Westport And Bridgeport: A Tale Of 2 School Districts

Alert — and concerned — “06880” reader Kathy Mahieu writes:

I always wanted to be a teacher. As a child, I played school in my Milford basement with my sisters and brother. I earned a scholarship to Sacred Heart University — the first member of my family to attend college.

I worked for almost 30 years in health benefits. I started as a secretary, and eventually became a national leader in behavioral consulting. I worked with companies like IBM, Credit Suisse and Cardinal Health to design mental health and substance use disorder benefit programs.

My son is a graduate student in engineering at Stanford. My daughter is a UCLA sophomore. My children were very lucky to receive a high quality experience in the Westport schools. The community places a great emphasis on education.

When I changed careers, and received my elementary school teaching certification in 2008, I knew I wanted to work in an underserved district.

I want to make the world a better place. I thought I could do that by teaching in Bridgeport.

I knew the schools would not be the same as in Westport. Yet until I began working there, I had no idea of the true extent of that difference.

Kathy Mahieu in her classroom. She is lucky to have a whiteboard.

Kathy Mahieu in her classroom. She is lucky to have a whiteboard.

We all know there is a tremendous disparity in funding between the 2 districts. But I only realized what that meant when I experienced it first hand.

Supplies. Each year, we ask students and parents to bring notebooks, pencils, highlighters and folders to school. Some families can’t afford them. Other teachers and I purchase supplies so that no student goes without. The district does not even supply staples and paper clips to teachers.

Some students don’t have paper at home to complete assignments. I give them paper. And I supply paper for copying too. This adds up. Even though this is 2016, we use paper because…

Access to technology is limited. Some classrooms have computers. Most do not. I have only 3 in my classroom. They are slow, and difficult to use. We’ve got Compaq hardware, which went out of business years ago.

Students share Chromebooks. We use them on a rotating schedule. My own children had more access to technology when they were in elementary school 15 years ago.

You’d think it’s easier to communicate with parents now because of cellphones and voicemail. But some parents’ numbers change frequently or do not operate, due to a host of reasons. Some parents have difficulty using email.

Many parents speak very limited English. It’s challenging to communicate with them. Our school is very good about using multiple languages, but we see an increasing number of students who speak Portuguese or Haitian Creole at home.

A crowded classroom is always a challenge.

A crowded classroom is always a challenge.

Classroom size. Teacher contracts in Bridgeport limit class size to 29. This year, I am relieved to have “only” 27 students. In Westport, parents were up in arms when a class grew to more than 22.

I have no aide. The only paraprofessionals in our school are those assigned to students who require them for IEPs.

Preschool. Most of our kindergarten students did not attend preschool. In Westport, that’s unheard of. As a result, Bridgeport kindergartners are just beginning to recognize letters. Very few can read.

Imagine how that plays through 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades. The disparity between Westport and Bridgeport grows each year.

Nutrition. Students at our school receive breakfast, lunch and a snack each day. For many, this is the only food they get.

Field trips. These help extend classroom learning. However, any cost over $5 per child could be an issue. What a massive difference from Westport.

I want to share a startling experience. Our 3rd grade class read a story about a moose who was falsely accused of stealing a pie. We introduced students to new vocabulary including courtroom, trial, witness stand, etc.

I showed a short video of the inside of a courtroom, to familiarize students with the environment. I was shocked when at least 1/3 of my students said they’d been inside a courtroom.

I could describe many other issues, including limited psychological support resources. But I’ll stop here.

While our school community contends with these incredible challenges, you’d be amazed by the amount of support provided by teachers, administrators and other professionals in the Bridgeport school district.

I’ve never worked with a more caring, giving and supportive group of professionals — both to our students and to each other. We moan and complain about the situation, of course, but we know we are there to ensure our students receive the best education we can possibly provide.

We do everything we can to help them overcome these challenges, so they can succeed in such a competitive and complex world.

44 responses to “Westport And Bridgeport: A Tale Of 2 School Districts

  1. The author mentions all the support the kids and teachers get from other techers,”administrators and other professionals”, but until there is support from the PARENTS nothining will change in the educational outcome she so clearly desires.

    • Dan, a child is dealt with the parents (or quite often the parent) they have. It’s up to the education system to make up for the deficiencies resulting from a poor and/or dysfunctional family.

      The good charter school organizations, like Achievement First and Harlem Children’s Zone, do this by pouring in extra resources, like social workers who connect the parents, a longer school day, and constantly evaluating each child to see what they’re learning and where they need help. The extra resources come from private donations over and above the city & state’s reimbursement.

