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.
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.
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.