DANBURY — A national education law passed by Congress last year gave states more authority over school policy, but as a new school year begins district leaders are adamant that more change is needed.
Nearly 20 educators from the Danbury school district met Wednesday afternoon with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, to discuss the law that replaced the unpopular No Child Left Behind act and to share their views on what could be done differently.
Murphy said he got the message.
“I’m from a family of teachers,” he said. “Everything I’ve learned about education comes from parents and teachers, so this is an important sounding board for me.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed by Congress with rare bipartisan support in 2015, shifts power away from the federal government, allowing individual states to set criteria for measuring student achievement and to decide how to intervene in underachieving districts.
But on Wednesday, many attendees argued that the way the state holds districts accountable is unfair to many students, particularly those with special needs or who attend alternative schools. They argued that because students of varying abilities are measured by the same tests, some are in effect set up to fail because they aren’t as prepared for tests as other students, even if they are making progress.
“It is often my concern that the students in these programs are under-serviced and sometimes forgotten,” said Sandra Atanasoff, the principal of Danbury’s alternative school. “Sometimes educating these youth and getting them to reach these measures that are so lofty in such a short period of time is very difficult.”
Superintendent Sal Pascarella agreed, saying many Danbury students face hardships outside school that are not common in other districts, such as changing homes frequently during the school year, returning from incarceration and in some cases not having a home at all.
“Trying to judge them with the same standard is very difficult and in some cases counterproductive,” Pascarella said.
Other problems discussed include the need for more funding, the high percentage of students learning English as a second language and the increased cost of special education.
Meghan Martins, the high school’s associate principal for instruction, also said the state should offer incentives to keep teachers trained in communities like Danbury from moving to other districts.
“There’s a big discrepancy between what happens in an urban school and a suburban school,” Martins said. “(And) in the last month, we had almost six teachers resign to go to Ridgefield or Redding. There’s no incentive from the state perspective to do the very hard work. It is harder to work here than it is to work in Ridgefield.”
While much of the discussion went beyond the scope of the new federal law, Murphy said, the freedom it provides makes it much easier to change state policies.
“We need to make sure we have a measurement for kids that recognizes that everyone doesn’t start from same place,” Murphy said. “The new legislation puts the states back in charge of setting standards of performance and interventions.
“The good news is if you don’t like new law, you can get it changed in Hartford instead of getting it changed in Washington,” Murphy said.