Bill 7110- Providing a Safe Haven or Exclusionary Culture?

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The Education Committee’s public hearing on Friday, February 22nd, addressed a variety of bills Dianna Wentzell, the commissioner of the Education Committee, began the hearing by outlining certain stipulations regarding each bill. This included Senate Bill 813 which required the Department of Education to conduct “a study of issues related to early college and dual enrollment programs.” Wentzell said that the department “does not have the capacity to carry out these types of studies” and would need more funding to do so. She additionally commented on Senate Bill 814 which aimed “to require each local and regional board of education to conduct a test of the water supply for any school building or facility constructed before July 1, 1986, for the presence of lead.” Wentzell stated that testing the water supply should “not be the responsibility” of the Department of Education.

However, one of the most contentious bills seemed to be bill 7110, which aims “to require boards of education to revise their safe school climate plans to include provisions relating to disruptive or injurious incidents that occur in classrooms, to develop and implement a state-wide school climate survey, and to require the Department of Education to provide assistance to school districts relating to school climate.” Representative Bolinsky shared his comments on the bill, explaining that “Teachers have been knocking on my doors for a couple years for legislation to provide a safe climate for them.” He then poses a question “There is an awful lot of special education parents, families, and advocates out there concerned about the possibly of isolation separation, and social and emotional damage that occurs… How do you ensure there are protections in there so that we do not single out those on a special education program who may not always have control over their behavior?” Bolinsky concluded his statement by asking how we assure parents that this bill is not targeted towards their child or students with disabilities.

Wentzell then responded, articulating that she previously testified against a previous bill that she felt targeted students with special needs. She added that she was able to discuss issues in the previous bill with other individuals, saying that- “…we brought everyone together to push through.” I do think we have addressed most issues to make sure students with special needs are attended to appropriately.” One solution Wentzell proposed was administering a state wide school climate survey. In theory, this survey would serve as a check to make certain that schools were not perpetuating a culture where, as Wentzell explained “…parents start engaging in appropriate conversations about other children. However, Wentzell states that “The department does not have the financial resources to do so at this time.” Even though Wentzell mentions this setback for the Department of Education, she finishes her statement by emphasizing that “Groups are together to ensure that their (students with special needs) rights are protected.”

While bill 7110 proposes a safer school climate for students and teachers; questions still remain. Is there language in this bill that ensures that students with special needs are not targeted? How will the Department of Education study the longterm effects of this bill if there is no allowance in the budget for a state wide school climate survey?


State Employee Pensions and What We’re Doing About It

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By: LiliAnna Khosrowshahi and India Shay

The teachers and other state employees in America are currently struggling with the salaries they are given alone. Something that has also always been an issue, additional to the low salaries, are pension funds for state employees. When a teacher or a state employee decides to retire, they are owed a pension that is responsible for paying their living costs for the remainder of their life. In order to have enough money to pay for these pensions, states put money away each year into a fund from which they then provide the money necessary to pay the pensions of the retiring employees. On February 19th, Ned Lamont spoke at City Hall in Hartford and discussed his approach to addressing, and hopefully, correct the weakness of the pensions that some states are providing their employees with. Connecticut, along with many other states, is not putting enough money away to be able to afford pension plans. Coupling that with the fact that their assumptions on returns, or the money that is set aside for pensions, have been too aggressive. Thus, the state is leaving a large gap in the pension money to be given. The assumptions on those returns have been too high and the actual returns have been too low, resulting in the amount of money being way less than what was expected or deserved.

The plan now for states such as Connecticut, is that they must figure out how to fill the gap and to get the money to make the pension plans whole and substantial. Ned Lamont is currently struggling to come up with the best plan of action and is working different ideas in order to solve the issue. It is likely that he will go with a plan that is not ideal for many but is the most realistic way to avoid this issue in the future. His solution has two parts to it; The first is to make an attempt to stretch out the payments over a longer span of time while the second is to collect more in sales tax in the short term. One large component that Lamont is hoping for, which could go into raising taxes, suggests that the same sales tax that is collected on off-line purchases should also be collected on online purchases. This aspect could impact Lamont’s plan greatly

State employees are devoted to the state that they work for and Lamont makes the argument that they (the state) owe it to these people to provide them with a decent pension. Lamont specifically mentions state educators as individuals who should be the priority in all of this as he states, “they work their heart out…they look after our kids.” He argues that by supporting teachers and other state employees, they will be able to prove their stability of towns and cities. In short, this is a very big issue that has been happening all over the country and teachers are getting the backlash of it. Retired teachers have every right to be concerned for their futures and it is by no means their fault but Lamont has no choice but to create a new way to solve this problem for the future of these teachers.

The Inclusion Of Ethnic Studies and Play Time

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On Wednesday, March 6th, the Connecticut Education Committee had a public hearing in the State Capitol. Room 2E was packed and buzzing with students, activists, teachers, company executives, and parents each vouching for what they thought are necessary bills to be passed. Among many bills, three popular bills spoken about were H.B. No. 7082 An Act Concerning The Inclusion Of African-american Studies In The Public School Curriculum, H.B. No. 7083 An Act Concerning The Inclusion Of Puerto Rican And Latino Studies In The Public School Curriculum, H.B. No. 7250 An Act Concerning The Improvement Of Child Development Through Play. Some of the bills passed vouched for extending recess time for students as well as for the inclusion of ethnic studies in  public schools’ curriculum.

