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Teaming up to turn around New London schools

The first step to resolving a stubborn problem is to acknowledge that there is one and to seek help.

The New London Public Schools took Step 1 pre-pandemic, in 2019, by asking the state Department of Education to accept its two "turnaround" secondary schools, New London High School and Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, into the Commissioner's Network. After more than a year of hard work made harder by pandemic conditions, the Board of Education, administration, staff, parents and the teachers union, New London Education Association, completed a plan that the state board accepted in May. With admission into the network comes extensive technical support and additional state aid to carry out the improvement plan.

New London schools have had a series of determined superintendents and educators who have worked for decades to improve student achievement and graduation rates. They have had their successes and some bright shining moments. Yet there have been times when the desire of the adults to inspire the students missed the mark. It is good to feel positive; it is better to know the shortcomings and have the wherewithal to fix them. Anything less feels too much like a pat on the head. Anything less lowballs the challenges.

The state invited a reckoning for its lowest-performing schools in 2016 when it created the "turnaround" designation as part of Connecticut's Next Generation Accountability System. The term is not a put-down, but it's not subjective, either. It's a measure of  performance that scored low compared to other Connecticut schools, and it signals urgency.

Applying takes a full year. The state does an educational audit, offers guidance and assistance. Once accepted, a school stays in the network for three to five years

Being accepted into the Commissioner's Network in effect means that a school system isn't going to take it anymore. If there is a way to improve student achievement, the students, families, educators and school board have to say they want it, will commit to the work and will accept "heightened accountability" as evaluated by the state. New London has now done that.

Broad participation of all those groups bodes well for the process that will unfold over the next three years. Participants need to see this through so the notion of being involved spreads to others. Students, once they have tasted leadership and teamwork, won't want a passive role and will be far less likely to get bored with school, with older ones becoming models for younger kids.

A critical factor is that parents must get used to participating; schools without parental involvement fail to thrive.

There will be those who say that throwing money at the problem hasn't worked before and won't now. If the only assistance from the state was more funding, the skeptics could be right. But the Commissioner's Network operates with a two-way flow that features problem-solving and accountability by the school system and technical assistance from the state.

Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Ritchie and the New London Board of Education responded to the turnaround designation by recognizing the seriousness of the state's intention to improve the schools and its insistance on results. Acceptance of the turnaround plan means flexibility and autonomy for a school system that has already improved but has not forgotten the humbling experience of being taken over by the state Board of Education exactly nine years ago for lack of performance. No one ever wants to see that again. 

The Commissioner's Network aims to be "transformative" for academic achievement, in the way the schools operate, and ultimately in the way it feels to go to school. Better tools should now be in the hands of the school board and educators. The children and teenagers of New London should have nothing less than the best school experience.

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 Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser 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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