A STRAIGHT NO-CHASER DIALOGUE WITH BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT STATE REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES "DON" CLEMONS, JR.
CHARLES “DON” CLEMONS, JR.
By: D.A. Sears
He represents and provides services for his constituents who reside in the 124th Connecticut General Assembly District which comprises its East End, East Side and Success areas. He is the Vice Chair of the Connecticut Legislature’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee and also serves on the Education and Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committees. He is The Honorable Charles “Don” Clemons, Jr. State Representative Clemons is passionate about education. It is a passion that is reflected in his successful quest for funding for a new charter school – Park City Prep School – a middle school for sixth, seventh and eighth graders in Bridgeport, Connecticut that is scheduled to open its doors on 1 September 2006. The new charter school will offer a curriculum that is focused on mathematics, science and technology. Clemons’ staunch support of education is also reflected in “Hockey In The Hood,” a program he created that has been implemented in the Bridgeport, Connecticut public school system. “Hockey In The Hood” is a five-year physical education program that starts at the fourth grade level in the public schools as a result of a collaboration spearheaded by State Representative Clemons between Bridgeport’s public school system, business community and sports community. Alternative educational institutions such as charter schools and life skills curriculums such as the Life Skills SolutionsTM curriculum offered by Unified Progress International Education (“UPI Education”) are, in State Representative Clemons’ view, some of the key “pieces of the puzzle” that are needed to educate our children.
So, who is State Representative Charles “Don” Clemons, Jr.? Where did he spend his formative years? Why did he decide to embark upon a career in politics?
“I was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut and grew up here in one of the city’s housing projects – Bearesley Terrace -- and went to the public elementary school here. My secondary education was in the affluent suburb of Fairfield which is an adjoining town at a parochial Catholic high school – Notre Dame High School. It was a boys and girls high school and I matriculated there on, I guess, a challenge. In eighth grade I was chosen for it due to the fact that there was a campaign initiated by the Diocese of the City of Bridgeport in Fairfield County to attract, at the time, minorities. Now, I don’t use that term -- ‘minorities’ -- for two reasons. For one, in Bridgeport, ‘people of color’ are not the minority anymore, and two, I always have used the term ‘people of color’. They were looking to attract more minority students and I overheard a representative from Notre Dame High School talking to the principal of the school at the time that they were looking to have an entrance level examination for at least eighth grade classes which consisted of two classrooms and in particular they were looking to see if minority students could achieve or pass this exam for possible admission into this catholic high school. I heard the principal say ‘Well, I don’t know if we have too many, if any, colored children that could pass, but you are more than welcome.’ So, as I was walking to my next class, I started thinking, ‘Well, if they come around, I will sign up.’ And that’s what happened. A few weeks later, I took the exam and I passed the exam. This was 1966 and that’s how I came to attend Notre Dame High School. It was a tumultuous period in the country. So, for my four years at the high school -- it was kind of tough. For the first two years I did want to be in that setting. And for the last two years I didn’t want to be in that setting. I wanted to be transferred to a public school with my friends with whom I grew up in the projects. At the time, my mother said ‘No’, but my father said ‘Okay’ because my father wanted me to participate in sports and I was not getting that opportunity at Notre Dame High School. I was better at sports than the Caucasian kids who I grew up with but they got the opportunities to play sports before me, so that was what created the alienation for me for the last two years and the reason for my not wanting to attend that school. But, I stayed because of the consternation that it created between my parents. In order to keep the peace, I stayed there. So, I graduated in 1970 and within that four year period there were a lot of things that I could talk about that occurred, but it’s a story within itself. I endured every racial epithet that you could think of. And it was even sprawled and written on my locker. So, I had to learn to develop a lot of tolerance and at the same time I had to go to blows. I had some incidents and altercations. And in most instances, I did come out on the winning side although I was not physically developed and big at that time. Funny, I ended up being physically above average. But at that time, I wasn’t. Within that four year period, the school segregated itself – it split. We were coed during my first year. In my sophomore year, they segregated the high school. The boys went to one building and the girls went to another. So it ended up being that I graduated from Notre Dame Boys High School. So, in my freshman class there were twelve African Americans. By the time I graduated four years later, it was narrowed down to only two. And then I wanted to go to a historically Black college. At that time, my aunt taught at Florida A&M. For more than thirty years, she was an educator in the Math Department at Florida A&M. My sister attended St. Augustine College in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is five years older than me. I used to go visit her when we used to take her to college and