Many testified in favor of  H.B. 7250, longer recess times, citing the need for younger students, in particular, to get some “fresh air” and avoid being indoors for long periods of time, which in turn would allow students to retain information better and pay more attention in their respective classes. In a mother daughter duo, the daughter advocated that it is important to recognize that students who come from under resourced neighborhoods  might not be able to have “play time outside of school hours”, and the mother urged that “play is as equally important as food and water.”

The  majority of people present were testifying in support for HB 7082, an act that calls for the inclusion of African-American studies and the history of race and racism in the United States from grades K-12. One teacher representing a school from New Haven stated in her testimony that “students need to learn history that is not whitewashed or sanitized”. Another teacher claimed that with the implementation of the act there would be an improvement in the  psychological perception of how students of color see themselves. She stated that when students start learning about their history and learn about historical figures that look like them, this will create a more positive image of themselves for them. A high school student testifying for the inclusion of ethnic studies said ethnic studies “should not be restricted to learning about civil rights for one month because we are doctors and scientists”.

The other bill widely vouched for was HB 7083. This bill is act that calls for inclusion of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies in grades from K-12. One woman testifying voiced the fact that schools shape students identities, especially younger students’ ones. Thus, she pleaded for this bill to pass, as  children would grow more confident in their ability. Another person testifying said that this would lead to a more positive democracy, which in turn would lead to higher level of learning, and an overall more well-rounded education for students.

Over all, those attending the hearing shared their support for bills HB 7082, 7083, and 7250. Students, teachers, and parents shared their support for a curriculum that includes African-American studies and Latinx Studies in public K-12 schools as well as longer recess times.  



A Step Towards A More Comprehensive African American and Puerto Rican Curriculum in Connecticut

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Elizabeth, Julia, and Allie in the lobby of the state Legislative Office Building.

On the Wednesday afternoon of March 6, 2019, the Connecticut Education Committee met at a hearing regarding numerous bills awaiting approval. Representatives heard testimony on bills from the requirement of computer science classes in school to the possibility of a school counseling program requirement. Many representatives and officials sitting in on the hearing wore yellow flowers in support of early childhood bills. Among these bills discussed were House bills H7082 and H7083. If passed, these bills would include a more detailed Puerto Rican and African American history throughout elementary, middle, and high school curriculum across Connecticut. The majority of the public hearing testimony was in support of the bills.

Committee Chair Senator McGrory called up Howard Sovornsky, the President of the Jewish Federation of Hartford, to testify. Sovornsky referenced the effect of a similar former bill in requiring the inclusion of the Holocaust and genocide into the Connecticut curriculum. Comparing this to the current bill at debate, he noted that African American history is often mistaught or glossed over, and it needs to be mandated. Representative Miller inquired why the Holocaust and genocide bill was so important. Sovornsky replied that, “We cannot forget history. We need to know why it happened and prevent it from happening again, which is the same message as this bill is trying to achieve.”

Next, an African American student from Antonia, Connecticut spoke about her experience growing up. She noted that this bill hits at the core of racial disparities in America. She talked about how she grew up in a bubble where she believed we were past a time of racism. However, she now realizes that there is a pressing issue and there is a need to dismantle this systematic oppression. She talked about how these proposed bills would start to help bring perspective and change this. These bills would bring awareness not only to students of color like herself who grew up in a ‘bubble,’ but it would also bring light to white students who are also unaware of these present-day issues.

One former superintendent mentioned the implementation process and recommended two years for the curriculum to be fully incorporated, but supported the bills themselves, stating reasons similar to others who spoke positively of these bills.

Senator McGrory started calling names of students signed up to testify, who were not present. One woman, a teacher at HMTCA, called out that these students were coming but they did not want to miss school. In a separate conversation outside of the court room, I asked her some questions about the bill. As I had not read it closely, I asked if this bill had specific provisions for what the additional curriculum would entail. We discussed the possibility of educators missing the point if unspecified language was used in this bill. She explained that part of the reason her and her students were testifying was for this purpose of adding amendments to the bill.

A recurring theme throughout testimony was the idea that the current curriculum does not do enough. It provides a basic understanding of black history, and barely mentions Puerto Rico. Some students do not even know that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States. The current curriculum on black history goes through the hardships of slavery and the Civil War. It mentions Martin Luther King’s movement and glosses over the Brown v. Board of Education decision. However, it ties up history with a perfect bow. It does not even insinuate that inequalities may exist today. Many who testified explained that it is important to understand why these issues persist in today’s world, and these bills must be passed in order to have a fuller understanding and fix them.

Not Just More Talk, Real Talk: A Proposed Bill on the Inclusion of African American Studies in Public School Curriculum

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On Wednesday, March 6th, 2019, I attended the Education Committee’s public hearing at the Connecticut State Legislative Building. Walking into the room was quite overwhelming, as it was packed with people listening and testifying. The sheer amount of people pointed out to me just how dedicated people in the state are to the education of our youth. Many bills were discussed at this event, with many individuals testifying, most supporting the bills in question.

