Richard McHugh teaches in an inner-city public school where boarded-up houses are the view from his classroom, police sirens often interrupt instruction and three out of every five of his students speak limited English.
Tutors for students struggling with math or reading have been let go for budgetary reasons, despite the fact that the majority of the students at his school are several grades behind in math and reading.
McHugh, who teachers third grade at Maria Sanchez Elementary School in Hartford, takes issue with President Donald Trump’s comment during his inaugural address that “schools are flush with cash.”
The debate about school funding has touched down in Connecticut after a five-month trial and a Superior Court judge’s ruling that “the state of education in some towns is alarming.” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said the way the state funds its most troubled schools is “broken.” He has proposed a major funding overhaul.
As the state legislature gears up to talk about how to help turn around struggling public schools such as his, McHugh sat down with the Mirror one morning before class to talk about his experience.
CTMIRROR: How did you decide to be a teacher?
McHUGH: “I really got into the idea of teaching when I helped coach the girl’s swim team my freshman year of college. I was actually a member of the swim team when I was in high school. While I was there, my coach, who now I was helping, said, ‘You know the middle school needs someone to help with the diving.’ I was actually a diver in my high school years, so I went and helped the coach, who was a first-year coach who really just did the job because there was no coach, so I helped her a lot with my experience.
Some kids who had no experience in the pool, I showed them how to dive from scratch. It came down to the final championship season. One of the girls – she was a sixth-grader, had never dove, had never swam before and just wanted to try something new – she ended up placing third in the championships.
She did her last dive, and she came out of the pool, and she started crying because she was so happy, and her parents told me, ‘Wow you really did a great job with these kids. You should really consider doing something with children or counseling.’ And that’s when I changed my major. I was originally doing law at UConn, and I moved over to elementary education at Central.
CTMIRROR: What is your favorite subject in school?
McHUGH: I love reading. I did my master’s in reading at Central [Connecticut State University] so I really love teaching language arts and writing. Math I am not so strong in, but I have gotten a lot better at it.
So I think my favorite to teach is social studies, literacy, those components. But I think I am getting the most out of teaching math now because it was such a struggle for me when I was younger.
When my students don’t get a concept right away, I can relate to that because I really struggled in math, and that always bothered me because I was such a perfectionist. I will make mistakes on the board, and I will ask them to help me through it. So I think that’s the most rewarding part, with the math.
The most rewarding is math. My favorite is reading.
CTMIRROR: What’s your favorite book to teach?
McHUGH: “David Goes to School.” I teach this on the first day. It’s very simple. So it’s great for the [English as a second language] and the bilingual students.
McHugh grabs the book and starts flipping through the pages.
“No yelling. No pushing. You’re late. You can’t do that. Sit down. Take turns.” Because David Shannon is such a great illustrator, the kids really get into the book. And I pose a question at the end of it, “Well, is David a bad kid?”
They say “no, no.”
“Well the teacher thinks he’s a bad kid.”
So I bring in that idea and try and get them thinking about it. And I say to them just what if David just doesn’t know the rules? And they agree that makes sense. And then I ask them if they know the rules for my classroom, and when they say “no,” we then make the rules.
CTMIRROR: I notice your school is surrounded by boarded-up houses. What challenges do you find students bring into the classroom from outside ?
McHUGH: The neighborhood is sometimes scary – especially for these kids. You mentioned the boarded-up houses. We have gone on lockdown a few times because of activity in the area. It’s not uncommon to see a police car parked right in front with the sirens on. So I am in the middle of teaching and you have the sirens going on outside. That can present a challenge. The kids have gotten used to it, which is kind of sad and unfortunate.
We have had some shootings in the area. There was a death right across from the garage a couple years back now. So that presents its own problems out there, and the kids see it a lot. I think the nice thing about Sanchez School is that this is their safe haven, and we are very well loved in the community. The children come into school with smiles on their faces. I like to think we are not just the school. We are a second home for many of them.
