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Staples students protest funding cut for peer advisor program

Published 9:26 am, Monday, June 27, 2011
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A longstanding Staples High School extracurricular program faces an uncertain future after missing out on funding from the recently approved 2011-12 education budget.

Led by Westport-based therapist Michael Newman, the Peer Advisors Program trains students to advise and help other young people dealing with problems such as substance abuse, eating disorders and depression.

The program also serves as a forum for participants to discuss personal issues and provide advice both in and out of school. Staples peer advisors have also recently spoken to eighth-grade students at Bedford Middle School about topics such as substance abuse, and hosted panel discussions with Westport parent teacher associations on risky youth behavior.

"What we really hope is that people who are in the program have a better understanding of themselves, of issues and resources," Newman said. "They also learn where people can go to get help and how to offer advice to other people who are struggling."

For the first 14 years of its 15-year history, the Board of Education and United Way funded the program. Peer Advisors costs about $30,000 to run each year, according to Newman, with the majority of funding paying for his services. Following the merger of the Westport-Weston and Bridgeport United Ways, however, that agency did not renew its financial support for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

"There was no follow-up follow-up at all," Newman said. "United Way did not visit, did not call, did not speak to me. We were totally ignored."

Despite the funding hit, Newman decided to organize the program for about 100 students this year by working for half-pay. The school board contributed about $17,000 to the program this year, according to Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon.

While the Board of Education last month approved a 2011-12 operating budget of $98 million that increases spending 2 percent over the current year, Landon said finite financial resources necessitated cutting funding for some programs.

"This year we had to make choices -- whether we keep freshman sports, or do we keep that program," he said of Peer Advisors. "In the context of that, we spoke with him [Newman] and said that we're not going to fund it."

Staples Principal John Dodig said he supports Landon's position.

"This program, while involving SHS students, is not a part of our overall program," he said in an email. "I supported the decision to cut the program rather than cutting a sport or an art program."

Others, however, appear to differ with Landon and Dodig.

More than 260 people have signed an online petition started by junior Nicolette Weinbaum, which seeks to restore funding for Peer Advisors in the 2011-12 academic year. She has also started a Facebook group, "Keep Peer Advisors Alive," which had approximately 100 members at press time.

"We get so much accomplished emotionally, verbally, critically and in every form you can think of," Weinbaum said. "I don't see the benefits of cutting it. I only see a downside."

Landon and Board of Education Chairman Don O'Day did not respond by press time to emails asking their reaction to the online petition.

Without school board funding, however, Newman maintains that the Peer Advisors Program would still return next year.

"I'm really exploring options. There have been a number of parents who have offered financial support," he said. "We will come up with a way to make this work without Staples' support."