This article first appeared in the North Haven Courier and wonHonorable Mention for Excellence In Journalism in the 2009 Awards Competition sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, Connecticut Chapter.
June Pinto: The Joy of Saving At-Risk Kids
By Jason J. Marchi, Courier Correspondent
From 7:45 a.m. until 1:15 p.m. each school day, a group of 15 at-risk high school students (ranging in ages from 14 to 18) spends its classroom time in the nurturing environment of an alternate educational setting called the TOW (short for "The Other Way") school. The school is a safe haven where the students can learn and excel at their own pace without the competitive clamor of the regular high school environment.
They have this quiet place-tucked behind the North Haven High School (NHHS) campus-thanks to teachers like June Pinto who feel that every student, no matter what his or her personal challenge to learning may be, has the right to a full high school education, not to mention a happy and successful life.
If you stop and think that during the average human lifespan a person will spend some 60 years as an adult-as compared to just 12 as a child and seven as a teenager-you realize that in order for an adult to live those numerous decades happily and successfully, the foundation set during one's youth must be strong and proper.
June Pinto has lived with this understanding for the 30 years she's worked as a high school teacher, 28 of those at NHHS-and during her career she's always found a way to work with at-risk youth while handling her basic role as a teacher certified in both English and history.
Yet, during June's career, she admits, "I've never taught above-average kids. If a kid had a serious problem they would move him into my classroom" and she welcomed the challenge.
Long before there was a formalized alternative program to help at-risk youth, June took it upon herself to spend the next 15 years staying after school from 2:30 to 5 p.m. to keep these kids from slipping through the cracks.
"I've been fighting for an alternate school for years," June explains. "I took every course I could on youth at-risk hoping that one day I would end my career as a director of an alternative school."
That wish came true when June was handed the reins of the TOW school at the start of the 2009-2010 school year.
June's predecessor made early strides in bringing structure to the program that started three years ago as a special education school, but it was June's energy and enthusiasm that provided the next most important step to building a school tailored specifically toward helping those students lacking in social graces and facing individualized study or learning challenges.
"This program is not a dumping ground," June points out. "This is a school where kids who have trouble can succeed through a different approach to learning. We build character [in addition to] academics. And we hope to catch those kids who, for one reason or another, are being shortchanged when it comes to people believing in them and inspiring them to reach for a better life."
In less than a year, the program has made such significant strides in the lives of the students accepted into the school (yes, students must apply to enter) that Superintendent of Schools Sara-Jane Querfeld has fielded calls from pleased parents wanting to know more about the TOW school. Querfeld has told June and her staff, "You're saving kids," which is music to June's ears.
"It's wonderful getting up in the morning. We love these kids and even on our worst day I never go home saying this isn't the career for me," June says, adding, "This is where I want to be."