The education commissioner has been to nearly a dozen school districts during his inaugural tour, hearing what does and doesn’t work to improve education — and last week was the teachers unions’ turn to pitch their strategy.
Instead of inviting the new commissioner to one of their highest-performing districts, union leaders took Stefan Pryor to the epitome of the crisis facing education.
“Welcome to Bridgeport,” said Mary Loftus Levine, leader of the largest teachers’ union, as the commissioner entered Bassick High School’s library.
The figures were alarming. One of every three students drops out before graduation. Fifteen percent don’t even show up for school on any given day. And of the students that do make it to 10th grade, fewer than one in three are proficient in reading, math or science.
“I was petrified to come here,” Luise Lenis, a senior, told Pryor.
JoAnn Kennedy, a parent of two freshmen, shared that fear.
“We were terrified because of all the stories I’d heard,” she said.
Metal detectors adorn the entrance at Bassick. Nine full-time security guards stroll the halls and parking lot, and stories of fights and gangs at the school are frequently in the local news.
What students and parents didn’t know was that things were about to change. The teachers’ union had a plan, and the University of Connecticut’s highly regarded education college was there to help.
That plan called for the school’s teachers and parents to vote to make the management decisions themselves so initiatives would no longer be stalled at the central office.
Those changes, to name a few, include requiring students to wear school uniforms; staff sweeping the halls and rounding up students not in class; dividing the building by grade instead of subject area; making sure that teachers have common planning periods and having teachers sit in a colleagues class and do a peer review a dozen times a year.
“This is a living example of what school reform is all about,” Levine told a roomful of teachers and state officials Thursday.
“I’m hearing you’ve achieved incredible progress,” Pryor said.
Indeed, test scores and other outcome measures are already beginning showing dramatic upticks, just a few months into the changed model. Last year, 32 percent of students were proficient in writing compared with 52 percent this year. Similar spikes are found in reading, science and math test scores and daily attendance rates.
“This school is clearly uptrending … It’s so impressive to see,” Pryor said.
Principal Alejandro Ortiz explained that his staff “was hungry for change.” Parents and teachers overwhelmingly voted to approve the changes they concocted.
“We gave them a simple voice,” he said. “They own these changes.”
“Teachers were used to being told what to do,” said Kathy Young, a longtime Bassick teacher who now spends half her day coaching and helping other teachers.
UConn’s Neag School of Education’s Center for Education Policy Analysis believes that giving autonomy to individual schools is critical in making reforms.
“Local principals and teachers are best positioned to make decisions on how to help their students reach high levels of academic achievement because they are most familiar with their talents and their challenges,” reads a policy brief on this initiative, known as CommPACT.
Over the past decade, teachers at Bassick have seen multiple reform attempts fail, they said. But now many are convinced they have finally found the right strategy.
Michele Femc-Bagwell got a little teary as she started to talk about how far these low-income students have come.
“This is just so great. We’re really making a difference,” she said to a group in the library, as emotion started to build. “I have to pull myself together.”
Nearly every child at Bassick comes from a low-income family, 95 percent receiving free- or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts.
So five years ago, the Connecticut Education Association and the state’s other teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, gathered a coallition of parents, superintendents and UConn officials to brainstorm.
They were sick of children not getting a quality education.
“We were given a blank slate in how we wanted the school to change,” said Walter Brackett, a Bassick teacher for nearly two decades.
The change wasn’t cheap. Launching this model at seven schools across the state in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury took $3 million from federal, state and local donations.
“That’s about $120 per student,” Levine said. “That was a great investment, just look around.”
But the start-up money that spurred these reforms and hired the experts from UConn is set to begin running out at some of the schools at the end of next school year.
And despite Levine and AFT’s president, Sharon Palmer, insisting that there is a long line of schools their unions want to expand this model to, there is no funding to do it.
“These schools are really shining stars. Now we just need to validate what we think is working,” Palmer said.
Pryor said he is looking into expanding this model.
“It’s very important that reform models be able to thrive in our state,” he said.
Switching things up
The norm last year was to find dozens of students, who should have been in class, roaming the halls.
Teachers worked on that by having all the ninth-graders go to class on one floor, so it would be difficult for them to get lost as they switched from one class to the next.
“There was just a lot of room for them not to make it there,” the principal said. Attendance data being tracked by UConn shows the effort is paying off.
Another initiative was to have common time off for teachers to work on lesson plans with each other, discuss issues facing the same students and be there for other areas of support
“The research shows this works,” Bagwell said.
What also appears to be working is requiring students to wear uniforms.
“It makes you look like you’re going to school and not a fashion show,” said student Brandon Williams, who wore the mandated black polo shirt and khaki pants during a tour of the school.
“This [uniform] is not a joke, because Mr. Ortiz will send you home if you aren’t wearing it,” Sasha Rosario, a senior, told Pryor.
Later, Sasha conceded that the uniforms have shifted the focus to what school is for.
“We can get to learning now,” she said. “What a difference it has made.”