Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Call for a Youth Summit

By Jessica Gaafar
Sophomore, Crosby High School

Last Fall Mayor Mike Jarjura formed a Blue Ribbon Commission on School Attendance and Truancy from a suggestion from John Theriault, former school principal and a Board of Education Commissioner. The Blue Ribbon Commission was charged with addressing the alarming 40% drop out rate that faced this city of Waterbury.

The Mayor said during the opening ceremony for the committee that it was rare for the Board to ask for help, but the problem had become so serious (not just in Waterbury but across the nation) that he and the Board thought it was a good idea to reach out to the private sector and community.

The Blue Ribbon Commission broke into six committees: Legal, Public Awareness, Vocational Training, Youth Development, Best Practices and Student Interventions. The subcommittees met regularly until taking a summer break, and has since resumed meetings with the beginning of the school year.

While there were some youth involved in this process, there just simply wasn’t enough.

For years students have complained about not being heard. It seemed like no one cared how students felt or what they wanted. What if we could make school officials and board members listen to what we want and how we feel? What if we, as students could some how speak out to them and not be punished for what we said? What if we, the students, could challenge the Board of Education to fix their policies?

During our first editorial meeting this summer, we let loose about the issues in our schools, and how we felt the dress code may be at the center of the storm. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that the dress code is why youth drop out or miss school, but it’s one of the many issues youth said schools focus too much attention on. But it’s not even fair to say that it’s a stretch if no one has even considered looking into the issue, because according to the school system when asked about the dress code, they simply say, “it’s working”.

During an hour-long interview with the current Board of Education President Pat Hayes, offered hope that someone would listen to youth if they organized. He suggested that the staff of Young Voices organize a youth summit. Pat Hayes offered his support to set the meeting, and would call on the Commissioners of the Board of Education and others to attend.

Students want to express their opinions but no one has listened. Well, for all of those who want to speak out and help possibly make a change, the time is now! We are calling for a youth summit. Not only are we calling for it, Young Voices has taken Hayes’ advice and will be primarily responsible for organizing it.

Interesting enough, in the Public Awareness Committee (a subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission), one of the ideas that came from the group was to start a student newspaper, sponsored by a local newspaper. The committee suggested that students should write about the importance of attending school and getting a good education. Ideally they thought that the newspaper should feature success stories and be written entirely by local youth.

I guess it’s fair to say, welcome to Young Voices. In our first issue we began to tackle the issues of the dress code, truancy and students really spoke out on how they feel the rules impact their lives, especially when they aren’t involved in the decision-making. Every student we talked to agreed that there should be some form of dress code, and even developed an alternative (see page 12). We gave youth a voice, and through our youth summit we plan to do continue to do the same and bring up the issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps we can even create change through the dialogue.

We demand for our voices to be heard. We want a seat at the table. The youth of Waterbury deserves the opportunity to discuss change with the decision makers.

In our vision, youth will organize the meeting, which will include setting the agenda and inviting the decisions makers to the table. During this forum, youth will finally have the opportunity to discuss the issues facing the city, in a constructive and well-organized fashion, while helping to develop some solutions to the problems that plague our city and other cities across the nation. It’s important that we put everything out on the table, and come together to discuss possible change.

“I’d love to see some of these kids be involved with their government,” said Hayes. “I’d love to see kids step forward.”

Barbara Lawlor, principal at Crosby High School said, “I think it’s an excellent idea. Absolutely I would like to be a part of it.”

All three Mayoral Candidates during a 90-minute interview with John Murray from Waterbury Observer said that they would support a youth summit.

“My feeling is we do need to have a dress code. But we need to be careful about setting up thousands of rules on every aspect of everything like having the wrong color hair tie. That strikes me as kind of a bizarre thing,” said Denis Odle, the Independent Candidate for Mayor, during the interview with the Observer. “Additionally, we need to periodically look at our policies and see exactly what it is that they are accomplishing.”

The Republican Candidate for Mayor Anthony D’Amelio (a former Commissioner for the Waterbury Board of Education) said during the interview with the Observer, “Maybe teachers can share with you. A teacher might step forward and say the situation is ridiculous, that this is a great a student and it doesn’t matter what color hair tie she has on today. Maybe our teachers are frustrated with the dress code too. We have to ask them and find out what’s really going on in the classrooms. One thing I learned by being on the school board is that we have great educators here in Waterbury. They are very caring and concerned, but we tie their hands in many respects.”

The newly re-elected Mayor Jarjura boldly said during the interview “If that plays out to be correct, that draconian dress code enforcement is breaking the spirit of marginal students, this is something the school board should be brought up to speed on and there should be some adjustments. But we must recognize that the concept of a dress code or some type of standards is important.”

Considering alterning the dress code is something that school officials were against when interviewed in our first issue. The only person that said that he would consider it was Board President Hayes. Everyone else said “it’s here to stay.”

“I’m never one who draws a line in the sand. We have to be receptive and hear all aspects of an argument. The pro side, the negative side, and that’s how you make good informed decisions. You get all the facts. You get all of the arguments behind the policies, and then you make an informed decision,” said Mayor Jarjura in his 90-minute interview with the Observer. “Clearly that would be the way to go. A youth summit seems like something exciting. It could be more than just the dress code. It could be a way for us to invigorate the spirit of learning.”

So, now that the November elections are over, it’s time to move forward. We will hold our Mayor accountable to supporting the youth summit.

Principals, teachers, and students should all want to take part in this once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Go in prepared, with evidence and facts,” said James Butler, AP World History teacher at Crosby High School. “Treat it like a conversation and don’t make accusations and trust people.”

In the past, these arguments have not succeeded because students wouldn’t actually take action, stand up and fight back. Many youth complained and talked, but not many would actually try to do something about it because they felt powerless. Many students still believe even with a youth summit that the decision makers would never listen to “kids”.

But still we are committed to taking the chance. The youth summit will be our opportunity for students to speak out and be heard. The Mayor supports the idea, and the Board of Education is on board, at least under its current leadership, so it’s time to challenge the decision makers.

No one has really succeeded in changing something like the dress code, but at least we must speak up.

Students waited for so long and now they just might be able to make a difference. The time is definitely now. We are mobilizing and ready to get this summit together. This meeting will give the decision makers of our city an insight into what the students are thinking.

We are planning for a spring date to bring all parties to the table. There is a lot of work to be done, and we are up to the challenge. The staff of Young Voices is moving forward, and we encourage anyone who would like to be involved to contact us.

We want to include as many youth as possible in the process because the more youth involved the bigger voice we will have to make a difference. Adults are welcomed to join the process.

Hayes said he is looking forward to hearing what students have to say about school policies and rules, so let’s not disappoint him.

“Absolutely, this is what this is about,” said Hayes.

Students can make a positive change by getting involved.

“We look forward to addressing these concerns, give us some suggestions,” said Hayes.

We will continue to explore the youth summit in our next issue, and will have an update for you then.

If you are interested in helping organize the event, either contact the publisher of Young Voices, Quajay Donnell at 203-500-3891 or email Jessica Gaafar at

I guess it’s time to rock the boat.

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