The ELL Paradox in Hartford Public Schools

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“We know we are very fortunate. We all understood that these students are going to grow up here, stay here and be a permanent part of this community. Their success is key to our community’s success.”[i]

In October of 2010, I had the opportunity to intern at a local Hartford Public School. I was very eager to work with a recent Teach for America graduate at the time, and felt that I could bring a new perspective to his 6th grade classroom; as a product of the Hartford Public School system, I felt that I could truly relate to his students and serve as a valuable asset to the classroom. During my first few weeks at there, I found myself in a very difficult position: although I wanted to spend my time helping the students in the classroom with science projects and other assignments, I found myself being used mostly as a translator between the teacher and four [transfer] students who were in his homeroom. These students had recently moved to Hartford from Puerto Rico and were immediately enrolled into a Hartford school by their mother, who did not want to see them fall behind in their academics.

The Vice Principal of this school at the time explained that the school no longer had an official ELL program (English Language Learners) but rather, the children spent their fourth period in a class for students with developmental and behavioral problems. In this class, typically taught by a member of the school support staff, students received specialized attention with their classwork. Many times the class was taught by a bilingual staff-person; however, this was not always the case. I realized immediately that this arrangement was problematic – the children did not have behavioral nor developmental problems, they simply did not understand a word of English. Due to the experiences that these children and countless others face and the changing nature of ELL/Bilingual Education programs in Hartford Public Schools, both before and after the complaint with USDOE OCR was filed, we can see that Hartford has experienced a shift from a Spanish-language minority group to multiple language minority groups. Furthermore, albeit the Hartford Public Schools signed a resolution which provided a legal remedy to the immediate problems experienced by ELL [Bilingual] Students, the changes promised in the resolution have not yet been implemented in the district. Thus, the dual language concept to be implemented in HPS would not address ELL concerns for non-Spanish (and non-English) speaking minority groups.

Literature Review

Original Complaint: In April of 2007, the Center for Children’s Advocacy in Hartford filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights [USDOE OCR] claiming that “the city schools failed to adequately teach English language learners…”[ii] Reflecting on the experience of the Rivera children, it is clear to see that they were at an unfair disadvantage at their school. The district failed to meet the needs of every student, especially those who needed them most. Under Federal law, districts are required to provide sufficient support to students with limited mastery of the English language. In Hartford, the demographics of the schools are representative of the vast diversity of the City’s population. This led me to formulate this question: Why did Hartford ELL advocates pursue district compliance with federal law and does this fit with current broader Hartford Public School language policies?

The original complaint filed with USDOE OCR, was filed on behalf of Liberian, Somali-Bantu, and Spanish-speaking families with [what is referred to in the document as] Limited English-proficiency (LEP). The primary argument made by the Center for Children’s Advocacy in the complaint was that the “Hartford Public School district has not developed or implemented an adequate system for communicating with non-English speaking parents who are also non-Spanish-speaking.”[iii] As a result, the Center for Children’s Advocacy cited the Hartford Public School district as being in direct violation of “Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which promises and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA).”[iv]

Somalia-Bantu Youth of Hartford, CT at Tutoring Program held by Campus Organization. Credit: Nick Lacy, Trinity College Office of Communications

The Center for Children’s Advocacy cited that the district did not offer a sufficient bilingual education program for students with limited English proficiency. The Center reached out to numerous parents and community organizations including the Hartford Refugee Resettlement Group to make their case. This network of service providers would ultimately serve as a voice for Somali-Bantu youth and those students like them. The Center used valuable information given to them by the Resettlement group to show that many Somali-Bantu youth who had been given refugee status had limited-to-no previous formal education in their home countries. This would create important implications for the Hartford Public School District who would need to employ new strategies to reach these students.

The Center for Children’s Advocacy also found that the District had failed to provide parents with sufficient means of communication and that all communication from the schools were in English, which the Somali-Bantu families did not understand. In an October 2012 article featured in Education Week, titled, Schools Falter at Keeping ELL Families in the Loop, Lesli Maxwell outlines important information that all ELL districts should know about. In an interview with Peggy Nicholson, a representative with the Advocates for Children’s Services (an ally of the Southern Poverty Law Center), Ms. Nicholson explains that, “For these parents, it was an issue of not being able to be meaningful participants in decisions about their child’s education…”[v] The complaint filed in 2007 brought to light the changing composition of minority groups in Hartford. The shift went from a predominantly Spanish-speaking minority to a more diverse group, including for the first time ever, students such as Somali-Bantu youth and Liberian youth. The fact that these new families, including refugee families, were arriving in Hartford created a need to focus on the educational attainment of all students in enrolled in the Hartford Public School district.

The Center found that “by failing to establish an effective system for communicating with the Somali-Bantu students and their parents, the District was in violation of Title VI which reads:

No state shall deny equal educational opportunity to an individual on account of his or her race, color, sex or national origin, by…                                                                                             (f) the failure by an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome the language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in instructional programs.

By this point, you may start to ask yourself: How do the teachers who are dealing with these students feel? According to a study released by Education Week, titled Teaching ELL Students, in 2006-07, the State of Connecticut certified a total of 836 teachers in Title III language instruction programs. Researchers found that the average number of ELL students per certified Title III teacher in Connecticut was 34. Interestingly, Connecticut was one of the many states that DID NOT require all prospective teachers to demonstrate competence in ELL instruction – the states that did require this for prospective teachers included Arizona, Florida, New York.

