NEW BRITAIN – Schools Superintendent Nancy Sarra defended the school districts redesign plan during a tense Board of Education meeting Monday night that had parents, students and teachers voicing their opposition to the plan.
“New Britain is my heartbeat; these 10,000 children mean more to me than I can even express. But the 1,500 staff mean more to me, too, and that’s been a big struggle to balance the needs of students to the needs of the adults,” Sarra told the crowd that had gathered at the Vance Elementary School.
For more than an hour people stepped to the podium to air their concerns about the school district’s redesign and impending involuntary teacher transfers. According to the school district and the city’s teachers union, approximately 90 teachers are being transferred at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.
While many who spoke said they oppose the pending changes, a secondary complaint was also echoed by those who came to speak: that the superintendent had not done a good job communicating with students, staff and parents about the redesign.
To this end, both the president of the city’s teachers union and paraeducators union asked for more transparency and communication between administrators and faculty.
Theresa Staranchak, president of the New Britain Federation of Paraprofessionals Local 2407, said she wishes she and her peers were included in planning discussions about the district redesign.
“Paraeducators will be working in impacted schools because of all the changes, and not once have we been included in any of the roundtable stakeholder discussions,” Staranchak said. “To have to always see things in the paper, hear it from colleagues or through the rumor mill is discouraging.”
A couple of the teachers that spoke conveyed their disappointment that not enough had been done to involve them in the process.
“We are not a business, this sadly is how many parts of this redesign feel,” said New Britain High School teacher Evelyn Hudyma, speaking up for her colleague who is being transferred.
Hudyma said involuntary transfers break bonds between teachers and students that in some cases have taken years to forge. Further, many teachers are comfortable and hold expertise in certain areas of education, Hudyma argued.
“Transferring seems like a punishment for doing a job well,” Hudyma said to applause from the audience.
DeAmicis, a teacher with more than 20 years of experience, said she isn’t afraid of change but thinks these transfers don’t address the problems in the district. DeAmicis is going from a position as an English teacher to a “Middle School Elective Advisory Teacher” at Slade Middle School.
“At a bilingual academy, I am currently the only bilingual English teacher,” DeAmicis said.
Sal Escobales, President of the American Federation of Teachers Local 871, told the board members that many teachers feel confused about the transfers and the direction of the district.
“They love the kids, they love the families in their schools, they love where they are. These same members, time and time again, go above and beyond their contracts and are involved in many off-the-book afterschool activities and fundraising operations for the sake of students that no one ever really knows about,” Escobales said. “To be questioned if they’re keeping the kids at the center (of the argument) or not, given what many teachers are doing on behalf of them is extremely disappointing.”
Escobales said cutting the district’s reading intervention specialists, for example, is a mistake that should be reconsidered.
“We have not been at the table, yet. We are hoping to be at the table in the future,” Escobales told Sarra.
Parent Audrey Honig Geragosian said she wonders why parents weren’t informed about the changes.
“Communication is one of the district’s core values,” Geragosian said. “Posting informal questions on a Facebook page is not communication. Make your plans for transformational change transparent to parents. We’ve been left out of this discussion.”
Several current and former New Britain High School students spoke out against the district’s plan for new “block scheduling” next year and how it would reduce opportunities for students. The new scheduling for NBHS will limit the amount of free electives students can have, forcing them to pick between electives like Spanish, being in the band or being a Madrigal Singer to name a few options.
Nicholas Giantonio, a NBHS student, said the new block scheduling will potentially limit their success. “High school is supposed to be a time for exploration in one’s life, a time where students should be figuring out what they want to do with their life,” Giantonio said.
“By eliminating electives, you’re closing the door,” said NBHS freshman Gabriel Bermudez, referring to less opportunities for students to find their passion. “Eliminating electives won’t help students.”
Not all speakers opposed the superintendent’s plan, however.
Former Board of Education member Mallory Deprey and teacher Michael Foran spoke in support of the superintendent’s district shakeup.
“I believe in Nancy’s vision of restructuring. I believe that she is creating an educational playing field where all youth can succeed,” Deprey said. “To do this we need to change adult behaviors and ignore the negative kickback.”
Foran talked about the district’s need for change, as it ranks towards the bottom in achievement in the state. The teacher, who is also a parent, said he’s committed to the district’s coming changes.
“One hundred, sixty four out of 166, that is a number that hasn’t been mentioned yet,” Foran said, referring to the district’s ranking in statewide student achievement. “What’s really inspiring about these changes is they’re grounded in the belief that our students can do better, and they’re also grounded in the belief that the answer to the problem our students are having comes from within the teaching staff that exists within our school system.”
Sarra said she understood the concerns brought forth at the meeting and takes them seriously.
“The theme is communication with the teachers and the respect and dignity they deserve when the transfers happen, that’s No. 1,” Sarra said, adding that she met with Escobales last Friday to find ways to rectify concerns.
Sarra commended Bermudez, one of the students who spoke, for reaching out to her last week about his concerns regarding the block scheduling.
“It wasn’t yelling, it was a student who made me very proud because he wants to come to the table to figure out how to fix something,” Sarra said.
Sarra said she has been communicating her plan a lot the past few months, but acknowledged she has to do better.
“To our families out there, you’re a part of the communication plan of course. But, I made a mistake and I didn’t communicate earlier to our families,” Sarra said.
Skyler Frazer can be reached at 860-801-5087 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.