10/2/14 meeting: Trouble in Rensselaer school

Picture 3Meeting at Quigley’s Restaurant
593 Columbia Turnpike
East Greenbush
October 2, 2014

Attending (12): Bill Dowd, April Dowd, Murray Forth, Pat Bailey, Jim Leyhane, Terry Brewer, Ray Hannan, Debbie Rodriguez, Charlie Foote, Dick Drumm, Jim Butterworth, Len Leonidas.

Guests (1): Peter Rehonis.

Program: The State of Rensselaer City Students

Peter Rehonis
Peter Rehonis

Our speaker was Peter Rehonis, a former priest who is the Director of Special Education for the Rensselaer City School District.

Peter spoke about the dire personal circumstances of many students in Rensselaer, where 76% of them are from families living below the federal poverty level. That makes the entire K-12 school of approximately 1,100 students eligible for free breakfast and lunch. Put another way, the number of Rensselaer kids on assistance is about five times the average figure in other districts.

Despite growing needs of the student population, Peter said, the district has lost 48% of its professional staff in recent years. Because the K-12 school is new — having been built after the city sold the former site to a developer to help fund a new facility — some people have the impression there is no problem. Inside the building, that is not the case.

Many of the kids have mental and emotional issues, but the school is down to just one psychologist. The cost of special education continues to climb even as staff and resources dwindle. For many programs, resources either are inadequate or non-existent.

Peter noted that special education, his area of expertise, has changed markedly in recent years. For example, rather than concentrating only on problem children the school is developing something called CDOS, which stands for Career Development and Occupational Studies. It is a four-year plan designed to help all students prepare to function in the real world and to obtain decent jobs through education, counseling, mock interview techniques, resume writing coaching, work-study activities and the like.

He distributed materials on “Work and Career Readiness,” nothing that the school needs people to work with kids to prepare them for life after school. He spoke about some of the activities in pre-K programs during the year.  Also needed are supplies such as backpacks for teens (not “cute” ones designed for younger kids), prescription eyeglasses, and gift cards to use as reward incentives. Another aid might be rides for families, especially returning from school/family activities (no buses are available after events).

April Dowd asked about Circles of Mercy, which our club strongly supports, and its  participation with clothing needs. Peter said he is familiar with that resource, but that its supplies are erratic and, in many case, the perceived stigma of getting clothes from a family services agency keeps students form utilizing the resource. Charlie Foote asked whether students could be loaned backpacks full of food to take home on weekends. Peter said there is no funding for such a program, and food supplied by grocery markets is sporadic.

And additional problem is the influx of poor immigrants, such as a growing Burmese community, moving into the city who have special needs such as learning English and acclimating to winter weather.

President Bill Dowd said that, while we can always help with some “band-aid” things, providing a kid with a meal only has an impact for that meal and there already are programs handling that. He asked if there was something our club could consider doing that would have a lingering positive impact. Peter said financial support for the Homework Club — an after-school on-campus resource that gives students a place to do their work in an atmosphere conducive to study rather than in a chaotic home atmosphere — would be helpful. Funding is needed to pay teachers to supervise such a program and to pay bus drivers for the after-hours effort necessary to get the kids home. Bill said the club would discuss ways we can help in the near future.


PUBLIC RELATIONS: President Bill noted that our club again was well-represented in Toolbox, the District’s monthly newsletter. For October we had a story and photo covering our special “Danny’s Night” event with our Gift of Life child, as well as the group photo we shot with Danny and our GOL guests.

ANNIVERSARY EVENT: Bill said that because our club will mark its 55th anniversary in March 2015, he would like to make it a special event. If you would like to be part of a planning committee, please contact him ASAP.

“POCKET CHANGE” FUNDRAISER: Bill reminded us that this year’s “Pocket Change For …” recipient will be The Great American Milk Drive. He encouraged members who have not already done so to check out the details on our website, which are accompanied by a two-minute video. Members are asked to contribute any pocket change (paper money, too, if they’re of that mind) each week to the “Pocket Change” jug. As he puts it, “Walk in jingling, leave quietly smiling.”

TRAINING: We still have only two members — Bill and April — registered for the October 18 Rotary Leadership Institute (RLI) at Siena College. He said that is a paltry number given the size of our club and urged people to consider participating.

ROTARY FOUNDATION DINNER: Reservations now are being accepted for the annual Rotary Foundation dinner, this year being held on the main stage at Proctors theater in Schenectady. Live entertainment, good food, and no stuffy speeches, as new District Governor Dave Hennel promised when he spoke to the club last week. Cost is just $75, and is open to non-Rotarians as well. Check the District website — http://rotary7190.org — for details .

Event coordinator Terry Brewer talked about re-energizing this home-hosted dinner series of fundraisers and offered signup sheets for those interested in holding such a dinner. He is hoping to enlist hosts for dinners in October, November, January, February, March and April, hopefully with a theme for each such event. Please contact Terry (via e-mail at  Tlbrewer12piseco@gmail.com or by phone at 221-4050) if you would like to reserve one of those months and let him know your theme as well as how many people you can handle. The usual group is 8-10, plus the hosts. … Jim Leyhane said he, A.J. Amato and Roberto Martinez would like to use one of the dates to hire a chef from Cafe Capriccio in Albany to cook for a group of 12-15 at Roberto’s home. He’ll work on details and coordinate the date with Terry.

NEW MEMBER: Murray Forth reported he had met with Shannon Romanowski, who succeeded Patrick Ciraulo at the YMCA and plans to replace him as a club member. Shannon said she will make her first appearance in the near future. Bill said he would send her a letter of welcome.

NEXT MEETING: 6:15 p.m. Thursday, October 9, at Quigley’s The after-dinner speaker will be state senate candidate Brian Howard on the controversial topic of the Common Core teaching curriculum.


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