In Hartford, not only did teachers lack the materials and training to teach many ELL students, but some teachers went as far as to say: “The school system is not set up for this…teachers need more support.” This highlights a key problem about the ELL program in Hartford – if students don’t understand teachers, and teachers don’t understand the student population they are servicing, how can any learning or imparting of learning truly occur? Ultimately, the problem that ELL students in Hartford are experiencing is a multi-faceted dilemma that in order for the District to fully address, these Administrators must look deeper to see the many layers of the problem to fully address the concerns of ELL advocates.

Resolution to Complaint: On February 13, 2013, Dr. Christina Kishimoto, Superintendent of the Hartford Public School District filed a resolution agreement to OCR Complaint No. 01-07-1149 filed by the Center for Children’s Advocacy. In said resolution, the District outlined the steps that were to be employed to create an adequate program of learning and progress monitoring for ELL students. In the agreement, the District agreed to ensure approximately 45-60 minutes of daily bilingual support for ELL students.[vi] The District also promised to bring in more ESL teachers[vii] and bilingual school staff that could help the Hartford schools to reach its goal of providing ELL students with a meaningful education experience.

One of the major problems that I identified in the resolution agreement was listed under §4 of said agreement, titled “STAFFING”.

Dr. Christina Kishimoto, Superintendent of Hartford Schools. Credit: Nellie Mae Education Foundation


The Hartford Board of Education states that:

The District will use its best efforts to ensure that each school has enough qualified ESL – and bilingual-certified staff to provide the services described above. The District recognizes that “best efforts” includes promptly and actively recruiting qualified ESL – and bilingual certified staff when there are vacancies as well as assigning ESL – and bilingual-certified general education staff to provide ESL and bilingual services.

The problem lies in the wording of the claim: “when there are vacancies” – implies something very interesting that takes place in Hartford schools. When the district piloted its ESL programs, they searched for highly motivated, certified, well-educated individuals to fill positions as bilingual literacy coaches, mentors and teachers; when the ESL/Bilingual program was discontinued in Hartford, many of these educators trained for special populations stood on-board in their schools and transitioned into roles as literacy coaches, special education coaches and math coaches, according to one Hartford Public School district official who noted, “These instructors are too valuable a resource in our schools, so we had to find ways to keep them around.”  Many of these teachers were on track to become tenured (if they were not already), had obtained advanced degrees and were members of teachers unions, for example. Given the fact that these individuals were in such high demand previously, it made sense to keep them around as they contributed greatly to the overall school and the community at large. Thus, although the resolution provided teachers with more professional development to help them to help the ELL students in their classrooms, they will never replace the teachers and coaches with advanced degrees in bilingual education who have a deeper understanding of the dual-language model and its implications.

Furthermore, the District promised to take on a more hands-on approach in identifying “new arrivals” (students who’d been in the U.S. for less than three years), long-term ELL Students (students who have undertaken an intensive ELL program and have not yet mastered proficiency in the English language even after the duration of their time in the program) and students with limited-to-no previous education in their home countries, such as the Somali-Bantu refugee children. The resolution also promised to provide more resources, such as translators for parents who would like to communicate with their child’s schools. This provided a remedy to using students as translators, which was seen as highly inappropriate and un-professional among those parents who needed a way to effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings to school officials. This challenged the notion of a neglectful school and district that did not previously care to communicate properly with these parents. It seemed that Hartford Public Schools wanted to use this document to thoroughly outline what it was going to take for the District to be in compliance with the regulation implementing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, at 34 C.F.R. Section 100.3, which was the main violation cited in the OCR complaint.

Two-Way Feasibility Study:  To have my readers fully understand the scope of what we are talking about in this paper, I would like to point out a few key terms. In a recent study which gauged the feasibility of implementation of a two-way language program in the 2014-2015 school year, (conducted by Achieve Hartford in partnership with the Hartford Board of Education), the term “English Language Learner” refers to any student who is “an active learner of the English language whose dominant language is other than English and whose proficiency in English is not sufficient to assure equal educational opportunity in the general education program…”[viii] The study details the steps that need to be made in order to fully implement Two-Way Language programs in Hartford Public Schools and implies that the road to a dual language program is long and toilsome, but not without its due rewards.

What was most striking in this study was that the list of ‘pros’ matched in length the list of ‘cons’ in the first few pages of the document. The lists were used to highlight what has and has not worked in the past in various Hartford Public Schools; in other words, the task of implementing a Two Way Language program has nearly as many benefits as it has limitations. On the “positives” list, the number one benefit listed was “Cognitive benefits to children: research has indicated children who grow up bilingual, bi-literate and multi-culturally competent surpass their non-bilingual peers in academic competencies and language skills.” [1] On the “challenges” list, the number one detriment listed was: “Requires more concentrated district support and resources.”[2]

The two-way feasibility study conducted for Hartford Schools also highlights the work that the Hartford Public School District is doing to create a multi-cultural consciousness among the many students they service. Many of these efforts include teaching students about different cultures through music, art and literature, such as Day of the Dead or Kwanzaa or learning about Japanese Internment Camps through Haiku written by Japanese-Americans – key concepts in cultural enrichment taught in schools, and taught in English. This is not conducive to a meaningful educational experience, particularly among students such as Somali-Bantu refugees, Liberian children or children of Dominican descent, for example, who may not have any formal educational experience prior to arriving in the United States.