I have had students tell me ‘I haven’t eaten. I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday.’ For them, breakfast is their first meal. We do offer free breakfast and lunch for everyone. So sometimes you have to look at that in a different way, that we are not just a school but we are a lifeline for many of our students. It’s not uncommon for some students to say ‘Oh, Dad. Oh, I mean…” I think that is the biggest compliment, though.
I will never forget: My second year of teaching, I had this really rough student who just gave me a hard time every morning. He didn’t want to leave breakfast. He just gave me a lot of attitude and, as a second-year teacher, I just thought ‘I need to do this. I need to do that.’ I wasn’t really relaxed in my teaching yet, and I was just, like, ‘You have to respect me or the other kids won’t respect me.’
So I started sending the kids up [to class] and I stopped and I was peeking around the corner and he was taking the food that the kids left and putting it in his book bag. He came upstairs with it and I pulled him aside and I said ‘I noticed,’ and he got defensive right away, and I said ‘you didn’t do anything wrong,’ but asked him why he was doing it. And he said he doesn’t really have food at home, and he wants to bring the food home for his 3-year-old brother.
That broke my heart, and I told him that I would promise to respect him and understand what he’s doing, but that he needs to respect me and come up to class because school is important. That moment really showed me how to stop for a minute and take myself out of my teacher shoes and find out what’s going on with the kid’s life.
And it did turn out that his family did need some assistance. And so working with a social worker and getting her involved, it really did help out that family. And it really did bring me closer to the mother as well, because I don’t know if she was embarrassed.
Everyone goes through a different story in life and sometimes you look at a person and you might make a judgment, but unless you know what they are living through you can’t make that judgment – it’s not fair to them. And I think that’s what we have a lot in Hartford.
Especially for me, I will tell people I work in Hartford. And their response is ‘Oh, you can’t get a good job anywhere else?’ And I respond, ‘What are you talking about? I love teaching in Hartford.’ That is very offensive to me because you see what is on TV and you are making judgments based on the location and what happens in an inner city. We’re not Simsbury or Avon. We have our own unique set of challenges, but we also have our own unique set of diversity as well.
CTMIRROR: What is the biggest challenge you face in the classroom?
McHUGH: There are a lot of out-of-school factors. There’s research done on out-of-school factors that schools cannot change – some of it is malnutrition, poor health care, not having literacy in the home, transiency – so a lot of that factors into what we deal with here at school.
But that’s not every single student. Every single student and family is different. The biggest challenge in the classroom, for me and for many of the teachers at this school, is really dealing with language, because one-third of our school is ESL. We also have bilingual students whose main language is Spanish. Of the 22 students in my classroom, six of them are considered bilingual and their language at home is Spanish.
The only English they get is at school for the most part. I also have an additional seven ESL students. So 13 out of my 22 students are in need of support in learning English.
The biggest challenge comes at testing time. The standardized Smarter Balanced Assessment, that’s our standardized test that the state requires, the students are often having difficulty with those tests because it involves a lot of reading and a lot of vocabulary that they just don’t have, and that’s not their fault.
CTMIRROR: I have heard students can take tests in their home language, but do students actually know their home language?
McHUGH: They often are not proficient in their home language. I’ve had some students who have come from Guatamala who are refugees. They experienced things. I have some students from Mexico that are from the villages, so their school was not like we would see here in the United States. I have had some students from Puerto Rico, so they have conversational English.
CTMIRROR: Have you been trained in ESL?
McHUGH: I am not certified in ESL, but I had some ESL courses through my courses at Central, and through Hartford I received some professional training. But that’s something I am looking to do in the future. Part of my reading course at Central was I had to decide on a research project, so I did do my research on ESL and how to bring more literature into the classroom, but make it more comfortable for them.
ESL students often have chronic absenteeism. Research shows that you may have third-graders missing class because they are the hub of English for their parents who can speak no English, and so if the mother is sick and has to go to the hospital, that child needs to miss school so he or she can translate.