A particular bill I had the chance to witness many people testify for was HB-07082. This bill proposes an inclusion of African American history to be taught in Connecticut’s public schools. A great deal of people, both adult advocates and students testified for the passing of this bill. The first people I witnessed testifying House Bill 7082 was a pair of gentleman, one a state representative and the other the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, both in support of the bill. The two argued that given the prior passing of a bill regarding educating students on genocides and the Holocaust, bill 7082 should too be passed. A clear argument was made by the pair, stating that inclusive education is important for our youth, and that African American history is America’s history. It should be taught in the public schools for this reason. Using the last bill as a precedent, the two men delivered a clear argument for the support of the bill in question. After the pair gave their testimony the floor opened up for more speakers.

The chairman now opened the floor to the students lined up to testify. The chairman called the first few names to the stand, however, these students were still in school. These students still being in school, even refusing to leave early, spoke volumes about how they prioritize and value their education, which made their testimonies even more powerful.

The first student I witnessed to support HB-07082 was a student from a western Connecticut school and neighborhood. The student spoke about how her and her family had immigrated to America from the Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was only six, emphasizing how she had only really known her life and education in America. The student went on to explain how as she went through schooling, she had realized she was being so neglectful to her own culture and was seen as “trying to be white.” She attributed this to the lack of education of African American history in the United States. She felt strongly that she would not have neglected her heritage and culture had there been conversations in her classes about black history in America, and not just the basics about slavery up until the Civil Rights movement. The chairman of the committee asked this student where she had been taught of African American history, to which she responded with her Honors and AP history courses. The chairman hit an important point in asking this question, pointing out that not all students are given equal opportunity to learn about such an important piece of America’s history. This important part of history should be accessible to all students, not just those who may be on track to enroll in honors and AP courses.

The second student to testify in support of the bill mentioned how she felt she grew up in a “bubble”, unaware of racism, feeling as though since she has not experienced it, it could not exist. As she grew, she began to realize racism did in fact exist, and therefore began to internalize it. She felt strongly about the passing of this bill, arguing that its passing would be a step in “dismantling systemic oppression” and would also in turn highlight privilege. Including African American history into curriculum would benefit all students.

I got the chance to discuss matters with a representative from an after-school student group who was also in-support of HB-7082. She was the advisor of many of the students testifying today. She told me how though they are in support of the bill, they want more done. Those fighting for its passing want not just an overview of African American history regarding slavery up until the Civil Rights Movement, they want matters of today taught in schools. They want students to learn about the roots of racism and its effects. Without amends this bill, students won’t learn more about African American history than the 13th amendment and words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King. She explained how talking not just more about African American history, but talking about the real issues, like racism in this nation, is what will be most beneficial for our youth in public schools. They need to learn about the history of racism in order to understand the pressing issue in today’s day, to then fight it and make change. After all, the youth are our future.

Democracy in Action: Inclusion of Computer Science and African American History in Public Schools

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On March 6th I attended the Education Committee public hearing in the Legislative Offices Building at the State Capitol. When I walked into the room, there were no available seats left. The room was filled with people who were activists, students, senators, representatives, and news reporters. On the agenda for today were many different bills, but the three that I got to see discussed were bills H. B. No. 7082, H. B. No. 7083, and S. B. No. 957. Upon first glance, there was a wide variety of people who were in the room in regards to race and age, and it looked as if there was an even split between males and females. State Senator McCrory was the man in charge of calling on different people to testify, and he was also in charge of keeping order within the room and initiating any questions that committee members and representatives had. One by one, different people would come up and testify before the committee in hopes to persuade the committee members to vote in favor of their proposed bills and amendments.


When I walked into the room, what first caught my eye was the overwhelming presence of the yellow flowers that about three-quarters of the spectators were wearing on their shirts and that were on the desk of Senator Doug McCrory and two other committee members. When I asked one lady in the spectator section what they were for, she informed me that they were to show their support for the early childhood bills that were being talked about a little later on in the hearing. These flowers went along with the t-shirts that other spectators were wearing that said: “Kids can’t vote, so we have to.” And, while I did not get to see firsthand these early childhood bills being discussed, it seemed like a lot of the people in the hearing room were there to show their support for them––as evident by the half a dozen children ranging from the ages 3-5 in the audience.


My time there was split mostly between proposed bills S.B. No. 957 and H.B. No. 7082, and while these two bills were very different in essence––957 was in support of inclusion of computer sciences programs and 7082 called for more classes focusing on African American history in public schools––there was one main theme that kept coming up: while these two bills were passed over a year ago, the people testifying on behalf of these bills claimed that they were not being enforced properly. Witness after witness came up to the stand and gave their own personal accounts as to why they believed these bills were important, but they all stated over and over again that the committee needed to pass their proposed amendments to ensure that the bills were being implemented well and quickly.