Somalia-Bantu Youth of Hartford, CT at Tutoring Program held by Campus Organization. Credit: Nick Lacy, Trinity College Office of Communications


In the struggle to implement sufficient ELL programming in any schools, the multi-dimensioned effort needs to include everyone in the District who can help to provide a “meaningful experience” for these students, children who need them most. The effect can be felt from the top-down: the central office must find money to fund these specialized classes and specially trained teachers. In the schools, and specifically, in the classroom, teachers must find ways to not only help ELL students master both a new language, AND what is being taught the course. Also, important to note is that Spanish is spoken by the vast majority of English Language Learners, nationally. This is evident in the Hartford School District, where extensive programming for Spanish-speaking students had been (and in many respects continues to be) the main focus of the ESL programs in place in local schools.[ix]

In a recent article published in Education Week by Mary Ann Zehr, titled English-learners pose policy puzzle[x]. I was very interested to find the following statistical data, which placed this English-Language-Learning paradox in the vanguard of my mind for many weeks:

            Only 23.6% of students who start the ninth grade in New York City as English-Language Learners graduate four years later, although, some continue their schooling and receive diplomas after that. The four year dropout rate for ELLs is 41.8%…The families of school-aged ELLs are consistently more socio-economically disadvantaged than those of their peers. ELL youths are half as likely to have a parent with a two or four year college degree and much more likely to live in a low-income household. While 2/3rds of ELL youths have a parent who holds a steady job, their parents typically earn much less than those of non-English-Language Learners.

This put the ELL paradox shows us that families who are not proficient in English will struggle more significantly than families who have English fluency. Families who have a proficiency in English are able to effectively communicate with their schools, albeit ELL families, in many cases, cannot. According to Federal Law, “school districts are required to provide adequate support to students with limited English proficiency so that they can meaningfully access a school’s curriculum.”[xi]  When Somali-Bantu Refugees fled Somalia, not only were these “New Arrivals” experiencing a myriad of problems as newcomers to the United States, the schools were not helping ease their burden.

For this reason, the data leads me to believe that due to the experiences that these Somali-Bantu, Liberian and Spanish-speaking children and countless others face and the changing nature of ELL/Bilingual Education programs in Hartford Public Schools, both before and after the complaint with USDOE OCR was filed, a shift has occurred in Hartford. The City has experienced a shift from a Spanish-language minority group to multiple language minority groups. Furthermore, albeit the Hartford Public Schools signed a resolution which provided a legal remedy to the immediate problems experienced by ELL [Bilingual] Students, the changes promised in the resolution have not yet been implemented in the district. Thus, I believe that the dual language concept to be implemented in Hartford would not address ELL concerns for non-Spanish (and non-English) speaking minority groups.. It seems that although the Somali-Bantu refugee families, Liberian families and other ELL families are slowly integrating into the City of Hartford, the vast majority of families in the ELL program are still Spanish-speaking. The District would need to further identify and monitor the progress of “New Arrivals” to see which strategies and best practices work for these families. Naturally, these families would have to ask questions and reach out to find resources such as the Hartford Refugee Resettlement Group which would in turn help get these families adjust to the United States. They would also need to take full advantage of the translator sources which are outlined in the resolution agreement, to truly be involved in ensuring that their child gets a fair education. Hartford Public Schools has a very good outline of how the resolution to the ELL paradox should look, but the fact of the matter is that until these reforms are implemented, the Hartford School District is STILL in violation of Civil Rights law. The only way these reforms could ever be effective is if they are implemented immediately and in the time frame that was promised in the resolution agreement.



Center for Children’s Advocacy. “Complaint to the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Concerning Limited-English Proficient Learners in the Hartford Public Schools,” April 11, 2007.

DeLaTorre, Vanessa. “Hartford Courant: After Federal Probe, Hartford Schools Agree To Improve Services For ‘English Language Learners,” March 22, 2013.

Hartford Public Schools. Two-Way Language Program Feasibility Study, January 3, 2013.

Lesli Maxwell, “Schools Falter at Keeping ELL Families in the Loop,” Education Week, October 2, 2012.

US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. “Hartford Board of Education (District) OCR Complaint No. 01-07-1149 Resolution Agreement,” February 13, 2013.

Mary Ann Zehr, “English-Learners pose policy puzzle,” Education Week, December 31, 2008.

[1]  Hartford Public Schools, Two-Way Language, 2013.

[2]  Hartford Public Schools, Two-Way Language, 2013.

[i] Maxwell, 2013

[ii] De La Torre, After Federal Probe, Hartford Schools Agree To Improve Services For ‘English Language Learners

[iii] CCA Complaint, USDOE OCR, 2013

[iv] CCA Complaint, USDOE OCR, 2013

[v] Maxwell, 2012

[vi] Hartford Public Schools, Resolution Agreement, 2013

[vii] English Language Learners (ELLs) in Hartford are placed in an English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) program.

[viii] Hartford Public Schools, Two-Way Language

[ix] These schools such as Moylan, McDonough and Parkville School are all in neighborhoods with a very high Black and Latino population. (HPS State of the Schools Address, 2013)

[x] Zehr, English-Learners pose policy puzzle.

[xi] De La Torre, Federal Probe, 2013

ED 300 Research Proposal: Bilingual Education

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Research Question:

How has the need for, and implementation of, Bilingual Education in Hartford, Connecticut changed over the years?

