Innovation, volunteerism alive and well in New London

New London -- It felt somewhat counterintuitive to think that this, a fieldhouse with a bunch of kids running around, was a snippet of this country's educational future.

But with taxpayers, in all their grand, self-congratulatory dismay, hacking budgets and refusing to fulfill their responsibilities, schools and school systems are left to pursue the concepts of innovation and volunteerism to teach and reach kids.

And here in New London, inside Luce Fieldhouse at Connecticut College, innovation, volunteerism and some inspiring esprit de corps happen every Wednesday and Friday for roughly 40 students at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.

The program, a collaboration between the two schools, is called K.B.A. (Kids, Books and Athletics), running in its eighth year. Sixty Conn students, the Office of Volunteers for Community Service, Outreach and Student Programs Coordinator Jess LeClair and strength and conditioning coach William Wuyke, among others, volunteer their time to educate the middle schoolers through physical fitness, problem solving, group dynamics, proper nutrition and academic accomplishment.

It's hard to overstate the significance of donating time, especially now when most of us walk around busier than Penn Station. But then it's equally difficult to overstate the significance of middle school kids interacting on a college campus with college kids, perhaps seeing themselves in the same place in a few years.

"We wanted to show the kids that this is something you can aspire to," said Ed Sweeney, a physical education teacher at Bennie Dover, whose students sign a contract that compels them to adhere to behavioral and academic standards to participate in the program. "They're seeing college kids, seeing them volunteer their time and showing them they can do the same thing when they get to that age."

Some classes at Conn require students to volunteer their time. Others don't. But a funny thing happened on the way to fulfilling a requirement.

"They are really nice to us," Bennie Dover student Gretchen Greene said. "They keep track of us. They really care how we're doing when we're not here. We even get texts from them so they don't lose track of us."

Bennie Dover students, in addition to understanding the necessity of physical fitness, have been exposed to various varsity sports on campus through clinics given by Conn athletes.

"College students and middle school students don't always mingle," LeClair said.

There's mingling and then there's engaging in the vagaries of problem solving and conflict resolution that sports generate. And it's done through the eyes and experiences of college students.

"We get to interact with all the sports teams and we see what sports we might like," Greene said. "People like to get out of school and we get to do a lot of things that are fun."

Remember this one and write it down: If you think that all learning in school comes in the classroom, you need to emerge from your basement and get a little sun.

Perhaps you saw the story in The Day earlier this week about how a loss of stimulus funds will further imperil education budgets in the region:

"We are facing a financial tsunami," Ledyard Superintendent of Schools Michael Graner said.

Given the facts - nobody anywhere will accept the responsibility of educating our kids - programs like "KBA" aren't merely stories you read in the paper and think, "Gee, that's nice." They're a necessity. Every town needs something like this. This one happens to be tied to fitness. But people can volunteer their time to help kids in scores and scores of other endeavors.

Here is the truth you might not like: If you perpetuate the double whammy of voting down education budgets and do not volunteer your time, you need a refresher on what living in a community is all about. And if you need one, you should pop in at Conn on Wednesday and Friday afternoons.

It's just about the best of New London.

And certainly a New London that is preferred over the one that bickers over Fort Trumbull ... or the latest cause celebre of the condition of seats in the high school auditorium. (Honest.)

Bully for Conn and Bennie Dover. Innovation and volunteerism. The future at work.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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