There’s an old saying that holds it takes a village to raise a child and it was with that in mind that area clergy joined forces at a forum at to address youth violence on Sunday. The forum marked the start of the sixth annual Hope Week, an event organized by New London Public Schools to shine a positive light on the city’s youth and highlight the many groups that serve them.
This event focused on the faith-based community and the discussion centered on what churches could do to better engage and serve New London’s youth. “What started all this was the Matthew Chew murder,” said New London School Superintendent Nick Fischer. “But it just brought to a head what’s been bubbling through the community for years.”
The problems may not be new, Fischer said, but the need for new solutions was evident. Traditional responses to the problem, such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program or approaches designed to “scare kids straight” simply aren’t enough, he said.
“Often we’re better at talking about what we don’t want them to do than what we do want them to do,” said Fischer. “We need to be talking about what we can do that creates longer lasting, long-term relationships with our kids.”
Forum participants offered a variety of suggestions: encouraging more mentoring, developing reading programs involving senior citizens, and establishing literacy programs for adults and homework help for children. While some ideas would require funding, Fischer urged everyone to think of what they could do for little or no cost to make a difference.
New London High School tutor Elsa Davies observed that, as there’s a church every couple of blocks in the city, church employees could greet kids as they walk to and from the bus stop. Many clergy members expanded on this idea. They could offer children shelter from the elements, perhaps provide drinks and snacks, give kids a safe place to hang out and do homework.
While some panelists focused on what teachers could do, many remarked on what they saw as a lack of parental involvement. Indeed, although this forum was billed as an opportunity for parents to discuss the problem of youth violence with religious leaders, only a handful of parents attended and most of them were affiliated with a church or with the school system.
“Parental involvement—it really has to start there,” said Rev. Edward F. Cornell III of and .
Matthew Levey, a minister at , suggested that it wasn’t enough to focus only on the children. “We’ve got to start looking at the parents here,” he said. “Every week, I deal with parents on drugs or alcohol, or suffering from AIDS. Then we try to blame the teachers. We’re turning our kids over to a system and expecting them to raise our children.”
Panelists were keenly aware of the myriad reasons why some parents may not be actively involved in their children’s educational lives, however. One parent who attended the forum said that, while she is a stay-at-home mom and able to attend school events, other parents are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet.
Rev. Daniel Martino of the drew the forum’s attention to one big obstacle when he said, in Spanish, that many people in his congregation don’t speak English. “It creates a barrier,” he said. “Many of our parents are disconnected.”
Fischer pointed out that literacy rates also present a problem. “At least 35 percent of the population in New London can’t read or write English or Spanish,” he said. As schools typically communicate to parents by sending written information home with students, he said, he worries that many people are left out in the cold. Fischer also noted that parents who struggled in school themselves may be intimidated by the education system and feel unable to help their children in school.
Even parents who are actively engaged in their children’s lives sometimes struggle to keep their kids on the straight and narrow. “I almost lost my son to the streets,” said Anita Pinder of Madry Temple. Her son had experienced discipline problems in school almost from the start, she said. He’d been assessed for learning disabilities but turned out to be very smart. Even so, he had been expelled from New London High School and from the .
Ultimately, Pinder’s son’s passion for playing guitar proved to be the saving grace. Pinder’s pastor, who plays in a musical group, invited her son to join the band and helped him get into Thames Valley School of Music. Pinder says her son is also being tutored now, but she worries about what happens to the kids who get kicked out of school and have no support network. “They can’t be discarded like trash,” she said. “You can’t say they’re never going to amount to anything.”
Sunday’s forum included representatives from about a dozen different churches along with chaplains who serve New London, and Chief Margaret Ackley. Not everyone who had been invited was able to attend and the absence of the meant that the forum was made up of Christian congregations only.
A number of attendees also noted that no one from the Islamic community had been invited. Forum organizer Valerie A. Tamano, manager of executive support systems for New London Public Schools, said she planned to rectify that oversight before the next meeting, which is scheduled for September.
Fischer urged everyone to put some plan into action between now and then and report back on its success at the next meeting. It’s not enough to talk the talk, he said; we have to walk the walk.