Why does this deserve to be researched?

In October of 2010, I was placed at McDonough Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) for my classroom placement as part of a requirement for my Education 200: Analyzing Schools class. I was very eager to work with Chris Gentile, a recent Teach for America graduate at the time, and felt that I could bring a new perspective to his 6th grade classroom; as a product of the Hartford Public School system, I felt that I could truly relate to the students at McDonough and serve as a valuable asset to Mr. Gentile in the classroom. During my first few weeks at McDonough, I found myself in a very difficult position: although I wanted to spend my time helping the students in the classroom with science projects and other assignments, I found myself being used mostly as a translator between Mr. Gentile and four [transfer] students who were in his homeroom – Maria, Josue, Valializ and Reyna Rivera. These students had recently moved to Hartford from Puerto Rico and were immediately enrolled into a Hartford school by their mother, who did not want to see them fall behind in their academics.

The Vice Principal at MELS at the time, Dirk Olmstead explained that the school no longer had an official ELL program (English Language Learners) but rather, the Rivera children spent their fourth period in a class for students with developmental and behavioral problems. In this class, typically taught by a member of the McDonough school support staff, students received specialized attention with their classwork. Many times the class was taught by a bilingual staff-person; however, this was not always the case. I realized immediately that this arrangement was problematic – the Rivera children were not “bad” kids, they simply did not understand a word of English.

Under No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Title I and Title III, school districts must offer Educational programs for limited English proficient (LEP) students/English language learners (ELLs).The arrangement at MELS shows a shift in position on the importance of Bilingual education [and the ELL program] among Hartford Public School Administration– which is evident due to the lack of funding for Bilingual education programs, according to several school administrators. This issue is important to me because I was a product of ELL instruction. At home, my primary language was Spanish and I found the ELL program to be my saving grace at school, because I was able to learn English in a relatively short amount of time, I was able to do well both inside and outside of the classroom. I saw first-hand the many pains that students such as Reyna and Josue experienced in Mr. Gentile’s class, labeled as delinquents because they could not sit still and do any of the work. I truly believe that this is an issue of keystone importance affecting non-English speaking children enrolled in Hartford Public Schools today. I am interested in exploring Hartford Public Schools, as well as, independent schools such as La Escuelita Bilingual School (formerly Ann Street School).


Research Strategy:

Using the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), JSTOR – the “digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources”, Google Scholar, the Trinity College Library catalog, I searched for key terms using the following words and phrases:

  1. Bilingual Education & Hartford, CT”
  2. “Bilingual Education in Hartford, CT
  3. “ELL programs in Hartford, CT”
  4. “Bilingual Education as Special Education”
  5. “Bilingual Education in Hartford Public Schools”

Although these searches bring up some good literature for this topic, it seems that the literature is limited. I will need to conduct interviews with teachers or administrators that are familiar with HPS policy trends in the specific field of Bilingual education. I would also like to conduct interviews with bilingual students who attend Hartford schools to gain insight into their experiences at their respective schools.


Bibliography of Possible Sources:

Ardinger, Ashley. “English Language Learners: an analysis of policy and achievement over time.” (2012).

“Bilingual Programs Increasing in City.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1984) [Hartford, Conn.] 19 Aug. 1973,12I. ProQuest Historical Newspapers Hartford Courant (1923 – 1984). ProQuest. Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 4 Mar. 2009

Cohen, Linda M. Meeting the needs of gifted and talented minority language students: Issues and practices. No. 8. National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1988.

Gersten, Russell, and Robert T. Jimenez. “A delicate balance: Enhancing literature instruction for students of English as a second language.” The Reading Teacher 47.6 (1994): 438-449.

Papirno, Elisa. “Puerto Rican Children Getting Bilingual Education at La Escuelita. ” The Hartford Courant (1923-1984) [Hartford, Conn.] 28 May 1973,33. ProQuest Historical Newspapers Hartford Courant (1923 – 1984). ProQuest. Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 4 Mar. 2009 <>

Park, Sunny. “Teaching English to English Language Learners in 1960s and Today.” (2008).

Rossell, Christine H., and Keith Baker. “The educational effectiveness of bilingual education.” Research in the Teaching of English (1996): 7-74.

Torres, Karina. “Language Policies: A study of Language Ideologies in Connecticut State Policies for English Language Learners.” (2012).

Zirkel, Perry Alan. “An evaluation of the effectiveness of selected experimental bilingual education programs in Connecticut.” (1972).


Next Step: I am scheduled to meet with Jack on  Monday, April 8, 2013 at 11:40am to receive feedback on my proposal.








Hartford Public Schools call for Accountability among Parents, Teachers, Students in School Climate Review

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At 5:30 pm, on March 5, 2013, we attended a special meeting of the Hartford Board of Education; the meeting was presided over by Dr. Matthew K. Poland, former Chief Executive Officer of Hartford Public Library. Other members of the Board of Education who were present included Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, Dr. Christina Kishimoto and Hartford Mayor, Pedro Segarra. The public session opened 15 minutes late, and members of the Board were seen scurrying to their seats after a closed meeting in the back of the library (the meeting was held at the Mark Twain Branch of the Hartford Public Library located at Hartford Public High School).

Dr. Poland greeted everyone and urged the first presenters to take their seats at the front table in order to begin the meeting. The first presenters were from the Office of Pre-K-12 Education (Hartford Public Schools Central Office). The lead presenter was Jonathan Swan, Assistant Superintendent of Pre-K-12 Education and Sarah Horkel, School  Leadership Support Coordinator from the Office of Pre-K-12 Education.


