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On Trial: Every Child’s Right to an Equitable Education

Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell

Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell, testifying for the state of Connecticut, said, “I think leadership is a lot more important than the money.”

What’s more important when it comes to helping students in high-poverty districts succeed—increased funding or better leaders?

The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) spent the first two months of the landmark education funding trial currently underway in Hartford making the case that public schools need more funding in order to adequately and equitably serve all students. The coalition is made up of students, parents, towns, and education organizations and includes CEA.

Lawyers for CCJEF have argued that students in high-poverty districts–including Bridgeport, Danbury, East Hartford, New Britain, New London, and Windham–lack the critical educational resources they need to succeed. Additionally, their educational opportunities are significantly unequal and inequitable when compared to those of students in wealthier districts.

The state’s turn to present its defense began last week, and lawyers called Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell as their first witness. Wentzell laid the foundation for the state’s argument, saying that, while resources are important, it’s the leadership at the state, district, school, and classroom level that is ultimately critical for student success.

“I think leadership is a lot more important than the money,” Wentzell said, “though we’re always going to have some resources we need to steward.”

Lawyers for the state will be making the case that Connecticut already devotes significant funding to schools and has a proud history of local control over education and education funding. They also plan to argue that education reform measures already underway in the state have significant potential to improve student achievement.

Reform efforts in Connecticut such as the Alliance Districts and Network Schools have led to an influx of state funds for certain schools and districts. Wentzell said that those additional dollars go to cover the cost of purchasing new programs, curriculum resources, and professional development for teachers.

“You have to consider those startup costs that educational change requires,” Wentzel said.”Those costs aren’t ongoing. Lots of education reform funding is premised on the idea that, after an innovation is launched, over the next three to five years it becomes sustainable.”

Inadequate resources

The many teachers, administrators, and education funding experts CCJEF called as witnesses don’t agree that short-term, start-up funding is enough to place students in high-poverty districts on an equal footing.

Library Media Specialist Elaine Gencarelli worked in Greenwich for many years before beginning her present position in Danbury and has seen firsthand the unequal educational opportunities that exist in Connecticut.

One example Gencarelli highlighted for the court is the number of books available to students. Danbury High School, which has 2,900 students, has approximately 26,000 books in its library. The elementary school where Gencarelli worked in Greenwich served 630 students and had the same number of books.

“All ninth-graders at Danbury High have to complete a research project on an explorer or scientist,” Gencarelli said. “One stipulation is that the students have to cite at least two print sources. Yet, after the first three classes come into the library, almost all of the books are gone—and we have almost 1,000 students in our freshman academy this year.”

Gencarelli said her school also lacks sufficient resources to differentiate appropriately for the population it serves. Though the student body includes many special education students and English language learners, most of the print and digital resources students can access are only appropriate for those at or close to grade level.

“In Danbury we really have to rely on free resources that don’t differentiate,” Gencarelli said. “In Greenwich the district was able to purchase different databases that allowed us to differentiate with students.”

Inadequate staffing

Bridgeport teacher Greg Furlong shared his firsthand experiences with inadequate resources and support as a witness for CCJEF.

Bridgeport teacher Greg Furlong shared his firsthand experiences with inadequate resources and supports for his students during the education funding trial.

In addition to a lack of physical resources, the inability of high-poverty schools to provide enough support staff and interventionists to meet students’ needs was a common concern of many witnesses.

Bridgeport fifth-grade teacher Greg Furlong said that, despite the highly transient population at Bryant Elementary and the many students who are English language learners or working below grade level for other reasons, the school only has one reading interventionist who only uses the Wilson program—a phonics-based approach.

Furlong and his colleagues see that their students could benefit from reading interventionists who focus on fluency or comprehension strategies, and from math interventionists as well, but the district has no money to hire additional staff.

The guidance counselor, social worker, and school psychologist at his elementary school only work in the building two or three days a week, and one of those days is taken up entirely with planning and placement team meetings (PPTs).

“Students in my class, and generally in my school, have life problems that would cripple an adult,” Furlong said. “They come from a range of home environments and experience things like parents splitting up and being removed from their home by DCF. They sometimes express extreme anger, depressive states, sadness, and school-phobic behaviors.”

Furlong said that the lack of support staff means that students’ problems linger and the school winds up being reactive rather than proactive in addressing students’ issues.

“We just aren’t addressing their emotional needs as much as we should be,” he said.

And those unmet emotional needs mean students have a hard time focusing on academics.

“For a lot of my students, their priorities are to feel safe or feel loved—to be well fed,” Furlong said. “Academics are not high on their list.”

Inadequate infrastructure

Many of the school buildings themselves in Bridgeport and other high-poverty districts are yet another distraction that thwart student learning.

According to the Connecticut Post, Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz told the court during her testimony, “The ceiling fell through in one school last year and there are crumbling walls in other schools.”

“I pray every morning the boilers in some of the schools turn on,” Rabinowitz added.

In Furlong’s classroom it’s heat that’s poses a significant problem.

For the first and last two months of each school year, Furlong said his room often reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit by 9:30 in the morning. The room receives lots of sunlight, it’s located directly above the kitchen, and the style of windows does not permit air conditioning units.

“When the classroom is that hot, it saps the energy out of everyone, including me,” Furlong said. “Students stick to their desks. It totally distracts them from academics when they’re sweating that much in the stifling heat.”

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