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    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    New London charter school is ‘no place for hate,’ but some question its work environment

    New London ― The Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication was designated as a “No Place for Hate” school by the Anti-Defamation League this past week.

    However, the charter school still faces questions about the nature of its work environment and continues to work through a number of issues.

    Two months ago, ISAAC, a middle school with 276 students in grades 6-8, pulled out of an accreditation bid with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges after disagreeing with the agency on how to conduct an investigation related to the work environment.

    Executive Director Nicholas Spera said by phone Thursday that ISAAC is in better standing after it spent nearly two years on probation by the State Department of Education for a questionable increase to special education service rates to outside school districts. The probation was lifted in March.

    NEASC partners with schools to promote high quality education for all students through accreditation, professional assistance, and pursuit of best practices. Cam Staples, president of NEASC, this week said approximately 1,200 independent and public schools in New England are accredited by the agency.

    The independent public charter school, which is not part of the New London’s public school system, has been a candidate for NEASC’s accreditation since early 2020. Staples said the school’s accreditation process was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said NEASC about a year ago received two complaints about the school, which stalled the process further.

    Staples said the agency only investigates complaints that allege a violation of its standards for accreditation. In this case, he said the two complaints involved the work environment and warranted an investigation and a visit to the school.

    Nancy Rodgers, who taught at the school for seven years and left in 2021, filed one of the complaints. Rodgers on Wednesday said she experienced a “toxic work environment” after Spera took his position in 2020. She said there were those in the inner circle with Spera and those on the outside.

    “It was that idea of you need to leave and you’re not welcomed here,” Rodgers said.

    Rodgers said in her 14 years of teaching she had never received a disciplinary letter, but received two in the 1 1/2 years after Spera started at ISAAC. She added the school did not address her disability accommodations.

    Barbara Zegarzewski, who had worked as a teacher, counselor and in a leadership position, filed the other complaint. She left ISAAC in 2021 after 21 years in multiple positions, having five certifications. Zegarzewski said she was disciplined despite having faced little disciplinary action in the past and was purposely demoted twice from a leadership position.

    On April 7, both Rodgers and Zegarzewski received an email from Staples informing them there had been several conversations with the school's leadership about how a visit would be conducted. He said the school would not agree to one requirement, “which is that our team would have unrestricted access to all members of the school community, including the opportunity for the faculty and staff to communicate with our visitors privately and confidentially.”

    Staples this past week that based on the school’s lack of collaboration with the investigation, the agency was considering terminating ISAAC’s candidacy. He said the school pulled out of the accreditation process shortly after being informed of this.

    Spera said a NEASC steering committee made up of faculty and administrators, excluding himself, had worked toward the school’s accreditation.

    In a letter to NEASC on April 11, Principal William Linkski said the committee voted unanimously to withdraw from NEASC and the accreditation process due to an inability to reach an agreement on an “equitable process” for the accreditation.

    Spera said the school felt NEASC was not following its standard accreditation process.

    “We wanted them (NEASC) to do a commissioned directed visit by a member of NEASC as is the practice,” Spera said. “They wanted to talk to every staff member and we felt it was a disruption and the teachers didn’t want that.”

    Special education rates

    The school was placed on probation by the state in May 2021 in part for a large and sudden special education rate hike billed to districts that send their students to ISAAC.

    In addition to special education billing, the state determined the school did not have proper board governance, disposed of computer equipment improperly and needed school policy and procedural updates.

    The probation period was extended in May 2022 as the state cited the need for ongoing oversight of the way the school bills for special education.

    In a letter on March 2, State Commissioner of Education Charlene M. Russell-Tucker informed Spera the probation had been lifted after the school followed through with a plan to correct policies on the billing rate and other issues.

    Spera said he had noticed an issue with the methodology by which the school came up special education costs and had brought it to the school board before it was placed on probation. He said the issues were alleviated quickly and staff worked tirelessly to remain an exemplary school.

    No place for hate

    The Anti-Defamation League’s “No Place for Hate” is a student-led school climate improvement program. As part of the program, schools are required to form a committee with students and faculty and host year-round activities.

    Spera said the school has worked with the ADL for several years doing diversity and school climate training and ISAAC is among 18 schools in the state the ADL recognized for commitment to the program this past school year.

    Spera said the school is proud to be the first school in New London County to be designated a “No Place for Hate” School.

    “This is a testament to the strong culture and climate that exists at ISAAC,” he said. “I am incredibly proud of the hard work and commitment from our students and staff who prove that ISAAC middle school is a safe and healthy place to learn, work, and grow.”

    j.vazquez@theday.com

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