Mr. Swan opened the meeting by introducing his team and some interesting findings from the School Climate Surveys that were implemented throughout the District. Students, teachers, parents and administrators took the survey to give honest feedback which would gauge:


“the perceptions of the school through multiple lenses…” as Swan explained.


The presenters went on to explain tremendous consistencies in many statistics that the survey evaluated, including, parent participation  the survey, where Hartford Schools has matched the previous year’s 80% benchmark target.

Ms. Horkel introduced the alarming trends  that some of the surveys pointed to in several schools throughout the district. In some of the district’s target schools (lower-performing schools), students were more likely to respond negatively to a question regarding peer culture: this pointed to the fact that students experience bullies or other negative interactions with peers more frequently in these types of schools (not a problem that magnet and charter schools in Hartford experienced as frequently – as indicated by the surveys).

After Ms. Horkel brought this concern to the table, Dr. Poland with a rather astonished look on his face asked for more clarification. He explained how this was a pressing issue that should be addressed further. It was clear that several members on the Board (by their expressions and mannerisms) were not fully content with the presentation that the Office of Pre-K-12 Education was giving them about the peer culture in Hartford Schools. Mayor Segarra and Chairman Poland suggested a more comprehensive analysis for this issue, including a deeper look at where the children who took these surveys resided (Hartford students v. suburban Choice parents).

Members of the Achieve Hartford! committee, who partnered on this survey, continued to share their information about the 2013 Report on School Climate and Student Connectedness in Hartford Public Schools. Achieve Hartford is a local non-profit organization that works to attain high levels of achievement from students and increased parent particiption in Hartford schools. They mentioned how the participation numbers for parents are relatively low and discussed a need to get more parents involved in the survey.

Review from the Board of Education brought up questions of parenting and more specifically how well parents understand their children’s schools; the discussion is that parents rated their schools much higher in safety and fair treatment as opposed to their children who on average rated the schools about a point lower. Some of the most important questions in the parent survey were about whether the child is safe at the school and whether the child is treated fairly at the school. The responses to the survey were scored on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the highest. Results for the parent survey showed that on average parents rated school safety at 4.2 and peer climate at 4.3. In comparison students rated their school safety at 3.4 and their peer climate at 3. The Board of Education made it a point to focus on what might be getting lost in translation between students and parents and what can be done to alleviate this problem. No particular answer to this problem was posed at the meeting but all parties involved agreed that they should look further into it.

Board member Richard F. Wareing pointed out that in order to move forward the next step for the Office of Pre-K-12 Education would be to find out why the three subgroups (staff, students and parents) had different responses on the survey. If the Achieve Hartford committee is able to follow up and discover why there are such significant differences between the perceptions of teachers, students and parents then the Board of Education will be able to put together new plans that will help Hartford schools.

The main goal of the Report on School Climate and Student Connectedness in the Hartford Public Schools was to gather more information about how school participants actually feel about their environment. The results show that students have a fairly low opinion of their schools but the results should also provide a renewed motivation among parents and teachers to do their best to address these issues.

To learn more about Achieve Hartford please visit


The Race to Nowhere and The Role of the Family in Schools

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The film, Race to Nowhere, directed by Vicki Abeles, presented a take on education and the role of the family in schools that I had never been exposed to. Abeles uses her film to highlight the extensive pressures and demands that students are facing in America’s schools. She sets the tone for the film in the opening scene where we see students sharing the troubles they experience in schooling; this culminates with Abeles asking the question, “How come no one is insisting that it change?” This question is imperative to the main premise of this film. Abeles wanted to use this film to challenge the traditional notion of how schools function, the role of the family in education and to show how the emphasis on creating perfect students detracts from creating well-rounded citizens, and strays away from socializing the “whole” child.  Abeles, who was formerly a Wall Street Lawyer, became a filmmaker after she noticed that her own children “began complaining of homework-induced headaches and test anxiety…” [The scenes I felt were the most critical to the film will be discussed in no particular order, but will include time stamps and screenshots.]

Understanding the pressures that students face are important in shaping the pedagogical processes that schools undertake to create good students. When students are constantly being pushed to not only do well in school, but to get straight A’s, look good for college and meet the high expectations set by their families, they are becoming what was described in the film as “little professionals,” that is, children who are performing to meet the high standards of the school but are taking on more than they can necessarily handle. One child described these pressures as the “and” factor. She articulates the idea that students are faced with having to do homework AND do well on that homework AND attend sports practice before doing homework AND volunteer in their community AND pay attention in school AND get good grades. The idea of the “and” factor is startling because of the problems that it presents. Students may constantly feel that they aren’t meeting someone’s standards, whether it is a parent, a coach, or a teacher, etc., because they are so preoccupied.

[Race to Nowhere]

The scene that occurs at [00:15:04] when a young woman is describing her experience as a high-performing student while she was on the private school track was interesting to consider. The young woman, throughout her school career had to try to appease her teachers, parents and others who would constantly reinforce to her that they were placing such pressures on her in her best interest, when in fact, it was not. The young woman experienced bouts of depression, emotional breakdowns and a stint with anorexia that led her to be hospitalized. The pressures of schooling were so great on her that she left the private school track to pursue a GED and a High School equivalency certification. This scene was important to this narrative because of the tremendous pressures that so many students face. They find taking stimulants such as Adderall to be acceptable because it will help them stay awake to finish more work and “keep up with everyone else…” According to Darrick Smith, a teacher in Oakland, for those students who experience the tremendous pressures inside and out of the classroom, the schooling experience is “no longer about learning” and more so about trying to stay afloat.

