School Reform in Connecticut
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In addition, with only six districts, better deals can be struck with transportation companies, with the potential of mitigating additional costs incurred by transporting pupils among high school clusters. Clustering schools presents an opportunity to design more efficient routes, such as a configuration that emerged from a study in the LEARN regional center. There, three special-education directors realized they all were sending children to the same program in Hartford—aboard three separate vans. They pooled resources to send just one van, and from that emerged an approach similar to an airline’s hub-and-spoke strategy.
Consolidating districts also saves money in curriculum development, especially now that the state is initiating a common core curriculum this year. Currently, most districts have curriculum specialists that design the year’s instruction.
“We’ve gotten 18 school districts together to write curriculum for the state’s new common core,” says Craig W. Edmondson, executive director of ACES, the regional center comprising 25 districts from New Haven to Waterbury, Meriden and Middletown. “We have over 100 educators working collaboratively to write curriculum, so it is shared intellectual property they’re going to take back to their home districts.”
While that level of cooperation is helpful, it remains a large and complex effort that consolidated districts would eliminate.
Edmondson points out that Connecticut’s school districts have reached a point where revenues are flat, at best, which might at last lead school boards to look more closely at additional opportunities for regionalization. “We’ve reached the tipping point,” he says. Districts can survive economic downturns for maybe one or two budget years, “but when you get into the second, third or fourth year, it takes a major toll on your ability to deliver quality programs.”
The state’s regional education centers are well positioned to take on added responsibilities—security, for one recently urgent example—but, as Edmondson observes, so far our school districts’ economic distress has not led to serious conversations about giving up what has been their historic role.
“The local authority in Connecticut, because of its long history, is a real value to many of our communities,” he says. “They appreciate the opportunity to oversee their schools, and they believe that they have the best interests of their schools and children in mind. So, even though it’s so economically advantageous to do it, I’m not sure that communities would be willing to give it up now.”
So while Cirasuolo applauds the governor’s efforts as a good start, he knows we still have far to go. He notes that even in the best school districts there are children who are not making it, and even the state’s best pupils are falling short of some international benchmarks. “If our objective is that every kid learns what they need to learn and be able to do, then we need to think outside the parameters of our individual school districts,” he says.
That means ridding ourselves of that outmoded 17th-century system to ensure the success of our 21st-century future.