Directing dreams at Naugatuck High

Justin Zeigler, the new dream director at Naugatuck High School, talks with students during lunch Tuesday at the school. -LARAINE WESCHLER/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — As teens streamed through the halls on Tuesday, Justin Zeigler handed out high-fives, Mardi Gras beads and granola bars.

At lunch, he blasted pop music from his “party cart” and chatted with students about the first day of school, their passions, dreams and ambitions.

It’s all part of the job for Naugatuck High School’s new “dream director.”

The position is part of the Future Project, a nonprofit which, according to its website, “works with schools to unlock the limitless potential of every young person.” It is funded by the Dalio Foundation and not costing Naugatuck Schools anything.

The Future Project has found that 70 percent of young people say they are uninspired and unmotivated and half say they are not hopeful about their futures. Only 55 percent of students are engaged in learning at school.

Zeigler said his mission is to “help students build lives that they love and a world to match” through mentorship, workshops and by creating a “culture of joy” at the school.

Throughout the year, Zeigler will coach students to create projects that match their passions, whether that be sneakers, cars or theater.

The Future Project works in 50 schools in 11 cities across the country, including New Haven and Norwalk. Naugatuck is the first quasi-urban school to partner with the project. Of Naugatuck High’s 1,200 students, about half qualify for free and reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty. The school population is roughly 60 percent white, a higher percentage than most of the Future Project’s other schools.

Zeigler said he plans on getting to know the school and its students before recruiting student leaders to help design a program, but students are already sharing their ideas with him.

One student came to him on the first day of school to help her find ways to help the graduating class grow closer to one another, Zeigler said.

Sophomore Beatriz Giancante said Zeigler made her first day of school “awesome” when he visited her biology class.

“He really connected the class more so now we know each other better,” Giancante said.

In other districts, the Future Project has helped students organize fashion and art shows, publish their writing, run poetry slams, and learn how to code.

“We really seek to find students where their passionate and open that up to the world a little bit,” Zeigler said.

Since he’s not teaching any formal class, Zeigler has the time to dedicate to students’ and teachers’ interests that other teachers don’t have.

He said he wants students to view Naugatuck High as a place where they’re safe, welcome and cared for, no matter what else is going on in their lives.

“This should be a place where students wake up and want to go to school.”

Zeigler, who grew up in rural Iowa, earned his bachelor’s degree in theater and dance and his masters of divinity. He worked as a pastor in a church in Chicago and for several non-profits before moving to Connecticut with his husband, who works at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Zeigler said his upbringing on the farm worked by his great-great-grandfather taught him to value his community. His work at Naugatuck High School is not religious.

Superintendent of Schools Sharon Locke said she hopes Zeigler’s work will help empower students who have fallen through the cracks to share their voices and make a difference in the community.