Public education colleagues and fellow unionists were on hand on March 10 to congratulate Sonia Fortin, an academic tutor at the Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, as Fortin was named the 2020 MTA Education Support Professional of the Year.
The announcement — a surprise to Fortin — was made during an after-school meeting of the Sudbury Education Association.
“Sonia has shown incredible leadership to create a safe place for one of the most vulnerable populations at this school — LGBTQ+ students.”Merrie Najimy, MTA President
Fortin is the sole academic tutor in Curtis’s Bridges Program, which provides short-term intensive assistance to students returning to classes after an experience that has had a significant emotional impact on them or has presented a medical challenge, causing lost school time. The program also provides support to the affected students’ families.
Fortin has worked at Curtis for 10 years. As the driving force behind the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, Fortin saw the need for a safe place for students identifying as LGBTQ+.
This led Fortin to develop and organize the school’s Safe Space Initiative, through which all students can talk to friends and feel safe from judgment. The initiative provides a room in the building — a place “where students from all grades can go and just be,” House Administrator Bill Grubb wrote in a letter supporting Fortin’s nomination for the MTA ESP honor.
Members of the SEA broke into sustained applause as MTA President Merrie Najimy announced during the Curtis gathering that Fortin had been chosen.
Najimy said she met Fortin for the first time several months ago at the MTA Summer Conference in Amherst. As they talked about Fortin’s journey as a unionist, Najimy knew she had met an emerging leader.
“Sonia has shown incredible leadership,” Najimy said. Finding strength in the union, Najimy said, Fortin used it to “create a safe place for one of the most vulnerable populations at this school — LGBTQ+ students.”
Fortin has taken on significant roles at the local level, including serving as treasurer of the SEA. Najimy noted that Fortin is a member of an MTA working group exploring how MTA can continue to grow, stay strong and protect public education.
At the national level, Najimy added, Fortin is working with other NEA educators to develop a mentorship program for ESPs, “who are too often an invisible group in our schools.”
MTA Vice President Max Page said he has gotten to know Fortin through union work and as Fortin’s professor in the Labor Studies Program at UMass Amherst, where Fortin is pursuing a master’s degree. Page said that he and Fortin “have talked about greater justice for ESPs.” Now, due to the leadership of people such as Fortin, “we are on the cusp of a campaign” to secure full rights and a living wage for ESPs, he said.
Joni Cederholm, the 2019 MTA ESP of the Year and a fellow participant in the association’s ESP Leadership Program, was also on hand to offer congratulations and a big hug. “I’m very proud of you,” Cederholm said.
After the ceremony, Fortin said the award “hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“I work all the time to make sure that ESPs have a voice,” Fortin said. “It all feels overwhelming — but it’s overwhelming because all of the work I’ve been doing is being recognized. I am extremely thankful.”
In support of the nomination, SEA President Melissa Morabito said that Fortin “has been a tireless advocate for Education Support Professionals in our district for years.” She said that in 2018, the year of the U.S. Supreme Court’s anti-union decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case, ESP membership in the Sudbury association actually increased.
“Sonia takes the time to connect personally with the support professionals in our middle school, and that has motivated staff to not only join the union but take a more active role in union initiatives and activities,” Morabito said. “While this may seem like a daunting task in our largest school to some, Sonia goes above and beyond to reach out to our ESPs on a regular basis.”