LETTER: How to solve the achievement gap one family at a time

FI-Letter-to-the-EditorTo the Editor:

I commend the recent upsurge of folks talking about the achievement gap or excellence gap in Greenwich. It is great that the Board of Education has added two new board members with home-grown wisdom and a deep, genuine commitment to this cause of all causes. I also commend Greenwich’s Department of Social Services for making this a point of focus for the coming year ahead. We are all long past being okay with our segregated school system. It’s beneath us.

I would like to suggest, from my 15 years as a grass-roots social worker just how to go about closing the achievement gap among Greenwich’s students. Watch out. These are going to be radical ideas, involving love, companionship, overcoming racism and embracing the stranger. The stuff of Deuteronomy.

First, it’s time for Greenwich to start a “Fresh Air Fund” for its own. Yep, lower and middle class families get matched with wealthier families who host them for barb-a-ques, sleepovers and pool parties in their palatial homes. The children of families of means are taught to befriend children who are middle class. The Fresh Air fund I envision will allow Greenwich’s lower and middle class families to network with Greenwich’s successful and prosperous families for two weeks in the summer and for sponsored days when the Greenwich Public Schools are out of session, for example, parent/teacher conferences, voting day, Rosh Hashanah, the day before Thanksgiving. And, by hanging out I don’t mean enduring. I mean having fun together.

Rather than escaping every chance we can to get our troop to the Bahamas, to the Cape, to Disney, to Vermont, let’s change our need to run away. We affluent, civic-minded, Christian, Jewish, ethically oriented families can go on mission right where we live and provide warm, nurturing and welcoming staycations for children of families who live in the 761 units in the 15 low-income properties just minutes from our front doors. It’s not about simply giving charity but being in relationship that matters. That’s what closes gaps.

Like the friendly, fun, inclusive summer barbecue that the Greenwich Baptist Church does each year, where all of its member go and have a big family barbecue and play games and catch up with their FRIENDS at Armstrong Court’s courtyard.

How do we REALLY close the achievement gap in Greenwich? By hiring more social workers, by buying every kid in a Title I school a new computer? No, by helping children and their families get close to others with means, with connections, with an alternative world-view, by befriending them not just showering them with our charity or gently used clothing. The gap closes when you and I befriend families, not just children. By treating them like friends on the journey, not servants, hired-help nor an “other” who lives in that less desirable zip code.

The truth is: what separates us from them, the haves from the have nots, is we got an education, we got a series of breaks, we had healthy parents that parented us/left us a little inheritance to help us buy that first home, teach us about the S&P, start us on Vanguarding, model to us the importance of healthy eating so their longer lifespan translated into the “grandparent factor” that boosts economic status like no single sociological factor, not to mention the rocket boost to prosperity, hailing from a stable two parent family.

It’s time for us to walk away from our fear and open our family lives to others who didn’t hit the lottery of a privileged upbringing.

If you are Jewish, invite that family of lesser means to your Shabbat table this Friday night and be their mentor not their master. If you are Christian, invite a family over to your house on Sunday for a back-yard barb-a-que at your Lake Avenue home and be their friend, not their savior.

Finally, tell your kids, this year we are going to skip that Christmas/Chanukah/Winterbreak safari trip to Kenya. Instead, we’re gonna go on an even bigger adventure and befriend folks right here in Greenwich who hate living in the gap more than we hate cultivating it. Because the thrill of living segregated, “crazy-busy” lives has worn off. And, if you are scared or nervous about how to do this, contact Chabad of Greenwich or Greenwich Baptist Church and ask for either Rabbi Deren or Pastor Lloyd who will help you take that first step into the land of Cannan. Where it is really a privilege to be a Greenwichite!

Jodi Weisz

Greenwich

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