Commissioner calls for community involvement in Windham public schools

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Wed., May. 18, 2011
Acting Commissioner of Education George Coleman talks about the future of Windham public schools. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Acting Commissioner of Education George Coleman talks about the future of Windham public schools. Photos by Melanie Savage.

A forum regarding the impending state intervention in the Windham Public School system drew a large crowd of residents to Windham Middle School on the morning of Saturday, May 14.

Appearing was George Coleman, acting commissioner of the state Department of Education, state Rep. Susan Johnson (D-49th District), and state Sen. Donald Williams, Jr. (D-29th District). The forum was initiated by Williams, and scheduled on a Saturday to allow accessibility for more residents. In the audience were numerous local leaders, including Barbara McGrath, chair of the Board of Finance, Superintendent of Schools Ana Ortiz and Mayor Ernie Eldridge.

Coleman reminded the audience that Windham had been identified “some years ago” as a school in crisis. Last year’s test scores provided “further evidence for concern,” he said. Among the 18 communities being monitored statewide, Windham showed the lowest level of progress. “Most concerning,” said Coleman, “was the decline of the highest-achieving students.”

Previously, said Coleman, the state was limited to a number of intervention strategies in such situations: restructuring the staff, removing the superintendent, and dismissing the local Board of Education in lieu of the Connecticut Board of Education or an appointed board. “We felt that we needed a more complete tool box,” said Coleman. His response was to seek authority for a Special Master to enter the school district and work with the existing superintendent and board. “The intent is to work with the existing structure,” said Coleman. But, “The Special Master is only the first level of intervention,” he added, promising that the state would move toward more invasive steps, if necessary.

Furthermore, Coleman suggested that the state has the authority to step in and require taxpayer support at the local level. “To the extent that resources are not available, we would hope that the town would be willing to support the district,” he said, adding that the state Board of Education can file a complaint that the “town resources are insufficient to support the needed changes.” Coleman said he was not trying to be a bully, “but the state will not be complicit in allowing students to receive an insufficient education.”

The first referendum for the 2011-12 school budget failed on May 10 by a vote of 1,307 “no” votes to 1,094 “yes.” The proposed budget represented a 3.79-percent increase over the current year’s spending.

Residents shared a number of concerns during the question-and-answer portion of the forum. One resident, who said that he was a taxpayer with no children in the system, said that his taxes were already exorbitant. “This community is in dire straits,” he said. “We cannot afford more money. I want to know, are you all going to support us financially?”

The answer seemed to come a few minutes later, in response to another resident’s question. “Windham’s problems need to be resolved by a system that Windham can sustain,” said Coleman.

Another area of concern was non-English-speaking residents. The town’s English as a second language population has reportedly doubled over the past few years. Some were concerned that the needs of these students were eclipsing the needs of others, including the high-level achievers.

Vanessa Gonzalez, a mother with two children in Windham schools, spoke to frequent complaints that the Hispanic population is not involved with the issues. Pointing to the lack of a Spanish translator at the forum, she referred to the many parents in the district who don’t speak English. “Are we supporting them?” she asked.

Coleman suggested that if there was a need for translators, someone should step in to fill it. “No one of us can be capable of recognizing all of the nuances that are necessary for success,” he said. Coleman also suggested a change in perceptions, whereby students’ fluency in a second language would be perceived as an asset rather than a setback.

This prompted resident John McGrath to bring up the existing Companeros program. “When the program started 15 or 20 years ago, the goal was to grow that program,” he said. “Our system needs to continue to be more innovative.”

The Companeros program, according to the Windham schools website, “has the primary goal of enabling students to become bilingual, bicultural and biliterate while reaching their highest possible academic performance.” The program encourages an open door policy between those learning Spanish as a second language, and those learning English.

Mayor Ernie Eldridge echoed the concern brought up by a number of residents - that local taxpayer money is being poured into a failing system. “If we gave you that money that is being asked for in the budget, would you give us a great product?” he asked.

Coleman said that the community needed to invest in itself, and promised to funnel whatever funding was available to the proper areas to achieve change. “I don’t have all of the answers to this,” he said. “What I have is a commitment to moving toward a goal that is in the best interests of the students.”

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