Lauding the work that Bridgeport teachers do, in very challenging circumstances, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy recently told a group of Bridgeport educators that their jobs have “been made a lot harder by a federal government that does not live up to its promises.”
Murphy has held conversations with Connecticut residents around the state this August, and stopped at Central High in Bridgeport specifically to hear from public school teachers and administrators about the challenges they face. “As we’re heading back to school, I wanted to make sure I heard from all of you,” he said.
Murphy, who holds a seat on the Senate education committee, referred to the challenges facing Bridgeport schools as “Solomon’s choices.”
Bridgeport educators spoke freely with Murphy, discussing a range of issues from the impossibility of keeping educators in the district to the challenge of recruiting minority and the lack of resources available for their students.
“One of our big challenges in Bridgeport is keeping teachers,” said Bridgeport Education Association President Gary Peluchette.
“Retaining our high quality educators is a big problem,” Bridgeport teacher and early leadership institute coach Michael Brosnan agreed. “Our annual attrition rate for teachers is 10-15 percent, and it’s not dissimilar among administrative faculty. In my 16 years in Bridgeport I’ve had approximately 20 principals.”
“In Bridgeport we start teachers at $43,000-44,000 per year, and a lot of that goes to taxes,” said acting Superintendent Michael Testani. “We have teachers who can go down the road to another district and earn $15,000 more.”
“I lost a teacher just this morning,” said Beardsley School Principal Sharon Pivirotto. “This is a teacher who was a product of the Bridgeport Public Schools. This is someone we want. She’s now going to Trumbull for $14,000 more. We’re going to have to scramble to get someone in place.”
The educators agreed that teachers who leave the district love their students and desperately want to stay, however, especially when teachers have children of their own, they feel forced into taking a job in a district that pays enough to provide for their families.
Murphy pointed out that, although some criticize Bridgeport, thinking the district spends a lot of money on its schools, some neighboring districts spend 70 percent more per student.
“Why in the world are kids less valuable here and teachers less worthy of earning a fair salary than in a school next door?” he asked.
Brosnan said that one way to retain more teachers in urban districts would be to offer a tuition reimbursement program.
“Based on our salaries being uncompetitive with surrounding towns, if we could offer a program for urban teachers where a Master’s degree, or two courses per school year were reimbursed, I think we’d have a much higher retention rate,” Brosnan said.
Blackham School fourth grade teacher Rob Traber spoke about the importance of increasing the diversity of the teaching profession. “In the past we’ve had several programs to try to help our paraprofessionals become certified,” he said. “We have over 100 paras who have bachelors degrees but can’t afford to become certified. Many of them were born and raised in Bridgeport and have a commitment to this city.”
“We have to do better when it comes to minority teacher recruitment,” said Bridgeport Education Association Vice President Ana Batista, a bilingual teacher. “When it comes to bilingual classes and English learners, we barely give the kids what they need to be productive members of society. We’ve been talking about this since I was a child.”
Christine Kasten, a science teacher at Blackham School said that she has a young son to support and that, though salaries in the district are a challenge, the lack of resources for students is another area of significant concern.
“We have large populations of English learners, students who are transient, those who have special needs,” she said. “How can we support those needs?”
The educators all agreed that the decision to cut kindergarten paraprofessionals from the district’s budget is going to have a devastating effect on the youngest learners. While wealthier Connecticut districts will often provide a full-time para in kindergarten classrooms when enrollment exceeds 18, and don’t allow the number of kindergarteners in a room to surpass 22, Bridgeport schools this year have 24 children to one teacher.
Superintendent Testani said, “For many of them, this is their first experience with school. They’re coming in bright-eyed. Many have IEPs or will need one, many don’t speak any English.”
Senator Murphy told educators he would try to put together some thoughts based on their concerns. “This is where my head and heart are at in terms of this equity question,” he said. “It’s what I want to spend a bunch of my time on in the Senate over these next years.”
“I thought the conversation was excellent,” said Batista. “These are topics that we need to speak about.”
“I appreciated that he was listening,” said Brosnan. “I think our superintendent made a very good point about actionable steps for the federal government to take, like increasing funding for IDEA. On a national level it’s difficult to address state-level concerns, but it never hurts to have Senator Murphy’s awareness and his support.”
“I’m glad Senator Murphy reached out to the Bridgeport Public Schools and the people in public education, said Peluchette. “We’re the people on the front lines; we know what we need.”