Almost 100 people gathered in Potsdam yesterday and today to scout the terrain of possibilities for strengthening St. Lawrence County in its schools, its sagging economy and its heroin-addled communities.
Several of the region’s leaders who attended The People Project symposium spoke about this sobering fact: 33 percent of the people here have a net worth of less than $15,000. One man said his son’s family does not eat lunch; it is not in their budget.
This verdant, farm-strong county has the second-highest opioid addiction rate in New York State, according to one county legislator on hand.
These dire facts led New York State United Teachers last year to support a newly created People Project steered by Erin Covell, guidance counselor and president of the Massena Federation of Teachers. NYSUT’s $165,000 solidarity grant is being used to support coalition-building projects such as a summer beach program, a backpack food project, a community book read, a food truck and a welcome program for minority students.
Now, the American Federation of Teachers is bolstering The People Project with renewable one-year funding that can serve as a foundation for projects among the civic, community, faith-based and religious partnerships that will come to realization from the symposium connections. AFT is similarly supporting a program in McDowell County, West Virginia, which shares a lot of the same strife as this northern New York county. There are now 135 partners in the McDowell project.
Job #1 is creating community schools.
“The notion of community schools … is absolutely imperative,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “This is what we do as a union. We fight for a better life for people. We create a vision, as opposed to the anger we now see.”
Weingarten outlined the positive school turnarounds that have taken place in McDowell, and said the constellation of people gathered for The People Project can create public and private partnerships to make change happen here.
“I get cold chills because of her energy,” said Mary Ann Ashley, a retired guidance counselor with St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, former co-president of her teacher’s union, former school board member and former Canton mayor. “Energizing people and instilling hope and making positive relationships are what it’s all about.”
“We are about community, coalition, caring and commitment,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “There will be obstacles — you must be resilient and relentless.”
Massena is en route to creating a community school. Bob Jordan, a guidance counselor and member of the Massena FT, said that, since the school’s budget was gouged a few years ago, his caseload of students has spiked from 70 to 120. Now, the district has hired a community schools coordinator; a therapist is also coming in once a week from Massena Wellness to conduct groups as part of a community-school initiative.
“It’s all based on relationships,” Jordan said, noting that a student mentoring and leadership program pairing older students with incoming freshman has “drastically” changed the school’s climate with positive peer pressure.
Students can stumble a lot when a family member is struggling with addiction or has lost a job. Erratic behavior, depression and loss of income create instability. St. Lawrence County’s General Motors power train factory closed in 2008 and 500 jobs were lost; hundreds more were lost when Reynolds and ALCOA merged.
The roster of professions represented at the symposium demonstrates just how many aspects of community life here have fostered concern and the driving need for change. Representatives from U.S. senators, from the governor’s office, retired and active teachers, steel worker union members, outdoor recreation promoters, labor council members, psychiatric hospital staff, school administrators, police officers, mayors, industrial development agency staff, business owners, local government planners, librarians, religious leaders, occupational health staff and county health initiative staff are at the ready.
Early ideas include entrepreneurship (promoted earlier in schools); agriculture possibilities such as food packaging and development or organic farms; tourism; promoting the “wonder and enchantment” of the area; teaching about the local environment; starting youth clubs; destigmatizing technical prep programs in schools; sharing resources among communities; regionalizing efforts for change; making St. Lawrence a “silicon valley of the north;” and opening up recreational possibilities for families living here with ideas such as inexpensive programs for cross-country skiing.
“We have to find a way of including our working poor,” said Doug Welch, a retired SUNY Canton librarian and member of United University Professions who also serves on the county planning board and food advisory board.
While these small northern towns are isolated by long stretches of road, joining forces has already shown results in some areas. Combined work by numerous police departments in the region led to the arrest of 100 people in a heroin sting earlier this year. Officers said it will take much more than arrests to solve this scourge, which has led to deaths, suicides and wracked families.
“The opioid problem is not simply a matter of access to drugs,” said John Burke, St. Lawrence County legislator. “It’s mental health, poverty and even access to services.” He said the county has the second-highest rate of opioid addiction in New York State.
Big pharmacy promotes the use of painkillers, and these northern communities need the help of big brothers such as the U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand. who sent staff to the meeting, said Burke. The support of AFT and NYSUT, he said, also moves the agenda.
NYSUT board member and retired Schroon Lake teacher Jeanette Stapley said she hopes The People Project ideas can be replicated throughout the North Country. Schroon Lake, she said, has a 71 percent poverty rate.
“We need to educate the whole child; we need access to resources —physically, mentally, educationally and socially,” she said.