Tough lessons in hard times: Newcomerstown

To move the project from concept to reality, Thomas Jowhar, OEA's labor relations consultant for the Newcomerstown Teachers Association (NTA), suggested that founders of the fledgling organization apply for a grant from the National Education Association.

Project HOPE coordinator, teacher Erin Peoples, prepared the grant request, which Jowhar then submitted through the OEA to the NEA. Once the NEA approved the grant, NTA members knew they could establish HOPE as a force within the village to knit a stronger bond between the schools and the community they serve.

NTA vice-president Janel Travis observed, "Because of our low economic situation, we felt we wanted to draw the community in to help us do our jobs."

Teacher Stewart said, "We felt there was a disconnect between the schools and the community."

NTA president Paul Miller, who teaches at Newcomerstown High School affirmed, "Out of the one hundred students I have, I had four parents who scheduled parent-teacher conferences and three who showed up."

Peoples suggested, "I think some of the parents are intimidated in the presence of teachers. Some of them view us as rich. Even though we always make the bottom of the list among the lowest paid teachers in Ohio, we still make more than many of them."

Stewart added of the parents, Project HOPE is endeavoring to reach, "Some of them have had bad personal experiences with education, and if you've had a negative experience at the doctors because of the pain associated with it, you tend to carry that with you.

"I've asked students, 'Don't you want to go to college and make something of yourself?' and heard, 'Why? My parents didn't. My grandparents didn't?'"

Comments like that led organizers of HOPE to the understanding that one of its main goals had to be the closing of achievement gaps for Newcomerstown students, coupled with a shared understanding that education is the most crucial element to improving economic standards and living conditions within the community.

The coordinators of Project HOPE decided to draw upon the opinions, sensibilities and suggestions of townsfolk regarding prevailing attitudes about the schools and the role education should be playing to help students rise above the foundering economy. Teachers involved in HOPE concluded that the best way to gather input from the Newcomerstown citizens was to conduct a pair of "community conversations," welcoming direction and counsel from residents of the village on strengthening the school-community bond.

Jowhar recalled of the first community conversation, a meal-and-meeting affair at the town's Hampton Inn, in July, "Everyone in town got a personal postcard invitation."

Three dozen residents showed up to offer their input and search for solutions. After listening to a presentation from HOPE coordinator Peoples on closing achievement gaps, those assembled broke off into small groups to determine HOPE's major objectives. Once the smaller groups had formulated their suggestions, an organizing team of town residents and school personnel met to establish four central goals of HOPE.

Not surprisingly, "relationship building" was a central pillar among the four missions of the group. "Tutoring and mentoring" constituted another of the key goals, along with "volunteerism and funding." The final objective, "data gathering/ technology" was aimed at assessing the technological compatibility between the schools and home settings in relation to educational priorities such as computer skills.

A second community conversation was held in October to refine the goals and formulate the actions needed to implement them.

It naturally caught the eye, as well, of the OEA which, in May 2009, honored the teachers who founded hope with OEA's Blue Ribbon Award.

"Project HOPE is a wonderful thing for our district," said Jeff Staggs, superintendent of Newcomerstown Exempted Village Schools. "It is critical because of these tough times that we do everything possible to bring the community and schools together. You can never have enough involvement between your teaching staff and the community, and I appreciate the work of the teachers in trying to give back to that community."

HOPE came along at a time when the need to act upon the problems confronting Newcomerstown could not have been more imperative nor the circumstances more dire.

At Journey's End, Gore said, "We go through 60,000 pounds of food a month. This year we'll go through 725,000 pounds. We give out free clothing. We will give out 200,000 pieces of miscellaneous items such as dishes, pots, pans, housewares, bedding and toys this year alone."

But HOPE has established a blueprint, a template to help the town understand that the most critical part of the concept of community is the necessity for unity.

Peoples explained, "We want to empower the parents so they will understand that education is the key out of poverty and despair. We can't do anything about the recession, but we can help each other."

(Editor's Note: The article, "Tough Lessons in Hard Times: Newcomerstown" was originally published in the December 2009 issue of Ohio Schools, the magazine of the Ohio Education Association (OEA). The OEA represents 130,000 teachers, faculty members and support professionals in Ohio's public schools, colleges and universities. The magazine, however, available only to members of the OEA and to subscribers.)