Teachers speak out about changes in Windham
By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Tue., Aug. 27, 2013
The release of the most recent round of CAPT (Connecticut Academic Performance Test) scores has prompted teachers from Windham Public Schools to speak out regarding changes implemented since the appointment in 2011 of Special Master Steven Adamowski. “Teachers in Windham Public Schools are calling the second year of steep declines in the district’s student performance results an urgent opportunity to unite the community for a better future,” reads an American Federation of Teachers Connecticut press release.
Adamowski was installed in Windham after years of steady decline in student achievement, corresponding with rapidly increasing poverty rates in the city of Willimantic and surrounding communities. Since then, decisions have been made without the input of students, parents, teachers or administrators in the district, say the teachers. And these decisions have resulted in even further declines in test scores.
“We’ve seen things happening that we know don’t represent the best interests of our students,” said Kathy Koljian, an English and language arts teacher at Windham High School. (Koljian was recently identified by her peers as the Teacher of the Year at WHS).
Services for the district’s growing population of English language learners (ELL) have been virtually eliminated, according to Windham Center School bilingual teacher, Rose Reyes. “They’re not getting what they need from us,” said Windham Middle School teacher Patty Roy. (Roy was recently identified by her peers as the Teacher of the Year at WMS).
In addition, say the teachers, programs that were designed to support students struggling with behavioral issues have been dismantled. The Connections program at WHS and the Green Team at WMS were functioning very well for these students, say the teachers. But the programs have been eliminated, and the students returned to regular classrooms. This has affected students across the spectrum; needier students are not getting the support that they need, and average and above-average students are having their classrooms disrupted, according to the teachers.
“If you look at the numbers of kids in our school who are walking the halls and are not engaged in their educations, because they cannot engage in their educations - it’s truly criminal,” said Koljian.
There were more than 20 expulsions last year at Windham Middle School alone, said Roy.
Likewise, more advanced students are being inadequately supported. High-achieving students are not being given opportunities to adequately prepare for state exams, due to lack of course offerings, say the teachers.
“He’s supposed to be the watchdog ensuring that these kids get the support they need,” said Koljian of the special master. “Instead, he’s exacerbating the situation.”
In response to the teachers’ claims regarding ELL services, Beth Brunet, ESOL, Bilingual Education, and World Languages Director for Windham Public Schools, said that services are being provided, but in a much different way than the district is used to. Instead of intensive instruction at the K-2 level, for example, Brunet said that services are now being provided within the main classroom. “Yes, there was a change in the way that we provide bilingual education,” she said. “What we’ve got in place now is bilingual support.” There has also been an effort to provide a more comprehensive continuum of support throughout grades K-12, said Brunet.
Regarding the Green Team and the Connections program, Superintendent Ana Ortiz acknowledged that they had been dismantled during Adamowski’s first year in the district. There had been talk about reinstating the Connections program last year, said Ortiz, but that had not yet been accomplished.
Another hurried decision made unilaterally by the special master, said teachers, was the division of Windham High School into two separate academies - the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy and the Academy of Humanities and Arts. As teachers prepare for the second year since the change, “We still don’t have curriculum for either one,” said Koljian. And this year’s CAPT scores show significantly lower performance by students in the Humanities and Arts academy than those in the STEM academy across most areas, suggesting that the academy model is serving to segregate students rather than unite them.
Ortiz said that this could potentially be due to the lack of leadership in the humanities academy during the first part of last year. The lack of a leader to provide staff and students with structure might have impacted academic performance and performance on the CAPT, suggested Ortiz. With solid leadership now in place, said Ortiz, there was the potential to see test scores improve.
Other moves purported to increase choices for parents and students are actually serving to further segregate the population, said the teachers. The recent addition of Parish Hill and Norwich Free Academy to the roster of available schools serves to enrich the choices of the most involved and motivated parents/students only, they say. With no transportation provided, many families couldn’t manage the commute to either school. A lottery system benefits parents who can speak English, who are aware of their rights, and who can afford the time and the money that the daily commute would require. “That’s not a choice,” suggested AFT representative Matt O’Connor.
“Our students are not getting the services they need because of the unilateral decisions made by one person who has been invested with that power by legislation," said Koljian. "We’ve always said that for any reform to work there must be opportunity for true collaboration. That collaboration must include committed educators, engaged parents and community members in making decisions that impact the opportunities for our students to learn. The law establishing the Special Master role was well-intentioned and could prove effective, provided the appointed Special Master responded to the needs of our community. That is why we also need to engage our elected officials,” she said.
“We shouldn’t overestimate the value of test scores, but an appropriate response to this trend in Windham is a united community effort to examine what is working and what is not,” said Melodie Peters, president of AFT Connecticut. “The community’s students are not a science project, and their schools are more than laboratories. They deserve a real commitment to do what it takes to get their education right,” she said.
Asked whether she felt that the district was going in a positive direction since the arrival of Adamowski in 2011, Ortiz said, “In some things, yes we are. In other things there’s more to come.” Asked about the potential for improvement in academic performance as new plans continue to be implemented, Ortiz said, “As we continue to move forward, we’ll see.”