Monday, April 20, 2009

Help end segregation in Burlington schools... act today!

Burlington has lots of big old buildings -- the Unitarian Church, City Hall, First Congregational, Flynn Theater -- whose owners have two things in common... they're nonprofits and they each figured out years ago how to make their buildings accessible to people in wheelchairs. One landmark structure that sees hundreds of Burlingtonians through its doors daily is not on that list... Edmunds school. People with mobility impairments -- students, parents, teachers, grandparents, community members -- are effectively barred from entering.

Many people are shocked to learn that Edmunds, Vermont's most prominent public school building, does not allow children who use wheelchairs to attend. While Burlington is a wonderful place on many counts, its status as America's "most livable city" seems dubious when this thriving community center on Main Street segregates out an entire class of people. (See well-done Seven Days article.)

Decades after passage of laws promising civil rights to people with disabilities, we have a genuine opportunity to finally make Edmunds accessible to all of our children and community members. The school board needs to hear loudly and clearly from its constituents that this is a top priority. And we need to help them secure federal stimulus funds from the State of Vermont to complete this work. Please join the growing number of parents, students, educators, health professionals, community members, political leaders and advocacy groups who are working together to get this done.

***Act today... take one or more of these steps now***

1. Come to a special school board committee meeting on April 28 at 7 PM at the Ira Allen Building, 150 Colchester Ave, across from FAHC. If so inspired, please speak up at this meeting... but at the least, come, be present. We need you now.

2. Contact your two school board members and convey your opinion on this matter.

3. Request stimulus funds for "Edmunds School accessibility" from Gov. Douglas.

4. Contact your state reps. and state senators and ask for stimulus money and other support for this project.

5. Ask your friends to get informed and take these steps as well... immediately! Time's running out on the stimulus funding opportunity. Send them to this posting.

This community has invested heavily in Edmunds recently (new windows, etc.) and this beautiful old building will be part of our school system for years to come. Edmunds must be made accessible and now's the time. Federal stimulus funds can be used to accomplish this long-overdue task. But we all must act quickly and decisively if we're to have a chance. So, in addition to contacting your Burlington school board members, please contact Governor Douglas and your state legislators and request immediate funding.

Ten years ago when my wife was a teacher at Edmunds the closest a wheelchair-using parent of one her students could get to his child's classroom was outside on the sidewalk looking up. Now, years later, this serious shortcoming is staring my own family in the face. Our oldest son, Ben, is a third-grader at Champlain Elementary and relies on a wheelchair. Under current conditions, he will be denied entry to Edmunds, our neighborhood middle school, unless we get to work immediately and begin to open up this public building. It's this father's fondest wish that Ben will be in Edmunds Middle School's first truly integrated class when he and his good friends start sixth grade in 2011.

I've learned that there are other children with mobility impairments, older and younger than Ben, who are also barred entry. Teachers, parents, grandparents and other community members are also denied access. Edmunds is in use by community groups six-days/week (sports, arts, clubs, voting, etc.), so it's not just about school kids.

An adult friend who uses a wheelchair had the temerity to think she could attend a First Night event at Edmunds. She was terrified when the antiquated half-floor lift meant to serve the middle school gym broke down and blacked out, leaving her trapped. In another case, a woman with a disability arrived at Edmunds for a political rally where she was to be a featured speaker promoting equal rights, only to find she couldn't get inside the building.

And it's not just people with permanent disabilities who shoulder this burden. Injured Edmunds students who use crutches cannot attend class and spend weeks in the library or at home. With four floors and no elevator, our janitors suffer an unusually high turn-over rate, as they lug equipment, furniture, boxes, books, etc. up and down four flights of stairs. We can do better.

Federal education laws (IDEA, Section 504) were enacted four decades ago in part to make schools open to all. Then, nearly 20 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act ushered in our current era of mainstream accessibility. Regrettably, these federal civil rights laws have largely been ignored by the school district regarding Edmunds.

The Burlington schools have a couple of admirable phrases incorporated into our education system... "We all belong" and "Equity and excellence." Well, in the case of my little boy and many others, clearly we do NOT all belong... not when a whole class of children and community members are denied entry to the very building itself. This long-running avoidance of responsibility is neither equitable nor excellent.

Indeed, a father or one of my son's classmates was bewildered to learn of this situation. He responded, "I do not want my son to attend a school that segregates out an entire class of children. That's a terrible lesson to teach him. What era are we living in?"

I'm thrilled that our broader community has a chance to win this challenge... to welcome a new era of inclusiveness and equity. But it won't happen unless you and lots of people you know take the steps above by April 28. Please, take action today!

Thank you! -Michael (and a growing list of supporters!)

Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis
66 Caroline Street
Burlington, VT

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for all your requests re: creating handicapped accessibility for Edmund's School. After looking very carefully at the stimulus money,there is no money for new school construction.VT. owes $50mm in school conctruction and has suspended all new applications.
    I recommend that you call the office of Economic Stimulus . Tom Evslin at 802-828-1350. Please ask him how to write a competitive grant for the money you need. Also, perhaps you can think about bonding for this project. Sorry for the bad news.Senator Hinda Miller 318-8692