CT school reform: 2 years under ‘special master’

Windham High School teachers: "Things are worse now than ever."

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

Windham High School teachers: "Things are worse now than ever."

Randall Prose two years ago spent his day teaching social studies to high school students in Windham.

Now, he said, he spends much of his class time dealing with discipline issues or helping his non-English-speaking students catch up with the rest of the class; this is necessary because separate programs for these students have ended.

“Welcome to the state takeover of Windham,” Prose said of this new approach to combining the various skill-level classrooms and behavior levels into one. “Things are worse now than ever.”

The State Board of Education wasted no time in 2011 in taking advantage of a new state law by appointing a “special master” to intervene in Windham’s low-performing school district. Last year, they expanded Steven Adamowski’s job by naming him the special master of New London schools, as well.

Two school years and numerous reforms later, it remains to be seen if student outcomes will improve anytime soon, and if changes in the districts can win the support of teachers.

Student achievement still has not risen in the 3,200-student Windham district. Students in various grades each year take standardized tests in math, writing, reading and science. Of the 24 subject areas tested, the number of students proficient decreased in 13 areas since Adamowksi took over the district. In New London, scores declined in 10 of the 24 tested areas.

Undeterred by the sluggish scores –- or the pushback he’s getting from a state teachers’ union — Adamowski promised the state school board last week that his reforms will be fully rolled out by the end of this school year and that “significant gains in achievement” would surface in two more school years.

“I think great strides have been made,” the former Hartford superintendent told the state board. “There are solutions to these problems. But they don’t go away if we do nothing. They don’t go away if you don’t change fundamentally that type of support the district gives its schools.”

Agreeing with his assessment, the state board voted to allow the special master experiment to continue for another year in Windham and New London. (Read the resolution below )

His salary, now that he is a state employee, is $162,000 a year, 28 percent less than what he was earning during the previous two years as a subcontractor.

School reform = school choice

When a new magnet school opened in Windham in February, the parents of 900 elementary students applied for the 300 available seats.

This is just the beginning of the choices Adamowksi hopes to offer parents in Windham and New London. By the time state intervention concludes in the two districts, he has promised that parents will have several more choices of which school — besides their traditional neighborhood school — their children can attend. His plans include opening more magnet and charter schools.

“The disappointment of two thirds of the families applying was a poignant reminder of parents’ desire for higher performing schools and motivation for the creation for other high quality school choices in Eastern Connecticut,” Adamowski wrote in his 15-page annual report updating the state board on the Windham reforms. (Read the report below )

In New London, where the state got involved after the locally elected school board was gridlocked and student performance was poor, the plan is to give every family options of where to send their child and have funding follow the student to that school. These moves are an attempt to help bring in millions of dollars in additional money from the state to the cash-strapped district by enrolling hundreds of students from the surrounding suburban communities, and to create some diversity among the student body.

School choice was Adamowski’s approach during his tenure in Hartford, as he strove to comply with a state Supreme Court order requiring the state to integrate the city’s predominantly black and Hispanic schools.

With 85 percent of students in the district coming from low-income families, New London students attend some of the most socioeconomically isolated schools in Connecticut, Adamowski said.

But some worry that this approach — a school choice model — directs funding to only some schools, leaving others to struggle.

“The magnet high school gets money so they can buy the supplies they need. Meanwhile we don’t have books at New London High,” Barbara Major, a member of the New London school board, said during an interview.

Teachers in New London are waiting to see what the shift to an intra-district magnet school model will mean. The local union president said the biggest problems teachers see are the large class sizes and the unusually high number of veteran teachers leaving the district recently.

“Magnet schools could be a good thing. I am not sure until I start to see what it means for our classrooms,” said Richard Baez, a teacher at Jennings Elementary School and president of the New London Education Association. “I am not sure what becoming a magnet school is going to change.”

In Windham, the issue has become which students are being given the opportunity to attend a school other than their neighborhood school. Choices include Norwich Free Academy or Parish Hill High School in Chaplin.

But because transportation is not provided to those who get into these schools through the lottery, several teachers and a group of parents have said that the opportunity is awarded only to those students whose parents are involved enough or who have the ability to get them to school each day.

“This school choice has really just fragmented and isolated students further. You are isolating a certain population in this community,” said Kathy Koljian, an English teacher at Windham High School. “It’s white flight”

And, teachers in Windham point to test scores as proof that these reforms aren’t working.

In 2011, the year before the state intervened in Windham, 62 percent of the district’s sophmores tested as proficient in reading. Two years later, the number dropped to 40 percent. Similar declines have occurred in writing, math and science among the high school students.

Adamowski has said that the reforms are causing “growing pains,” and that it is too early to look at the test scores to assess the impact of the changes until students are tested next March.

Local autonomy vs. state takeover

State officials are careful in how they define the role the state is playing in Windham and New London, opting to brand it as “state oversight.”

Others are more blunt.

“I would prefer us to be making our own decisions. The state comes in and tells us what we have to do. What are we elected for?” said Margaret Mary Curtin, the president of the New London Board of Education and a former mayor of the city.

“Dr. Adamowski is in charge. He has the ability to do pretty much anything he wants… I am not sure how much influence the board has anymore,” said Baez, the New London union leader.

Several board members said in interviews that they feel their authority has been undermined by the state law that allowed the special master into New London.

State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor with Special Master Steven Adamowski

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor with Special Master Steven Adamowski

“No one person should have that much power,” said Koljian, the Windham English teacher, who is on the School Governance Council, a panel of parents, teachers and educators required by state law to foster collaboration. Koljian said because the administration isn’t working with the group, things are going wrong, like Advanced Placement students not being able to enroll in courses because of a shift to a trimester schedule.

State law gives Adamowksi the authority to “manage and allocate” the districts’ budgets and to transfer teachers to different schools, among other things.

“It’s too much power given to one person… It’s his way or the highway,” said Major, the board member on the New London board, who is not seeking reelection.

However, Adamowski has said that he is trying to embolden what has historically been an ineffectual and contentious school board.

“The Board’s prior culture was oriented toward reaction to the administration’s plans or actions. The Board had little experience in setting direction or ownership of major decision and has been very sensitive to criticism,” he wrote in his 14-page annual report to the state board on New London. (Read the report below )

After the New London school board decided not to renew their superintendent’s contract this year, Adamowski requested that the board have to select from candidates handpicked by the state’s education commissioner. He also asked that any future decisions by the local board on whether to renew a superintendent’s contract be based strictly on the evaluation criteria included in his report to the state board.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor was noncommittal on whether the state will get involved in the future.

When does oversight end?

While the state’s reforms in Windham are almost completely implemented and are just beginning in New London, the American Federation of Teachers, Connecticut chapter, is calling the state board’s decision to allow the reforms to continue a mistake.

State officials “failed to do their homework,” said an email from the statewide union to their members and to the media.

“The state has abdicated their oversight responsibility here,” Melodie Peters, president of AFT-Connecticut, said, calling on legislators and locally elected officials to order an immediate investigation of the impact of the reforms on students.

State law does not specify how state oversight ends in New London, and in Windham it requires students’ test scores to improve.

Melanie Godbout, an English teacher at Windham High School, isn’t convinced she’s going to be able to pull off higher test scores in the conditions she is now teaching in.

“It’s heartbreaking what’s happened here,” she said.

 

Windham progress report (Return to where you were in the story by clicking here )

 

New London progress report (Return to where you were in the story by clicking here)

 

Resolution extending Adamowski’s term as “special master” (Return to where you were in the story by clicking here)

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