War of the Words: Whelan Parents Concerned over ‘prejudice’ Label

August 24, 2011
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Middle school parents on the west side of the city spoke out this week concerning claims by school officials of prejudice in the adult community, saying that school officials and Mayor Tom Ambrosino painted too broadly with their brush.

Parents Kristy Dacey, Marilyn Quintana and Jen Sasso – all of the area around the Whelan School on the west side of the city – met with the Journal and said they felt their families would be stigmatized by comments in last week’s Journal that said there was a pervasive racial and economic prejudice displayed toward the Garfield School community this year during the contentious middle school lottery.

Superintendent Paul Dakin, and to an extent the mayor, said in an article last week that parents on the west side of the city were voicing troubling things about the prospect of their children having to attend the Garfield Middle School (GMS), which is on the east side of the city.

Dakin and Ambrosino said that there was an uncamouflaged prejudice towards minorities voiced in many discussions with many parents.

Dacey said it wasn’t the case for her, even though her child lost the lottery to attend the Susan B. Anthony Middle School (SBA) on the west side of the city and is scheduled to attend the GMS.

She even said that this is her second child to have lost the lottery and been sent across town to the GMS.

“I came to terms with the whole situation this year once we didn’t get the Susan B,” said Dacey. “Then I read the article in the paper I felt berated and slandered. If I decide to send my daughter to the Garfield, she’ll have a label on her head that she is too good for everyone because she came from the Whelan even though that has nothing to do with her. Everyone read the same article. The whole city is aware of it.

“I thought the superintendent’s comments were hurtful,” she continued. “I was quite shocked. Sure, there might be a handful of parents who expressed those prejudiced sentiments, but I didn’t and now I’ve been labeled with this same thing because of where I live.”

Both Quintana and Sasso also had children in the lottery, but did get drawn for seats in the SBA. Nonetheless, they felt that the comments also stigmatized them.

“I got my choice, but I don’t think it’s fair what was said,” said Quintana. “When my kids go to the high school are there going to be problems because they went to the SBA? Everything would have been fine if these comments wouldn’t have come out. Dr. Dakin needs to know it’s not the whole city that thinks that way. Maybe some, but not everyone.”

Added Sasso, “It’s true that not everybody feels like that. Our boys did get the school they wanted, but there were people who didn’t and they were upset, but it wasn’t for the reasons stated in the article.”

Dakin said that he agreed not everyone from the west side of the city was prejudiced towards the Garfield Middle School community. He said there are likely good reasons that some parents have protested, but he said he still believes it was right to bring up the discussion about prejudice.

“There certainly have been parents who have legitimate gripes that aren’t based on racial prejudice, but some clearly and loudly said ‘it,’” said Dakin. “That was the first time it had been verbalized. It had been implied, but never spoken. I’m glad these parents came forward and voiced their opinion because we need to talk about this…There are legitimate reasons for not wanting to go to the Garfield. The Garfield has an extended day and a legitimate complaint is there are certain activities in the community for kids and if you’re at the Garfield, you’re denied those activities. That’s a legit gripe.”

And that’s just the gripe that Dacey said she has had twice in the last five years.

“My daughter was excited to be able to go to dance classes again,” said Dacey. “She had to give that up because the Whelan has the extended day and dance is in the afternoon. Now that she’s at the Garfield, that’s all out the window again. She has a softball pitching coach and I’ll have to get a new coach now. She just wanted to have fun, to be a sixth grader, to have a childhood. She feels like that’s over now, and what do I tell her?”

Meanwhile, Dacey said that she is looking into a private school for her daughter, as she cannot physically make it work with two other kids to also pick up – one at the high school and the other at the Whelan.

“To go to the Garfield, I would have to put her on a bus at 6:45 a.m.,” said Dacey. “That would be approximately a 10-hour day for her before she gets back home on the bus. That’s a lot for a sixth-grader. I can’t be at the Garfield at the same time as the Whelan and I can’t rely on someone every day to pick up my youngest at the Whelan. That is my biggest problem here and that’s primarily why I fought the lottery.”

All three mothers said they are disappointed with the middle school format in the district and they wish that the themed schools would be retired. Also, they felt that a K-8 model might be worth exploring, but more than anything they said they would appreciate a consistent process from year to year.

Dakin said that he is in the process of introducing more new programs at the Garfield Middle to lure parents away from the SBA and the Rumney Marsh Academy in greater numbers. Were that to happen, there would be no need for a lottery.

The first program he is exploring is instituting a Chinese language class at the Garfield Middle this coming school year.

“I’m looking at trying to roll out a Chinese language class down there this year,” he said. “As time goes by, I think that’s a language that our kids are going to need to know to be competitive. We will eventually have it at the high school, but I’d like to start it at the middle school this year. If I can find a way to do it, I will unveil it this year at the Garfield and move it to the high school later. It’s just a budding idea now.”

The parents, however, are just hoping that there hasn’t been a permanent divide implemented in the community.

“I believe [Dakin] has just pitted the east side versus the west side,” said Dacey. “He’s just drawn a line, and it’s putting some of us on a side of the line we don’t deserve to be on.”

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