Stamford Advocate

Candidates paint picture of failing schools during debate

- By Ignacio Laguarda

STAMFORD — One thing that was clear after a two-hour debate between Stamford Board of Education candidates Thursday is that all of the contenders believe the school district can do better for students and teachers.

Candidates brought up the low percentage of students who can read at the third grade level, troubling graduation rates and decaying and moldy school buildings as examples of how the district has failed.

The debate, held virtually, was hosted by the Stamford Parent-Teacher Council and Cradle to Career.

One of the questions posed during the debate was whether or not the the district is meeting the needs of all students.

Candidates unanimousl­y said it was not.

Ben Lee, a current Board of Representa­tives member and one of three Democratic candidates running for a seat on the board, called out the district’s graduation rate of 87 percent. For Latino students, who make up the largest racial and ethnic group in the district, the graduation rate is 80 percent.

“This is a crisis within our system,” he said.

Republican Becky Hamman, an educator and one of two incumbents running in the Nov. 2 election, referenced the district’s own early grade reading numbers. According to the 2019-20 annual report, 42 percent of students in nine of the elementary schools were “above benchmark” in reading scores.

But at the other four elementary schools, the rate was 29 percent.

“Absolutely not appropriat­e,” said Hamman, who later criticized the district for being too “top heavy” with administra­tor positions.

Jackie Pioli, an incumbent who is serving as a Democrat on the board but is running as an unaffiliat­ed candidate in November, said hiring more reading teachers is one way to address the troubling reading levels in elementary schools.

“We don’t need new reading programs,” she said. “We keep bringing in program after program and there’s no accountabi­lity or data review to see if the program is working.”

Versha Munshi-South, a former teacher and principal at Public Preparator­y Network in Manhattan who is running as a Democrat in the election, said she decided to run because she cares about equity.

She described the city’s schools as ranging from “excellent to mediocre to frankly unacceptab­le.”

“As a Board of (Education) member, I would work to ensure that all kids have access to schools that are safe, engaging, exciting and rigorous, regardless of where they live or what school they attend,” she said.

Munshi-South also said schools don’t regularly send home academic data to families. She shared her children’s experience after taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, test.

“It’s very hard as a parent to know how my kids are doing,” she said. “It’s October. I haven’t gotten SBAC scores yet. My kids took that test in the spring.”

She added, “How can I as a parent really know how my kids are doing and respond and support them if I’m not getting that data?”

Republican Joe Gonzalez, a former Stamford Police Department officer, said he doesn’t believe Stamford children are getting the education they should be getting.

He told an anecdote of the time he was a police officer and asked a 15-year-old girl to write a statement. She wrote it in Spanish, he said. When he asked her why, she said she couldn’t write in English and that she had been attending Stamford schools since kindergart­en.

“That is insane,” he said. During the debate, Gonzalez spoke about his desire to advocate for the district’s large Hispanic population, which he described as “silent” and “ignored.” According to the district’s enrollment figures from late last year, about 45 percent of students in Stamford are Hispanic.

Republican Josh Esses, an attorney, said teachers and parents feel left out of decisions made by administra­tors, something he would like to change.

He referenced three recent examples of parents feeling blindsided by policy changes: the decision to eliminate tracking at middle schools, eliminatin­g some Advanced Placement classes at Stamford High School and implementi­ng a new grading policy at Westhill High School.

“The sense I get from parents and teachers is that their input is not being solicited,” he said.

Democrat Michael Hyman, a staff member at the Stamford nonprofit Domus and former Stamford NAACP president, said the achievemen­t gap is nothing new.

“To the extent that people say that we haven’t been talking about the achievemen­t or the equity gap, I have to wonder where they’ve been,” he said, adding that he wrote an op-ed in the Stamford Advocate 20 years ago in which he pointed out the disparitie­s in academic success for African-American children.

“The data has been around for a long time,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time. In fact, a lifetime.”

Hyman also agreed that Stamford students are not getting what they need.

“Is the school district meeting all of the needs? The answer to that sadly is no, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for us to do this work,” he said.

He added that the school board has done a “horrible job” working with partners to find solutions.

Further, Hyman said eliminatin­g dysfunctio­n on the board is the top reason he is running in the election.

“If people cannot come together ... to work together, the other issues never get resolved because they are left behind in a ball of distractio­n and confusion and chaos,” he said.

The Board of Education was recently the target of a lengthy report detailing alleged instances of bullying and intimidati­on against members of the senior administra­tion team.

Esses called the board “dysfunctio­nal,” echoing some of the language from the report.

“I will bring a profession­alism, a temperamen­t and a preparedne­ss to these meetings,” he said.

Candidates also spoke about the physical properties of the district’s school buildings. Five schools — Westhill High School, Cloonan Middle School, Hart Elementary School, Roxbury Elementary School and Toquam Magnet Elementary School — have been identified as buildings that need to be torn down and replaced.

Superinten­dent Tamu Lucero has previously estimated that the cost for rebuilding all five schools would be around $500 million.

Pioli said the Board of Education can only do so much, since it is not in charge of building schools.

“If you’re getting on the board to build a building, you’re getting on the wrong board,” she said.

The only role the board has is approving plans that are sent to the state and holding facilities managers accountabl­e, she said.

Lee agreed that the Board of Education has limited legal authority, but challenged Pioli by saying members of the board can still advocate.

“I’ve seen some of the decay in our schools and it is wrong that we are sending our children into schools that are not heated or cooled properly with roofs that leak and with the threat of mold,” Lee said.

Hyman agreed, saying the the board does have the ability to influence where and how the district addresses facility needs.

The Stamford Board of Education election is Nov. 2. The seven candidates are vying for one of three open seats.

The board operates under a minority representa­tion rule, which stipulates no more than six of the nine members may belong to the same party. Five Democrats are not up for reelection this year, meaning only one Democrat can join the board through the upcoming election.

But the rule does not stipulate that the minority representa­tion on the board be all Republican. A candidate running as unaffiliat­ed, or any minority party, would also qualify.

 ?? Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? Students on the first day of school at Stamford High School on Aug. 30.
Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticu­t Media Students on the first day of school at Stamford High School on Aug. 30.

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