New London's focus must be on academic performance

I know that some folks have been critical of or offended by Mike DiMauro’s recent column, “If only New London shared the same passion for politics as sports.” As someone who has been involved in public education for more than 50 years, I would ask similar questions as raised by DiMauro in his column. Do we care as much about student achievement in New London as we do about whether the Whalers, the Patriots, the Red Sox or Yankees win?

And is the diversity of our community reflected in how that caring is expressed? Do we see school board candidates and community members showing the same passion about assuring all students have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in life as they do about the Whalers or Patriots?

Student achievement is a cornerstone to the economic future of New London. If students do not have the skills and knowledge they need, how employable will they be? Will they be able to complete a job application, read the manual for using computer programs — or operate machines controlled by them — and do simple math operations like adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing?

At 250 pages long, the budget document for the Proposed Budget of the New London Public Schools can be daunting. If you look closely at pages 15-18, however, you find a won-lost record that would shock many sports fans, let alone parents. If your team lost 78.6% and 68.8% of the time (the percentages of students who do not meet state standards in math and English) would you be lining up for season tickets? If your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews were attending a school district where only 21.4% of students were meeting state standards in math, and 31.2% of children were meeting state standards in English Language Arts, would you think that that was a good place for them? At sporting events with lopsided scores similar to our lopsided student performance scores, people head for the exits.

Student achievement is important, a measure of whether the city is providing its students the public education they deserve. So why is only one candidate, among the seven Democrats and Republicans running, talking about the achievement gaps among students, identifiable based on family income and ethnic background?

Two candidates have talked about improving expectations for students. But what do closing achievement gaps and increasing expectations mean? Do they mean that we should expect at least 80% of students to demonstrate 10th grade levels of English and math literacy to get a diploma from New London High School? Do they mean that we should expect a passage rate on Advanced Placement tests comparable to Simsbury and the Lymes?

When I look at the platforms of the Democratic and Republican candidates for New London Board of Education, I find more candidates concerned about “transparency, safety, accountability, school construction and better relations between the school board and the City Council” than about the skills and knowledge students have upon graduation.

Of course parents and community members were angry and frightened by the scandals engulfing the New London Public Schools last spring and over the summer. It makes political sense that candidates would emphasize “accountability for employment decisions, protecting our students, and safer schools.”

Given all the political focus on protecting students and providing safer schools, it’s useful to spend time with those students, especially those who have come from districts outside of New London. Find out how the kids feel. From my experience, many will tell you that they felt more accepted for who they are, less bullied, less pressured to dress in certain ways or to join certain cliques than they did in their hometown districts.

And some perspective, please. Of more than 525 staff members, three have been arrested or charged with inappropriate behavior. Was that behavior acceptable? Absolutely not. Do other districts — rural, suburban and urban — have similar problems? Absolutely.

Children are our future. We must demand that the people who are making decisions about our children’s lives make high academic achievement their number one goal. The rest of us must hold them accountable by showing that we too care about that goal above all others, even more than we care about sports teams.

Nick Fischer is a career educator, most recently serving as superintendent of the New London school system. He has since left that position but remains a resident of the city.

 

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