"Meeting the needs of children is not enough, Our parents have needs too!"
A frightened six-year-old first grader arrived at Charter Oak one day last year and told his teacher, "My mom needs your help. Daddy is yelling real loud." Immediate assistance was dispatched to the house. That afternoon, the mother came to visit the principal and is now working with one of the school's social work interns to reduce the stress in the home. "Meeting the needs of children is not enough. Our parents have needs too!" says Gwen Rustin, principal of the school. "Safety, trust and caring must come from all adults. Here at Charter Oak we are committed to see that it happens."
West Hartford is a suburb, bordering the much larger city of Hartford, with a school district made up of two high schools, two middle schools, and ten elementary schools offering kindergarten through grade 5. About 8,000 students are enrolled in West Hartford schools.
Each of the schools has its own character, but Charter Oak, because of its location and age, differs dramatically from the other elementary schools. The school, built in 1930, sits in the middle of a modest community of single family homes and duplexes and two public housing developments, and it abuts a high-crime neighborhood. The school's enrollment of 370 students is multicultural and multiracial, coming from homes speaking 16 different languages. About half the students are from minority backgrounds and a little more than one-third of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. The school staff sees the diversity of its students as one of the school's great assets.
The school is not at all traditional. The staff learned quickly that students who live in poverty, who may be abused or neglected, who do not speak English as a first language, or who come from chemically dependent homes, may have trouble in traditional school settings -- with seats arranged in rows that follow rigid age and grade structures. Charter Oak is a multiage, multigraded school that encourages children of different ages to work on a variety of activities, either individually or in groups. The curriculum is organized thematically and emphasizes facts, problem solving, decision making, and communications skills in an integrated program.
The school began a Family Resource Center, funded with support from the Kellogg Foundation and the state, to help parents. The center provides services for children from birth through age three, child-parent play groups, family therapy, and acts as a local clearinghouse to help non-English speaking families locate the services they need. A youth development counselor provides activities for students in grades three through five through a drop-in center and a theater group.
Classrooms are structured into school families and each family has a name such as "Teddy Bear Express," "Rainbow Explorers," or "Future Flyers," to name a few. By organizing as families, a strong sense of community is built and extended to the home. Parents have the choice of opting for a straight level or multiage classroom for their child. Most children remain in their families for at least two years.
Safety and substance abuse are major concerns in the community and in the school. The school's "Here's Looking At You 2000" curriculum emphasizes the clear message that abstinence from drugs, including alcohol, is the only choice for every Charter Oak student. A West Hartford police officer works regularly with every classroom, from kindergarten through grade five, on such topics as drug and alcohol abuse, safety with guns and bicycles, and child abuse.
For additional information:
Charter Oak School
30 Parker Street
West Hartford, CT 06107