Project Concern’s Long Legacy

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.”

12 responses to “Project Concern’s Long Legacy

  1. Richard Lawrence Stein

    I was lucky enough to be surrounded by many of the kids of “Project Concern” through my life in the Westport school system. We learned much about life through them. Some of it bad some of it good. I sadly recall learning about death when a fellow student and twin Marlene Gaines had a sudden heart attack, because of a hole in her heart. Two sides of a coin our lives were but we had the same finish line a staples diploma.

    Ps for the short short time I played football I got to wear number 54 it belonged “Bo Bo” Dewitt class of 83. Bo is certainly remembered hope you are well

  2. Blair Satter

    We live in Trumbull and my 14 year old went to the 6 to 6 magnet school in Bridgeport since pre school. He will be attending the International Baccalaurete program at Harding High in Bridgeport. He is the first student to attend an urban school from a suburban town. This was made possible because of the Open Choice program.

  3. It was a genius idea, and everyone benefitted, and in retrospect I realize how smart and progressive it was of my parents to sign me up as a “host” to one of the incoming students. I learned a lot even though I didn’t realize I was learning it at the time.

  4. Can anyone summarize the differences between the past program and the current one? There have been some recent success stories as well.

    • I was wondering the same and whether it’s based on academic achievement as apposed to a lottery system.

      • I believe — though I am not 100% positive — that Project Concern was a program that included a rigorous application process, including vetting for academic achievement and family support, while the current program is more of a lottery.

  5. The Dude Abides

    I am not familiar with the Project Concern program. I do not believe they had it during the 60’s at Staples. I am familiar with the ABC House and although many of the students shrine, it is not always a pleasant experience for all. But with 93% white attendance at Staples, they could use some diversity. AS I have said on this forum before, it would do a world of good for Staples if they brought a couple of buses full of kids every morning to the sacred Staples from Harding. I know it would broaden the views of Westport kids and can onlt hope it would be equally beneficial for those of the transferees. Nice piece of reporting, Mr. Woog.

  6. I am proud to say that I was one of the parents who opened my home to a young boy in the program. I would pick him up at Hillspoint School with my son and he stayed with us until it was time to catch the bus. I remember that he was a very sweet and polite.
    My children also participated in Intercommunity Camp in Westport.

  7. Dan I can’t believe you folded like a cheap tent after I just gave you a complement on not doing that! Now my comments seem completely out of context and out of left field.

    I guess I have to withdraw my previous complement 🙁

  8. The Dude Abides

    Mr. Raho: We still love you John. But your comments always seem out of context and in left field.

  9. Dan, thanks for doing this! I had forgotten how controversial this issue was – and actually was probably too young (in 3rd grade, like Susan) to completely understand it – until years ago. I have to say as a host family of two of the girls (Lisa Jones* and Anjetta) I am so glad my parents were forward thinking and allowed us to have them join our family.

    And now because of meeting Janet again, I and my sister, Abby, will get a chance to reunite with Lisa* and Anjetta – because Janet is still in touch with them.

    * 15 years ago my dad called the Peoples banking telephone service, and got help from someone named Lisa, as they were talking she asked if he had daughters named Amy and Abby, he said yes, and Lisa said I used to stay at your house when I was in Elementary School!

  10. Julie Horowitz

    Dan, thanks for sharing the perspective of a Bridgeport student’s time as a Westport student. As you know, the States Dept. of Education has funded the Open Choice program since 1998. There are currently 42 Bridgeport children in the Westport schools. The students enter as first graders, and remain in Westport through their Staples graduation. Three students graduated as part of the class of 2010. Unlike the ABC program, participation in the Open Choice program is by lottery which takes place every spring in Bridgeport (and Hartford, New Haven and New London) . Most of the graduates pursue higher education. Anyone interested in learning more about the program is welcome to contact Julie Horowitz at Staples High School.