After reading Diane Ravitch and analyzing her critique on the 1983 Nation at Risk report and NCLB legislation, I was fascinated when the film mentioned these important policies. In a scene where experts were analyzing the effects of homework, and how countries that outperform the U.S. in education give less homework, it was interesting to see where Nation at Risk and NCLB fit in. The filmmakers highlighted that increase in homework in schools began in 1983 and shot up again in 2002. The critique that the film presented was that of the ineffectiveness of said policies, which leads me to believe that Abeles may agree in some ways with Ravitch’s stance. A focus on measures that did not work, less funding for schools and teachers receiving bonuses for higher test scores vilified these policies as a rough time in American Education. The case against homework that the film presented was that homework was often ineffectual as a gauge of students’ understanding. If parents edit or do their child’s homework for them because a child is constantly frustrated by their own misunderstandings or feel that they just can’t do it, then homework is not doing what it is intended to do: reinforce what is learned in the classroom outside of the classroom for a more comprehensive understanding of the material. (Interestingly, the AP teacher who cut his Biology class’s homework in half and saw a rise in AP scores gives credence to the idea of less homework and more intensive and meaningful in-class interactions as an alternative and successful model.)

[Race to Nowhere]
In what I believe to be one of the most important scenes of the film, which starts at [00:30:11] we are introduced to Emma Batten-Bowman, a former English teacher at Mandela High School in Oakland, California. Ms. Batten-Bowman describes her desire to inspire her students in the classroom. She believed in the idea of meritocracy and that by teaching her students to work hard she could use education as a method to move students out of the socio-economic strata which they occupy. Her educational philosophy of “changing kids’ lives” and “learning as power” was combated by competing educational philosophies – the pressures and expectations set by the local school district. She said that the educational philosophy that she was trying to instill into her students was “not what the district wants you to do…” and she resigned. In this scene, and many others, the filmmakers educe a deeply emotional response from the viewers because of the deeply personal and emotional display that the teachers, parents and others display throughout the film. The appeal to emotion is used a method to gain support for the film.

In a similar type of scene in the film, when the parents of Devon, a bright young woman who took her own life because of the tremendous pressures she felt, viewers are forced to sympathize with the loss of the parents and to reflect on whether the models of education that are currently in place are actually worth the pressures that they inflict on children. [00:71:00]

[Race to Nowhere]
Devon’s parents described her as a bright young girl who was facing great internal pressure from an algebra class that she was enrolled in. She went from having a 100% average to failing a math test and could not cope with the consequences of performing below what she considered for her entire life to be “normal.” Parents who are watching the film will begin to seriously question their own children’s academic success and the pressures they are under. They may side with the filmmaker’s views about these pressures, and believe that the schools are “robbing children of their childhood…” because of the deep personal and emotional response that the film evokes from its viewers. I began to wonder about how families who have viewed the film reflected on the pressures that they impose on their children.

Another important scene in this film was at [00:42:00] when the shift focused from pressures of schooling to implications of those pressures – specifically, cheating in school. Danielle, a twelfth grader at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California describes her experience, “Cheating has become another course. You learn how to do it from 9th-12thgrade and you just get better at it…” The film goes on to describe cheating as a result of too much work, greater pressures and/or teachers who do not care. Another student described her own cheating as a result of having “no room to make mistakes” in the classroom.

[Race to Nowhere]
The film’s focus on the pressures experienced by high performing students and the problems they face provides an inherent critique of the traditional school model.  The idea of students spending more time on homework is not held in high regard, albeit levels of homework increase, should they move along in their educational careers. Furthermore, the emphasis on play and “kids not being allowed to find what they love to do” seems to be exaggerated. It is unlikely that children in public schools and elsewhere have absolutely no downtime and are constantly engaged in some sort of academic endeavor; school districts in the country are constantly trying to implement new and non-traditional methods in schools that create an experience that children find exciting, new and interesting. The pressures that students face are real, but it seems that the sample that Abeles surveys for the film is smaller and not representative of the problems and successes of many communities of educators and students across the nation. The film vilifies teachers and school administrators as not being able to relate to the families that they service. The film provides important insight into the changing role of the family but does not touch on the impact that the families have on schools. If parents see that a child is having a problem with homework for example and would rather blame the school or teachers (and advocate for less homework) than work in collaboration with the school to find a solution (such as supplementary or enrichment activities or special help), then the model of families as integral to the school community is null.

The companion website for Race to Nowhere encourages supporters to speak up and share opinions about policy decisions and to write to policy makers about them. Below is a sample template for a letter that parents can send to the superintendent of their district (that I downloaded directly from the companion website under the tab: advocacy tools) about their concerns:

Dear Superintendent:

I want to thank the district for making a showing of the movie “Race to Nowhere” available to our community. This is an important reflection of our education system and one worth considering in our school district. While our school district has many innovative education practices that represent best practices in the field of education, the movie made quite obvious one way we fall short is in our homework policies.

