Waterbury teachers seek to help underprivileged students

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WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — Several years ago, Marcos Pacheco Hernandez was known as the toughest kid at Kennedy High School.

Pacheco Hernandez had a few fights as a freshman, but Kennedy staff didn't see him as a bad kid, Principal Robert Johnston said. They counseled and encouraged him. Eventually, he became one of the school's most dependable students, helping staff stay ahead of brewing conflicts.

Pacheco, now a U.S. Marine and a father, returned to Kennedy last week to bring a U.S. flag to Johnston as thanks for his friendship and guidance.

In any school, in any district, teachers often work beyond the bounds of their contractual duties. In Waterbury and other urban centers, however, there is extra demand. Students are needier— economically, educationally and emotionally. Teaching often involves far more than getting children to read and write at grade level.

To help their students, many of the city's 1,600 teachers become confidants and mentors, often giving generously of their own time and funds.

School Superintendent Kathleen Ouellette marked Teacher Appreciation Week last week with an email commending staff for their efforts. Ouellette said district teachers, indeed all staff, go "above and beyond the call every day."

"It's not just the academic piece," Ouellette said. "It's the social piece and the emotional piece."

During the 2013-14 school year, 81 percent of Waterbury's 18,389 students received free or reduced price lunches, a key indicator for poverty. By contrast, 36.7 percent of students statewide got lunch assistance.

Johnston started his career teaching at a Cheshire middle school before getting a job in his native Waterbury. He finds teaching city children particularly rewarding. They show a special gratitude for any extra effort.

And it's common for them to return after graduation to visit a favored teacher, he said.

"If you can teach here, you can teach anywhere," Johnston said. "It takes a lot of dedication. It takes a willingness to spend that extra time. But if you do it, your efforts will be rewarded from the kids and the parents."

Kennedy Vice Principal Peter McCasland said teachers very often stand in as parental figures. They'll give up lunches and classroom preparatory periods, stay after school to offer a sympathetic ear. They'll teach students how to talk and dress professionally.

McCasland knows several teachers who have chauffeured students to college interviews, because their parents do not have cars.

"I would say 90 percent of teachers go above and beyond," McCasland said. "We have teachers who really believe they do anything possible to make the kids' day better."

Michael Clark, a teacher with Kennedy's Talented and Gifted program, has produced end-of-year music videos for the last five years. They debut at graduation ceremonies. Each senior gets a copy on DVD.

This year's production has dozens of seniors dancing in period costumes from the 1960s through today to celebrate Kennedy's 50th anniversary. Planning began nearly a year ago. It will take hundreds of unpaid hours for Clark to complete this year's DVD.

"It makes me happy and makes the collective group of students happy, too," Clark said. "They can reflect on high school being a positive experience and not focus on any nonsense."

Kennedy social studies teacher Luanne Rosin Capolupo said she brings in extra food nearly every day to share with students she knows will be hungry.

"All of us do it, it's not just me," Capolupo said.

Capolupo knows teachers who have bought $30 graduation caps and gowns, and $85 prom tickets or prom dresses for students. And, like teachers throughout the district, she's familiar with the need to buy her own paper, pencils and supplies to stock her classroom.

Capolupo said teachers ask students to remember the kindness when they reach a better point in life and can help someone else.

"I'm one student who can't afford much, so I appreciate all they do," said Cierra Cedrone, a sophomore staying with Capolupo after school last week.

Cedrone appreciates the chance to speak with teachers about life issues. She said an aunt had given her $80 toward a prom ticket, but she didn't know where she would get the last $5.

"Don't worry," Capolupo, said with a wave of her hand. "Forget about the $5. I've got you."

Teachers interviewed last week estimate they spend between $500 and $1,200 yearly out of pocket to buy classroom supplies and other necessities.

Johnston knows his staff buys prom tickets and other extras for students. He just doesn't know how often.

"The funny thing is, teachers are doing it all the time and I'm not aware of it," Johnston said. "They're not doing it for any sort of recognition, they are doing it so the student gets to enjoy that sort of experience."

Washington Elementary School first-grade teacher Jay Lanouette spends an hour and a half at Fulton Park every Monday evening, teaching tennis to 30 Special Olympians from his school. In the winter, he volunteers with the same group, teaching skiing.

"I was taught how to play sports and this is my way of giving back," said Lanouette, who grew up in Waterbury and still lives in the East End.

Lanouettte buys Christmas gifts for each of his students. He knows some families won't have money for extras at the holidays. And he buys many of his own classroom supplies. If Lanouette wants to perform a science experiment, such as planting seeds, the money for it comes out of his own pocket.

For Lisa DiBella, teaching at Washington is a second career. She worked as an applied behavioral analysis therapist in New Milford and Brookfield schools before becoming a teacher. The urban setting is far different, she said.

Some of her Waterbury parents are Spanish speakers and struggle to help their children with homework. The parents often work two jobs, or a grueling night shift. They don't have disposable time or disposable income. There's no PTO raising money for classrooms, said DiBella, who also volunteers with Special Olympics.

Still, DiBella sees a chance to have an outsized impact on her students' lives. And she loves to see the children's faces light up on the ski slopes.

"That gives me so much, I don't need money for this," DiBella said.

Washington Principal Roxanne Augelli said the district could use more mechanisms for recognizing teachers. She bought bagels for her staff last week to mark Teacher Appreciation Week, and arranged for a massage therapist to visit the school Thursday.

Teachers say Augelli is good about recognizing their efforts. She recently brought in homemade macaroni for the teaching staff to recognize the school's continuing improvement in math. She called it "Matharoni and Cheese."

"I don't think we do that enough as a district," Augelli said. "You won't be able to list all the things teachers do on a regular basis for their classrooms."


Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com

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MICHAEL PUFFER - (Waterbury) Republican-American


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