As HSTA’s new teacher lobbyist, Christine Russo is excited by the unique opportunity to advocate for teachers and students. She is on temporary leave from her position as a certified physical science teacher at James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, and will be working full time with HSTA’s Lobbying Team for the duration of the 30th legislative session. Her first day was Monday, Jan. 7.
Nearly nine years ago, Christine Russo was substitute teaching when police activity was reported near campus and her school went on lockdown.
That’s when she began to realize things needed to change.
“I just had this feeling of being uncertain if the door was definitely locked, because all doors are different and unless you’re in that classroom all the time, you may not know,” she said. “That was a scary feeling.”
Russo had just begun a career in teaching, and her exposure to different schools and classrooms opened her eyes to critical gaps that needed attention.
After substitute teaching for four years, she finished her degree and became a certified teacher in 2014.
“Seeing things that have been going on (with school shootings on the mainland), luckily in Hawaii, nothing has happened to that extent, but you just never know, so I feel like there are really obvious things that could be done that aren’t being done that need to be addressed,” she said.
In the summer of 2017, those concerns prompted her to act. “I had a choice,” she said. “I could have worked with my school administration and focused on that. But I have a kid. She’s not in school yet, but she’s going to be, and (I have) a lot of hanai nieces and nephews. So I made the choice. I’m not going to keep it strictly within my school, because I want to make sure my daughter’s safe when she goes to school, and I want to makes sure all kids are safe.”
Russo found herself at the Hawaii State Capitol, working on Senate Bill 2576 with state Sen. Mike Gabbard, D, Waipahu, Ewa, Makakilo, Kapolei. The bill would require the Department of Education to equip all classroom doors with interior locks, and establish an emergency management plan for all schools.
Russo received a crash course in drafting legislation and submitting testimony. The bill went through several readings in both the Senate and House, but ultimately was not passed into law. Despite the outcome, she walked away with new perspective and determination.
“Even though the bill died, I knew that if I want a bill like this to pass at some point in the future, I need to advocate for increased funding for our schools, because it’s expensive. It’s expensive to create all these different types of improvements, and security is just one thing of millions of things we need,” she said. “It also kind of helped me realize that we need to want change to happen, and you can effect change. It was really inspirational. When the bill passed the first hearing, I was in shock. It felt like such a victory for me, because I’d never done anything like that before. So that was really awesome.”
Russo says her work on SB2576 “changed her whole trajectory” to one that led her toward HSTA. Over the past summer, she reached out to teachers to build awareness of the constitutional amendment for education, and throughout the election season, she organized several ConAm canvassing and sign-waving events, and participated in several events for HSTA-endorsed candidates. She also joined HSTA’s Leeward Chapter Executive Board as a Membership Services Committee member.
As a new member of the Lobbying Team, Russo will work with educators, lawmakers, the Board of Education, Department of Education leadership, and various advocacy groups to coordinate and implement changes through all levels of government that benefit HSTA teachers and their students.
“I want to continue focusing on how to find ways to increase funding for public education. That’s my primary goal,” she said. “My focus had been on safety improvements, but there are so many deficiencies that need to be addressed, and I just hope that being in this position, I can continue to create positive change for our students.”
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