I started looking at historically Black colleges. So in 1970, I got accepted to Florida A&M. I did one year there which I regret, but it was, as I look back now, a year that was really enlightening. It was something that I have never forgotten. And I have always stayed in touch with Black colleges even though I left there and came back to Bridgeport and went to a community college called Housatonic Community College. And I did that for two years. In the meantime, I started getting involved in professional athletics and I was offered a baseball contract with the Atlanta Braves in 1972. I turned that down because I was thinking in terms of basketball because I was playing for a junior college and we were one of the best in New England. But, ultimately, that didn’t pan out. And after doing two years at the junior college, I received a four-year scholarship which helped me to continue my athletic career and then I got into football. I played semi-pro football for the Bridgeport Jets in 1974. The Bridgeport Jets was a subsidiary of the New York Jets. And in 1976, I got invited to a free agency camp for the Washington Redskins and then after trying out there, I got cut. In the meantime, for those two years between 1974 and 1976 while trying to make it in football, I was also taking tests for the Bridgeport, Connecticut Fire Department and Police Department and for a State Trooper position just in case my football career didn’t pan out. And my football career didn’t pan out. It should have, but I didn’t get the opportunities that I should have gotten. So I came back to Bridgeport, Connecticut after getting cut from the Redskins and I took the Bridgeport Fire Department examination and for that examination we trained for two months and studied. And when we took the test, the psychological part of that examination was not anything that we had trained for when we studied for the examination. So, a few of us got together and we become litigants in a class action lawsuit against the City of Bridgeport for discriminatory practices in hiring. The incentive for my wanting to become a fireman was my uncle who was the first Black fireman in Bridgeport and that was a story within itself. He took the first Civil Service Examination that the City of Bridgeport gave in 1936 for the Police Department and came out number one, but the City of Bridgeport at the time said that it would not give a colored man a nightstick and a gun to patrol the streets of Bridgeport. So, two years went by and a lot of friends -- white friends -- that he grew up with who were working in the City Administration asked him if he would accept a position in the City’s Fire Department, which he did. And he was the first Black fireman in the City of Bridgeport. There is some possibility that he was the first Black fireman in the State of Connecticut. So, he was, indeed, a driving force and inspiration. He told me: ‘Look, you need employment. You need something with benefits and this will provide that.’ He encouraged me to take the examination. He ended up doing thirty years in the Fire Department. He retired in 1968 and had ascended to the rank of Captain. So we have a long history as a family here in Bridgeport. My mother’s parents – my grandparents -- migrated to Bridgeport in the 1890s from Hillsboro, North Carolina. Now getting back to the class action lawsuit against the City of Bridgeport – it was a nine-year court battle. Finally, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1984 in our favor. Yes, my case was a federal case. This case, I guess, set a precedent for a lot of other discriminatory cases because in talking to a lot of young people that have embarked upon a law career I find that they are really familiar with the case. So this was a historic case and it took a nine year battle to win it. But within those nine years, the City knew, I guess, that they were going to lose. So they started to trickle individuals on the list of minorities that took that test into the Fire Department. They put a few of us on the job starting in 1978, but only a few – only two. And the next group was in 1981 and one in which I was one of five. It was a group of Black and Hispanic men. At the time no women were a part of the group. They tried to appease us by putting a few of us in the Fire Department, thinking that we would drop the lawsuit. But we didn’t. And ultimately in July 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that the City was discriminatory and that the City was required to not only hire every minority that took that examination, but even those who did not pass according to the City’s scale – or criteria. If they signed their names and said that they had taken that test in 1975, they got the job – they were awarded the job. They were awarded back pay and they were awarded the seniority that they had when they were supposed to go on the job as a result of taking the test. So, my retroactive date went back to 1976 and we were under the old plan where you do twenty years and you are out. So, when I went to work at the Fire Department in 1981, I was able to get credit for those four years. I ended up ascending to the rank of Provisional Lieutenant. And I ended up retiring in April of 1999. I was able to help take care of my parents whose health were debilitating due to age. So, for the whole year, I devoted my efforts to taking care of my mother and father. And then in 2000, I was thrust into politics by becoming the City Councilman for the East Side District of the City of Bridgeport. I was one of seven candidates that was looking to replace the Alderwoman who passed away. Ultimately, I was chosen in a Special Election and I finished her term – one term – and then I ran for re-election and won another two-year term. Then in May of 2003, I tried to seek a higher office for State Representative. I won that election and that is the position that I am in now. I am running