years ago Windham
had a blue-ribbon school.
The small, blue-collar community in eastern Connecticut,
which includes the city of Willimantic, had a
nationally recognized urban elementary school and Windham schools were considered to be among
the best of the state's urban districts.
But since then poverty has
soared there. The number of students who don't speak English
fluently has nearly doubled. Town residents have balked at education budgets
and whittled them down. And alienation has worsened between town officials and
the school district and between the community's urban and rural taxpayers.
Now, by many measures, Windham
schools are headed in the wrong direction.
Connecticut Mastery Test scores have declined in many areas. The dropout rate
is twice the state average. Only half the students are proficient in reading.
And the school district has the largest academic achievement gap — the
persistent disparity in academic performance between poor students and their
more affluent classmates — in the state.
Teachers grumble that many students are disrespectful and roam the hallways
during class. Not that many parents are involved with their children's schools.
The number of special education students is unusually high.
The school system's problems became so severe last summer that then-state
Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan stepped in and threatened to replace the
school board, a move that has sparked resentment in this hilly town of 23,000.
problems came to a head in August when McQuillan saw the latest Connecticut
Mastery Test scores, which showed that the town's 3,361 students lag far behind
statewide averages. Among the trouble spots: Fifth-graders' scores had dropped,
and eighth-graders' reading and writing scores had plunged. From fourth to
fifth grade, academic growth in reading and math was slowing considerably and,
in some cases, regressing.
McQuillan visited the Windham school board to
discuss the "dire condition of education in Windham" and the need for strong, proven
leadership. The superintendent position was vacant and McQuillan wanted the
board to hire one of his associate commissioners, Marion Martinez.
But the board said the community felt more comfortable with Windham's assistant superintendent, Ana V.
Ortiz, an experienced administrator who was serving as interim superintendent.
In September, McQuillan ordered a comprehensive audit of the school system and
told the school board to take the Lighthouse Training Program, a leadership
program for school boards that focuses in depth on student achievement.
He also threatened to replace the school board if the situation didn't improve
by April. A school reform law enacted last May allows the state education
commissioner to replace school board members.
This did not sit well in Windham.
"Who the hell is he to tell us what to do?" said Kenneth Folan,
chairman of Windham's
school board, recalling the standoff.
"Why us?" Ortiz recalled thinking. "Why is he picking on little Windham all of a
The school board ignored McQuillan's recommended choice for superintendent and
voted in December to make Ortiz the permanent superintendent. McQuillan,
meanwhile, resigned for unrelated reasons, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has not
yet named a permanent replacement.
In the meantime, the state Department of Education recently conducted seven
audits of the Windham district — which has
four elementary schools, including blue-ribbon winner Windham Center
School; a middle school
and a high school — covering everything from student achievement and
governance to finances. State education consultants have begun to share the
findings with school administrators, the school board and teachers. Next, the
state consultants plan to work closely with the board and administrators to
develop a comprehensive set of recommendations that they hope the community
This is not the first time the state has intervened in Windham. In 2008, the state forged a
partnership with the school district to raise student achievement. The state
also sent coaches to work with principals in each of Windham's schools.
in a phone interview after the standoff that he felt an increasing urgency to
out of its tailspin after seeing the test results and the widening academic
gaps. Despite working on a district improvement plan, Windham was still going in the wrong
direction, he said, and
demoralized staff and disenfranchised families seemed to be giving up hope.
Hispanic Population Spikes
A demographic shift in Windham
in the past decade has deeply affected the town's schools. More than 60 percent
of the student body now is Hispanic — up from 50 percent 10 years ago,
and from the mid-20 percent range about 15 years ago.The urban core of Puerto
Rican residents has seen a major influx of Mexican immigrants in recent years.
A third of Windham
students now come from homes where English is not the primary language.
The state audits reveal that Windham's
schools have been slow to adapt to the population change.
"What seems to come out of reports is that the instructional practices and
strategies in schools haven't responded quickly enough to needs of those
kids," said Lol Fearon, a state Department of Education bureau chief who
has been working on the audits and assisting Windham.
"Teachers try to meet the needs, but they just don't have the resources
and the background training," he said. "Also, it's almost impossible
to find teachers for English language learners in the state."
The audits also found a serious paucity of language-based services for English
language learners, particularly as they transitioned into mainstream classrooms
or moved into middle school or high school.
In addition, only about 13 percent of the teachers and administrators are
Latino. "With that kind of shift in population, you would want to reflect
that in the adults available to the kids," Fearon said.
Despite the population shift, most decision-making power in town remains in the
hands of white residents. The state's audits found the Hispanic population has
little or no involvement in local politics and government.
"There is definitely a feeling of disenfranchisement," Fearon said.
Poverty And Budget Cuts
Poverty, not surprisingly, contributes to Windham's
woes. In one barometer of poverty, 74 percent of students qualified for a free
or reduced-price school lunch last year, a rate that shot up from 57 percent
five years earlier.
"Everything that happens here is a struggle because there's never any
money," said Daniel Chace, a member of the high school's Parent Advisory
Committee. "It's always been a struggle here. We're not Fairfield County."
