Charter school proposed to Windham residents
By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Tue., Apr. 30, 2013
On April 22, representatives from Our Piece of the Pie appeared during two sessions at Windham High School to discuss a new charter school proposed for the town. The OPP application was among seven received by the state. Though there is still a review and public hearing process in store for all seven applications, OPP was “actively trying to keep parents and the community informed of and engaged with this potential new school,” according to Kerry Markey, communications officer for Windham Public Schools. In an e-mail, Markey noted that “the Windham Board of Education has not endorsed this initiative yet.”
OPP Chief Operating Officer Hector Rivera and Director of Educational Initiatives Scott Sugarman handed out a packet which identified the OPP mission as “helping urban youth become successful adults.” The proposed new Pathway school, according to the packet, would help “over-age, under-credited students get back on track to a timely high school graduation, while preparing them for success in college, career and community.” The proposed student body would be youth between the ages of 14 and 24. The school would start out with 120 students, working up to a maximum enrollment of 200, according to Sugarman.
Sugarman and Rivera pointed to their success in Hartford. At OPP, 82 percent of youth are graduating high school, they said, compared to 62 percent of youth in the city overall. Seventy-seven percent of OPP youth who graduate high school enroll in an Associate’s, Bachelor’s or vocational program, according to OPP materials.
Our Piece of the Pie Inc. is a Hartford youth development agency that has run a limited training program called “Pathways to Success” since 2005. In 2009, under Superintendent Steven Adamowski (currently heading up both Windham and New London under the direction of the State Department of Education), OPP opened Opportunity High School in Hartford. “The school has an enrollment of 102 and hasn’t been open long enough to reveal whether they have any ability to tackle the challenges of a broader school program or one in which 50 percent of the students go home to households in which English is not the spoken language,” pointed out Mansfield resident and public education advocate Jonathan Pelto on his blog, “Wait, what?”
The other high school-based program listed in the Our Piece of the Pie materials is the Learning Academy at Bloomfield. A look at OPP’s application, submitted to the state on January 3, 2013 (http://www.ctmirror.org/sites/default/files/documents/3_1.pdf), reveals, in a footnote, that the total enrollment in Bloomfield numbered just six students.
OPP received a letter of support from the Windham Federation of Teachers, with Randall J. Prose, president of the WFT, saying he supported the OPP school in part because the district used to have an alternative school for over age, under-accredited students that had been closed due to budget cuts several years ago. The population, said Prose, needed support.
“Last year, a program operating within Windham High School for students with behavioral needs was disbanded exclusively for budgetary reasons,” added WFT first vice president Tom Drewry. “When interviewed, Mr. Prose repeatedly asked that one point be made clear: our preferred means of addressing the needs of these students would be an adequate reinvestment in programs run by the local school system. This solution was unequivocally rejected. Instead, OPP was steered our way by parties with a vested interest in the charter movement. A local crisis precipitated by underfunding manufactured a demand for a service provided by an agency interested in expanding into the domain.”
“The question of how to respond to OPP’s request was one that weighed heavy on WFT leadership,” continued Drewry. “We saw no wholly satisfactory course of action.”
Drewry said that OPP leadership was open to union suggestions regarding curriculum. The computer-heavy Pathways model (a pedagogical approach called “blended-learning”) originally called for an 80-1 student to teacher ratio, said Drewry. “In response to our critique, they incorporated more teacher-driven instruction and lowered the ratio to 20-1,” he said. “Still, the plan is for the ramped-up use of computers to compel students through the curriculum at individually quickened paces. The general model depends heavily on assessments that determine when a student has mastered skills and content defined by the standards.”
The OPP model also calls for a Youth Development Specialist to be assigned to each student. Described as “a caring and consistent adult,” the youth development specialist would serve “as a mentor or life coach by engaging participants on a regular, one-on-one basis,” according to OPP materials.
Sugarman and Rivera described a pedagogical approach based on three different components: personalized instruction, mastery-based progression and blended learning. The three key instructional strategies would be: project-based learning, direct instruction and computer-based learning. Rather than traditional grade levels, the OPP approach utilizes a series of “bands”: self-discovery, self-exploration, community exploration, world exploration and interdisciplinary exploration.
“But the reality is...participation is completely voluntary. And it requires students to commit to a rigorous set of expectations including longer school days,” said Drewry. “The students who choose to enroll have to express a significant degree of intrinsic motivation, when in fact that lack is often one of the key variables in the struggles of students who match the profile targeted by OPP. There are undoubtedly students who would benefit... but how many?”
Drewry also addressed the rock-and-a-hard-place position that teachers’ unions find themselves in amid a growing push for privatization. “The state legislature, through last year’s educational reform bill, has materially advanced the position of organizations seeking to establish charter schools,” he said. “State dollars, siphoned away from traditional public schools that operate under a mandate to educate all children within their proscribed districts, will go to charter schools with or without union endorsement. Unions have thus been forced into an unenviable choice: on the one hand, ignore the practical implications of this political reality... or, on the other hand, make a significant compromise, one that capitulates on an elemental point of truth- that considered systematically, charter schools fatally hinder any authentic impulse our society may have to provide a quality education to each and every student.”