It is so frustrating for me as a parent of a [fourth] grader to realize that, according to most available research, all the time my child has spent doing homework has most likely not benefited her. This seems like a tragic waste of her time, her teacher’s time and our family time. After seeing the film, I looked at some of the research available about the value of homework. Harris Cooper, the researcher who suggested the 10 min. per grade policy, actually found that homework is of no benefit to grade schooler’s learning but, in fact, recommends this policy with no data to back it up. He simply states this policy in his conclusion as an opinion and adds that it might help children’s independent study habits. It doesn’t. No available research has found this. In fact, the only kind of learning that homework seems to be good for is short-term fact-cramming like spelling tests. This benefit is lost over time though, because after a few weeks children test at the same level as before studying. There does, however, seem to be a benefit to children reading at home. Tragically, this is the one thing children do not get to do because the homework takes up too much of their time.

All of my daughter’s teachers took and take great pains to make sure the homework they assign is for the most part relevant and of high quality. The sad truth is that their time and attention are wasted. Quality in elementary school has nothing to do with it. Elementary school children simply do not benefit from homework.

I was particularly disheartened to see how the middle school is assessing its homework load by asking parents’ opinions. Why can’t we look at what is actually beneficial for students? Research suggests it’s about 1 hour a night. Beyond that, the benefit falls off rapidly and we run the risk of sleep deprivation, burnout and lack of engagement for our students.

Children spend a long time in school every day and they need their time outside of school to benefit from the opportunities that unstructured time allows their development. This cannot be overstated. Earlier this year, I attended a PTSA meeting at _______________________________________ where students spoke about the academic climate in response to a speaker.

The speaker’s message was not popular among the students present at the meeting and one student stated that she didn’t want or need any free time. If she wasn’t doing homework, she said, she would just waste her time or get into trouble. Is this really what we want? Children who don’t know what to do with themselves with free time? Children who claim they are not feeling the stress but when asked about their friends, described depression, anxiety, stimulant use and coming to school sick having gotten no sleep?

Achievement takes tenacity and sometimes sacrifice but in the case of our elementary school’s and our middle school’s homework policies, we are asking for the sacrifice of children’s, teacher’s, and families’ time for no benefit. And, 
I would suggest, to the great harm of children. We as a district must take this research seriously and create expectations for our children’s education that are results-oriented, not opinion-oriented, and homework is not part of that picture in elementary school.

Please do the right thing by the children of our community.



[your name]

* Contributed by a San Francisco Bay Area parent following a screening of the film, “Race to Nowhere

This letter was fascinating because it implies that policymakers in school districts are simply wrong and that they do not know what they are doing. From an administrative perspective, it would be of greater concern to me that parents are trying to influence policy instead of working with the district to achieve the set of goals of the school that they have decided to enroll their children in.

It shows a lack of faith in the district and suggests that parents know more about what works in education policy than those running the school district, which sets a dangerous precedent for parents who watch this film – the filmmakers are suggesting for parents to go against the grain and  challenge the schools rather than cooperate with them to find a solution to the problems they are faced with. The filmmakers seem to stress the “I know what’s best for my child” model of education reform which does not take into account the continuous research that districts undertake as they try to make their schools better for students; rather, it places an emphasis on schools as the problem and encourages parents to go above the heads of the schools administration and teachers by advocating for policy changes – which seems to be a grandiose solution to a local problem. The schools are thus put on the backburner and disregarded as sites of reform. The emphasis is placed on administrative control rather than local control and makes schools out to be incapable of handling student issues and parent concerns.



Race to Nowhere. Dir. Vicki H. Abeles. Reel Link Films, 2010. DVD




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Original text:

No measure is perfect, but the estimates of value-added and other “growth models,” which attempt to isolate the “true effect” of an individual teacher through his or her students’ test scores, are alarmingly error-prone in any given year. Sean Corcoran, an economist at New York University, studied the teacher evaluation systems in New York City and Houston. He found that the average “margin of error” of a New York City teacher was plus or minus 28 points. So, a teachers who has ranked at the 43rd percentile compared to his or her peers might actually be anywhere between the 15th percentile and the 71st percentile. The value-added scores also fluctuate between years. A teacher who gets a particular ranking in year one is likely to get a different ranking the next year. There will always be instability in these rankings, some of which will reflect “real” performance changes. But it is difficult to trust any performance rating if the odds of getting the same rating next year are no better than a coin toss.Original source: Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. New York: Basic Books, 2011, pp. 270-71.

Example 1: Plagiarize the original text by copying portions of it word-for-word.

Sean Corcoran, an economist from New York University, studied the teacher evaluation programs in New York City and Houston. He found that the average “margin of error” of a New York City teacher was about 28 points.

Example 2: Plagiarize the original text by paraphrasing its structure too closely, without copying it word-for-word.

It is difficult to trust any performance rating if the chances of getting a similar rating next year are no better than rolling a dice.

Example 3: Plagiarize the original text by paraphrasing its structure too closely, and include a citation. Even though you cited it, paraphrasing too closely is still plagiarism.

A teacher who gets a certain ranking at one point in their career may be more prone to recieve a different score the next year. (Ravitch, 270)

Example 4: Properly paraphrase from the original text by restating the author’s ideas in different words and phrases, and include a citation to the original source.

“It may be troublesome to fully trust any performance evaluation if recieving a similar performance evaluation the following year is merely a task of probability.” (Ravitch, 270)

Example 5: Properly paraphrase from the original text by restating the author’s ideas in different words and phrases, add a direct quote, and include a citation to the original source.