      The public schools need the resources and knowhow to do the same things, and there really needs to be a partnership between public and charter schools Too bad there is constant sniping from anti-charter ideologues, such as those on the Bridgeport BOE, in teacher’s unions and other special interest groups.

      • I’d like to add that Ms. Mahieu demonstrates that there are incredibly talented, caring and hardworking teachers in the inner-city public schools. Others include Bridgeport elementary teacher, Elizabeth Capasso, a former electrical engineer honored by the White House for excellence in teaching math, and Jahana Hayes, a Waterbury history teacher who won 2016 national Teacher of the Year.

    • There is only so much support parents can provide, when they themselves have limited English skills and are probably working multiple jobs to cover food and rent.

  2. I started my teaching career at Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport. In the 1970s, the curriculum did not accommodate the learning needs of my students. Sounds like not much has changed. Poverty is the elephant in the room. Politicians mandating what is taught and demanding accountability through testing does not address this elephant.

  3. First, God bless you for the amazing work you are doing and the very real difference you make in children’s lives. I’m in awe.

    I’d be interested to hear how people who want to help can help. I volunteer for an organization called NFTE at the HS level but know (as valuable as it is) it is really the most limited help compared to the types of needs you cite. With your insight into the “system”, what ways to help can you suggest? I’m sure among the many, many people reading this blog there are many that would be willing to help, either financially or with their time. Dan, perhaps you can publish a follow-up with ways for people to get involved. Even easy things. For instance, I was upgrading some computers not too long ago and tried to give the old ones to the Bridgeport Rescue Mission (a very worthy institution imho) and they turned them down because they were too old. (I think 3 years) Is there a way we can donate “old” computers to the district? Does anyone help with getting teachers supplies? Basically, what can we do to help?

    • Amen, Drew. Kudos to Kathy for being a true hero. And I too would love to know how we can help.

      • I volunteered for a year at the Read school in Bridgeport through https://www.bridgeportedu.com/svab/ (which I found via vhttp://www.volunteermatch.org/ ).

        It was a wonderfully rewarding and eye-opening experience. It’s easy to do and you’ll really enjoy it and come away with a new understanding of how our world really works (5 miles away) – Chris Woods

  4. I have binders and notebooks left over from past years that are in great condition and still full of paper.  I’m happy to donate if you can put me in touch with Kathy.  I encourage my kids to re-use their supplies as their spiral bound notebooks often come back with little paper used.   So much unnecessary waste and there are obviously people so close by who can use these items.   Thank you.

  5. Thank you for your post. After reading something like that, I want to help. Is there a holiday fundraising drive that perhaps we could have donations of supplies or funds that could buy a computer (or more)?

  6. Your caring will do more for these kids than money ever could. But the disparity has always bothered me, especially because there is so much waste that people don’t even think about. There are so many problems in the world, it thrills me to think your classroom is where kids are learning the most important things in the world. You and the other caring folks there are heroes.

  7. My wife is an amazing teacher. She changes children’s lives. She has taught in many school systems including Westport. She has decided she can make the most impact by teaching minority children in Stamford. Great teachers should think about helping lesser schools.

  8. For those looking to help and get involved, local mom Jimeale Hede founded and runs the Brighter Lives For Kids Foundation (http://www.brighterlivesforkidsfoundation.org/). The Foundation provides support to the Cesar A. Batalla School in Bridgeport, where Jimeale volunteered and discovered much of what the author wrote above. She started a grassroots movement among Westport and Fairfield parents — often going on Facebook and asking local parents to drop off needed supplies outside the Stop & Shop and filling up cars and driving them over to the school herself — and now it is a fully organized operation. There are so many ways to get involved — volunteer in the classroom, volunteer in the library that the Foundation built, donate gifts for the holiday toy drive, support the soccer program the Foundation started, donate supplies, donate money . . . I have not yet had the honor of meeting Jimeale in person yet, but I am in awe of all she has done and continues to do. Here is a recent article highlighting the foundation and an event happening this morning (http://westport.dailyvoice.com/schools/fairfield-woman-promotes-brighter-lives-for-bridgeport-kids/688880/)

  9. Nathalie Laitmon

    Wow thank you for the reality check

  10. This is exacting why we need to change the manner in which schools are funded. I applaud the writer/teacher. Her story is not unusual at all. Having moved to Bridgeport 10 years ago, I have gotten to know many people involved in the school system and they would all confirm what the writer has stated. The disparity is shocking.

