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Norwalk's Teens: High School Should Be Tougher

NORWALK, Conn. – A group of Norwalk teenagers weren't afraid to give their elders some advice Thursday.

"A lot of teachers feel like they don't want to invest the time with students. They just kind of pass them along," said Melissa Rojo, a Norwalk High School senior. "(They think), 'Let the next teacher deal with you.' It's not smart. It eventually catches up with the student."

Edwin Rosales, a Norwalk High junior, said, "I think besides raising the bar for students, we also have to raise the bar for our teachers."

The students were part of "Youth Forum – Mind the Gap," a panel assembled by the George Washington Carver Center to discuss the educational achievement gap. Listening at Brien McMahon High School were members of Norwalk's educational community, including Superintendent Susan Marks, Board of Education member Mike Barbis, Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion, West Rocks Middle School Principal Lynne Moore and Brien McMahon High Principal Suzanne Brown Koroshetz.

Although Connecticut's best school districts and students remain among the nation's top performers, the state's minority and low-income students are falling further behind, Gov. Dannel Malloy wrote in a recent letter. It's an achievement gap that Novelette Peterkin, executive director of the Carver Center, called an "old and stubborn problem." The center is trying to approach the problem in a new way, by listening to the youth.

"I think it's great to hear from our students," Marks said. "I think they speak the truth, and we have to listen to them. And there are so many things they talked about that we have to pay attention to."

The high school students covered many topics, from the roles of parents, teachers and mentors to the motivation of students.

Tom Skipper, a Brien McMahon freshman, suggested having students as mentors. "I think it helps if you have higher level students helping out lower level students, after school or in tutoring programs," he said. "If you have them tutoring younger people, especially the under-achievers, than that can help a lot to close the gap."

"I think we should have more kids involved in sports," said Tomar Joseph, a Norwalk High junior who visited Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford and found that involvement in two sports is mandatory. He thought that was a great model, but other students disagreed. "I don't think making it mandatory would help," Melissa said. "It would be something you have to do."

"I think schools should make us more aware of what education can do for us," said Ny-Aja Boyd, a Norwalk High junior. "Don't be afraid to show us what happens if you don't go to school."

Kortney Lelle, a Norwalk High senior, recognized that parent involvement is important. But she said students can use other resources such as after-school peer tutors. Elle O'Hara, a Norwalk High senior, agreed. "You can find a mentor within your community, such as a sports coach, a teacher, anybody that you personally feel a connection with. That can be your motivator to make you want to change what your current situation is," she said.

Isiah Mohammed, a Norwalker who is a senior at the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering in Stamford, said teamwork among teachers, schools and parents is important. Many felt standards need to be higher.

"I believe that graduation requirements shouldn't be just barely passing or setting a certain GPA," Edwin said. "I think we should push our students. ... If we raise the requirements, I think the students will try to excel and to graduate they will meet those requirements, which will close the gap even more."

"There's a lot of teachers who have very low standards for students, especially if they are in a lower-level class, and I don't think that helps anyone," Melissa said. "I think that most people, and a majority of people, live up to the expectations they are given."

Marks was impressed. "I think the big thing I took away was about raising the bar, that the kids really want high standards and they believe that they'll meet those high standards," she said. "I think that's really important. We're going to be developing a student survey, and we're certainly going to call on them to help us come up with the questions that they think their peers want to answer, to help us do a better job. I'm very proud of them."

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