"There's no doubt that economic background is a factor in academic
achievement," Fearon said. "But it's not something the school
district can control.
Town council President N. Joseph Underwood said the school system has already
made many budget cuts, including middle school sports, and he is frustrated
that the state doesn't send more education funds to Windham.
"Give us more money so we can put it into education," Underwood said.
"Maybe we can buy more books, buy more computers, put more bilingual
individuals in our school system."
Besides struggling with poverty, the district has an unusually high percentage
of special education students, with 18.6 percent of students classified as
having special needs, compared to the state average of 11.6 percent. State
education officials believe that figure may be inflated because some students
who don't speak English as a first language may have been misdiagnosed.
Despite the school district's challenges, observers say Windham schools have many strong teachers,
and most are dedicated and genuinely care about their students.
does have caring teachers," Fearon said. "That's a great start. But
do they feel competent that they can reach these kids and meet the needs they
have in front of them? That's where we hope to make a difference."
The school system also has made some headway in narrowing the achievement gap,
according to recent Connecticut Mastery Test results, though the gains were
smaller than those of similar school systems and the statewide average, the
Unruly Students, Uninvolved Parents
Teachers complain that some
students at the middle school and high school are disrespectful
and unruly. During a recent visit to both schools, some students were wandering
in the hallways during class and had be told by their principal to return to
class. A couple of students yelled and cursed loudly as they passed in the
Teachers also say students stroll into class late or simply disappear from
school for weeks at a time. During class, students often text or talk on their
phones and sometimes swear at teachers.
"They are disrespectful beyond belief," said one teacher, who asked
not to be identified. "It's not the way I was brought up. They'll just
turn away and say 'F-U.' "
Sometimes it gets physical. Two weeks ago a high school student whom Principal
Steve Merlino was escorting to an in-school suspension knocked him to the
"He was agitated," Merlino said. "I was pushed to the ground,
but I consider that really more a part of my balance."
Four years ago, the town's alternative school closed, which meant those students entered the
high school. Also, the high school lost an assistant principal position.
The state's audits also found limited parental involvement in the schools.
Many Hispanic parents interviewed by the state for its audit said they are
restricted by job demands and can't leave small children at home to attend
school events. Some also cited the language barrier and said they feel
disconnected to the school system. Fearon said part of the reason could also be
that some of the Mexican immigrants may be undocumented and trying to keep a
Chace, of the parents' committee, said he is frustrated that so few parents
attend school plays and other events.
"You'll see kids who are not in school for weeks," Chace said.
"That's a problem. I think the problem is parents have to be
Another parent, Vicente Sanchez, said usually only a handful of people show up
for PTO meetings.
The problems are further compounded by a deep divide between the city of Willimantic, where most of the Latino population lives,
and the more rural town of Windham,
where residents are more predominately white.
"It's the story of the two Connecticuts,"
Ortiz said. "Willimantic tends to fall into the same situation: the
Hispanic vs. white population."
Until 1983 Windham
and Willimantic were separate communities, and each still retains its own mill
rate. Layered on top of this is friction and a lack of communication between
town officials and the school board, the audits found.
"Without significant reform on [the communication] issue, the combination
of insufficient public support, declining resources, and lack of cohesive
leadership will inevitably result in the continuing decline of the school
district," one of the audits concluded.
Last year, it took Windham
five referendums to pass the school budget. Taxpayers kept rejecting the budget
until the school board finally cut $1.1 million from it, coming in with a 1.87
percent increase over the previous year. Part of the resistance came from Windham voters who
opposed plans for a new magnet school, Folan said.
"The community needs to be energized and engaged to support the
schools," an audit concluded. "The overarching problems of school
performance, community capacity and the will to create the conditions for
improvement are of extreme urgency."
This year, Ortiz is trying more of a community-based approach to the education
budget, by sharing and discussing it at a series of meetings.
The audits also concluded that the school board has had a history of
micro-managing the superintendent and other administrators, which has
undermined efforts to move forward with big-picture goals.
"They have not given responsibility to the superintendent to develop plans
to meet the needs of the kids," Fearon said. At the same time, he added, school
board members feel that the community doesn't support their needs, a problem
compounded by the city's poverty.
The state Department of Education is now boiling down the findings of the seven
audits into a more managable overview. From there, state officials plan to
share the findings with the school board and teachers and trim down the 60
recommendations in the audits to a focused action plan.
In the meantime, there is a renewed energy and will to improve Windham's schools, they said.
"The school board is really attentive. They really want to change the
schools," said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut
Association of Boards of Education, which is running the school board training
program. "It's sort of a paradigm shift, you might call it."
As for the former education commissioner's threat to replace the school board
in April, it is still on the table, but the state seems unlikely to follow
through because the school board training is helping.
"The threat is always present, but it's less likely now," said state
Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy. "Things have improved."
Ortiz said she understands the sense of urgency to improve the school system
but wants to make sure the change is driven by Windham itself.
"We have got to move forward and we've got to do that collaboratively
because no one is going to take us over," she said.