The Mansfield community came together Saturday afternoon to discuss the town’s pre-kindergarten program in a Community Conversation event sponsored by the Mansfield Advocates for Children.
Dozens of residents, ranging from parents and retirees to educators and religious leaders, debated the town’s current education options for its youngest citizens with the guidance of trained moderators.
Project Manager Nancy Polk, an employee of Community Mediation, Inc., a group that helps organize similar community conversations throughout the state, said that addressing issues through resident input is crucial to the program’s success.
“All the expertise you need is in this circle,” Polk said while observing a small discussion group debate about various pre-school systems. Community Conversations trains local moderators and does not consult outside experts on the issues.
According to Polk, a group of about 20 planners chose the theme for the event – the weekend’s was “It Takes a Village…” – that focuses on the town’s current pre-school system and how it should be adapted to fit Mansfield’s needs. Planners then invited a diverse group of residents to contribute to the discussion at Saturday’s meeting.
The group decided on the discussion topic and guidelines before participants split into small groups, guided by a moderator and assisted by a group recorder.
Mindful of Mansfield’s diverse community, the MAC, a volunteer advisory committee, arranged for residents from the town’s Korean and Chinese communities to meet in separate groups and speak in their native languages.
Participants generally said that while pre-school should not be universally mandatory, there should be more accessible and affordable options for parents and their children. Resident Cristina Colon-Semenza said that the town should prioritize the needs of lower-income families who may not be able to pay the fees for private schooling.
“Pre-school is already restricted,” Colon-Semenza said. “Why not instead restrict it to the people most in need. Let’s level the playing field.”
Lively, but respectful debate followed her statements. Parent Ty Christopher responded that he respected the idea of universal and mandatory pre-school, but felt that it was an ideal that could not be fulfilled.
“I’ve never seen it done successfully,” Christopher said, drawing from his time living in other areas of the country.
While each group came up with their individual action plan, when they reconvened the discussion showed that Mansfield residents are looking for several similar changes: more local support for new parents and families; more variety in pre-kindergarten experiences such as half-day programs, including programs specifically targeted to reach low-income families; better transportation to community events and facilities; increased community involvement with child-care resources from organizations such as churches and corporations; and better communication and networking to educate new parents and families about the town’s already rich pre-kindergarten resources.
Mansfield Mayor Elizabeth Paterson participated in the Community Conversation and said that the town already has many pre-school programs and resources. She said that she is concerned with how to better educate new parents about their options.
“One of the hardest things for a community like us to do is to communicate,” Paterson said. “A lot of people don’t realize a lot of things that we offer. How do you get that information out?”
Mother Megan Huff supported better outreach for young parents, said that as a new mother, she would appreciate community support during an often difficult time.
“I would just appreciate someone to call and say, ‘Hey, are you alive?’” Huff said.
Despite enthusiasm for the new ideas, residents voiced concern about the financial costs of funding new programs. As Paterson said, the town largely depends on state funding, and must broaden its tax base to soundly support new programs. Groups also discussed financial feasibility, and weighed the burden of perhaps cutting other crucial programs in order to bolster pre-school systems.
Several ideas, aimed to support the town’s minority families, were also warmly received. The minority-focused groups suggested that pre-school teachers receive bi-lingual training to better approach young children who speak English as a second language and who are often overwhelmed once they enter the school system.
The minority discussion groups also supported the creation of an informal network for parents to discuss educational and cultural issues, which are often over-looked by none-foreign residents. One resident from the Korean discussion group explained that her son was very upset after he went to school on Valentine’s Day and had no cards or candy to give to his friends in exchange for the tokens he received. As a newcomer, she said she was unfamiliar with the Valentine’s Day tradition and wished that a support group for her community could help her prevent more cultural misunderstandings.
While a definitive action plan was not drafted on Saturday, MAC will create a summary report from the day’s discussions and will create action plans in a meeting next month.
Mansfield School Readiness Coordinator Sandra Baxter said she was pleased with the program’s success and invited any Mansfield resident to help with the next Community Conversation meeting on April 30.
“We’re so delighted to have the turn out we had. Helping children, it’s our heart and passion,” she said.
MAC has hosted three Community Conversations 2003, sponsored by the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. Mansfield residents interested in attending the next Community Conversation can RSVP at 860-429-3399 ext. 3933. Information about the Mansfield Advocates for Children and Mansfield resources for children can visit their Web site.