In regards to H.B. No. 7082, witnesses believed that their amendment was necessary because of the overall importance of African American history to all students regardless of their race. State Senator Derek Slap summed up his argument of why African American history should be included at a better level than it currently is in public schools by saying, “African American history is America’s history.” He stated that he thought it was essential for all children to learn about this history, even though it may be hard, because it is the only way to unify all students and educators. He summed up his testimony by saying, “It is the lesson––not the event––that unites us.”

Elizabeth, Allie, and Julia in the lobby of the state Legislative Offices Lobby.

At 3:00, several different students had their chances to testify, as well. There was a group of students and adults from the Students for Educational Justice civil rights group, all wearing matching t-shirts that had their group’s logo, and some of them came up to speak before the committee. One student, Shawn B., from a public school right outside of Hartford, stated his support for the proposed amendment and stated that he was, “Proud to be African American.”, and he thought that the current way that the bill was being implemented in schools was not enough. Another student-witness, Bennie D., told about her own personal struggles with racism and how different her life would be if it were implemented correctly. She told of her own struggles with “internalized racism” in her predominantly white school district, and how the inclusion of properly-implemented African American history would have helped her be more comfortable with who she was.


Additionally, two student witnesses from the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA) came before the committee and talked about how Connecticut public schools needed to support their amendment to better implement Bill 957. One student, McKenna L., came before the committee and told them about how big of an impact computer science courses had in her life. She believed that every student should be introduced at least the very basics of computer science, because they are so quintessential to everyone’s lives. She told the committee about how the inclusion of these courses allowed her to become a more democratic, politically active citizen. She also shared her hopes of using these courses to “mentor young girls of color” and “bridge the gap of inequality.” McKenna shared facts about the computer science industry and explained how only one-out-of-ten scientists in the United States were minority women, and how, if better implemented, Bill 957 could change that. After McKenna spoke, one more student, Lola K., came and spoke about this bill. She, too, is a current student at HMTCA and she also explained how important the inclusion of computer science is to her. She told the committee a string of facts proving how the current bill was not being implemented in a satisfactory way. She explained that in two schools in the suburbs surrounding Hartford there were eleven and twelve computer science classes taught in each school while there was only one computer science class taught in Hartford. She claimed that the lack of accessibility to Hartford students promoted economic and racial disparity, and the only way to mend this would be to pass the new amendment that so many people came before the committee to testify about. Lola explained that the passing of this bill would help redefine and destigmatize what a computer scientist is and who they are.


While I was only able to witness talks about two of the bills, there were a lot of compelling testifiers at today’s hearing. A lot of people of all races, ages, and genders came before the committee to testify on behalf of causes that they believe in. It was really amazing to see all of these people come together in support of something that they believe in and want to fight for. By sitting through today’s hearing, it became evident to me that the fate of our democracy really is in capable hands. These students are the future, and it is their job to forge their own history and determine the way that they want their history to look like.


The People’s Voices: Hartford Public School Regular Board Meeting

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Renita Washington and Eleanor Faraguna at Bulkeley High School

On a cold Tuesday night, we pulled into Bulkeley High School to attend the Hartford Public School Board of Education meeting. We filed into the school, through the fluorescent hallways into the central auditorium. We were joined by about forty other community members in the audience along with the board members, and by about 5:30, the final stragglers entered the auditorium. The audience for the meeting included mostly adults of color, some in groups, some with children, and some sitting individually. The light chatter and movements quieted as the meeting started and as the chairman, Craig Stallings, began his opening remarks and provided overview of the meeting agenda. His words were then echoed by another board member in Spanish. After the agenda, the meeting turned swiftly into the public comment segment of the night in which a total of five adults spoke for three minutes each.

A middle-aged black woman sat in front of the microphone and began her testimony to the board. She talked about her son’s fifth grade class and how the principal teacher for the year had been absent since December. She expressed her concerns about how this absence was affecting her son’s access to a quality education because no homework had been assigned since the absence began. After her testimony, three other community members addressed the committee and shared their own concerns in the allotted time. One was another black mother who spoke to her concerns about grade performances and reliance on standardized tests that did not reflect, in her opinion, the true potential or abilities of the students. She also mentioned the physical status of the schools in Hartford and how she was disappointed when she walked in the hallways of her son’s school. Next, a white teacher testified about the unfair termination of a fellow faculty member earlier in the year. He warned that a lawsuit was coming and echoed the previous woman’s concerns about the status of the schools.

Lastly, a mother from the local Hartford activist group part of Make the Road Connecticut, Madres Guerreras, shared her experiences and concerns with the public school system. She spoke in Spanish, and after each paragraph, a community organizer translated her words into English. Last semester, I mentored for the Community Action Gateway Class and worked with groups of students to partner with local organizations. One group worked with Madres Guerreras and created a promotional video about their efforts, accomplishments, and goals. I spoke with the principle community organizer, Mirka Dominguez-Salinas, after the testimony and expressed how nice it was to see a familiar fact at the meeting. In every interaction I have had with the Madres Guerreras, they have proved to be a strong, powerful group of women fighting for their rights. The woman who testified at the meeting spoke of those rights and how she, and the rest of the Hartford parents, wanted respect from the schools. She argued that the schools needed to only employ teachers with a guaranteed certification, to create extra-hour help session for students, to institute more parent interpretation at meetings, and to hold workshops on the school system for parents.