For me, the biggest challenge is the language. The idea of proficiency vs. the growth period. You know we do have the third-grade promise in Hartford, and we are supposed to have 100 percent of our students reading on grade level by the end of third grade. But I will receive students in the third grade who will have just come from another country. I have to start from scratch with them, starting with no English, starting with sight words, vowel sounds. So when I have a 40-minute guided reading block at the end of the day, I might teach four different grade-level groups, but it might be a kindergarten group, a first-grade group, second-grade group and a third-grade level group.
CTMIRROR: Do you have the time to pull students aside when they need extra help?
McHUGH: At Sanchez, we have two flex blocks, because it’s not just intervention. We do have some students that are at grade level or above, so we call them flex blocks, which is time to flex their brain muscles. We group them according to their needs, but it can get overwhelming at times. It presents a challenge when you have that many needs. Every year is different. There was one year where half my class was on grade level, and I could work with the students that were really low a little bit more, but I can’t always give them what they need.
CTMIRROR: What would you like the public to know about Hartford public schools. What is the real story?
McHUGH: First and foremost: Don’t judge a book by its cover. The cover of Hartford doesn’t always look the best, according to what people may see on TV or what’s in the newspaper, and any inner-city school will face challenges from their neighborhoods. But everywhere you go – it doesn’t matter if you are from the suburbs or the cities – there are always going to be some pockets of need.
I just find the opinion of Hartford somewhat offensive because, when someone says, ‘Oh you can’t get a job someplace else good. Why are you stuck there?’ it makes it seem like the kids are not good enough. And for me that’s the biggest crime they can commit is to make judgments on these kids.
The Sanchez students are just the most amazing kids I have ever met. Ever. Period. And oftentimes we’ll go out to different field trips – we’ll go to farms, to the Bushnell – and they’ll be so well behaved, and they are really appreciative of the experience that is being given to them. And some people will say, ”Wow, I am surprised. Your kids, they say please, they say thank you and they are better than kids from West Hartford or kids from Simsbury.’
I say ‘Thank you, but please don’t make those judgments without coming in and seeing us. You are more than welcome to come into the classroom and see how things are and what generosity these kids have. They may not have much, but they are willing to give what they can.’
Just because we may be a failing district on paper because of the academics, we are making progress. We are not there yet. Compared to other school districts with fewer challenges, we won’t be there, but I think our children’s character and compassion and willingness to give to each other, I think, would be top in the state.
CTMIRROR: President Trump said schools are ‘”flush with cash.” Do you think your school is flush with cash?
McHUGH: No. It may seem like schools are flush with cash, but it takes a lot to operate schools that people don’t realize. They keep pulling back money, and schools need different things. People like Trump or other people who may agree with his statement, they think of this idea of equality, meaning every school would get the same amount of money, but that doesn’t mean that is what the schools need.
We need to think about it as equity. Our school may need more money because of the needs of the students. We need to give special education support, added bilingual support, ESL support. We do need interventionists because we have students that are below in math and reading. The teachers can’t do it all. We also need social work and mental health clinicians. Inner-city kids sometimes go through more turmoil in their lives. You really have to look at it school by school. I mean, right now, I could probably use a co-teacher. If we are to meet the needs of our students, those needs really need to be looked at.
Testing is all computer based. We don’t have a computer technician any more. That was pulled from our budget, so unfortunately our half-time computer tech was let go. So when it comes time for testing, the teachers have to run the computers on their own, and I am not certified for that, I make do with what I know. If we are going to mandate that the testing is done on the computers, then the computers need to be running well, and students need to have the proficiency on the computers, otherwise are we really testing them on computer skills or are we testing them on what they know?
CTMIRROR: Can you explain how the cuts have affected you throughout the years?
