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Students launch protest to contract

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD A group of Forest Park Middle School students who have organized fellow students in their school to protest the contract offer made to city teachers by the Finance Control Board are looking to include other schools in their efforts.

The students met with Reminder Publications on Thursday at the Council of Churches offices across the street from their school. The Pioneer Valley Project, a coalition of churches and labor organizations concerned about social issues affecting local communities, arranged the meeting.

Eighth-grade students Janice Small, Joseph Pelletier, Brian Carr, Renee Berard, Sara Ekmalian and Loreiny Penalo all spoke of their fears of how the new contract would impact the city's public school students next year.

The students are now planning an event that would bring them together with other students from schools across the city. They hope it will be in early June.

"We want to spread the word because we need to get more people involved," said Penalo.

"It's not a contract, it's an edict," Pelletier said. "It's sign it or leave."

"We don't want the teachers to leave," Berard added.

Ekmalian said she had heard that teachers in her school are applying for new jobs "everywhere."

None of the students blamed their teachers for wanting to leave the Springfield school district and said they understand if another district has a better pay scale.

The students have been calling attention to their stand by wearing black on Fridays at the Middle School. They said most of the students participate in the protest.

"We came up with 'Black Friday' to mourn the loss of the teachers," said Pelletier.

"The Finance Control Board is making a bad situation worse," he said.

The students are not pleased that members of the School Committee have approved the contract.

They expressed dismay over contract provisions including a longer school day, the changes in teacher prep time and the disappearance of extracurricular activities.

Carr noted the new contract doesn't have a provision to pay for locker checks and said that students are not going to be protected.

Currently they noted in their school there are some classrooms without enough chairs and many students must walk to school, instead of being bussed. Berard noted that she walks a mile to school.

There are no bus monitors, the students said

They also emphasized that their teachers have not been involved in organizing their activities.

"Most teachers are not speaking about it." Pelletier said. He noted that one of his teachers said she would talk about the labor dispute because she wanted him to hear both sides of the story.

"The teachers want to stay out of it," Berard said. "They don't want the blame."

The conditions of the new contract would require veteran teachers to earn a master's degree to advance on the pay scale. Penalo said that many teachers cannot afford to go back to college and she said she knows many teachers take jobs in the summer to support their families.

"No way can they go back to school. They can't afford it," she said.

"We want to spread the word because we need to get more people involved," said Penalo.

When asked if any of them would be attending a private school next year in reaction to what is happening, several raised their hands.

Pelletier said, "A lot of the teachers have said, 'We've lost hope.'" He added that the teachers have been inspired by the students' activities, though, and some have told him they intend to "stick it out."