After the public comment segment of the meeting, the board moved into the election of the officers. A position would be highlighted, a nomination a board member would occur, and then the members voted on the position. The new elected members were: Julio Flores and Chairman, Juan Hernandez as Vice-Chair, Kimberly Oliver as Second Vice-Chair, and Ayesha Clarke as Secretary.

After the elections, there was a break in the meeting and we walked out into the lobby and ran into the previous chairman, Craig Stallings. We introduced ourselves as Trinity students and talked with him briefly about his time as chairman and what he had seen change in the Hartford public school system. He told us that a recent goal of the board was restructured the budget from a “student-based budget, [to a] needs-based budgets, and now…an equity-based budget”. He said that “the whole purpose is to reduce the size of the district to a manageable size” for better oversight and management. Besides the budget, Stallings said the primary focus of the board is to “figure out how [they] can have a quality neighborhood school system and a quality regional system and how they can coexist”. 

Trinity students with Chairman Stallings

Vulnerable Children: Families Have Been Denied Access to Open Communication Regarding Their Children

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On Thursday, February 28, 2019 the Committee on Children held a public hearing in which several community advocates, organizations, and state departments came forward to present their cases surrounding issues of Connecticut children. One such notable and impassioned speaker was Sarah Eagan of the State Office of the Child Advocate. In a compelling argument in favor of bill 892, “An Act Concerning the Safety and Well-being of Youths Placed in Out-of-Home Settings Licensed, Administered, and Investigated by the Department of Children and Families”, Ms. Eagan reintroduced the room to a prior case of a young girl named Destiny, who, due to abominable circumstances and poor ethics and resources in her place of care, committed suicide while 8 months pregnant less than one year ago. As Ms. Eagan rehashed this tragic story and the further suicide cases due to “immediate jeopardy of harm” in the South Campus of the Solnit Center, a children’s Psychiatric hospital in Middletown, CT, that were unveiled after the June 2018 investigation, the room was quiet with the heavy implications of the case.

It was made clear, however, that the intent of retelling this painful story was not merely to drudge up past horrors but was to instead shed light on the issue at hand in bill 892: an absolute lack of transparency in communication to families of highly vulnerable children in the state’s care. According to Sarah Eagan, when the case of 16-year-old Destiny was being investigated last year, a representative from the Solnit Center where Destiny committed suicide admitted that no attempts were made to contact either Destiny’s family about warning signs prior to the suicide, nor the families of the children involved in the 6 other suicide attempts that month at the same psychiatric hospital. Neither were there any attempts made to alert families of the “grave deficiencies” in resources and facilities discovered during the investigation (Eagan). The bill being proposed, that which Sarah Eagan on behalf of the Office of the Child Advocate vehemently supported, would mandate some sort of notification system to families regarding deficiencies found in psychiatric units such as the one in Destiny’s case. It would define and require a collaborative communication process between the Department of Children and Families (DCF), Office of the Child Advocate and other potential organizations in the interest of children, and families and communities of the involved children so that, as Eagan put it, the communication system is “not black-out in nature” (meaning there is more transparency).

I found Ms. Sarah Dougan’s argument to be incredibly compelling. Furthermore, after her explanation of the opaque nature of communication in matters surrounding the well-being of highly vulnerable children such as those in psychiatric hospitals, foster care, or within the grasp of the state, it seemed to me that such a bill was absolutely vital and ought to be a valence issue that passes with flying colors. There is no justifiable reason that parents and families, many of whom reluctantly and broken-heartedly had to reach out to the state and ask for help in better caring for their children, should be so in the dark concerning the state of their child’s health and safety. If put into law, such a bill would, in my opinion, go beyond easing the minds of concerned parents and extend into the territory of raising the standard for the ethics, care, and resources given to vulnerable children. A facility that is mandated to report any deficiencies in their care to parents and families would by its very nature put in effort to minimize such deficiencies, if for nothing more than to save face and not be forced to report as many grievances on themselves. And a facility, whether that be a foster home or a psychiatric hospital or anything in between, that provides a higher standard of care than is currently present will undoubtedly play a role in a child’s comfort and safety both in and out of the classroom.

Concerns of Hartford Public School System — What Can We Do?

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On February, 19th, 2019, from 5:30 pm to 7:20 pm, the annual Board of Education Regular Meeting for Hartford County was held in Bulkeley High School, 300 Wethersfield Ave, Hartford, CT (map). The meeting aims at conveying parents’ and teachers’ concerns towards all level Hartford public schools. Each report had three minutes to present and the reporters’ concerns were seriously considered by the Connecticut State Board of Education. English-Spanish translators were provided for individuals with special care.

The concerns mainly presented by parents. One mother who has a primary school child in the Hartford Public School system raised her concern in lacking understanding her son’s school life. She stated that she did not know the curriculums in the school and she not know what activities her son was participating during school time. Therefore, the parents wanted to see their children’s report card and a progress report on a regular routine from the school. Parents were not satisfied with the students’ academic performance. One parent presented data from his child’s primary school: 26 out of 33 students had an average level of reading, and even fewer students had an average performance in mathematics. Thus, parents and teachers are all looking forward to the Board of Education, hoping they take action in boosting students’ academic achievement.

