leave many children behind if we don't get the funding we need."

The law also comes across as punitive rather than supportive, because of the sanctions involved for schools that fail to show adequate yearly progress, he said. "If the schools don't make progress, it's our principals' necks that are on the chopping block. They can be transferred or fired."

Other provisions of the law concern the union as well, such as the emphasis on high-stakes testing and requiring all students to meet the same standards. "There is a clear and present danger of teaching to the test," said Atkinson.

While AFSA agrees student performance standards need to be high, professional educators must be involved in setting those standards, he added.

"We want to raise awareness among the public as to what the law really means to our children," Atkinson continued. "We want people to apply pressure to the White House to fully fund it."

SUPPORTING, GROWING THE RANKS

Besides publicizing union concerns about NCLB, Baxter is focusing on helping principals grow as leaders in their schools and in the labor arena. "We want to empower our membership to help them be more proficient in running their schools and be better able to implement NCLB, by providing support networks and professional development," said Atkinson. "We want to train them on the latest negotiation and mediation techniques."

Addressing the high burnout rate among principals is an area Atkinson is aiming to tackle as well. "The pool of school principals is shrinking; there are not enough people who want to be principals," he said. "Some view it as a thankless 24-7 job. Our principals need support from their administrations and communities. They need professional development and funding to get the basic tools of education."

Building membership is another priority for the new president. Membership has increased 60 percent since 1991; 90 local unions are affiliated with AFSA. "We are going to use the team approach to increase membership," Atkinson continued. "We are going to ask local [union members] who are satisfied with the support they receive to spread [the word] and share how they are being supported. They are the best people to talk to people who are not involved in a union, and bring them on board."

TIME FOR BIGGER ISSUES

After 34 years as an educator and as president of his local AFSA affiliate, Atkinson said he sought the top office to advocate for education nationally. "I believe strongly that every child should have a quality education," he said. "I felt I was leaving my school in a good position, and I felt this was an opportunity to do more to help public education."

In his new role as AFSA president, Atkinson is calling on the organizational and people skills he developed during years in the principal's office. "I think the ability to be supportive and understand what colleagues are going through across the nation [is important]," he said. "I've been there -- I've been a principal, a vice principal, I've been in the classroom."

His own impressive teachers from his school days in North Carolina sparked a passion in him for education. In shaping his career, Atkinson emulated those teachers. "I always wanted to be a teacher; I grew up in neighborhood where teachers seemed to be the most revered and respected persons in the community," Atkinson said. "I had a fun educational experience. My teachers always were there for me, and were models for the community. I wanted their approval as I worked through system. They would hold you accountable as well."

Now Atkinson thinks he has a chance to make his own mark on education, beyond his state and community. "I truly believe AFSA is the perfect vehicle for strengthening public school education in America."

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