  11. Oops, typo – should read exactly, not exacting!

  12. Many have asked where/how to donate school supplies/computers, etc. There is a foundation, “Brighter Lives for Kids” which was started by a Southport woman, which takes such donations. http://www.brighterlivesforkidsfoundation.org/
    I just started working as a volunteer reader in a first grade classroom there. Your time is just as valuable as “things”. Thank you so much for posting!

  13. Jocelyn Barandiaran

    Also visit http://www.donorschoose.org — public school teachers across the country (including from Bridgeport and Norwalk) post projects (and basic school supplies) in need of funding.

    • Thank you Jocelyn. I work for DonorsChoose.org. Today, there are 170 Bridgeport classroom projects ready to receive donations at DonorsChoose.org. On many of the projects, one of our partners will double you contribution. You can donate as little as $5.00 to help support classroom education.

  14. The financial disparity is not as compelling as one might think. Bridgeport per pupil spending is on part with neighboring Fairfield and Trumbull — all spending in the $15,000-$16,000 range, which is very high by national standards.

    I think the argument should be that the Bridgeport schools have so much more work to do, that they need much more money than the typical town. But I do not think this money would be well spent without a dramatic overhaul of the Bridgeport system.

    Do not bother to compare with ultra-rich towns like Westport, Weston, New Canaan. We overspend on schools to the tune of $20,000+…because we can.

  15. Wow! I’m overwhelmed and touched by the amazing support this story has gotten. I work at Read School in Bridgeport – just down the street from St. Vincent’s Hospital.

    I would accept any and all donations, and would SO appreciate donations like copy paper, notebooks, post-its, pencils, etc. for our students and staff. And, I would love to organize a holiday drive, as was suggested to help collect donations. It would be wonderful to establish a partnership with the Westport community to try to diminish some of this incredible disparity.

    I also have a GoFundMe campaign set up, as I’m trying to raise money to purchase a set of chromebooks for our grade. We currently share one set of 28 chromebooks (2 are broken/missing) among 8 classrooms. Here is the link https://www.gofundme.com/297drn3w

    Thank you all!
    Kathy

    • Kathy, I have Mac desktop computers (cleaned up and ready) and new children’s books that I would like to donate to a school. My email is aimeegarn@aol.com. Please contact me for details if these could be of use to your school or class.

  16. If there is any way I can help donate what is needed for the students please do not hesitate to e-mail me

    Katbrady1@gmail.com
    Kat Brady

    Please pass along to Kathy.

  17. Darryl brings up what might be a game-changer, in a fundamentally positive way for underserved schools: the Superior Court ruling in September that the state must come up with a new funding formula for public schools, and soon.

    Here’s a link to one of the news reports about it: http://www.courant.com/education/hc-school-funding-lawsuit-decision-20160907-story.html

    Two takeaways: “New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart said the ruling means ‘the state can no longer ignore its poorest cities and lowest-performing education systems. The biggest piece is the achievement gap: In Connecticut you have the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich.’

    And Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the ruling ‘shines a bright light on the profound inequalities that exist between school districts and holds out the promise of real reform to our educational system and funding structure.'”

    I hope this “constitutional duty,” as the judge called it, has the support of taxpayers in wealthy districts, like our own. Thank you, Dan, and Kathy, for framing this subject in such a moving way.

  18. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    Thank you for a wonderful eye opening report. I am a product of Westport Schools and was blessed to have a wonderful education. Transferred to Texas years ago we ended up in another wonderful school district for our sons. Near by there are less fortunate school districts. Our church sponsors a back to school day for one school that is close to us. The church members fill backpacks with supplies. The parents and children are invited to come, have a lunch, receive hair cuts and their back packs, volunteers spruce up the school grounds, and during the school year we partner in the classroom by volunteering as mentors to students. I add this idea to all the others that have been mentioned. Surely there are churches and organizations that could partner with a school in a similar way. .

  19. As someone who previously ran a Westport-based organization providing free arts education programming to over 20 schools in Bridgeport every year, I can also vouch for Kathy’s claims. This is a great discussion and Bridgeport needs all the help they can get but we’re also failing to acknowledge the biggest elephant in the room: bureaucratic red tape, waste and corruption. Our partnering organization in Bridgeport was with a governmental agency relying on public funding. The challenges they faced on a daily basis was incredible. But in Norwalk, where we offered similar programming for over 10 schools, we partnered with a non-profit foundation primarily relying on only private funding. The difference was astounding.