for re-election for a second full term for State Representative in November 2006. In November 2005, I ran for a vacant Senate seat in a six-candidate race. I thought I should have won. I was thinking that I was winning, but I came in second out of the six candidates and I did not have to resign my seat as State Representative, so that was good. It gave me an opportunity to spread my name a little more and get a little more experience. I learned a lot more. I think it worked out pretty good because during my nomination for re-election this Spring – in May – I was not challenged. I have somewhat of a free shot so I don’t have to campaign. And I have been blessed during the past six years to pass one piece of historic legislation during my tenure as a City Councilman – I placed a moratorium on the Fire Department examination. And I introduced residency preference points for City residents for any Civil Service competitive examination -- not just for the Fire Department, but for the Police Department, the Sanitation Department, Public Works – any position that the City of Bridgeport offers now. If you, as an applicant, can show that you are a resident or have a domicile for at least one year in the City of Bridgeport, you will receive an added 10% to your final score upon passing a certain set of points. So, the theory behind this is to have our residents regain the City jobs that they have lost over the years to folks from outside. And also to create safer streets – when you know that you have policemen and firemen living on a street, your community becomes safer because folks that are looking to commit illegal or illicit activities will be more cognizant of the fact that the community’s residents are policemen or firemen and probably will not engage in illegal or illicit activities in that community. Also, but maybe not in the short term, this will begin to not only put pride and safety back into the community, but will also result in having the revenue – tax dollars -- being spent here in the City as opposed to in another community,” State Representative Clemons responded.
I noted that during State Representative Clemons’ tenure as a state legislator for the City of Bridgeport, he has been and continues to be a staunch supporter of education in general, and of charter schools, in particular. When I asked him why he was so passionate about education, he offered the following:
“Well, we know that our public school system – not just here in Bridgeport, Connecticut – but systemically across the nation – in our urban centers, in most instances, are failing our children and we know why this is occurring. Some of the reason that the public school systems are failing our children is due to the curriculum and social and economic situations. So, I have looked at our system here and in New Haven and have also looked at some data – statistics. As a result, Bridgeport has two charter schools that I was able to get allocations for– and I have been able to acquire allocations for a third charter school. So, I saw from the data or statistics that where charter schools were prevalent, our children’s academic achievements increased. I think that is due to the fact that there are smaller classrooms in charter schools and there are teachers who are more attentive and understanding who can reach the children. Within my family I have educators – my sister is a secondary high school teacher in Bridgeport and she has thirty years of teaching under her belt. My son has eight years of teaching under his belt in the elementary education field in the Bridgeport, Connecticut public schools. And he is a basketball coach for one of the high schools. And my daughter has two years of teaching under her belt in elementary education and she is a third grade teacher. And just to throw this in, my father retired from the Board of Education. He was the first Black custodian to work for the City of Bridgeport when he got out of the war. My family – my immediate family -- is in the public education system. So it was a passion for me. As a City Councilman, I was on the Education Committee and when I became a State Representative I asked to be on the State Board of Education Committee for the State. So, with that said, I was able to, over the last several years, acquire funding for a new charter school here in Bridgeport that will open on September 1, 2006 and it is called Park City Prep School. It is a middle school for sixth, seventh and eighth graders and its focus will be on mathematics, science and technology. And a few years back, I initiated a program in the public schools called ‘Hockey In The Hood.’ It is a physical education program starting at the fourth grade level. It is a five year program which has been embraced by the Board of Education as a part of its curriculum and a collaborative effort, which I helped to orchestrate with the owners of the hockey ice skating rink, the business community and a local semi-pro hockey team – The Bridgeport Sound Tigers American Hockey League Team. With the help of the Board of Education, the business community and with the help of the local hockey team – The Bridgeport Sound Tigers American Hockey League Team – who have agreed to be instructors, we have started a five-year program which teaches children – boys and girls – the fundamental art of skating. By the time they become a freshman in high school – in the ninth grade -- they will be able to learn how to play hockey. The program, I believe, is in its third or fourth year and is being very well received by the community. On the weekends, the parents can come to the skating rink and skate with their children. So, it gives both parents and their children an outlet to do something different together that they would not ordinarily have an opportunity to do as a family. This is one program that I was able to create and have incorporated in the schools from an educational aspect.”
