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New London officials should view the prospects of greater state intervention in the city school system with optimism, not trepidation. At this stage, the state Department of Education is prepared to intervene as a partner, but a failure to seize that opportunity would invite a more sweeping intervention and potentially loss of local control.
On Thursday Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer, the man responsible for making sure city schools effectively do their job of educating students, appeared before the state Board of Education to ask the state to intervene. It is a stance not without risk to the superintendent himself, for certainly he shares responsibility for the state of affairs.
"You don't get into this business to hold onto a job, but because you find value in education and doing what is in the best interests of students and their parents. I can't be afraid of making recommendations that are in the best interests of the kids," he told us Friday.
New London schools are at a critical juncture. School officials say that the next set of standardized test scores will show progress is being made. Dr. Fischer said the system's own monitoring also finds student improvement. A revamped teacher evaluation process, better clarification of what is expected of teachers, and a winnowing out of instructors who don't measure up all point toward advancement.
But such progress is fragile and the path to excellence a long one. The New London district ranks among the four lowest performing in the state. New London's financial difficulties make it ever harder to provide the resources necessary to address the educational challenge.
Among the major findings of a recent performance audit by the state Department of Education was a Board of Education too tied up in debating relatively inconsequential procedural and managerial matters, while not sufficiently focused on improving student performance.
In that regard we appreciate board Chairman Bill Morse's comments welcoming what he expects will be a primary feature of the coming state intervention - training for school board members specific to the issues and problems they confront.
"We need guidance," he said.
The chairman said he expects such guidance will lead to the setting of short- and long-term goals, such as improving literacy, and establishment of standards by which the administration can demonstrate success, or lack thereof. Better consensus building, agenda setting, and limiting procedural debates are all areas in which outside direction could lead to improvement, he said.
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor is scheduled to meet with the New London school board May 24.
Another state priority should be improved communication between the mayor's office, council, school board and superintendent. The mayor, council and board agreed recently, for example, to consolidate finance operations with the city. While a good idea in concept to reduce redundancy, this change came about without a clear game plan as to how exactly it will work or where the savings will come from.
Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio is working with his own, volunteer, educational policy advisor, Manuel Rivera, a past superintendent and currently an education consultant. The mayor plans to meet today with Commissioner Pryor and Mark Ojakian, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's chief of staff. While we welcome the mayor's pledge to "chart a new course for the New London Public School System," that course needs to align with the navigation plans of the school board and superintendent's office. That will require communication, a point we expect state officials to emphasize.
While alarming, the superintendent's call for help could be the point where change begins for the better. At the very least, it holds that potential.