Don't short-circuit chance for real change in New London schools

Cynthia Ritchie has been the superintendent of New London Public Schools for one year and three months. That is not long, especially when the assignment is to turn around a system that suffers from chronic urban disadvantages. But it, and she, does have an ace in the hole: significant support and encouragement from the state Department of Education.

Does that sound like the time to give up? Not to us. It sounds like a moment of great challenge, to be sure, but most definitely not to change course — again.

In the decade before Ritchie's arrival from East Hartford in July last year, New London had several full-time superintendents of schools, a few interims, and for a time, a state-appointed master to oversee the Board of Education. By contrast, Norwich and Groton were operating with long-tenured superintendents; East Lyme, Waterford and Stonington superintendents all had a chance to run up several years in their jobs. Nothing was permanent in New London but the state of flux.

The Hartford Courant recently editorialized that New London schools ought to be placed under state supervision, yet again, because of the recent charges that two male staff members had sexually assaulted female students, that at least one female faculty member knew something and failed to report it, and that administrators in general were ineffective at keeping children safe at school.

The alleged behavior is despicable, but to take control away from the school board and the superintendent would be a grave mistake. And it would even be redundant, because the state is already in the schools in constructive ways that hold promise for a slow but steady reversal of long-stewing performance problems.

New London police, the state Office of the Child Advocate, and a firm hired by the school board at Ritchie's recommendation are conducting their respective investigations and reviews. With all due respect to our colleagues at the Courant, these reviews should run their course before any rash actions are considered. Ritchie said she expects the findings of the independent audit soon, and that in the meanwhile she is consulting with the reviewers about best practices in human resources. The school board has been conducting a review of its own policies. Child Advocate Sarah Egan, who was asked by Mayor Michael Passero to review what happened and why, has said her office's findings will be comprehensive. Criminal charges are working their way through the legal system.

All that takes time. The administration and the school board, meanwhile, do not get to divert their attention from their obligation to educate and protect the students.

Amid the disruptions there have been significant improvements and successes. One major accomplishment is that New London was awarded two of only 10 performance planning grants that the state education department gave this year. The grants support systematic planning for how the school system would put to use sizable, multiyear grants — as much as $500,000 or more annually — if it can show the likelihood of significant improvement. Toward that end, a state education department advisor is in the schools for one day every two weeks, observing and counseling about improving attendance, test scores, community involvement, graduation rates, staff evaluation and kindergarten readiness.

Every employee is now being evaluated annually. The superintendent has introduced a "Safe School Climate plan" that includes mandatory staff training on harassment, bullying, and reporting, and a simple process for reporting incidents, with immediate follow-up.

Ritchie has shown herself to be a planner by nature and training. She was in the midst of developing the details of her three-year district strategic plan when the scandal broke. She ordered full cooperation with the police and organized community conversations — not all of which she personally attended. She commissioned the independent audit and, in a move she says was already planned, upended the administrative structure and reassigned personnel.

What the superintendent did not do was offer to tell the mayor her plans or, in his view, adequately reassure the greater public. The mayor's concern is that the strategies being implemented must be shared with the broader community so the confidence of parents and the public in the magnet school approach remains strong.

The superintendent and board could have better balanced the competing needs for public transparency and student confidentiality and should strive to do so moving forward. Transparency is not optional. It is indeed key to restoring and keeping confidence.

We send children to school to learn and we entrust them to the care of nurturing adults. New London's best option by far is to stay with the strong leadership of this still-new superintendent, who is already working with the state. New London voters can do their part by selecting candidates who understand that transparency is part of the job.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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