When Staples’ Class of 1980 met last weekend for its 30th reunion, Janet Dewitt joined the festivities.
She’s not a Staples grad — she left Westport schools after junior high — but she was welcomed joyfully nonetheless.
In fact, Janet never lived in Westport. From grade 3 in Burr Farms Elementary School through grade 9 at Long Lots Junior High, she joined dozens of other Bridgeport youngsters enrolled in Project Concern.
At the time, Janet did not realize how controversial the program was. Opponents railed against bringing Bridgeport children to Westport schools. Some adults were so inflamed, they tried to recall one of Project Concern’s staunchest champions, Board of Education chair Joan Schine.
Proponents worked hard to make the program a success. School administrators involved the youngsters in every facet of school life, offering academic help, social support and transportation home after extracurricular activities.
Westport parents supported Project Concern too. Many opened their homes to the Bridgeporters youngsters, after school and on weekends.
That’s why when Janet came to the 30th reunion, she had nothing but fond memories of her experiences here.
“I met a lot of great people. I loved the teachers. I learned a lot. I had a lot of very nice friends,” she says.
Her 1st year here, Janet met Susan Robins. The women remain in frequent touch. “Her family took me in,” Janet says.
As Janet got older, she understood that some Bridgeport friends were jealous of her Westport education. Some were angry at the opportunity she had.
Many were curious as to why she became part of the program. She herself did not know why.
At the end of 8th grade, Janet transferred to Bridgeport’s Bassick High for personal reasons.
“Bridgeport schools were different,” she says. “It was tough to adjust.”
More than 3 decades later — when Susan told her about the Staples reunion — Janet wanted to attend. She’s glad she did.
“It was beautiful,” she says. “I remembered quite a few people.”
They remembered her too. Many also knew her brothers, Bo and Ricky. They too were in Project Concern, from Green’s Farms Elementary School and Long Lots Junior High through Staples.
These days, Janet babysits for her 3 grandchildren — the oldest is 11 — and works for the Connecticut Post.
Like many people — in Westport and Bridgeport — she wonders why Project Concern was allowed to end. (Budget constraints and transportation difficulties contributed to its demise. There is another program in its place, but it does not offer as much academic or social support as Project Concern did — and it serves fewer youngsters.)
“It was a beautiful program,” Janet says. “It would really be nice if they still had it.
“A lot of kids here don’t finish school. I think they’d be better students, and they’d learn more about life, if the program was still around.
“Westport schools made a difference. As long as you wanted to do something for yourself, the schools were there to help.
“And of course everyone just really needs to get out and meet different people, as much as they can.”