Jack felt his family had finally made it: they had an apartment and were all -- finally -- living together again. There were six kids, and it was a two bedroom place in town. Jack told his principal, "We are all so happy. Mom and Dad have one bedroom, the three girls have the other one, and we three boys go to sleep on the couches in the living room. It’s great!"
Before this, Jack, his siblings and his parents were living in their car. At one point, the family had even been split apart as they were forced to live in shelters.
The worst part of this story? His principal didn’t really even consider Jack to be a part of her "list" -- the mental grouping of kids at risk that she goes over in her head, and then physically checks in with during the week, just making sure that things are reasonably calm in their lives. When there is a need, the principal diligently works with the staff at the school, in partnership with the agencies in town, and tries to help out however she can.
Throughout this all, the principals, the teachers, the superintendent -- all of the staff at the school -- strive daily to push for the best from the kids. They believe in the potential of all of their students, no matter their backgrounds.
They buy emergency food, help with electricity, pay for oil, mattress for a family, child sleeping on the floor ... small amounts of money to do small amounts of social work through Pinky fund.
"We believe every child can succeed," Andy Paciulli often has said to parent groups, student assemblies and school board members. "It’s our job to figure out how to help them succeed. If a child does not read at grade level by grade three, he’s is statistically more likely to end up dropping out of school ... becoming addicted to drugs ... ending up in jail ... not being a productive part of society.
"Elementary schools are the place to stop those trends," he concluded.
In January, all three Brattleboro elementary schools begin their "winter sports" programs. Each school structures their offerings a bit differently, but they all have the same goal: offer kids a chance to experience winter in a fun way. Students can choose between cross country skiing, downhill skiing, sledding, ice skating and a few indoor offerings like circus arts or skateboarding in some cases.
If you are not a skier or snowboarder, you might wonder what intrinsic value that figuring out how to make it down a ski slope gracefully brings to a young person’s life. I honestly cannot call myself a downhill skier -- although I have tried, many times, to enjoy the sport. You could reasonably ask the same question about ice skating. In fact, when I first saw this program, I myself thought it rather unique ... and perhaps even a questionable way to spend students’ time and money.
But then I watched my own kids: on the hills and in the rink. They went from wobbling -- and falling -- and getting up ... to falling less and getting up again ... to finally mastering their new skills in an almost graceful fashion, replete with enormous grins of success splattered across their faces.
Watching a child go through this process in just a few sessions leaves no doubt that this experience leads to more confidence in learning to achieve another goal later on.
The winter sports programs are not included in the town’s budgets; they are paid by parental contributions and fund raising. But within the past ten years or so, our town has seen a great increase in the number of parents who can’t pay for their child’s participation. (All three schools now consistently run at least 60 percent free- and reduced-lunch percentages, which is the most commonly used indicator of the level of poverty in our school system.)
A few years ago, two moms -- myself and Ellen Capy -- were involved in organizing the fund raising and the winter sports activities, and watching these programs struggle. We decided to create a way to help make sure that winter sports continued: they funded the Brattleboro School Endowment. We recognized that for some kids, their "thing" will not be ice skating, but rather a drumming session with an artist-in-residence ... or a book binding project with a local author ... or a concert of a college band ... or a field trip to somewhere that sparks a new interest.
This year, we’ve been struck-again-by the generous nature of so many that have stepped up with donations and gifts. The Brattleboro School Endowment thanks this town, and invites anyone to stop into a local ski area or our town skating rink to see these young people happily learning a new skill. Who knows where it might lead them?
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools-now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.