Sunday, December 27, 2009

Schools and Prosperity

Over the years, I've been involved in numerous discussions about how to improve Waterbury, how to make the town more prosperous and a desirable place to live. At the moment, I am visiting family in Manhattan Beach, California (Los Angeles). When they bought their house here 20-some years ago, it was a very small, single-story home without basement, attic or garage. Every other house in town was the same, and they were all very affordable.

Since then, the town has grown considerably. The majority of those small houses have been rebuilt as large two-story houses with attics, basements and garages. The desirability of the town has soared and the housing prices have gone up accordingly, with only three dozen homes (including condos) currently listed on Yahoo's real estate site for less than one million dollars (and 162 properties listed between $1 million and $7 million). Granted, some of that inflation is due to the overall real estate bubble of recent years, but it is indicative of how much the town has changed.

I was thinking about the transformation I've witnessed over the decades and wondered what caused it (and, of course, how we might implement something similar in Waterbury). One important contributing factor was the quality of the schools. The real estate market became increasingly competitive because there were so many parents trying to get their kids into the schools. If you visit, you'll see that the highest-ranking Manhattan Beach public schools are rated 10 out of 10 points, whereas the Waterbury public schools range between 1 and 5 (very low scores), with Rotella getting the only 6 and Kaynor Tech the only 7. (On a side note, this answers some questions I've heard from people wondering why Kaynor Tech is so popular and why so many of its students are college-bound, rather than going straight into the work force).

The newly-rebuilt Kaynor Tech high school,
Waterbury's highest-rated school

This is by no means a comprehensive or even scientific analysis, but I think this is definitely something that does make a difference in a town's prosperity, not only because having the best schools will make Waterbury more desirable, but because better schools will give Waterbury's students better educations, and we will all benefit from that.

Alan Stein, a professor at UConn-Waterbury, wrote an excellent letter to the editor that appeared in yesterday's Rep-Am newspaper. The focus of his letter was an argument in favor of electing aldermen by district (which I strongly support), but he also wrote a very good observation about the Board of Education:

Some may question whether it's even appropriate for a Board of Education to be an elected body.

The political nature of that board is probably partly responsible for the recent attempt of some of its members to force school principals to ignore the Constitution.

I think that our Board of Education is fundamentally flawed, and I think that Prof. Stein is probably correct in assigning part of the blame to its political nature. Given the less than wonderful ratings of our schools (not just from the Great Schools website), the sole focus of the Board of Education should be searching for ways to make the schools better and implementing those improvements. Instead the Board seems to spend its time squabbling and grandstanding over Christmas parties vs. Winter Celebrations, the Duggan School construction project, and problems with the management of the school buses.

Our schools are some of the lowest-rated in the country. Let's make them the highest-rated.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I stopped by the Mattatuck Museum last Sunday for a little holiday shopping and was amazed by the popsicle-stick castle in the Munger Room (next to the front lobby).

I had seen a photo of it in an email from the museum, and I had been mildly impressed that it was made from 396,000 popsicle sticks setting a new world record, but as with so many things, seeing it in real life was way better.

It is absolutely worth visiting, especially if you have young children--they will be amazed to see what can be done with popsicle sticks.

The castle was built by Stephen Guman and brought to the museum by a tractor trailer truck in several pieces, then assembled by Guman in the museum. It will be on view until January 22, and there will be a special event with Guman this Sunday, December 27.

See the castle, meet Stephen Guman, and build popsicle structures yourself at Discovery Club.  Art teacher Audrey Grice will be on hand to show you how!  Children's admission is $4 for museum members and $7 for non-members.  Adults accompanying children are addmitted for free.

Where and When
Munger Room

Sunday, December 27, 2009    2:00 - 4:00 pm

Friday, December 11, 2009

Religion 101

I'm probably going to get some flak for this one, but I think it's time for me to dive into it.

There's been a lot of controversy and anger over the "news" that Walsh Elementary School principal Erik Brown has supposedly banned Christmas (he hasn't). According to the Republican-American, he has received hate mail from people all over the country. This raises my first point: if you are upset by the idea of Christmas being banned in a public school, the correct Christian response is not one of hatred. Sending threatening or hate-filled letters or calling to swear at Principal Brown is the exact opposite of the spirit of Christmas.

Second point: Principal Brown has not banned Christmas. He has instead assessed the demographics of his school and determined that overloading the kids with Santa Claus and other trappings of Christmas would be a problem for many of them. For example, many of the children at Walsh come from Jehovah's Witnesses families who are deeply offended by the commercialization of the Holy Day. Let's also not forget that not everyone in Waterbury is a Christian--we have, for example, many Jews and Muslims who might not appreciate having their children indoctrinated in another religion. Principal Brown's course of action, to have a winter celebration that is inclusive of more than one holiday tradition and to discourage the teachers from placing too much emphasis on a single interpretation of one religion's traditions, is a very good way to show respect towards the religious sensibilities of all the children in his school.

John Theriault has been up in arms over the issue, apparently thinking that Brown is somehow being unfair to the children at Walsh school because the other schools all have Christmas parties. I can only assume that he is forgetting about the children whose parents do not allow them to attend Christmas parties, and is oblivious to the fact that Brown is simply showing respect towards those children and their families.

I guess I am blogging about this topic because I am shocked at the level of public outcry over it. In every instance, it seems that people with no children at Walsh are reacting as if they personally have been prevented from enjoying their own Christmas celebrations and have forgotten just how much religious diversity there is in the world, in the United States, in Connecticut and in Waterbury. I guess I am also struck by how some of the people who are angry at Principal Brown are behaving far more like the Grinch than he is.

Come to think of it, let's take the metaphor of the Grinch one step further. The point to The Grinch was that the trappings of Christmas, the gifts, the trees, the roast beast, are completely unnecessary. Christmas exists in our hearts and is celebrated in the way we treat one another. Everything else is superfluous.