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In Westbrook, Volunteer Fundraising Effort Makes a New High School Job Possible

Published Aug. 28, 2019

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In decades past, a college degree was often seen as necessary to obtaining a stable, well-paying job, but the increasing costs of college, along with the rapidly changing needs of industry, are throwing a monkey wrench into those assumptions. To address these issues, this fall Westbrook High School (WHS) students will meet their school’s first career/college readiness coordinator, thanks to the volunteer fundraising efforts of three residents; contributions from the town, local businesses, and organizations; and the support and work of school administrators.

The new employee, Leslie Carson, started in July, after extensive efforts to hire the right person for the job by Superintendent of Schools Patricia A. Ciccone, according to Andy Schatz.

Schatz, an attorney, is a leader of the Westbrook Economic Action Initiative (WEAI) along with retired teacher and former state representative Jim Crawford and Tony Cozza, an engineer and member of the Board of Finance.

The origins of their efforts can be found in the Shoreline Basic Needs Task Force (SBNTF), established in 2013 to address the needs of residents of local towns who are working but are barely getting by. The United Way describes this demographic with the acronym ALICE: asset limited, income constrained, employed. ALICE individuals make too much money to receive government assistance and yet are just able to pay their bills, making them especially susceptible to unanticipated events. Just one medical emergency, car repair, or major appliance breakdown can mean serious financial strain, even collapse.

A Good Place to Start

For about 2 ½ years, Schatz, Crawford, and Cozza have led a subgroup of the SBNTF, the Economic Action Committee, which has sought to address the financial needs of the ALICE population by improving access to training, job opportunities, and increased wages. And because the committee found that many businesses and organizations in Westbrook were receptive to their ideas, a pilot program, the WEAI, was established in the town.

Westbrook’s economic situation also made it a good place to start.

“In that first 2015 ALICE report, Westbrook had the highest percentage [37 percent] of folks in that category in the entire county, including Middletown,” Crawford said.

Two years later, the United Way issued a second report and the ALICE percentage in Westbrook dropped to 33 percent—better, but still rather high, as it represents around one-third of the town’s residents.

“$79,000 is the number that a family of four needs to make in order to pay their bills,” said Crawford. “There’s no savings going on there, but they can pay their bills. And that’s a couple with a pre-schooler and an infant.”

Two adults working full-time at $15 an hour together earn only $60,000 to $64,000, Schatz pointed out.

To address these issues, the group determined that its efforts should be directed toward low-income earners, but also toward helping young people train for the future.

“A lot of towns have a career coordinator,” a position in the high school that is similar to a guidance counselor, but focuses on providing opportunities for students to get real-world, career-oriented experience, Schatz said.

“Most [high school] guidance counselors have really become college counselors,” he said. “Most of them are focused on which college to go to, which presupposes an answer to the fundamental question, ‘Do you want to go directly to college after high school?’ I think there’s a trend now toward asking that question. Is it necessarily the best thing to be going on immediately to college?

“Pat [Ciccone] puts this much more eloquently than I can,” Schatz continued. “She basically talks about it in terms of readiness and a lifetime of experience and the possibility that you could do some kind of alternative to college initially and then go on to college.

“A lot of the jobs that are out there now, high-quality jobs, require a lot of technical expertise, a lot of computer skills and so on,” he said. “It’s not what we in our generation...probably saw as a divergence: You went either the shop route or you went the college route.”

In many manufacturing jobs, said Cozza, “kids can make a really great salary. Plus you’re not talking about the saw or drill press or the lathe—you’re on a computer.”

“And a lot of these businesses will pay for the kids to go to college,” added Schatz. “Even knowing that after college, they probably will not stay in the same business. Because they recognize that when they find people who are very talented, they want to support that and the next step is often to get...university training.”

“There is a very active program in Eastern Connecticut at Three Rivers Community College and Ella [T. Grasso Technical High School] where they have a connection with [General Dynamics] Electric Boat...and they train the young folks for the jobs that are available,” said Crawford. The students “leave those schools with technical certifications that allow them to step into $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 jobs.

A Competitive Environment

“We realized that it was a void here in Westbrook,” Crawford continued. “And what was happening is the school districts around us were getting these shadowing and internships programs with businesses in Westbrook and Westbrook kids didn’t even know about it, because there was no connection that was made and that was one of the things we wanted to rectify.”

Upon meeting with Ciccone, the men discovered that she, too, was thinking along the same lines, and hoped to establish a similar position that would start in the summer of 2020 for the 2020–’21 academic year.

“She just didn’t have the funding to do it,” said Crawford. “So when we talked to her about that, we didn’t have to do any convincing, all we had to do was say, ‘If we get the money, can we do it earlier?’”

As the WEAI is not a 401(c)(3) organization, its members met with the Community Foundation of Middlesex County (CFMC), which established a fund. The three men went on to raise $60,000 to support a year’s salary for the position and CFMC provided the funds to the Westbrook school district.

Schatz believes the work they did to raise that money demonstrates the support for the position in the community among potential employers, making it far more likely that the town will find a way to continue to fund it. The fact that the town itself contributed to their fundraising efforts makes that even more likely, he said. (The school district is paying for Carson’s benefits.)

On July 26, Ciccone, Carson, and WHS Principal Tara Winch appeared on Feel Good Fridays, a program hosted by CFMC President and CEO Cynthia Clegg on the local Internet radio station iCRV.

“We’re all used to college being something that comes immediately after high school and that is not necessarily so,” said Ciccone, who is a master carpenter and former superintendent of schools for the Connecticut Technical High School System. “Many of our students, who can access career before they go to college, can go to college more affordably and not really come out with a lot of debt.”

Carson previously worked on school improvement in the State Department of Education’s Turnaround Office.

“I just really believe that every student needs to have a motivation for going to high school so it’s not just a hoop that you have to jump through,” she said on the radio program, and “that...there’s a reason for putting forth effort in the work that you do at the high school level.”

The program being developed, she said, will give “kids purpose for going to school and giving them what they need to learn academically so they can prepare for their future careers.”

‘Authentic Opportunities’

The program will provide students with “authentic opportunities,” as Ciccone put it—Carson hopes to provide each and every senior with an internship, along with some juniors, if possible. The program will also allow older students to use what they learn from their industry experience to mentor younger students.

But the learning experiences won’t just happen outside the classroom. The framework created by Carson and Winch involves “aligning classroom instruction to this notion of career,” and “helping teachers understand how they can do that,” Carson said.

In Carson and Winch’s vision, business leaders would come into classrooms, students would learn math that industry positions require, and teachers would visit businesses to “see how their content is being used in industry,” she said. Job shadowing opportunities would eventually be made available to children as young as 9th grade, according to Carson.

The mission of the new program is for students to get “an understanding of careers so you can make good decisions post-secondary, whether that’s college apprenticeships, two-year [or], four-year colleges, on-the-job training, whatever that is,” Carson said. “It’s about getting kids prepared so that they are going to be good at whatever they choose.”

Schatz, Crawford, and Cozza hope the benefits of hiring Carson will extend to adults in the community, as well. Once Carson develops relationships with local businesses, they hope, there will be opportunities not just for students, but for adults who are interested in training and new, higher-paying positions.

“The idea was that by developing this position early it would also be a position to make sure that the information got to the ALICE population,” Schatz said.

Businesses interested in participating in the WEAI may contact Leslie Carson at lcarson@westbrookctschools.org.


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