Teachers, CEA leaders, and staff testified yesterday before the Connecticut General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus on issues critical to teachers this legislative session. These issues included school climate, classroom safety, the persistent shortage of ethnic minority educators, and funding for public schools.
“It is vitally important that members of the caucus hear from teachers and get a clearer understanding of what’s happening every day in our schools,” says CEA Director of Government Relations Ray Rossomando. “Teachers came from every corner of the state and stayed late into the evening, on a school night, to testify before their elected officials about what matters most to their students, their profession, and the communities where they teach. That has an impact.”
Twenty-two-year veteran educator Tiffany Ladson-Lang, who lives and works in Bridgeport, spoke about the need to address schools plagued by mold, poor air quality, and other environmental factors. The proud parent of a Bridgeport public school student, she recalled a school-based summer camp her daughter attended.
“On a sweltering day, my daughter had to leave early because the extreme indoor temperatures resulted in an asthma attack.” Although her daughter did not attend that school during the academic year, she knew hundreds of others did.
“And there was my light bulb moment,” said Ladson-Lang. “Our summer experience was another child’s yearlong experience in a sick school.”
Bridgeport, she added, is constantly advocating for funds to address issues including mold, extreme temperatures, lead exposure, and poor water and air quality, but the demands of maintaining 30+ schools efficiently and effectively are too great.
“In order to protect and support a healthy and safe environment conducive to teaching and optimal for student learning, we need your help,” she told the caucus. “Without guidelines, procedures, funding, and clear and effective timelines for remediation, our schools—and our students—will continue to be sick. Don’t you agree that all students deserve safe and healthy schools?”
Fellow Bridgeport resident and 2011 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Kristen Record, who has taught in Stratford for the past 19 years, described in detail how ill her classroom environment had made her, and how she had always chalked up her September symptoms to seasonal allergies.
Two years ago, however, her classroom flooded during a heavy rain storm.
“Everything had to come out of my room—literally everything, including the carpet. And then something odd happened: no fall allergies. Imagine my shock as I slowly realized it wasn’t me who had been sick; it was my classroom. And if my room, with its 20-year-old carpet, was sick, probably every other room with that same carpeting was too, but I was the only one lucky enough to get it replaced. As the vice president of the Stratford Education Association, I’ve become keenly aware over the years of just how sick our schools can become. During the winter, kids and teachers wear coats inside, and portable space heaters are used to bring classroom temperatures up above 60 degrees. In warm months, we are sometimes sent home early because the heat and humidity in our buildings are so awful. We have mold in our carpets and dust in our air vents. We are getting sick at school, and so are our kids, and we need your help. We urge you to pass legislation that ensures and establishes healthy learning conditions conducive to successful teaching and learning for all students.”
Also testifying on building conditions was Waterbury teacher Sean Mosley, chair of CEA’s Ethnic Minority Affairs Commission.
“I come before you today as not only a proud educator in the state of Connecticut for more than a decade, but as a concerned teacher of color who has spent his entire professional career working in communities of color helping to improve the lives of all. Many of our schools are in dire need of building repairs, especially antiquated HVAC and plumbing systems, and we are often forced to teach and learn in arctic-like temperatures, with drinking water that is contaminated.” Poor building conditions, he observed, often lead to long-term, debilitating health conditions for the teachers who work in those buildings.
“This is not acceptable, and we should not become numb to these revelations.”
Mosley also talked about assaults that teachers face at the hands of students and encouraged caucus members to pass legislation that promotes classroom safety. Last year, a bill that would have done just that was rejected by some members of the caucus on the false premise that it would disproportionately and negatively impact students of color—a claim that CEA has refuted. A similar bill—which seeks support and intervention for students with aggressive or disruptive behavior—is being considered this legislative session and has CEA’s support.
“It is important for us to pass legislation that promotes and supports the jobs that our teachers are called to do every single day. We cannot afford to have our educators walking into environments where, on any given day, they may also be battered or assaulted. Despite what many advocacy groups have asserted, as educators of color, it is not our intent to proliferate the school-to-prison pipeline or advocate for measures that would disproportionately affect students who look like us or come from communities where many of us live, but it is rather to promote legislation that promotes safety in all districts and prevents another child or adult from being the victim of an assault.”
Faith Sweeney, a 22-year classroom teacher, literacy interventionist, and literacy coach in Stamford, Greenwich, and Westport, addressed the issue of classroom violence as well, specifically calling for support of House Bill 7110: An Act Concerning Enhanced Classroom Safety and School Climate, which has been raised by the Education Committee.
Describing an incident where a first-grade child threw a chair toward a table of his classmates, Sweeney said, “This may surprise you, but it has become a common occurrence in schools across this country. Actions causing physical harm are overwhelming our educational system. Each one of our teachers and our future leaders of the world deserves to teach and learn in a safe place. It is critical for classrooms to have proactive safety measures in place for every child and teacher so that teaching and learning are not interrupted.”
You don’t have to testify in person on the issue of classroom safety to be heard. Click here to tell your story.
At the packed public hearing, CEA Vice President Tom Nicholas expressed optimism that the state is finally using objective and current information to determine how the $2 billion education cost sharing (ECS) grant is allocated among towns to achieve equitable funding across the state.
“This school year is the first time the ECS grant has been funded based on the ECS formula, and the years of funding based on politics are hopefully over. As the state moves to correct years of inequitable funding, roughly $20 million of ECS monies were reallocated across the state from overfunded towns to underfunded towns. Among the many towns that have been underfunded, Connecticut’s five largest received a total of $6 million more in ECS funding.”
Nicholas noted that while some critics are arguing for further improvements to the current ECS formula, the resulting changes in funding would be minor, and revisiting the ECS formula runs the risk of returning to previous years, when funding was based on politics instead of need.
“For once, ECS is not broken, so there is no need to fix it. Instead, CEA would like to collaborate with the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus to get state funding for a comprehensive cost study to determine the true cost of a K-12 education in Connecticut.”
Minority teacher recruitment
Orlando Rodriguez, CEA’s Research and Policy Development Specialist and chief economist, spoke about the need to address the shortage of minority teachers to reflect student demographics in the state.
“In Connecticut, nearly four out of ten students in K-12 are either Black or Hispanic; however, fewer than one in ten teachers are either Black or Hispanic,” he pointed out. Among the solutions he proposed were certifying more minority teachers in persistent shortage areas—such as science, math, and bilingual education—and addressing broader challenges to teacher recruitment and retention.
“A major obstacle to increasing the number of minority teachers is that teaching is no longer viewed as the desirable profession it once was. Aside from instruction, K-12 teachers have to deal with violence in their classrooms, burdensome administrative tasks, and having to dedicate too much classroom time to meet strict testing requirements. Making matters worse, our teachers’ pensions are under attack even though teachers made all the necessary contributions, but the state did not.”
The need for proactive minority teacher recruitment was highlighted in Mosley’s testimony as well. The Waterbury teacher advocated for funding for grow-your-own teacher recruitment programs providing incentives for students of color to pursue majors in education, and mentoring for teachers of color currently serving in Connecticut’s public schools.
“We also must make sure that any work group or task force that is targeting this issue includes active classroom teachers who are on the front lines every day,” he asserted.
Community organizer Shamare Holmes joined CEA members and staff in speaking about the need for community schools with strong, culturally relevant curricula, family and community engagement, high-quality teaching, and improved student outcomes.