Parents also wanted their children to receive more and higher-quality communication with teachers and school faculties. There was a group of Latina mothers called for better and qualified education for their children. For now, the school is not providing programs that students needed. They wish the school can provide an after-school program for their children. In addition, the mothers also realized the lack of communication between school and parents as the prior parent pointed out. The mothers stated that they have no idea of what their children are doing in the school. Therefore, they want the school to provide workshops for the parents to understand the school system and the education system and let them take part in the school’s decision making. However, the principal asked them to be independent when they asked for a change.

A female teacher from Hartford Public High School also presented her concerns for the high number of absent rates in the school. According to the teacher, students were sent to the school, but they did not go to the class; instead, they wandered around in the academic building. Students’ absent to the class not only leave obstacles for teachers to supervise their behaviors and prevent them from injury in the building but also have a negative influence on their academic achievement. The female teacher believed that it is a significant issue and the Board of Education need to take action immediately in improving relative policies that help teachers keep students in the classroom.

At the end of the meeting, the Board of Education gave awards to students who stand out in a school-level art competition and the warm atmosphere in the conference room was pushed to the peak. One girl just graduated from the high school said she was accepted by six colleges – she seemed to receive a high-quality education as the parents and teachers expected to. However, there is still more effort need to be put. Considering the concerns in Hartford Public School System – what can we do?

(Image of the news reporters)

Let the People Be Heard

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On Friday March first, I went to the one o’clock education appropriations meeting. The public hearing was held in three parts: the first hour was with the commissioner and public officials, the second hour was students speaking, and the third hour was with the general public and public officials. The bills discussed were S.B. No. 874, H.B. No. 7150, proposed S.B. No. 457, and proposed S.B. No. 738. To hold all of the spectators in attendance, three overflow rooms were designated and all four rooms, in total, were packed. There were adults, political workers, kids, etc. and the majoring were wearing stickers saying: “hands off our schools” and “no redistricting”. There was a sense of community in the rooms as many of the kids were there to speak in front of the panel.

The hearing began with Commissioner Diana Wentzel introducing Governor Lamont’s proposed budget bill and she stated that “education is the opportunity engine of our young people.” She included information about there being less than 200 independent school districts, the bills encouraging shared services, and that they were in favor of incentivized regionalization, not forced regionalization. Wentzel stressed that there was increased funding to education sharing grants including roughly 400 hundred schools across 33 districts in the state on Connecticut.

Representative Bolinsky spoke in concerns of transportation: “how do we address school transportation for private and parochial schools?” The panel responded that there was no change from fiscal 19 to private school transportation. This was one of the first questions asked in the hearing and I found it to be a little odd considering the majority of the remainder of the first hour concerned public schools, home schoolers, shared services (including superintendents), and teacher salary. The meeting continued with Gail Lavielle (R) (143rd district) highlighting the “use of the word redistricting at least twice” in the bill even though it was supposed to be about shared services. Melissa McCaw (Secretary) (OPM) responded that there was not a great answer to her inquiry and there needs to be “further dialogue between now and June 5th.”

In another part of the meeting, Wentzel talked about how the smaller districts composed of either one or two schools (totaling 74 districts) were “elementary only…and unable to offer full compliments of k-12 curriculums…with fiscally unavailable districts.” She goes on the say that the students in these districts are “unable to keep up and are pushed into special programs as a result.”

One of the most poignant parts of the hearing was when Noreen Kokoruda asked about the “proposal to cover teacher’s pension for one district school by the board of education, but for a multi-school districts it will be done by the towns.” McCaw responded that it was a “challenge in [determining] how to allocate those costs.” This discussion ended up being an odd segway into a question by another representative asking about homeschooling and the steps needed to get the curriculum. Wentzel responded with information about how the families are supposed to talk to the public school to get the curriculum and resources supplies including ones for college preparation. After this, there was an eruption of laughter among the spectators saying that none of that was true and wondering how she could say that. Even Douglas McCroy laughed before continuing on with the hearing.

Overall, the hearing was riveting and many questions concerning the new bill were asked, and the answers were not very comprehensive. There was a slight pick-up before I left when the kids began to give their testimonies. It was a vital meeting for the public school system, and I hope that the government really listened to the people.

Advocating for the Safety of Students and Teacher and Financial Literacy

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On Feb 21, 2019, at 11 am, I had the opportunity to attend a public hearing about potential educational policies.  The public hearing made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about policymaking in the department of education. Commissioner Dr. Diana Wentzel set the tone of the hearing by quickly summarizing the different bills that will be discussed. A large portion of the bills raised was concerned with issues in public schools and classrooms- but the two bills that stood out to me focused on public school safety and introducing financial literacy to the curriculum.

