Thursday, October 01, 2009

Walsh Forum

I was kind of glad to see that the Rep-Am didn't report on Saturday's forum at Walsh School until today, but only because I was feeling bad about not having had time to blog about it yet!

I was surprised that there was almost no one in the audience. The only notice I had seen about the event was in the paper the day before, but the write-up made it sound like an important event for anyone who cares about the WOW neighborhood (where I live). However, as the school's principal, Erik Brown, pointed out, most people were probably planning on listening to it through WATR. After all, going to a 4-hour program that starts at 9 a.m. on a Saturday can't possibly be easy for most parents.

The forum was absolutely wonderful. I thought maybe there should have been an opportunity for public speaking from neighborhood residents, but, then again, there weren't that many of us and there was an opportunity to speak to most of the panelists after the program was over. (One panelist, Joan Hartley, never showed up or sent a substitute; a second panelist, Mayor Jarjura, joined the group more than an hour and a half late, spent a few moments shaking hands, spoke twice and left after an hour.)

The first hour might have been the best part, a discussion about the impact of poverty on Waterbury's students. It was a discussion that everyone should listen to, especially if they have never struggled with poverty.

Dr. Edward Joyner and Principal Brown spoke very well about specific students they have worked with whose poor behavior in school was directly connected to troubled home lives and very well about general difficulties.

Based on what I heard Saturday, and on a piece by Michael Puffer in today's paper, it seems that there is an unfortunate debate in the Waterbury schools about how to deal with student discipline issues. I suspect there are two competing philosophies of how a school should function. With the first philosophy, all students are treated exactly the same and are all expected to behave exactly the same. In this philosophy, the function of the school is largely limited to book learning and passing mastery tests.

The second philosophy recognizes that not all students are the same, that some students, when they are outside school, face challenges and difficulties that are overwhelming, that the only positive adult contact they might have is in the school, and that their school is the only place where they have a chance to learn how to rise above the difficulties of their lives.

If a student is homeless, do you suspend him when he acts out in school? If a teenage girl is stuck living in a house with heroin users, do you suspend her when she acts out in school? If the behavior merits suspension, then use an in-school suspension. Don't force them to stay home for a week. It will only make things worse.

While nearly all of the four hours was very inspirational, the last 20 or 30 minutes was frustrating, even infuriating. The discussion topic raised pertained to the terrible condition of the neighborhood and the impact that has on the ability of students to do well in school. If I'm remembering correctly, Larry Butler spoke early in the discussion about the responsibility of city and state officials to help solve the problems of blighted, abandoned buildings, crumbling sidewalks, litter, and so on. But the conversation quickly went downhill when some panelists insisted that the responsibility lies with the residents, that the burden of responsibility lies entirely with the people who live in the neighborhood and that if only we took pride in our neighborhood, everything would be fine. I almost stood up and demanded that they walk out onto the streets and say that to the many people who have spent the past 20 years struggling to make this neighborhood better, the people who are outside picking up litter every day, the people who were promised new sidewalks but have never seen them, the people who have complained about the problems and received no assistance, the people who call the police when there is a disturbance and don't see a response for 20 minutes (long after the culprits have disappeared), the children who have been hit by cars while crossing the road, the homeowners who have seen their taxes double and triple in the past eight years without seeing any increase or improvement in city services.

To every single panelist who placed the blame on the neighborhood residents, shame on you. What are we supposed to do about the crumbling sidewalks? What are we supposed to do about the abandoned, blighted buildings? What are we supposed to do about the speeding cars?

I have, in the past, notified the blight patrol about excessive litter at certain properties. The owners cleaned up the mess, passed their repeat inspection, and a week later all the litter was back. I didn't contact blight patrol again. I didn't see any point to it.

Last summer, I reprimanded a group of kids who were trying to demolish my neighbor's fence. Their response was to gesture toward all the abandoned buildings and say "who cares?" It was clear in their minds that this neighborhood is a disaster zone, that it will never get better, and that no one cares about it or them.

I've said this before and I will keep saying it until something happens: if the city could afford to borrow $2 million to buy Drubner's property, then it can afford to invest $2 million in the WOW neighborhood.

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