Safety and The Schools: Learning Communities Will Help

Parents everywhere share a constant concern about the safety and well-being of their children. It’s a mindset that rarely leaves mothers and fathers from birth, through the school years and into young adulthood. That’s why recent reports of weapons and crimes against persons in the schools are so emotional and difficult. This is another moment when the well-worn phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” should guide public policy and new responses on education and safety.

The situation recalls some talks on politics I was asked to give to civics classes at New Britain High School several years ago. One student wanted to know why it was necessary to spend upwards of $250,000 on security cameras instead of money for more books, which were in short supply and a source of student complaints at the time. Years before a youth had been gunned down on the steps of the Mill Street school — a victim of gang violence whose death shook parents and the whole community to the core. Thinking of that incident, I told the student the cameras were there (and still are) because their parents and New Britain’s officialdom cared about him and his classmates. They were needed to make them safe — a prerequisite to being able to learn. That didn’t satisfy the student who still wanted to know why there weren’t enough books and why the lines at the cafeteria were so long. The cameras may have been necessary but they were doing little to address the stress of too many students in one school plant — conditions that would seem to correlate strongly with disruptive behavior. It’s no wonder that New Britain residents take pride in their high school because so many of its students can succeed despite recurring resource and safety issues.

School security and the quality of education will be important if not dominant issues during the 2007 municipal election cycle. This will be a good thing so long as politicians use the campaign to propose constructive action and long-term strategies that will utilize the available funds to decrease overcrowding and increase student achievement.

Proof that education and safety in schools is on the front burner is apparent at the end of 2006:

  • Police and school officials, following a meeting of the Mayor, School Superintendent, high school principal and police chief, have added a second resource officer at the high school and given students a hot line.
  • The Common Council, responding to a new parent group seeking more safety measures, has created a task force to consider new responses to the school safety question. Recommendations will be offered by May.
  • The state Senate is pushing the S.A.F.E. Schools initiative that will provide $15 million to school districts to address the threat of violence and disruptive behavior. The legislation appears to address many of the immediate concerns of parents and school officials by providing funds for security assessments, entry door alarms and security devices, staff training and requirements that new school construction include plans for “security infrastructures.” State Senate President Don Williams, who discussed the plan with State Senator Don DeFronzo in New Britain, says that local school districts “shouldn’t have to decide between smaller classes or more secure schools.” At issue is whether the legislation can address school safety issues in all the cities and towns that will request state assistance next year.
  • The Board of Education, prior to the start of the current school year, adopted a plan that includes the opening of a freshman academy next fall and development of an alternative education center that would enroll students who are disruptive and have a history of behavioral problems. The measures were taken to provide some relief to the burgeoning school population at the high school.

While all of these developments address the safety issue, they are really what School Board President Peter Kochol might refer to as “band aids” in terms of delivering educational services that will foster higher student achievement and help students with significant learning deficits to do better.

A new push to de-centralize the high school and develop “smaller learning communities” will require innovation and a judicious use of limited resources to improve the situation.

Positive alternatives may be found in what Kochol describes as “academy-style, inter-district magnet schools” that have been developed in cities such as New Haven and Hartford and that draw students from surrounding towns. Funded with up to 95% state assistance for construction and renovation, the magnet option may be the best approach to solving the problems in secondary education. Although many educators believe the No Child Left Behind law enacted in 2002 is seriously under funded in the federal budget, the initiative includes a grant program that addresses the issues confronting a large high school like New Britain’s . School districts, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education, receive funds on behalf of large high schools “to undertake research based strategies to develop, implement, and expand smaller learning environments.”

To some extent NBHS has employed a learning communities approach by dividing the school in houses and adjusting scheduling to accommodate so many students. But small-scale learning communities, according to the No Child Left Behind law, also may involve career academies, magnets and other “school within a school” ideas that can improve on the high school’s configuration by “creating a more personal experience for students.”

Ideally, learning communities also should involve increasing the number of adult advocates and other mentoring activities, reducing teaching loads and fostering a caring environment.

Inter-district magnets – apart from reforms instituted at the high school, can provide a range of curriculum options for New Britain students, and they provide new state funds that will expand education resources in New Britain at a time when money is needed for both safety and learning. This does not mean breaking the high school into two comprehensive and high-cost facilities at either end of towns.

Academy-style magnets at the secondary level will offer a broader range of curricular options for New Britain and suburban students at existing school facilities. Supt. Doris Kurtz’ has previously resisted pursuit of a high school magnet as part of the solution to an overcrowded high school. A magnet school, by itself, is not enough but an academy drawing students from New Britain and other towns would help decentralize secondary education. A theme-based, high-quality curriculum at a smaller magnet academy need not drain resources for the high school, but create a high school alternative that can ease overcrowding and provide a good option for high school students.

State Rep, Tim O’Brien (D-24), whose comprehensive property tax relief legislation would reduce schools’ reliance on the regressive property tax and promote statewide equity in education spending, is one of the leaders pushing for academy magnet schools that would bring about a “learning communities” solution.

“We must ensure that the new freshman academy does not become the end of the plan for addressing NBHS overcrowding,” O’Brien wrote in his Supporting New Britain Schools blog. “That means that we need to ask for action in the coming months – from both the school system and City Hall – to get the ball rolling on a cost-effective plan for school building to alleviate the safety and educational setbacks that are caused and exacerbated by the fact that we have so many students packed into one, huge high school facility.”

O’Brien’s call to action offers the Mayor, Board of Education and Common Council a starting point for developing good solutions to security and an improved environment at New Britain High School.

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