OP-ED | A Strong Step Forward on School Improvement
In May, the Connecticut General Assembly took the history-making step of establishing the Commissioner’s Network. After decades of watching children in Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools denied the opportunity to attend a great public school, our state leaders finally said the status quo could not stand.
When Governor Dannel P. Malloy first proposed the establishment of the Commissioner’s Network in February, we heard a chorus of voices stating such a plan was unnecessary and untenable. The Network was nearly eliminated in the legislative process, with opponents offering no alternative ideas, and was ultimately saved by those legislators whose communities and constituents are most affected by the scourge of failing schools.
Even after its passage, there are some who still hope for an early end for the Network. Those who want to delay or derail implementation. Those who hope to deny additional funding. Those who wanted to keep talking, rather than doing. Those who wanted to protect the system, no matter how poorly it may be educating children.
But last week, those who choose to solve our pressing education problems took a major step forward. Less than four months after being signed into law as PA 12-116, the State Board of Education made the Commissioner’s Network a reality, approving the turnaround plans for four schools – Bridgeport’s James J. Curiale School, Hartford’s Jumoke Academy at Milner, New Haven’s High School in the Community, and Norwich’s John B. Stanton School. Many of these schools have already taken significant steps towards implementing their plans.
The Commissioner’s Network is no longer an abstract concept. It is now a very real action, impacting actual students, teachers, and communities across the state. And it is doing so by adopting significant turnaround efforts that reject the status quo and engender hope in those school communities most in need.
These turnaround plans introduce much-needed steps to improve student outcomes. For example, all schools have extended learning time for both teachers and students, and have introduced new ways to hire, retain, and assign staff. In Bridgeport, the Curiale School will require that any teacher hired or retained must earn high performance evaluations. In Hartford, Jumoke at Milner will increase the school year by 34 instructional days, including longer days and Saturday academies. Norwich’s Stanton Elementary is hiring “resident teachers” who will support master teachers in each grade level. And at New Haven’s High School in the Community, outdated school models based on seat time will be replaced with a competency-based instruction, meaning that students will advance once they have mastered content and skills.
Equally important is how these ideas moved into actionable goals. In each of these four cities, all corners of the education community came together to act quickly, with support and guidance from the state, to take decisive action that will result in real student achievement. Through turnaround committees established this summer, Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, and Norwich acted in the best interests of their students. School district administrators and community leaders, parents and teachers, union leaders and charter management organizations collaborated to act in the best interests of the students we are all committed to helping.
The challenge before us – all of us – is how we sustain this forward momentum and continue to take the steps necessary to transform and improve the lives of our highest-need students. The work isn’t done just because P.A. 12-116 was passed, the Year for Education Reform is concluded, or those first Network schools are named.
We must continue to push forward. As we implement reforms, we must learn from year one to improve the law and better empower our communities. We must build from these first four Network schools to the 25-school network that was established in P.A. 12-116. And we must take the lessons learned from the Commissioner’s Network and put those best practices in place for all students who need them, regardless of the school they attend. We must also continue to reform—to expand all students’ access to high quality public schools, ensure great teachers and great leaders for every school, and improve instruction in all communities.
Connecticut has begun to take control of our future. We have made clear the status quo will not stand and we are committed to providing all children – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – with a world-class public education. Through reforms like the Commissioner’s Network, we have taken big steps toward achieving that goal. We must now remain steadfast in our commitment to reform, to school improvement, and to all of Connecticut’s public school children.
Patrick Riccards is the chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, a statewide education advocacy organization.