Columbus Parents Step Up

Allan Appel PhotoWhen Claudia Herrera and other neighbors and parents at the Christopher Columbus Family Academy decided to organize a fall clean-up, they encountered more than litter and leaves.

A discarded needle turned up Saturday morning as Herrera, Columbus School Principal Dr. Abby Benitez, and a dozen parents and their kids marshaled gloves, rakes, and bags to clean up the school’s main entryway. Their focus was also the broad and windy corner at Grand and Blatchley as well as the plaza in front of the school’s main facade, with its rectangle of shaggy litter-catching grass, stretching east along Grand Avenue.

It was the inaugural event of an “adopt-a-corner” project. Benitez hopes the project will involve her parents and neighbors in maintaining the Blatchley-Grand corner of the school and the plaza with more cleanliness and security.

“We’ve been concerned with garbage flying into the entrance way ,” Benitez said.

The needle, which surfaced behind the school’s main sign at the corner to be adopted, indicated that the issues to be addressed may begin at litter but include crime prevention.

Herrera looked up from the needle and noticed there are no lights to illuminate the area behind the sign. That offers a good hiding place for a drug user or sleeping place for the homeless.

Benitez said that “Edita [Solano, one of her parents] is always in my office. She’s making me very conscious we have a beautiful building [inside], it could be better [outside].

Solano, who has a second and a third-grader at the school, said “vagancia” in particular bothers her: people loitering and drinking at the corner of Blatchley and Grand.

“Her kids are afraid and ask: ‘Why do the people look like that?’” said Benitez.

As to the garbage, custodians at the school clean only within ten feet of the entrance, said Benitez. That’s not quite enough. A lot of trash is created —and let fly—at Blatchley and Grand, part of the commercial heart of Fair Haven. Some help is provided by a clean up crew of the Grand Avenue Special Services District. Benitez said a special effort is needed at the entrance to the school.

Is it a principal’s job to clean up with rake, bag, and gloves? Absolutely, Benitez answered, regardless of whether it’s in her job description: “I need to make sure my kids arrive at a beautiful school they are proud of.”

The challenge: How to organize the effort, especially among hard-working parents who are often on their jobs on the weekend.

Enter Claudia Herrera, who for six years has been working with Urban Resources Initiative and Livable City Initiative to plant plum and cherry trees and improve her neighborhood on and near Castle Street.

Several Columbus School parents approached her; she was eager to spread the gospel of how a handful of people dedicated to beautification can also contribute to more security as well. Thus was born the partnership between Herrera and Benitez.

Saturday morning, as parents and kids separated out garbage and then raked and filled up eight large bags of fallen leaves, URI’s Chris Ozyck and Chatham Square Neighborhood Association‘s Lee Cruz briefed Benitez on potential small but meaningful steps: For example, place a couple of more garbage cans around the corner and plaza.

The corner at Fillmore, which has a trash can, is less littered than Blatchley. Cruz advised her how to proceed with the Department of Public Works to get another can at least by the bus stop.

As to the plaza, Ozyck called its maintenance a “grey area” that falls between the city and the Board of Ed. He suggested if the grass were cut more frequently by Board of Ed crews, when the leaves blow, they’d accumulate in a corner and not get stuck along with discarded litter in the blades of grass. “These little attentions to detail” make a difference, he said.

In the spring Ozyck plans to work with Benitez and Columbus parents to plant and beautify the plaza.

In the meantime, Herrera and Benitez are organizing what they hope will be at least twice-a-month clean-ups to involve more parents, other neighbors, and merchants to adopt the other three corners of the school.

Benitez was pleased with Saturday’s turnout although she doubts it can happen every week. “Most of my parents work on Saturdays,” she explained.

“It’s important for the school to be clean [on the outside]. It reflects inside,” said Maribel Ostorba. Then she held open a large garbage bag as her kindergartener son Andy dropped in a clump of leaves.


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posted by: robn on November 19, 2012  12:20pm

Seeing the DPW bags makes me think that I’d rather buy leaf bags from the city and put some money back into our own pockets, than put money in the pockets of Home Depot or Lowes. Is this possible?

posted by: anonymous on November 19, 2012  12:38pm

Great to see the parents and community members out like this.

Unfortunately, with all the money spent on the new buildings, there’s very little left now to keep the outsides of them clean.  The new schools are always surrounded by litter and trash - making them incredibly unappealing to people who (unlike any of the NHPS administrators) actually live in the city.

Instead of reducing unemployment with a “jobs pipeline” for a few people, and paying for more ed consultants, why don’t we spend those millions of dollars instead on re-hiring all the parks & DPW workers who were laid off a few years ago? 

What is the use of a jobs pipeline when policy is to lay off all the employees who lived in New Haven, and keep hiring more of the high-paid people from far out suburbs?

posted by: Claudia Herrera on November 19, 2012  3:09pm

There are a lot of reasons of why the community can make a little extra effort to support school parents especially those schools that are in the low income neighborhoods, where the hang out, trash and crime seems to be part of these children’s everyday lives.  For now I will mention two.
1.  Awareness, the community needs to step out of “my area of care and responsibility” mentality. When you say my home, my school, my corner, it closed a small circle.  When we say our schools, our homes and our corners we are making a community and a unification of interests.
2. Crime prevention, with small action like community clean ups, we don’t need money for events or non-profit association organized for you what you can do yourself.  LOOK UP FOR EACHOTHER. We live one next to each other and trust me barrier language has absolutely nothing to do with engage and talk with your neighbors, because when we are working we talked about families values, culture, food and we focus in solutions.

This project “Adopt a Corner” can be done in one hour.

posted by: Claudia Herrera on November 19, 2012  3:31pm

What do you mean with"buy leaf bags from the city and put some money back into our own pockets”?

posted by: Joe Rodriguez on November 19, 2012  11:06pm

I was very happy to see the recognition that Abie Benitez and her school community received for their beautification efforts, but I had to smile when I saw the question: “Is it a principal’s job to clean up with rake, bag, and gloves?”

I smiled because I had the pleasure of working in an advisory role to Dr. Benitez and her staff for nearly three years, and so the answer to me was obvious. First of all, being principal of Columbus Family Academy is not merely a job for this principal.  Second, she is committed to doing whatever she must to provide the best environment for her students to learn, and that includes maintaining a safe and attractive campus - both inside and outside the school building.  No, cleaning the grounds is not part of her job description, but it did not surprise me at all to see the photograph of her doing exactly that. 

I have had a very long career in urban public education, and I have met some inspiring individuals, whose commitment to their roles in meeting the needs of the school’s children should be a point of pride for the community.  I was so impressed by the level of commitment of the principal, her assistant principal, her teachers and support staff, her instructional coaches, her secretary, her custodian and so many others. 

Columbus has more than a beautiful building; it also has beautiful and caring people to meet the academic, safety and emotional needs of the students. Columbus family, I am proud to have worked with you.

posted by: swatty on November 20, 2012  12:05am

Yes! Where can buy those bags? I’d suggest $1.50 for 5 as HD and L charge $1.77 for 5.

Great Idea!

posted by: Claudia Herrera on November 20, 2012  12:32am

Joe that is why this school deserve so much support from the community, She really cares for the success of these children. And just by doing her job with love say more than enough. Especially like you said very well they are caring people that listen to the parents worries and help them.

posted by: Claudia Herrera on November 20, 2012  9:13am


The reason I asked (robn) was because, we Do NOT buy these bags.
City Hall LCI( Livable Initiative Initiative) provided them for you when you make community clean ups along with the rakes and they also schedule a pick up trash.