Pat Fitzgerald Talks About “Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Kids "

Students working on a clean-up project as part of the Healthy Neighborhoods/Healthy Kids project.
An Interview with Pat Fitzgerald of Champlain Elementary School.

An Interview with 4/5 Teacher Pat Fitzgerald,

with Susan Bonthron, Vermont Community Works–SSP documentation partner

Pat Fitzgerald Talks About “Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Kids
A teacher who has been at Champlain Elementary School for the past 18 years, Pat Fitzgerald is one of four teachers who work in combined 4th/5th grade classrooms. They work as a team. When I asked her how she got involved in the “Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Kids” project, she explained that one of her team members was contacted by Sarah Judd, a lawyer working as a consultant for the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. Sarah had been awarded a grant, and needed a school to work with; she had heard that teachers at Champlain Elementary School were interested in having their students work with the community. She knew about the “Legacy Card” project, in which students explored different areas of the Burlington community and found out about local businesses and interesting historic sites.

“Sarah approached Colleen Cowell, and Colleen talked to me,” explains Pat. “The two of us thought it sounded like a great topic. Every year we try to do something that has to do with the community. This project also involved children’s own neighborhoods and well-being, so we were hitting the curriculum in all fields (children, community and school). Several of our teachers have taken courses on education for sustainability—Brent Sclafani did an internship with someone in the community, and then Colleen took a course that had to do with the community, and that got them fired up—Linking Learning to Life was one of the organizations my colleagues worked with. We’ve been doing this community and sustainability education for about four years. The community has to be a current theme: These kids are our future, and they have to understand what it means to be a citizen of this earth, the responsibilities that go along with being citizens. And it’s developmentally appropriate.”

Pat continues, “We got together as a team (the 4/5s and Sarah) and started planning. We talked about it, the others agreed to do it, and Colleen and I talked to Sarah. We met every week after school, sometimes twice. We were the point people. Sarah suggested things—she had great ideas, but didn’t know the educational side of it. She knew the community. So we worked at putting the two together. It was fun to see how surprised she was at what goes on in a school, what it takes to run a school. Her interaction with all of the city committees, Parks and Recreation, the school boards, the mayor—her interaction with them was great to see. She was enthusiastic, knowledgeable about every committee and department, and she had connections to each one. She cares about the community.

“We decided to have the children visit their own neighborhoods, and look at them with a critical eye. What would you change to make this a better, healthier place for the kids and people in this neighborhood? We tried to group the kids by neighborhood. We also put some kids in groups that weren’t their neighborhoods so they could see what others’ neighborhoods were like. We have Maple, King Street, South Cove, Crescent, Shelburne Road, five sister neighborhoods... they are very diverse in social strata, and what’s available. The students walked through them on field trips. We had people come in and talk about healthy neighborhoods, and they had drawn pictures about what they looked like, their characteristics.

“The kids feel empowered. They wrote letters to people in the community they felt could help them. One of them, Mr. Goodkind, came and talked to them for over an hour. The kids had lots of questions, and he was very good. Then we zeroed in on who we had to talk to. The kids didn’t like the graffiti or the rough sidewalks. One neighborhood had a rundown building with broken windows and graffiti; another had a tractor-trailer that was abandoned, covered with graffiti and some roads that were horrific.

“The kids went to public meetings, and they were scared. Every group has now spoken in some sort of public committee, meetings of neighborhood planners, a local neighborhood celebration. They actually spoke in front of many people. They were great. They all had a part, and the final group presented at King Street Youth Center last week.

“Adults are listening,” says Pat. “We went out walking again this past Friday to make sure the project they had picked to refurbish has not already been done. One neighborhood already had their graffiti cleaned up. They had to find something else that they wanted to focus on as their project. The group I was with wanted to do graffiti removal, but didn’t find much. There is a little park that has been vandalized frequently. The park doesn’t have much for older kids to do. We sat down in the park and looked around. They had some good ideas. They wanted a 4-square spot and a basketball area to shoot hoops. And someone had already fixed a fence in the back that had a hole in it where there was a dangerous drop off—that might have been fixed because of our talk with Goodkind.

“We talked about what we wanted to do. The kids were conscious of older kids having nothing to do, and thought the older kids would enjoy the hoop. They also thought of a sign to protect the park. On Greenup day, they want to go to the park and rake it up, clean it, and plant flowers. These were their ideas. We have a couple of kids in our group who live in nicer neighborhoods, and some of the kids would talk about this poorer neighborhood, and it was great for these other kids to see and hear about what their peers had to put up with every day.”

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