The first bill, introduced by Dr. Wentzel, was S.B. NO. 852 An Act Concerning the Inclusion of Personal Financial Management in The Public-School Curriculum and the Establishment of a Personal Financial Management Pilot Program, and as the name suggests, it pushed to include financial literacy in the public-school curriculum.  Dr. Wentzel was happy to report that “the department supports the spirit of this proposal and we [the department] think that this is really important learning for our young people.”  The department already provides a standard curriculum in a model curriculum for financial literacy that covers topics such as banking, savings investment, financial planning, and risk management. Although the department wants to work directly related to the model curriculum, Dr. Wentzel mentioned that “they lack the physical resources to do so. Later, in the hearing, Senator McCroy shared that he believes it is important for students to be “equipped with some type of baseline knowledge of finance, how to budge and prepare for the future.” Sen. McCroy then mentioned that some school districts are at a disadvantage because they lack these types of resources. He stated that it was important to focus on making these types of policies a reality and “we’ll deal with the money later.”  Even though this idea of financial literacy is something that I know is a luxury for some public schools, it would be a great addition to the curriculum. That knowledge lays the ground for students to build strong money managing skills and avoiding debt.

The conversation didn’t just stop there, another proposed bill that sprung up a conversation was H.B No. 7110 An Act Concerning Enhanced Classroom Safety and School Climate. This bill is asking the board of education to modify their safety school climate plans and disciplinary/ or behavioral situations that occur within classrooms. When asked by Rep. McCartney, Dr. Wentzel took the time to break down the basis of this bill. For starters, it doesn’t change the rights that students have but if students’ need to be removed from a classroom because they are presenting a danger to others and themselves, they will have to be removed. Dr. Wentzel states that ” if that removal lasts 90 minutes or longer that is considered a suspension and needs to be reported to the Department of Education.” Although schools may vary in the way they carry out the suspension, whether students are either in an in-school suspension with an adult present or out of school suspension, students are still missing a lesson.  In this case, Sen. McCroy was quick to comment that he wants to see a different type of wording for this bill where the question needs to be: “how do we support the children in the class so that these incidents don’t occur often?” He believes that the bill needs to work towards identifying the problem and trying to fix it. Like Sen. McCroy explained, this can only be possible if children aren’t constantly being taken out of the classrooms and if there are additional resources and support systems are in place.


Advancements to Provide Connecticut Students with a Baseline Education and a Safe Environment

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A meeting in the Hartford’s beautiful Legislative Office Building is an experience that all college students should have the opportunity to sit in on. On the second floor of the beautifully designed building (see image below), the education committee meets quite often, and brings in a large crowd of children, parents, and college students (see image at bottom of page).

On February 22, the agenda of the meeting seemed packed (click here for access), yet what stuck out the most to me was how much I have taken for granted from my own rather privileged education in Texas. A large amount of debate and concern was expressed specifically over providing students with an education that will help them succeed in their college years and providing them with a safe environment.

Dr. Dianna Wentzel, the commissioner of the department of Education, was among the first to speak and summarized a multitude of bills that were to be discussed in the meeting. An overwhelming theme in much of what Dr. Wentzel discussed was how “the department was generally supportive of this [these] proposal [s]”, however, discussed the limited capacity and financial restrictions on bringing forth additional post-12th grade programs. The department stated the inability to research the effects of  local “early college and dual enrollment programs” on calculating GPA and class rank. Currently, however, she discussed how funding for what classes already exist are covered at the local level and how strides are being made to make testing more available to those that are on reduced or free school lunches. Additionally, despite many individuals claiming that early college programs are insignificant, Wentzel does point out the many “opportunities throughout the state.” including CCP programs that connect with community colleges, ECE (early college experience) with UConn, and AP classes. Having these opportunities for students is definitely exciting, as I was not offered them on the scale of many Hartford students. However, despite the minimal exposure I had, I know that such programs were exceedingly important in making the transition from high school to college. Additionally, as a first generation student, it’s important to know that these programs reduce the number of students that are accepted over the summer and don’t show up in August and those that drop out after a semester, by actually having them on campus and being exposed to the college community.

Many representatives and families also wished for a pilot program that includes “personal financial management in the public school curriculum,”  Wentzel states that the resources needed are not available and that “curriculum standards…for financial literacy that cover topics including banking, savings and investments, credit and debt,” and other relevant topics are already in place. Senator McCroy was quick to respond to this by stating that such programs are not required by many school districts, and how he finds it “important for us to make sure that the children that leave the State of Connecticut are equipped with some baseline knowledge of finances and how to budget and how to prepare for the future.” He stated that it was important for “this committee to set policy, and we’ll deal with the money later.”

Other topics that were significant included how students are still exposed to certain the unsafe environments including water that may be polluted with lead. Wentzel firmly believes that “tests on drinking water should not be a responsibility of local and regional boards of education as it is a public health function.” Considering the severity of the issue, however, many representatives pushed back by placing the blame on the district. Being a student that plans on majoring in psychology, I was also excited to hear that the board is concerned with providing support to children who are victims of trauma, and therefore not classified under students in need of special education. Although it is not required for the districts to provide this help, many are still investing into programs and training new and old teachers according. There are still, many strides that are to be made including making such a program mandatory and designating some part of the budget for it.


State of the Budget Address: What’s Important

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Hartford, Connecticut — Around noon today at the General Assembly, newly elected Governor Ned Lamont (D) finally gave his long awaited speech on his budget proposals for the fiscal years 2020 to 2021. It was only his second time addressing the legislature since inauguration, his first being the State of the State address in early January.

