Ellis Tech students lead forum on school climate

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Killingly - posted Tue., Feb. 28, 2012
(L-r) Back row: Jocelyn Peters, Marissa Gaathje, Christine Steen and Dan Amarante. Front row: Alisha Pipkins, Jannice Irizarry and Kristie Wlaszkiewicz. Photo by D. Coffey.
(L-r) Back row: Jocelyn Peters, Marissa Gaathje, Christine Steen and Dan Amarante. Front row: Alisha Pipkins, Jannice Irizarry and Kristie Wlaszkiewicz. Photo by D. Coffey.

When Ellis Tech carpentry student Jannice Irizarry discovered that someone had hammered nails into her wooden tool box, the freshman knew why. She'd heard racist comments about her Puerto Rican heritage from some of the students in school. Buoyed by her participation in the School Climate Committee, and the fortitude she says is a result of that, Irizarry responded in a positive way. The soft-spoken student marked her tool box with the words, “100 percent Puerto Rican.”

It's been four years since social worker Jessica Bibeau started the School Climate Committee at Ellis Tech with a small but dedicated group of students. It has grown to approximately 35 to 40 students.

Just last week, a contingent of 27 Ellis Tech students led a forum at EASTCONN. Nine schools participated. Ellis Tech students were joined by more than 80 students from Parish Hill, Cheney Tech, Grasso Tech, Norwich Tech, Manchester High School, Coventry High School and Prince Tech. The students discussed issues such as cyberbullying, sexism, racism, sexual harassment and homophobia. Mixed small group discussions were held so students could talk about three issues in particular and brainstorm ways they could make improvements in their schools.

Afternoon sessions had students analyze their school mission statements against the values they thought were most important to students. “They looked at whether core values matched the school mission statement,” Bibeau said. “It was very interesting.” Then students wrote their own school climate mission statement.

“It was all about what students could do to mobilize other students around these issues,” said Bibeau. “This is all student-driven.”

There were some common complaints, but Bibeau said some of the group discussions brought up interesting twists. One white student from Prince Tech talked about being the only white kid in his class. Ellis Tech's Alisha Pipkin could relate because she was the only black girl in her class. “It was the same issue but with a different spin,” Bibeau said. “Inner city schools had more diversity, but they still faced some of the same problems. It was neat for our kids to meet kids from other schools and  other cultures. We're so sheltered here.”

As of July 1, 2012, Connecticut will mandate that every school have people trained to report issues in cyberbullying, sexism, racism, sexual harassment, homophobia and more, according to Karen Neville, MOSAIC grant coordinator at EASTCONN. “You're going to see a lot of professional development around these areas,” she said.

Mosaic is an interdistrict leadership program for students in grades 7-12. Neville has worked with Ellis Tech for four years and she has seen a marked improvement in the climate of that school. As coordinator, she visits Ellis twice a season and compiles survery results that students fill out on a host of issues. “The committee has had great success,” she said. “Jess [Bibeau] has really parlayed her mentor group to be spokespeople in that school. It's even brought the teachers together.”

The committee has sponsored monthly events to build on their success. They've planned events around multicultural awareness, reading awareness and black history. They've held events in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth. They've worn orange to raise money for the Arc, in support of those with disabilities. They are planning a veterans' luncheon in May. One student wants to plan a Social Footprint Day so that students think about the legacies they want to leave behind.

Ellis will roll out its next program soon, which will encourage students to ally with their peers and teachers. “We want students to know they have access to trusted adults whom they can confide in,” said Bibeau. “A teacher might not know someone is getting called names in the back of the classroom. A teacher might be oblivious. We're going to try to raise awareness throughout the school.”

Alisha Pipkins said she had a difficult time her freshman year. Pipkin was insulted by racial slurs several times – in the back of classrooms and even on the bus. “It was the worst year of my life,” she said. Four years later, she finds the climate changed drastically. “It's gotten a lot better,” she said. “I'm trying to change things.”

“We're setting the standard for Ellis Tech,” Amarante said. “We want a climate here that's different than any other school. We accept anyone here. We want students to feel welcome. That's the standard we're setting.”

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