  20. Kathy, you should definitely reach out to Jimeale as she has done an amazing job opening our eyes to the basic needs of these schools. I also have never met her, but saw her post at the start of school where she had set up an account with Amazon with all the supplies the school needed. It made it so easy. I went on, shopped, paid and it was sent to the school. I am sure there are enough of us around that we can adopt another school or two.

  21. Peter Blau’s thoughtful response to my original comment may have some weight; however, in loco paretis will never, ever compensate for parentis.

  22. Beth Berkowitz

    http://Www.Brighterlivesforkidsfoundation.com is one organization that specifically was set up to help the students AND THEIR FAMILIES with things like backpacks, books, supplies, etc. Part of what this organization does (founded by a southport mom), is work with the social worker and admin at the school and becomes the filler of what this school needs. We now have a bunch of local parents volunteering to be room mums. So that each teacher now has room parents to help them like the other communities have like Westport/Weston/Fairfield/Trumbull schools do for class needs and field trips and class activities.

    We are currently accepting donations for winter jackets, back packs, copy paper, diaper wipes (some kids still wear diapers and the parents can’t provide wipes to the school for them – usually special needs kids) & paper clips, glue sticks and crayons.

    We have started a school library for the younger grades K-2nd as the library was only available for the third graders and up. Therefore, the younger children now can go to the library with their class and volunteers run this part of the library and we have provided the books for this part of the library along with book marks and stickers reminding the children to return the books to get another next week. We are still accepting donations for these young readers books and these are the only books most of these families ever have had.

    We are trying to connect with the parent(s) of these students to educate them about how to help their children learn and thrive and to instill the importance of stressing education at home to help their children achieve more in life going forward. It takes a village and we need to be that village for our local neighbor’s that are not as fortunate as we and our kids are. So happy to see other people interested in helping.

    Another local charity is Across the Globe Children’s Foundation and they help both locally and in other countries where the children don’t even have clean water to drink or bathe and some communities don’t have enough housing or schools or medical care. You can see what kinds of projects they do at http://www.atgcf.com and they are now looking at finding some local projects such as brighter lives for kids foundation since they recently were counting on a $7,500 grant that they didn’t get to find some much needed field trips and classroom supplies. Check both out. If anyone wants to drop off supplies for the Bridgeport school I am collecting in Westport. I am home almost all the time so just ring the bell and if you want to arrange for me to come pick up call me at 203-321-9062.

  23. The SVA (School Volunteer Association of Bridgeport) is a great organization. You can tutor, mentor, or one of my favorites- Read Aloud Day. Supplies and books which our kids take for granted are needed. A snow day for our kids means lots of fun. A snow day to a Bridgeport kid may mean no breakfast and lunch today. I highly encourage people to give even a couple of hours in one year for read aloud day or something else. If not your time, those books sitting unused in a closet could help out a classroom teacher who is spending his/her own money to supply reading materials.

  24. Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments and for really seeing this disparity. I’m grateful that I’ve shed some light on this. As noted, it’s incredible to me how great the difference is in a school system that is just 15 minutes away from ours. I feel compelled to do what I can to see that that gap is bridged in some way.

    It is my understanding that the Brighter Lives Foundation is set up to support only Cesar Batalia School in Bridgeport. Read School gets very little in the way of donations. I would greatly appreciate it if some of you would be willing to direct your donations to Read School, as we don’t have a formal foundation set up to support our school. I will reach out to Jimeale to see how I can learn from what she’s done.

    I can be reached at kathymahieu63@aol.com. I would be happy to arrange for a time to pick up or for you to drop off any supplies you’d like to donate. Copy paper is most needed as teachers get only 2 reams of paper per month, not nearly enough to provide for students.

    I would love to accept the mac computers. But I will need to check to see if they can be connected to the school system. I will let you know.

    And, if anyone is interested in volunteering, SVA is a wonderful resource. Since we have no paraprofessional support, having someone come in to help tutor or mentor students would be a huge help. The SVA has come into our classroom periodically, and the kids love it!
    I’m open to any and all ideas to help this community.

  25. Hugh McCann Jr

    Dan You might consider an annual “friendly” in the BPT harbor arena which would include inner city soccer squads. Also: it might be inclusive to have the Staples Players perform in a combined event with inner city talent. Also: maybe a home and away basketball scrimmage…..maybe mixing up the teams!