Lamont, who had an extended time to craft his budget since it was a transition year, provided a hard-copy budget to legislators earlier in the day and is set to give a more specific budget presentation today. State finances for the next two years are expected to have billions of dollars in deficits, and many have been curious as to how the businessman turned governor will avert these deficits in the budget.

During his roughly thirty minute speech, Governor Lamont laid out his robust plan for the state, some proposals well received and others not so much. Among other things, he suggested new taxes on everything from haircuts to plastic bags, tax ideas that Republicans will likely not support. Governor Lamont has also proposed new tolls on trucks and increasing the smoking age to 21. Towards the end of the speech, he referenced support for legalizing marijuana and regulating casinos, but refrained from highlighting those issues since they are already being worked out among the legislature. Legislators will have an opportunity to make changes to the budget before approval by the General Assembly in the coming weeks.

What seemed to be an important part of his proposal was the teachers pension fund, which has been widely criticized for not being funded enough. Early on in the governor’s speech, he said “when it comes to balancing this budget, my urgent priority is stabilizing the teachers pension fund.” Lamont’s plan would reconstruct the annual teachers pension costs and have municipalities pay more for their teacher pensions.

The governor expressed grave concerns if we don’t make these changes quickly.

“Now let me be blunt. If we don’t fix this bond our current payment plan could have disastrous consequences. Our annual contribution to the teachers fund could end up being higher the amount than the amount the state pays for education across the state”. Lamont’s strategy for boosting the fund also includes extending the payscale for the pension system and decreasing the assumed rate of return.

Democratic State Senator Martin Looney is supportive of these proposals, and spoke to WSFB about his thoughts on the matter.

“A town like Greenwich, they pay their teachers much more than anyone else. They also have smaller class sizes, but the state pays the entire costs of their pensions.”

Similar proposals impacting teachers would be increasing the state minimum wage and paid family and medical leave, all ideas that have garnered some bipartisanship support.

As Ned Lamont begins his tenure as Governor of Connecticut, many are left wondering how he will govern with looming deficits and a majority in the legislature. Only time will tell how his proposal changes and how they will impact this great state.

A full text of his full budget proposal can be found here . 


Educational policy journalism

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Committee on Children Public Hearing

On February 14th, a public hearing about children was held at Connecticut state capitol. The meeting started at 13:10. While I was hearing in ninety minutes, committee members discussed two bills. 

The first bill, Proposed S.B. No.453 AN ACT ESTABLISHING THE OFFICE OF THE CHILDREN AND FAMILIES OMBUDSMAN, was introduced by SEN. FASANO, 34th District and SEN. WITKOS, 8th District. 

They convened that the general statutes be amended to designate an independent ombudsman to receive and review complaints and grievances from children in the care and custody of the Department of Children and Families and maintain a record of all complaints and grievances, including descriptions of investigations, findings, recommendations and agency responses, which record shall be made available to the Child Advocate and, when appropriate, the Connecticut Juvenile Training School advisory group. 

The purpose is to establish independent children and families ombudsman to provide children in the care and custody of the Department of Children and Families an opportunity to have complaints and grievances heard, reviewed and addressed.

Rep. Linehan asked a question, “How many clients satisfied?” Sen. Witkos replied, “We didn’t collect these statistics.” Later he mentioned, “We picked up 1271 phone calls in 2018, and 470 requires were from 130 families.” It shows plenty of complaints exist, and a large number of children need the Department of Children and Families and ombudsman to pay more attention and take care. “Pick up the phone, and let people tell their stories.” Sen. Witkos said.  The last simple question from Rep. Linehan was, “Who is your aiming for your department?” The answer was, “Kids” said by Sen. Fasano. In the end, Rep. Linehan said to Sen. Fasano and Sen.Witkos, “We will make an appointment later for further discussion.”

The second bill was introduced by Rep. Lanoue, 45th District, Proposed Bill No.5165 AN ACT REQUIRING BACKGROUND CHECKS ON OVERNIGHT CAMP COUNSELORS. 

That the general statutes be amended to require camps to conduct background checks on overnight camp counselors, like fingerprints and criminal records. Rep. Lanoue expected to have a check on every counselor. But, it takes two to three months to collect fingerprints, which is too long. To shrink the time expending, the organization will spend a huge amount of money. Rep. Lanoue said she has two folds for this. The first one totally supports to collect fingerprints. The second one is it costs too much. 

A question asked by Rep. Kokoruda, “Who is required to do that, school, parents?” “That” here means collecting fingerprints and checking backgrounds. Rep. Lanoue answered that everyone wants children to have a safe environment and summer camp. She also mentioned, “Some nonprofit organizations raised money to do it (collect fingerprints).” In this bill, collecting fingerprints is the keystone instead of discussing check on criminal records because collecting fingerprints is the most money-consuming part. A male representative agreed with Rep. Lanoue and said, “We all want our children to have a safe environment and qualified adults.” At the end of the discussion, Rep. Lanoue pointed out that “Other states do it real quick, we are late” which is a really strong argument that Connecticut should start working on it now!