As noted in previous Wait, What? posts, Windham, Connecticut’s Board of Education is building the Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy. Seventy percent of the students at the new K-8 STEM magnet school are scheduled to come from Windham and thirty percent from adjoining towns.
Over the past few days we’ve been on a mission to track down the source and meaning of a clause in the Magnet School’s Operating Agreement that says, “New students entering beyond grade 3 must be reading at grade level.”
The staff at the State Department of Education refused repeated requests to explain the source and meaning of that language. Then, the staff at the Windham Schools refused to explain the source and meaning of that language.
Finally, in response to a letter I sent yesterday to a wide variety of Windham education officials, the Chairman of the Windham Board of Education took the time to provide an answer to my question.
While I appreciate his willingness to respond to my request for public information, his answer highlights a situation that is even worse than I had originally imagined.
Connecticut’s education laws and policies state that, “No student may be denied enrollment because of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, genetics, age, religion or any other basis.”
In addition, the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that Article eighth, § 1 of the State Constitution guarantees all students an adequate education. As a plurality of the justices explained in the state’s most important education case, the state of Connecticut must provide “an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting… [and] to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise contribute to the state’s economy.”
However, the response I received from the Chairman of the Windham Board of Education makes clear that the sign outside the Windham STEM Magnet will say, in essence, “The poor, minorities, non-English speaking students and students who need special education services need not apply.
How has this outrage come to pass?
The Windham Board Chairman’s letter explained that the language I quoted – New students entering beyond grade 3 must be reading at grade level” – only applies to students who transfer into the STEM Magnet School after the 2nd Grade.
He wrote, “It does not apply to ANY student applying to enroll in initial classes during the startup period nor to students applying to pre-school or kindergarden once the school is fully enrolled.”
The Chairman added, “Once the school is fully enrolled, the only new students will be the annual entering pre-K class and children who transfer into openings that result from students who leave the district or choose to transfer to another school. Students who transfer into grades 4 to 8 will be expected to meet the required STEM standard; however, no admitted student will be dismissed from the school because they are not reading at grade level by the end of grade three or thereafter. Instead, resources will be directed as required to assist students to achieve and maintain reading at grade level.”
So as long as a parent with a child entering Pre-Kindergarten know that their child wants to attend a Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) Magnet School, they will not have to prove that their child can read at grade level and will be provided support services if they have reading issues later in their school career.
In addition, if openings exist, children attending kindergarten or first through third grades can transfer into the school or move into the community and attend the school without proving they are at grade level.
However, after third grade the public school WILL NOT ALLOW any child to transfer into the program who doesn’t read at grade level.
Apparently, the reason this policy is in place is because someone has decided that reading at grade level is necessary to be successful at a Science, Technology, and Engineering & Math (STEM) Magnet School.
But of course, reading at grade level is a result of a wide variety of factors that don’t have anything to do with intelligence or future ability.
As with test scores, poverty, a lack of fluency in English and special education needs are the greatest predictors of test scores and those same factors correlate with the likelihood that a child may not be reading at grade level by the 3rd grade.
These factors, and others, are not related to intelligence or an ability to succeed and to imply that they do is ridiculous and disgusting.
But one thing we definitely know and that is that study after study reveals that those reading below grade level are overwhelmingly students who are poor, Black, Latino or those who have special education needs.
The people who inserted this language into the new Windham STEM operating agreement can say what they want, but a policy that prohibits children from transferring into this public school if they are not reading at grade level is defacto discrimination against the poor, minorities, those who aren’t fluent in English and those who need special education services.
As the Connecticut Supreme Court wrote in the Sheff decision, “Racial and ethnic segregation has a pervasive and invidious impact on schools, whether the segregation results from intentional conduct or from unorchestrated demographic factors.”
Whether intentional or not, the policy about the 3rd grade reading requirement at the Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy forces a discriminatory outcome and has no place in the public education system of Connecticut.
More than 73 percent of Windham’s students receive free or subsidized lunches. 70 percent of Windham’s students are minorities, 35 percent of Windham’s students go home to households in which English is not the spoken language, 25 percent of the students are not fluent in English and 16 percent of students need special education services.
If the Windham STEM Magnet’s discriminatory policies are allowed to stand, the vast majority of Windham students will be prevented from attending the Magnet unless they happen to get in early enough to sidestep what amounts to an unfair and discriminatory regulation.
The impact of this policy is equally upsetting for parents in neighboring towns who might want to make use of this new STEM Magnet School.
The policy ramification is clear. No matter how interested you and your child may be in attending a Science, Technology, Engineering & Math program, they will be prohibited from transferring into the Windham STEM Magnet, even if there is room, if they aren’t reading at grade level.
They can get the support services they need, as long as they stay in their home district school, and give up their desire to focus on Science, Technology, Engineering or Math.
In Connecticut, interdistrict magnet schools receive special funding BECAUSE they are supposed to “reduce, eliminate or prevent the racial, ethnic or economic isolation of public school students while offering a high-quality curriculum that supports educational improvement.”
The Windham STEM Magnet has begun to recruit students for next fall, and yet a discriminatory, outrageous, insulting and disgusting policy has been put in place.
The policy must be removed – immediately – and the question of who was behind this inappropriate effort must be investigated and appropriate action taken to ensure that the person or persons are not in a position to develop more policies of this nature.
The burden to act rests on the Governor, the State Department of Education, the State Board of Education, Windham’s Special Master and the Windham Board of Education.
If they refuse to take any action, a lawsuit should be filed against these entities and their members to force the repeal of this discriminatory and outrageous policy.