A back-to-school pep talk from the education chief

Dianna Wentzell, CT's education chief, delivers a pep talk to superintendents of schools.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org

Dianna Wentzell, CT\’s education chief, delivers a pep talk to superintendents of schools.

As students begin heading back to school next week, the state’s education commissioner on Monday congratulated district leaders for the gains they have made so far and challenged them to close the state’s stubborn gaps in achievement between minority students and their peers.

“We have so much to be proud of in Connecticut,” Dianna Wentzell told an auditorium full of superintendents at A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford. “We need to find a way to serve all of our students, and, at our core, the real mission is making all mean all… Our [State Board of Education] is committed to helping us put the ‘all’ in all.”

Connecticut for years has had among the worst-in-the nation gaps in achievement between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers, as well as between white and minority children.

While Wentzell is pleased that state test results released last week show that a higher proportion of minority and low-income students passed the test compared to the previous year, achievement gaps did not narrow because the rate of white students passing increased slightly faster. Pass rates for students that do not qualify for free- or reduced-price meals have not been released, so a comparison between poor students and students from middle- and high-income families is not possible.

Each year about 540,000 students enroll in one of the state’s 1,400 public schools or programs. Many of them come with significant needs. One out of every 16 students speaks limited English, one-in-three students qualifies for free lunch because their parents earn too little, and one out of every eight requires special education services.

Pointing to the increased rates of students passing the Smarter Balanced exams while about half of the state’s elementary and middle school students are not testing at grade level in math and English, Wentzell urged leaders focus on the positive to keep the momentum going.

“It’s normal that after lots of years of doing the data-driven decision-making that we all learned together, that our eyes are drawn to the challenges – and we know the challenges matter tremendously, but let your eyes linger on what went well. Our only way to replicate those successes, to make sure that we can put the ‘all’ in all, is to spend some of our precious time studying what’s going right. And a lot is going right in Connecticut,” she said.