Jim Kenyon: Community Reflections
Maybe it’s unavoidable that the Upper Valley is increasingly becoming a land of haves and have-nots. Most of the country is already there.
Still it’s tough to watch. Last week, two items in the back pages of this newspaper were reminders of the economic disparity that exists from community to community in the Upper Valley.
Item No. 1: “Hanover Student Wins National Merit Scholarship.”
Dresden School District Superintendent Frank Bass called a news conference to announce that Hanover High senior Katherine Chen, who is bound for Harvard in the fall, was the recipient of a $20,000 award from the National Merit Scholarship Corp. Chen received the private nonprofit group’s Stalnaker Memorial Scholarship, which is given each year to a finalist in the National Merit Scholar competition who plans to pursue a career in science or mathematics, and comes from a rural area.
I’m glad she won. I’m sure she’s a terrific student.
But a little perspective is needed here, too. National Merit Scholarships, which are largely funded by corporations and colleges, are promoted as a way to reward the best and the brightest. But students who attend schools in wealthy communities like Hanover, where the median family income is roughly $125,000 a year, seem to have the odds stacked in their favor.
Only students who have taken the PSAT and SAT are eligible for National Merit Scholarships. I wonder how many teens don’t sign up for the standardized tests because they can’t afford the SAT’s $50 registration fee ($14 for PSAT) and don’t feel comfortable asking for special treatment to have the fees waived. Or they find themselves at a competitive disadvantage because their parents can’t write a $1,000 check to cover the cost of a SAT prep class. This summer, The Princeton Review is offering two classes in Hanover at that price. The good news is that 725 colleges, including Bowdoin, Holy Cross and Mount Holyoke, no longer require SAT or ACT scores, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
I’m a firm believer that all college financial aid, including scholarships, should be based on a family’s ability to pay. That goes for athletic scholarships, too. The sons and daughters of millionaires shouldn’t be getting free rides because they can catch a football or head a soccer ball.
I was curious why Bass called a news conference. After all, it’s hardly news that Hanover High is filled with high achievers. But this marked the first time that a New Hampshire student had won the Stalnaker Scholarship, he said. “It’s a most prestigious honor for her, and the school,” he said.
Bass told me that he wanted to get the news out to the community to give a plug for Chen and the school. “We are a reflection of the community we serve,” Bass said.
He’s got that right. Hanover is a community that’s not bashful about flashing its wealth. In 2009, the Hanover High rowing team’s boosters needed only three weeks to raise a half million bucks in private donations to buy a riverfront clubhouse.
But enough about the influence of affluence.
The second item that caught my eye was a brief mention in the calendar section about “Teen Pregnancy Prevention Day in Claremont.”
Last Wednesday, a few blocks from Stevens High School, the parking lot of Good Beginnings of Sullivan County was turned into a street fair, of sorts.
Good Beginnings, a social service organization that works on the front lines, teamed up with Planned Parenthood and Turning Points Network to invite teens to stop by for pizza, music, games and sex talk.
Although New Hampshire has the lowest teen birth rate in the country (15 per 1,000), Sullivan County is an outlier. Its teen birth rate (32 per 1,000 in 2010,) was the highest in the state. That puts Sullivan County more in line with Mississippi than the rest of New Hampshire.
The state’s economy is in better shape than most, but in Claremont, the median family income was $47,813, or about 21/2 times less than Hanover. “There are pockets of New Hampshire that haven’t enjoyed that same prosperity as the rest of the state,” said Ellie Tsetsi, executive director at Good Beginnings in Claremont. “A big part of it is opportunity, and to be able to move yourself out of poverty in this community is very challenging.”
This year, Good Beginnings is using a $75,000 federal grant to work with teens and young mothers. Teens can earn $100 for completing the program, where they learn basics, such as how to use a condom.
“We also talk about abstinence and making choices that can have lifelong consequences,” said Willow Moryan, who is coordinating Good Beginnings’ teen pregnancy prevention effort. “But it’s not a ‘scared straight’ approach at all. Those things don’t work.”
Teen Pregnancy Prevention Day attracted about 50 students and residents. They ranged from college-bound high school seniors to teen mothers pushing baby strollers.
Some played a unique version of Jeopardy. “What is a 100 percent effective way of preventing HIV, STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and pregnancy?” asked Moryan.
“If you don’t have sex at all,” replied Stevens High student John Dunbar IV.
“What method of birth control also protects against STIs?” Moryan asked.
“I don’t know,” a girl answered.
Moryan handed her a key chain with a condom inside.
Sophia Bertocci, a guidance counselor at Stevens High, dropped by the event. She told me that for teen moms the “barrier to coming back to school is coordinating child care and paying for it.” She also pointed out that Stevens High has plenty of high-achieving students. “But that doesn’t get publicized,” she said.
Maybe Stevens High should call a news conference.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.