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Hartford, Meriden Moms Push For Stronger Parent Voice In Failing Schools


April 24, 2010


Earlier this year, two mothers formed a friendship over a shared concern: Both were working hard to break a pattern of perennially failing schools serving poor or minority students.

Milly Arciniegas of Hartford is a vocal advocate for children in her role as president of the Hartford Parent Organization Council, a consortium of parent-teacher organizations.

Gwen Samuel of Meriden is the co-founder and chairwoman of the State of Black CT Alliance, an organization that, among other things, works to improve educational opportunities for African American children.

Just a couple of months later, Arciniegas and Samuel are the faces of the "parent trigger," a controversial proposal now under consideration by the Connecticut legislature, which gives parents more power to fix failing schools. It is part of a bill designed to help close the state's achievement gap between white and minority students.

Samuel, 44, got to know Arciniegas, 39, after she saw a newspaper article about a complaint against a Hartford school for failing to provide proper educational services to some students with special educational needs. Samuel figured her alliance could help the parent-teacher organizations, so she contacted Arciniegas.

"We got connected at the hip," said Samuel, "and then I came across the parent trigger e-mail."

She was referring to an e-mail she received describing a bold new law passed in California in January. The law allows parents whose children attend a failing school to petition for substantial changes, including removing the principal, reorganizing the school or even closing it.

"We said, you know what? This is exactly what we need to put an end to the neglect," Arciniegas said.

Enlisting The Caucus

The two decided to work with their local legislators, and ultimately persuaded the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus to include the parent trigger provision in its 10-point plan to close the Connecticut achievement gap, the largest in the country. The caucus introduced the package of legislation last month.

State Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, a caucus member, said parents wanted a stronger say in their children's schools.

"But they've never had any authority," said McCrory, a veteran Hartford teacher and administrator. "This actually gives them a voice."

Teacher unions have opposed the provision, and critics say it concentrates too much power in the hands of a simple majority. But the bill including it was approved by the legislature's education committee on March 24.

The committee's co-chairmen, Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, and Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, both oppose the provision.

They have offered a substitute Senate bill that would establish parent advisory committees at failing schools.

And the parent trigger provision now under consideration by the House has been substantially watered down from the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus proposal. It does not allow parents to petition for changes.

"I'm disgusted in the whole legislative process," Arciniegas said. "I just don't think they are there for us. They're there for their special interests."

Governance Councils

Fleischmann, who supported the caucus bill's advancement out of committee even though he didn't think the parent trigger was good public policy, said the Senate bill he and Gaffey offered still gives parents power.

"This bill would require real and substantial parental involvement," Fleischmann said.

The most recent version of the House bill calls for the formation of school governance councils with majority representation by parents who are elected by other parents. If a school is failing, as defined under federal law, for two years, the parent councils will have the authority to recommend to their local board of education that the school be reorganized. The school board, in turn, will have the option of pursuing other remedies, but will be required to take some form of action. If it doesn't, the state education commissioner will be called in to find a solution, Fleischmann said.

He said he appreciated the effort by the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus to reduce the achievement gap, as well as the campaign by Samuel and Arciniegas for education reforms.

"We have schoolchildren failing to make the grade," Fleischmann said. "It's just not acceptable."

Arciniegas said she will support the House bill reluctantly, but not the Senate bill, which offers parents only advisory powers.

"That's another way of telling us, 'We're in control. We know better than you,'" Arciniegas said. "They're the ones with 185 failing schools."

Of that 185, 25 are in Hartford, including the Milner Core Knowledge Academy, which has been on the list of failing schools for nine years, and the Moylan School, which has been on the list for eight years.

Bridgeport has 18 failing schools, two of which have been on the list for nine years. New Haven has 20 schools on the list, including one for nine years.

Samuel said that regardless of which bill makes it to a legislative vote, supporters of the parent trigger have been heard and plan to continue to build a coalition that can rival the teachers' unions heading toward the November election.

Lawmakers who vote against measures that help close the achievement gap and give parents more power will be targeted by the group's "vote for the other guy" campaign, Samuel said.

"They're saying, 'Because you don't have money to put into my campaign, I'm going to blatantly tell you that you can't make a difference,'" Samuel said. "'You weren't worth fighting for.'"

Samuel said the group will also consider legal action to ensure that poor minority students receive an education equal to that of their wealthier, white counterparts. In a similar vein, a recent state Supreme Court decision found that the Connecticut Constitution guarantees students a right not just to a public education, but to one that can prepare them for employment, higher education and civic responsibilities, such as voting.

Ben Austin, executive director of the Parents Union, which led the effort to pass the parent trigger legislation in California, said Samuel and Arciniegas have become "game changers" in a short time.

"It's truly incredible that with very little time and no money these two moms were able to build a grass-roots movement," Austin said.

Austin said the important message conveyed by Samuel and Arciniegas is that all parents need more power over their children's education.

Samuel, who plans to take the group's message with her to Washington, D.C., in May to represent the state at the inaugural Parents Magazine-sponsored Mom Congress at Georgetown University, agreed.

"Connecticut is a state to watch," she said. "We could help set the tone for the country."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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