McHUGH: We don’t have a librarian, so that’s a challenge. We do have a wonderful librarian that comes from our Park Street branch every now and then, but it would be great to have a librarian, because then our children can learn how to choose a book and pull that book they are interested in.
We didn’t have a music teacher for many years because of budget cuts, so we are talking about the arts being pulled from these kids. Kids maybe are strong in art or are strong in music – but if the arts are being pulled because that’s considered to be extra, they may not find their passion, they may not find what they are good at, and they may not get that anywhere else.
We used to have a reading specialist, who would help by pulling out students and give them a second round of help to help push them up. That was cut as well.
We used to have a math coach/specialist, to help students struggling in math with the extra support they needed., That was cut. We had two different teachers cut this year, so the class sizes get bigger because we have to move those students in.
And now they are talking about more cuts. The need increases, and then the size of our classes increases. We are asked to do more, and we are given less. We are not set up for success sometimes.
CTMIRROR: Do students realize that things are getting cut from year to year?
McHUGH: It’s interesting. I hope that my students don’t realize it, because I try not to show that there are things that they are missing, and I try and implement services we do have as much as possible… Hopefully they don’t feel it.
I did have a student who came here, and they loved Sanchez School, but they came from another school, and they said ‘Mister, I lived across from a magnet school, and I didn’t get to go to that school even though it was across the street. I had to walk three streets down to take a bus to a school I didn’t want to go to. But there are kids who don’t live in that neighborhood that get to go to that school.’ And he was basically alluding to how they were white and how they were going to that school…
For them, it’s like we have a choice system, but is it always a choice? And so it’s hard for them to understand that we have a certain number of kids who come in from the suburbs, and we bus some Hartford students out as well. … I can only imagine what it might be like to see a school every day in your neighborhood that you would like to go to, but you can’t.
CTMIRROR: What’s the solution?
McHUGH: I don’t know. We keep having cuts left and right.
CTMIRROR: There have been a lot of reforms over the years. Any opinion on linking student test scores to teacher evaluations?
McHUGH: It’s not fair. If you are going to link test scores, you are talking about not every student being proficient. If you look at proficiency, then I am a failing teacher… You can’t make us be evaluated like a business would be, because a business is all on equal footing.
We don’t get to choose the students we get in our classrooms. I don’t want to make that sound negative, but everybody has a different product that they start with. … It takes seven years to become proficient in English, and then on top of that you have the academic vocabulary that comes into play. I don’t believe in linking it to proficiency. Maybe you can have it be linked to student growth and see how much a student starts with and how much they have in the end, because that does show some of the teachers’ work.
Maybe half my class won’t be proficient by the end of the year – they just aren’t ready. It takes time – they won’t be proficient at the end of the third grade, but I have given them the skills hopefully so they can be proficient in the future.
CTMIRROR: You mentioned that you have some refugees in your classroom. Have you noticed any anxiety in your classroom because of the issues President Trump has raised with immigration?
McHUGH: Even before the election there were comments here and there on it, but I try to make them feel comfortable, and I reiterate how they are safe when they are at school and I love them. And I will always love them, and I will help them in the classroom, and I am here to help them feel safe and help them learn. And so that way, when they have the responsibility of going to vote, by coming to school you will educate yourself and you can read a newspaper when you grow up so you can educate yourself on government both at the state and municipal level.
I try to go at it as voting is an important responsibility, and I talk about how it is a democratic process and that is what our country is founded on and we don’t always agree with each other – even in the classroom as kids – so as adult we don’t always agree, but that’s part of our democracy.
I have seen four elections while teaching, and this has definitely been the hardest on the kids, and they have made some comments. I don’t stop them from making the comments. I let them get it out. Because for some of our students, it’s a real fear, you know, some of the language that is being used.
Read more of The Mirror’s coverage of English learners here.
The Mirror’s exploration of ways to close persistent gaps in educational achievement is supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nellie Mae Foundation. View more of the projects they have funded here. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.