So, is State Representative Clemons saying that alternative educational institutions and curriculums are needed to educate our children?
“Yes, I am saying that alternative educational institutions and curriculums are needed to educate our children. It is what we need. And what we also need are teachers who are committed. When I say committed, I mean teachers that go above and beyond the call of duty to educate our children. When I was in grammar school there was a different dichotomy. Education was first and foremost. It was paramount. Over the years, we have created an achievement gap. I think we have created a lowering of expectations in terms of achievement and one of the things that has contributed to the achievement gap is discipline and our children’s lack discipline when it comes to education as well as life skills management. So, we have teachers who in my formidable years and probably in yours as well – who were synonymous with home. You respected your home and you respected your school. And everyone at home knew what was going on in school and the school knew what was going on in the home. Why? Because the teachers lived in the community. You see, our teachers don’t live in our communities now. They get shipped in. When they started busing back in the sixties even though I was young, I was from the ‘old school of thinking’ -- where you had the neighborhood concept of school. We used to go to school, come home for lunch and go back to school. At ten years old, both of my parents were working, but I was responsible and disciplined enough to know that when they let us out from school for lunch at quarter to twelve, I had to be back at school at quarter to one. My parents gave me a key. Now they call them ‘latch key kids.’ We certainly didn’t know anything about that back then. So, has the moral fiber of our communities broken down? Yes. I think the church community also needs to do a lot in our urban areas. Some churches are taking a lead now in trying to bring back some semblance of moral fiber to our communities. But there needs to be more of it. Everybody talks about the separation of church and state, but to me the church was the embodiment of everything in our community. Everything stemmed from your church and your spiritual affiliation. I think that there has to be a regaining of a relationship between the home – whatever the home is – and I’m not going to mention what the definition of a home is, even though we do disproportionately have households without two parents – and the schools and the churches. But you know what? We talk about how it takes a village to raise children, well, we have to really ‘walk the walk’. So, whatever home is – whether you are being raised by grandparents – and in most instances, we have grandparents that are raising second generations of children. So, Grandmom and Grandpop are tired. Our Baby Boomers -- and I’m in that population – are not physically around. Many of us are incarcerated or in what I call a ‘walking zombie’ state. So, I mean there are a lot of social ills that come into play. Whatever home is, you have to be involved. Whether you are being raised by an aunt, an uncle – and I did a composite study about five years ago at my former grammar school and learned that out of 735 odd students – that’s one-sixth of the student population were under foster care– one hundred and thirty-some kids were coming from homes with no parents. So, we have a problem and I think that charter schools can help solve the problem. And I say that when I speak at public schools in front of public school educators and administrators. Some may say that it’s a slap in the face to talk about the failure of the public schools. I think that maybe it’s a wake-up call. But we can work together and I think we have to approach our public schools differently. We have to change the curriculum. Curriculums are antiquated. So, we have to test our children and find out what they are proficient in and almost craft a course or curriculum that fits the children’s level of proficiency and the subject matters or subject areas that they are proficient in to accentuate that. Schools have to become fun again to kids. You have kids that are scared to go to school. Kids that go to school now are worried about how they look. ‘Do I have the right clothes?’ ‘I have to wear designer apparel.’ They are obsessed with material things – they are obsessed with things that have nothing to do with them getting an education. Then you have teachers – and I can understand some of the teachers and I empathize with some of them -- that say ‘We are here to teach and not to discipline.’ But again, the teachers that are in the public schools -- where are their kids going to school? So, there is something wrong with the picture. If the school is good enough for you to teach at and collect a paycheck from, then how come it’s not good enough for your kids to matriculate there? They go to either suburban public schools or parochial schools. So, where is the message here? What are you saying? Are you saying: ‘Do as I say and not do as I do?’ So, we have to be a catalyst to try to recapture some of those fundamental skills that should have been taught to our children,” he replied with unflinching honesty.
I asked State Representative Clemons to talk about the help that he would need from his constituents and from other segments of the community in an effort to gain support for more charter schools and for more life skills curriculums such as the Life Skills SolutionsTM curriculum that is offered by Unified Progress International Education (“UPI Education”) to students enrolled in its curriculum in New Haven, Connecticut. What would make his job easier?