Dr. Sean Corcoran, a graduate of University of Maryland at College Park (Economics) and current researcher at NYU studied the systems of evaluating teachers in both New York State and Texas, “He found that the average “margin of error” of a New York City teacher was plus or minus 28 points…”

Diane Ravitch goes on to explain this phenomenon further:

“So, a teachers who has ranked at the 43rd percentile compared to his or her peers might actually be anywhere between the 15th percentile and the 71st percentile. The value-added scores also fluctuate between years. A teacher who gets a particular ranking in year one is likely to get a different ranking the next year…” (Ravitch, 270)



No Sect Can Rule This School: A Journey through Harper’s Weekly (May 8, 1875)

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What was the companion article to Thomas Nast’s political cartoon? In our next class we will examine a political cartoon by Thomas Nast, titled “The American River Ganges: The Priests and the Children,” which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, May 8, 1875, page 384. The cartoon is freely available online. In fine print at the bottom, it refers to a companion article, “The Common Schools and their Foes,” on page 385 of same issue. Describe your search strategy to locate the article and summarize its content. (Hint: Sometimes the past is only available in print.)

This week, I had the opportunity to do some real detective work to find my source. The first stop of my search was the Watkinson Library at Trinity College (Hartford, CT) and it happened to be my only stop. I was greeted at the door by an extremely well-dressed elderly gentleman, Mr. Peter Knapp, Special Collections Librarian and College Archivist who was eager to hear about my problem and see how he could be of assistance. When I showed him Thomas Nast’s political cartoon, “The American River Ganges,” I could tell by the smile on his face that he was quite sure what I needed. He asked, “Harper’s Weekly?” and with an astonished look on my face, I simply responded, “Yes, please.” I took the courtesy of leaving the main floor for a few minutes while he searched for the Harper’s Weekly 1875 Edition (It is standard procedure that guests of the Watkinson cannot be left unattended on the main floor.)

When Mr. Knapp returned, he brought with him an extremely dense book titled “Harper’s Weekly – 1875” and suggested that I could find what I was looking for on page 385 (in reference to American River Ganges). When I opened to page 385 I found the companion article titled “The Public Schools and its Foes.” Directly above the article was another political cartoon by Nast. This cartoon titled, “No Church need apply” depicts a Catholic bishop handing out Vatican decrees to young school-aged boys. The boys stood in the doorway of a school, and the sign beside the doorway read, “No Sect can rule this school,” the main theme of the companion article.

The companion article written by Eugene Lawrence highlighted the greatest enemy of the common schools as being the Roman Catholic Church and its leader Pope Pius IX as well as other religious/political institutions that did not promote American common schools. The article favored the condition of the common schools and emphasized what we consider today to be the separation of church and state:

“Their people have become conscious that the common school is the source of ease, comfort, wealth; that it doubles the value of their lands, build towns, factories, railroads; and hence all over the south there is a plain advance toward a new condition of society.” (p.386)

Furthermore, Lawrence cited the common schools as places for “repression of violence” and “cultivation of knowledge” and expresses the notion that the enemies of the common school, which included, “a foreign pope, democratic politicians and a foreign sect” as being responsible for “the decreed destruction of the common school…” (p.386)

Lawrence speaks to his readers as an advocate of reason and truth, he says that the “newspaper is the natural fruit of the common school” (p.386) which would allow readers to give credence to his published article on the evils of the Roman Catholic Church and other Religious institutions and their corruption of American schools:

“At Des Moines, when an episcopal clergyman assailed the common schools from his pulpit, members of the congregation rose and left the church, in protest of religious bigotry…” (p.386)

He goes on to say that schools under the jurisdiction of Pope Pius IX were “never needed” and questions why they were built in the first place – while alluding to the fact that they were built to contest the traditional common school system.

Lawrence mentions that the public (common) schools offer “ample room for all the children of the city” (p.386) in reference to the many parochial schools in New York City. He goes on to say that Papal priests were in association with Boss Tweed and Peter Sweeney and had a direct involvement as conspirators in the political ring. This piece of the article was towards the very end – almost as if to tell his readers: if you still aren’t convinced…here’s more proof.

Lawrence ends his piece with two very important quotes, which sum up his article on the separation of church from American schools, but even more importantly, the vilification of all who opposed the common schools. The first quote stood out to me because of the notion that those who did not support common schools must not support their country as loyal Americans:

“No patriotic American of any creed of race will suffer his own honest and necessary principle of un-sectarian education to be tainted by any dangerous compromise…” (p.386)

Finally, Lawrence urges his readers to understand that: “the only sure defense we have against it, is to vote it down…” (p.386) in reference to the church’s presence in American schools and the political authority that  common citizens yield through their right to vote.


A very special thank you to Mr. Peter Knapp and the Watkinson Library staff for allowing me to use their vast archives.




Blazing My Own Trail

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Ed 300 will satisfy a requirement for the Educational Studies Major. I am excited about this class because I will have the opportunity to learn more about what Ed reform is and about strategies that have previously worked as well as getting the opportunity to analyze those that did not work (and somehow apply it to my Ed Studies Concentration: Race, Social Class and Social Relations in Urban Education.) My ultimate goal in life is to be a leader in a school district (hopefully Hartford) and I appreciate the opportunity to explore in depth the idea of Ed Reform in the hope that I can acquire the necessary tools to become an Ed “Reformer” one day, too.