The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
After the last bell of the school day rang, Riya Kataria rushed to her English classroom to ask a question. When she got there, she saw her teacher packing up. The teacher had a two-hour commute home and Kataria didn’t want her getting stuck in rush hour.
The teacher—like many in Kataria’s Fremont, California school—can’t afford the high prices of the Bay Area on her low salary. Keeping good teachers in an expensive district is a challenge when the average educator pay is $72,298—four times less than the entry level job at nearby Google.
Two years ago, Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) started with 30 open teaching positions, leaving students with long-term substitutes.
“We always complain that our teachers don’t really like to listen to us, but the reality is that they can’t because it’s just so difficult for them to be able to manage the meager budget they get plus trying to help out with students who [need] assistance,” Kataria said.
In Fremont about 74 percent of teachers are women, 3 percent lower than the national average. However, teacher pay remains a low priority since it is a female-dominated profession. Kataria empathized with the teachers after witnessing this sex-discrimination.
Kataria witnessed how students were affected by educators’ low pay when teachers started “Work to Rule” in the spring of 2018. In response to the stalled contract negotiations, they refused to supervise clubs, write recommendation letters and grade outside of working hours.
“We can’t expect better resources and lives for ourselves if we don’t support the teachers and we don’t support the actions they take,” said Kataria.
Via a Facebook chat, Kataria started StudentRise to lead a 750-student walkout to the Fremont Unified School District office on June 6, 2018 to advocate for higher teacher salaries. After that, Kataria organized public sessions where over 100 people attended to learn about teachers’ situation in their community.
After almost a year of strikes and rallies, StudentRise and teachers finally reached success in early April of 2019. Teachers and FUSD settled on an agreement to raise teacher salary by 4 percent in the 2018-19 school year and another 4 percent in the 2019-20 school year. Compared to Los Angeles Unified School District’s 6 percent payback in January of 2019, FUSD’s policy meant a longer lasting raise.
Under Kataria’s leadership, StudentsRise turned a teacher issue into a community issue by focusing on the student impact of low teacher pay.
“The number one thing that affects student growth is the educators that are interacting with students on a daily basis,” said Victoria Birbeck-Herrara, president of Fremont Unified District Teachers Association. “Students are critical to this turning of the tides just like with other major issues affecting them.”
The cost of living in the Bay Area continues to increase 4 percent per year, compared to FUSD’s offer of a .05 percent salary bump. Fremont teachers are fighting for additional raise in the 2020-21 school year.
Now a high school senior, Kataria said leading StudentRise marked a turning point for her future pursuit in social activism when she first saw the “highly tangible impact” of her actions.
From there, Kataria co-founded PFA Institute to teach students about social activism and speaking up in their communities. Kataria was named one of 100 student leaders worldwide and interviewed former First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Students really need to get involved in these ideas. They need to be able to stand up for not only themselves but for the people around their communities,” Kataria said. “Because that’s the only way we build this empathy.”