“Well, I think, as a matter of fact, that you are giving me an opportunity as well as the folks at UPI Education to get the word out about the need for more charter schools and for life skills curriculums so that I can let my constituents and the general public know that there is a vehicle that can help us here. I think that the responsibility for creating and supporting charter schools and life skills curriculums should not be shouldered by one group of people. But I think that people can be the ‘catalyst’ -- again I think I have to use the word ‘catalyst’ – for creating support for more charter schools and life skills curriculums such as the Life Skills SolutionsTM curriculum offered by UPI Education in New Haven. I think that just being able to get the message across to people that there are decent schools around is a great help. You know, there was a lottery event held two weeks which facilitated the acceptance of applications to new charter schools. There were 176 slots available and I think there were over close to 500 people – parents and children – applying for the lottery to fill out applications to get into the new charter schools. So, I think that increased publicity and good results would go a long way in generating support for charter skills and life skills curriculums. The best lobbying and endorsements comes from ‘word of mouth’. If you go to a restaurant and you enjoy the food, you are going to recommend the restaurants to others. I think the participation of the students and parents that are going to be involved in the charter schools and hopefully the success of the schools themselves will lead to more support for the charter schools. And here in Connecticut – in New Haven, in particular – I think all of the New Haven schools are either charter schools or magnet schools. So that is why you see a difference here in Connecticut. Now, I don’t know about other states, but I do know that here, in Connecticut – especially in New Haven, because that is where UPI is really entrenched -- out here we are seeing a difference. Charter skills and life skills curriculums seem to work, but we have to open the eyes of the superintendents and the administrators. You see, a lot of times they view alternative educational institutions and alternative curriculums as an adversarial program because it might expose some of the areas that they are lacking in. That is what I have been confronted with in Bridgeport. So, the question is: How can I convince . . . how can I persuade . . . how can I encourage the administrators and the educators here in Bridgeport? I believe the way to do that is by getting the funding for Park City Prep School and hopefully integrating the UPI program into it. Once that is done, it will open the eyes of the community at large. And the circulation of your publication here in Connecticut or the opportunity of having your publication circulated here in Connecticut may help.”
What has to happen to facilitate the implementation of successful alternative curriculums such as life skills curriculums in school systems? Will it take a grassroots movement?
“Yes, it will take a grassroots movement. The pressure has to come from the grassroots – from the people – from the churches. Again, the churches have to – and I’m not trying to be critical – but I think that the churches have to play an important role. And a lot of churches are playing a role. My church is playing a role. I go to the largest African American church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. We have a lot of what they now call ‘ministries’ – or ministerial components. We do have a lot of ministerial components in the church. For instance, I was a chaperone a few years ago and took kids on a college tour – to the University of Florida, the University of Jacksonville and to Florida A&M, too. There has to be what I talked about earlier -- a forging of relationships, as it was in the beginning --- between the home, the school and the church,” says State Representative Clemons.
And what does the future hold for State Representative Clemons?
”Well, I hope for God’s blessings first in terms of verticality,” State Representative Clemons responded with a chuckle. “I’ve been going through a lot, personally. In the midst of my politics and my church devotion, I have had to cope with a physical condition. I had back surgery a year ago and I’m still recuperating. I waited to have surgery and as a result, I did more damage to my nervous system. I was partially paralyzed until April or May in 2005, I was between a wheel chair, a walker and a cane. How I felt depended on what equipment I was using. If I felt bad and couldn’t move, I was in the wheel chair. If I felt ‘semi-bad’, I was using the walker and when I was limping I was using my cane. But I was making it – in spite of my condition. So, for the next four or five years, I hope to still be in the political arena. I may have an opportunity to – some people have mentioned my name as being a candidate for other elective offices. I haven’t mentioned my candidacy for another elective office, because you don’t want to pull the cart before the horse in politics. In politics, you have to know when and what to say around who and at what time. But I will say this -- there is a renaissance -- a metamorphosis that is taking place in Bridgeport in terms of the political landscape. And there could be a political opportunity for advancing or moving into another position -- whether the position is a mayoral position or a senatorial position. There are going to be some opportunities that will arise possibly within the next year or year and-a-half and I am going to have to make some decisions.”
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