Rosa is doing her best to support her fifth-grade son Matteo during distance learning, with only an unreliable prepaid smart phone. Matteo has ADHD, which makes it even more challenging for him to focus. And Rosa has not received any support in accessing the complicated tech platforms necessary to help Matteo. Instead, Rosa picks up paper packets every two weeks —packets that are in English, making it incredibly difficult for her to support his instruction.
No one could have planned for our school closure crisis and all the disparities it has laid bare. Struggling with a long history of under-funding and years of inconsistent leadership, Bridgeport Public Schools’ logistical and administrative challenges might feel insurmountable. We must see this closure as an opportunity —not to bring us back to what we were on March 13, but to propel us forward as a more equitable and responsive school district.
The barriers that Matteo and Rosa face are not unique. Our clients are Bridgeport families that face enormous challenges during this unprecedented moment. Already struggling with poverty, structural racism, inequitable healthcare access, and other injustices, our clients are used to feeling isolated.
But it shouldn’t be this hard.
Bridgeport families and children deserve more from their state, city, and district. While Hartford is at the forefront as our capital city, and New Haven benefits from deep-pocketed university and community partnerships, Bridgeport does not receive the same attention. Everyone knows we have an equity problem in Bridgeport, but it’s just too much to wrap our arms around. So we ignore and deflect.
City Hall’s failure to adequately fund education is hardly a new issue. Years of under-funding result in a system stretched too thin to respond to crisis, albeit unforeseen.
District officials struggle to maintain consistency– much less excellence– with increasingly dwindling resources in a fragmented system. In order to meet the needs of these most vulnerable students, the district needs to focus on three priorities: access to curriculum (including devices and connectivity), student connection and engagement (with data, and paying special attention to high-needs populations), and parent support.
First, more than eight weeks after schools closed, many Bridgeport students are still in the technological abyss. While other districts mobilized much more quickly to get devices into the hands of their students, BPS struggled with a woefully inadequate supply of Chromebooks that were already in disrepair due to stripped maintenance budgets. BPS needs to centralize its computer supply (rather than leave it to schools to distribute), to account for its stock, and prioritize the distribution process moving forward. In addition, BPS needs to understand that enabling access is now part of its job. Without meaningful internet access, distribution of hardware is meaningless.
Second, BPS must provide data to gauge who is connected, who is struggling, and who has been unreachable. We need to know that Matteo, and how many other students with special education and English language needs, cannot log into the district platform. We need this data now in order to gauge how we are faring, where to retool our strategies and deploy resources, and how to reintegrate and remediate students when we return to the school building.
We also need to share the data with community partners so they can determine how they can best fill in the gaps. How can we support BPS in finding students if we don’t know who is lost? This is not just a matter of widening the already huge opportunity gap, but at an even more basic level, it is a matter of student well-being and connection.
We especially need to get a grasp on service delivery to special education and ELL students, for whom isolation is the most detrimental. How are case managers and social workers supporting their students’ academic and emotional needs? Who is checking in on Matteo and how often? For many children with special needs, these services are not required simply to make academic progress—they are required to live and function in the world.
Finally, Bridgeport parents deserve more transparency, communication, and support than they are receiving from their school system. The fractures created by this disconnect compound as time passes. Parents become increasingly agitated and frustrated by what they see as a failure to respond to their child’s needs. School officials become more defensive and closed-off, and children are in the middle, floundering.
To this end, BPS must establish a centralized parent information line. Almost every Connecticut district has a parent center, but BPS had to cut those positions several years ago. Mothers like Rosa do not know where to turn to for help. The district must offer a bilingual information line where a parent can obtain answers to questions about technology, curriculum, and staff contacts.
Acting Superintendent Michael Testani has recently been holding Facebook Live sessions to answer parent questions, which is a solid step in the right direction. But making true communication inroads during school closure requires a broader, sustained effort. A parent information line is just one way to show that BPS is listening and will act upon receipt.
We can’t fail Matteo during this immense crisis. Bridgeport families are depending on us to take urgent action so that their children are not left behind.
Kathryn Meyer is the Director of the Educational Success Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy.