News

2 Connecticut schools illustrate funding disparity

Posted September 19

— Cara Battaglia has her 21 fourth-graders focused on a projection screen, pondering why an author repeated the word "suitcase" so often in his story, when two boys walk in who need directions to another classroom.

"Does anybody know Portuguese?" Battaglia says, looking to her class sitting cross-legged on the carpet with their pencils poised. When a student offers to translate, Battaglia leaves the group with her volunteer interpreter to direct the boys where they need to go.

The interruption was one of many— to field a question or ask a student to focus —as Battaglia multi-tasked her way through a reading class at the bustling South Street School in downtown Danbury.

Only 17 miles away in the Region 12 School District, at Roxbury's Booth Free School, views of the bucolic New England landscape added to a serene classroom scene as 12 fourth-graders gathered around teacher Pam Lucchesi's smart board, playing an interactive math game.

Although the contrast in atmosphere of the two classes was hard to miss, important similarities were equally apparent between Region 12, where more money is spent per pupil than anywhere in the state, and Danbury, which has one of Connecticut's lowest per-pupil spending rates.

During informal classroom visits last week by The News-Times, students in both places clearly knew how to follow classroom rules. They knew the answers to questions their teachers expected them to have. And in both classes, students were consistently challenged to think critically and act collaboratively.

"What is a compound subject?" Lucchesi asked during a reading lesson. "What is a compound?"

"Two words," said a girl with a long brown ponytail.

"Two words that make one meaning," Lucchesi said. "Like schoolhouse."

Outside observations about a single class on a random day cannot represent the whole experience of school districts in Danbury and Region 12. But the similarities and contrasts of the fourth-grade classes help illustrate the stakes involved in the landmark ruling earlier this month in a long-running lawsuit over Connecticut's system of public education.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher upheld the state's claim that it was providing "minimally adequate" funding to Connecticut's neediest districts, including Danbury, because urban students are learning. But the judge also ruled that elements of the public education system are irrational and unconstitutional, partly vindicating the claim of Danbury and other urban districts that sued the state for their fair share of education funding.

The judge gave the state six months to revise the way it distributes education aid, among other orders, so that growing districts such as Danbury— with scores of students from poor homes where English is not the first language —are given extra resources.

The state has said it will appeal the part of the judge's decision that calls for changes in public education policy. It is too soon to say what the result of an appeal will be, but it seems likely that the funding disparity in neighboring school districts such as Danbury and Region 12 will continue while the case is fought in Supreme Court.

Danbury differs from Regional 12 not only because its enrollment is growing by 2 percent a year, while Region 12's is decreasing, but also because many city students come from homes with fewer resources than homes in Roxbury.

More than half of Danbury's 11,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and 23 percent of the city's student population speaks English as a second language, according to data collected by the nonprofit Connecticut School Finance Project. The city spends about $12,000 for each student in a state where the average per-pupil spending is $15,400.

In contrast, Region 12— which encompasses Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury —expects its 730 students to drop to 540 in 2025. It has so few students who qualify for the federal lunch program that the state suppresses the number to protect the students' identity, the Connecticut School Finance Project said. Just 2 percent of Region 12 students speak English as a second language. The district spends an average of $28,000 to educate one student for one year.

Externally, the contrast is easily seen between Lucchesi's 12 fourth-graders in Roxbury and Battaglia's 21 fourth-graders in Danbury.

In Roxbury, the well-stocked resources and well-organized supplies take up most of the space in Lucchesi's bright and comfortable classroom. The educational posters are professionally printed and everything from the technology to the furniture is either new or like-new.

"Are we clear on all our primes and composites and squares and factors and multiples— all that new vocabulary we learned in the last four or five days?" Lucchesi asks.

Yes, the kids assure her.

To be sure they retain what they have learned, she uses her smartboard— an electronic screen that allows her to manipulate computer images with markers. After she explains to the kids that she wants them to copy only the essential part of a math term's definition, she circles the phrase she wants them to use and strikes out the rest in red.

"So this is like a math dictionary," a student says.

"This is how we should take notes," the teacher says.

There are just 85 students in the six-classroom Booth Free School building— which has been built around Roxbury's original one-room schoolhouse. The only interruption during an informal visit Thursday morning was an early autumn breeze that was a bit too strong, which was fixed by closing one of the large white-paned windows.

In Danbury, Battaglia's fourth-graders take up most of the space in the well-worn classroom. English is the only language spoken in class, although the diversity of the kids is clear by names on the board, such as Deysi, Reynel, Leighana, and Shadazhya. The bustle of the building with its 19 classrooms and 400 students is not unlike the beat on Danbury's Main Street, a half-block from the school.

Battaglia has a piano concerto playing as background music during writing time, while she takes groups of five aside personally and edits their reading journals. Her task is to keep multiple students engaged independently.

"Why is this so important— how does the character act?" Battaglia asks a boy with glasses in her small-group discussion while handing an edited journal back to another student and makes eye contact with a third to return to writing.

"He's a kid but what does he have to act like?"

"An adult," the boy with glasses says.

"Exactly," says Battaglia. "Write about that."

Although Battaglia was up to each task and could always gain the childrens' attention, she could have used another adult with her.

South Street School Principal Heather Pellicone agrees, saying she would give aides to multiple teachers in her building if her budget allowed it.

"Cara is one of my rock stars," Pellicone said. "Every day is like juggling fifty balls in the air."

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