School Reform in Connecticut


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Here is what that study committee will see: Of the state’s 169 municipalities, 149 operate independent school districts. Thirty-two of those contain only one school; 10 more have only two. Beginning in 1937, 27 school districts in groups of two to six towns merged their secondary schools, either junior high and high school or just high school, into eight regional school districts.  

Twenty of the state’s smallest municipalities, primarily in the northwest and northeast, do not operate any schools on their own. Between 1953 and 1973, they combined into nine regional districts of two to four towns to educate children from kindergarten through high school.

A few other one- and two-school districts send their kids to neighboring districts’ high schools, paying what amount to tuition fees to those neighboring towns. Still others send their children to one of three independent regional academies—Norwich Free Academy, Woodstock Academy or The Gilbert School in Winsted.

Layered within this basic structure are 16 publicly operated charter schools, 44 full-time magnet schools, six part-time magnet high schools and 17 technical schools.

Put it all together, and what we’ve got is a hodgepodge of 165 school districts that were described last year in a Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) report as “economically inefficient and foster[ing] economic, racial and ethnic isolation.”

What the study committee also will find if they look hard enough into the current setup is money-gobbling duplication in functions ranging from food service to transportation and security that conceivably could be cut by reducing the number of school districts to a more manageable number, and thereby redirecting scarce resources to actually educating kids.

That gets to the core of what the superintendents’ organization is driving at as part of its Educational Transformation Project, especially when it addresses racial and ethnic isolation. Its goal is not merely to give children an opportunity to learn, but to ensure they do learn what they need to know in a 21st- century global environment.
 “Every child needs to have an individual learning plan,” says CAPSS director Joseph Cirasuolo. “That means that every child needs to have the program that is best suited for them regardless of where they live. And frankly, there’s not a district in the state that has the capacity to do that.”

“We’re designed to make sure every kid gets a chance to learn,” he continues. “We’re not designed to ensure that every kid learns what they need to know and be able to do. If you have that kind of dramatic change in expectations, you need a fairly dramatic change in the system.”

Okay, Dr. Cirasuolo, we at Connecticut Magazine like a challenge. So we’ll start with your suggestion to look at Fairfax County, Va., as a model for a complete structural overhaul. We agree that countywide districts won’t work in Connecticut, because we’d have to start from scratch. These geographic oddities have no infrastructure on which to build a 21st-century school system.

Instead, we should look to the existing framework of six Regional Education Service Centers that the legislature established over 30 years ago to help school districts find ways to cooperate and collaborate, ultimately to save money but also to help them provide services that individual districts on their own cannot. These six service centers already are saving money for taxpayers in some districts in areas ranging from health care and curriculum, transportation and professional development. So the basics are already there.

The Fairfax County school district is subdivided into eight geographical clusters that each contain two to four high-school pyramids, usually a high school, a middle school and five to eight elementary schools that feed students into the high schools.

In our reorganization, our six new districts will each have 20 to 25 high schools, which we’ll group into clusters of four to five high- school pyramids with geographical proximity the main criterion. This helps eliminate duplication in curriculum—for example, every high school will not need to offer the same advanced placement courses. Instead, specialized courses would be based in specific high schools. One school might focus on math and the sciences, another on history and literature or music and the arts. Children and their parents could choose schools not based on where they live but rather on their interests and needs.

School Reform in Connecticut

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