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Neag School to help low-performing schools as part of coalition

by Robert Frahm - September 15, 2008

A coalition of state education organizations, including UConn, has pledged to transform eight elementary schools that are struggling to address one of the nation’s most perplexing educational problems.

The Connecticut Alliance for CommPACT Schools, assisted by major grants from the legislature and a national teachers’ union, will help the schools redesign themselves in an effort to stem the pattern of chronic low achievement that plagues many urban and minority schoolchildren.

The coalition launched the program at a press conference Sept. 8 that included the announcement of a $250,000 grant from the NEA Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

The schools selected for CommPACT are among the state’s lowest-performing schools. None meets the academic benchmarks established under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The schools are M.D. Fox Elementary School in Hartford, Davis Street Comer School and Hill Central School in New Haven, Washington School and West Side Middle School in Waterbury, Barnum School and Longfellow School in Bridgeport, and the Shoreline Academy in New London.

The five-year reform plan, supported in part by a $480,000 appropriation from the state legislature, will give the schools an unusual degree of freedom to make changes in staffing, school hours, curriculum, and other areas.

Faculty and staff from UConn’s Neag School of Education will coordinate the program and conduct research to monitor its progress.

By allowing teachers, parents, and principals to run their own schools, CommPACT marks a radical shift from the top-down operations common to most school systems.

The project is designed to “rebuild urban schools from within,” University President Michael J. Hogan said during the press conference at the state Capitol that included coalition members, state legislators, and educators from the CommPACT schools.

“Our nation’s urban schools are in crisis,” he said, “and Connecticut’s inner city schools are absolutely, sadly, no different.”

The state’s urban schools have disproportionate numbers of minority and low-income children. On a nationwide test of reading and mathematics last year, the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier classmates was larger in Connecticut than in any other state.

“We can do better. We must do better, and UConn is prepared to help in this process of improvement,” Hogan said.

CommPACT will be guided by the Neag School’s Institute for Urban School Improvement and is the latest step in making UConn a national model for school reform, said Richard Schwab, dean of the Neag School.

Richard Schwab, center, dean of the Neag School of Education, speaks with Dennis Van Roekel, left, president of the National Education Association, and Barry Fargo, a New London teacher, after a press conference at the state Capitol Sept. 8.
Richard Schwab, center, dean of the Neag School of Education, speaks with Dennis Van Roekel, left, president of the National Education Association, and Barry Fargo, a New London teacher, after a press conference at the state Capitol Sept. 8.
Photo supplied by Connecticut Education Association

“I’m not aware of any other major research university in this country that has said ... helping to restore our nation’s schools is at the top of our agenda,” Schwab said. Under CommPACT, experts from the Neag School will “translate [their] research to practice in the real world of schools,” he said.

The CommPACT coalition is an unusual collaboration among education organizations – including teacher unions and administrators – groups that have sometimes clashed over how to run schools.

In addition to the Neag School, coalition members include the Connecticut Federation of School Administrators, the Connecticut Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers – Connecticut, the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, and the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents.

The project drew praise from representatives of the National Education Association and the NEA Foundation, whose grant will be used to support research on CommPACT’s progress.

“We believe in this collaborative approach,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation. “Most important to that approach is putting the teacher at the center.”

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said CommPACT is the fourth project the NEA Foundation has supported to attack the achievement gap, following other efforts in Seattle, Milwaukee, and Chattanooga, Tenn.

“As a nation, we are losing half our African-American and Hispanic students before they ever complete graduation,” he said. “There is no scenario of success for America that you can possibly envision that allows us to lose that kind of resource before they graduate from high school.”

CommPACT officials say the program is expected to expand next year to include at least a half dozen additional public schools.

State Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., one of nine lawmakers who spoke at the press conference, called CommPACT “a historic collaboration” that will become a model for new strategies for public schools, “where the vast majority of our children are educated every day.”

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