    Westport is insulated from the real world. Economic apartheid. Best, Hugh ’67

    ______________________________________ Hugh F McCann Jr (m) 203-545-8857 hughmccannjr@gmail.com

    >

    • Thanks, Hugh. A couple of years ago we did play a Staples vs. Central HS alumni game at Kennedy Stadium as a fundraiser for Central. Maybe time for another one!

  26. As someone who volunteers in Bridgeport at Cesar Batalla and started a foundation a couple of years ago for this very reason. The kids go without. The classrooms need supplies. Basic essentials. The teachers get $24 for the entire year of supplies for whole class. I held a fundraiser this morning so we could send kids on field trips and buy supplies. Regardless of background and situations, bottom line is EVERY child is worthy and deserving of the same education. If we want to see change, we need to be the change.

  27. Chelsea Steinberg

    I am a teacher in Springfield, MA where the conditions of education are very similar to those in Bridgeport. I spend a lot of time comparing my own Westport education (GFS, Bedford, Staples) to what my elementary school students are going through. The biggest difference is the parental support (or lack thereof). In Westport we had parents left and right running book fairs, Art Smarts, etc. and in Springfield we often have trouble getting a parent to come to school for an IEP meeting– an essential step to helping a child succeed if they are having difficulties in school. What Kathy writes about is the case not just in Bridgeport but in our district and many others as well. I hope by discussing the issues on a platform like this blog we can continue to raise awareness and help bring some relief that our schools and teachers need, as well as appreciation for what a community like Westport offers its students.

    • I am a volunteer in Bridgdport and run a foundation to help build supplies and send kids on field trips and support the classrooms. We have just started a “room mom” program and have put 2-3 “room moms” from westport: Fairfield in the classrooms to help support the teachers. They need coats or crayons or paper- they reach out to the room mom. We are trying to support the class so the focus is teaching. If they don’t have items- our rooms moms will do their best to rally for them and get the supplies. We just started this program this week. We had 23 classrooms / almost 50 room moms. The RM’s are so committed to making a difference in the classrooms and teachers are excited for the support and the kids love the new faces.

      • Hi Jimeale – I would love to connect with you to see how to organize this for more schools in Bridgeport. Read School is my priority, but I know this is an issue throughout the city. I love the model, and you’ve done amazing things at Cesar Batalia. I think it would be wonderful to coordinate with families in Westport to support this effort. My email is kathymahieu63@aol.com. Thank you!

  28. Yes, I know…Leo Cirino took a job teaching there. You could really do some good work there.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  29. http://a.co/b1D7QTU
    Here is an amazon wish list link of school supplies that will help Kathy. These will ship directly to her at The Read School.

  30. Jaime Bairaktaris

    The child development teacher at Staples High School is actively helping students bridge the gap between Staples and Bridgeport. We were “Pen Pals” with a classroom full of students at a low performing school in Bridgeport, and at the end of our semester we travelled to visit them – and they travelled to visit us. Nothing was more eye opening than watching students take a tray for lunch, and another for their dinner later on, as the cart was wheeled into the room. Ms. Mahieu is one of a strong breed, for sure, and needs any support that we can offer.

  31. Office Depot has a sale going on where you can buy three cases of computer paper for the price of two. I did this, and listed the shipping address as Read School, 130 Ezra Street, Bridgeport, CT 06606 (attn: Kathy Mahieu). I also learned that Office Depot has a program where the purchaser can designate a school to receive “credits” equal to 5% of the purchase price, which the designated school then uses to receive merchandise cards for free supplies from Office Depot.

    Link to the FAQs for the Office Depot “Back to Schools” program:
    http://www.officedepot.com/speciallinks/us/od/docs/promo/backtoschool/btsfaq.pdf

    List of products that qualify for the “Back to Schools” program:
    http://www.officedepot.com/speciallinks/us/od/docs/promo/backtoschool/qualifyingproducts.pdf

    “Back to Schools” program ID number for Read Elementary School:
    ID: 70018755 – BRIDGEPORT, CT

  32. Beth Orlan Berkowitz

    That’s a great idea and program. Thanks for sharing it with us about Office Depot. Does anyone know if Staples has a similar program?

  33. Beth,

    I have always shopped at Staples, and hoped that I could support the Read School directly by purchasing supplies at Staples. However, I could not find such a program on the Staples site. See below for a link to Staples’ support for schools & not-for-profit organizations:

    http://www.staples.com/sbd/cre/marketing/about_us/how-we-give.html#cm

    If you find that Staples offers a program similar to the Office Depot “5% Back to Schools” program, could you post the info on Dan’s blog?

    thanks!

    Elaine