HARTFORD – On February 16, 2012, The Lyceum hosted a public forum entitled Connecticut’s Achievement Gap: How Housing Can Help Close It where many individuals from both the housing and education field came together to discuss ideas and methods of bridging the achievement gap in Connecticut public schools. As the title suggests, education officials gathered as panelists to openly discuss and answer questions on Connecticut’s achievement gap in public schools, the connection between that and housing, and ways to bridge the gap. Oddly enough, despite the even attendance of housing representatives and education officials, only education officials were on the panel. Panelists Miguel Cardona (Principal and Achievement Gap Task Force Member), Susan Marks (Superintendent of Norwalk Public Schools), Gary Highsmith (Principal and Achievement Gap Task Force Member), and Allan Taylor (Chair of the CT State Board of Education) publicly discussed what they see as the problem in public schools and how housing is an integral part of the solution.
What is the achievement gap in Connecticut public schools?
In order to discuss any steps to helping student achievement gaps in Connecticut, the panelists had to acknowledge what the problem is in public schools that are creating the gap. Public schools are plagued by startling differences in student academic performance which varies based on where a child lives and attends school. Children who attend public schools in wealthier neighborhoods have access to better resources than children from poorer neighborhoods. As a result children without proper educational resources like access to computers and updated textbooks end up performing lower on exams and tend to drop out along the way not attending college in comparison to their peers in neighboring cities.
Looking at the school and state district lines, one can plainly see that low student performance is closely connected with where a child lives. As a result, a landmark case came about in 1989–the landmarkcase of Sheff v. O’Neill case. Sheff plaintiffs were disappointed that children living in low income neighborhoods, specifically Hartford, were performing at a much lower rate than children in neighboring suburbs like Avon. Alongside clear testing patterns based on geography, it was noted that these regions were segregated; most of the population in low performing cities were made up of racial minorities while better performing suburban schools were almost entirely white.
The Ties That Bind Housing and Education
Having seen the effects of the Sheff case and the flight of wealthier individuals from low income neighborhoods, education and housing officials gathered at The Lyceum to attempt to utilize their inventive skills to create the solution to the problems with education. There was almost desperation in the room to enhance the school system so that all students can have access to a better education. But in that desperation came a false belief that one single solution could solve the crisis in Connecticut public schools.
Chair of the CT State Board of Education Allan Taylor suggested in the meeting that schools use transportation funds for students to the housing system so they could enhance living situations for families. Others played around with the idea of making schools within a district unified in curriculum. After hearing several suggestions, Principal Gary Highsmith made two statements that resonated with the room: one – that there is no real one solution to the problem and two – that the panelists and other education reformers were “substituting the wishbone for the backbone” in terms of finding solutions that would make a difference and last in the public school system. He was highlighting the fact that the panelists were expressing hopes and wants that may end up staying in the room instead of influencing legislature in some form. Highsmith encouraged bold and courageous conversations that inspire action.
What is there to take away after the forum?
Public forums are essential in voicing one’s opinion about the topic at hand and to hear thoughts and suggestions on how to solve problems. Unfortunately, this forum did not seem to provide any sense of direction. When asking Allan Taylor among others what the outcome of the discussion would be, there was heaviness to their response. Taylor openly acknowledged that solutions simply do not result from forums of this nature. It seems that the fate of Connecticut’s public school children is in the hands of “adult politics.” Instead of focusing on the needs of thousands of children around the state, officials seem to be caught up in numbers and other activities that should not come before the needs of struggling children.
Where do we go from here?
The state of which Connecticut schools are in need significant improvement, a reflection of the larger education issues across the nation. Public forums like that of today at the Lyceum demonstrates the urgency to address such inequalities like segregation and lack of educational resources. Many voiced their opinions and questions in hopes of bettering the schooling situation for children, but hoping is not action. If each representative of different organizations brought back some of what they heard from today’s discussion, something may come about. Bold discussions and forums are needed in order to make progress; it is from these discussions that reform strategies are created and have the possibility to be implemented in Connecticut schools.
Meet the Writers
Diana Ryan is a sophomore Human Rights major at Trinity College originally from the Bronx, New York. Shanese Caton is a sophomore Educational Studies and Political Science major at Trinity College originally from Brooklyn, New York. Both ladies are students in Professor Jack Dougherty’s Education Reform: Past and Present course.