U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona came to Macdonough Monday to hear from local educators and students about the success that our city's schools have had in recent years. They held a round table discussion in the gym, with about 35 interested parents and other elected officials watching in a circle around them.
Senator Murphy and State Education Commissioner Cardona were motivated to visit our city for this event as a result of the efforts of mayoral candidate Ben Florsheim, who worked for Senator Murphy for 5 years.
Participating in the round table were Board of Education member Lisa Loomis, Macdonough principal Damian Reardon, two Macdonough teachers, Sarah Claffey and Lauren Mikulak, and three students, Will, Ella, and Ryan.
The discussion revolved around three issues: the benefits to students of learning in a diverse environment, the challenge of ensuring that there is no racial inequity in the outcomes of education, and one approach being used in our city schools towards that end, under the leadership of Dr. Michael Connor, Superintendent of Schools.
Connor opened the discussion by introducing Murphy. The senator spoke very briefly, starting by noting how personal this was for him, having a 2nd grader and a 5th grader of his own in public schools. But in general, he was not at Macdonough to give his point of view, he was here to learn about what our city has done to improve learning outcomes. He set the stage for a discussion by pointing to studies that children learn better in a classroom that is diverse, "Controlling for background [of students], students with diverse classmates perform 30% better."
Murphy then asked to hear from teachers and from students. Claffey described the new "project-based learning" approaches she has been taking. When Murphy turned to Ella and Will, they lit up the room with their enthusiasm for the approach. They said that when they were given a deadline for finishing a group project, and they had flexibility to make decisions on how to do it, they learned a lot without feeling like it was just school.
Murphy also heard about some of the challenges that the schools face.
Ryan, a junior at Middletown High, pointed out that there was a big disparity in the racial makeup of teachers and the racial makeup of the student body. He said there was a school in New Haven in which 90% of the children were persons of color, while among the classroom teachers, there was not a single person of color.
Murphy himself pointed out a second systemic issue with the schools, namely the gross inequities in funding. As an example, he used the town of Westport, which he said spends almost double what the city of Bridgeport spends, on a per-pupil basis. Murphy said that this unfairness needed to be addressed at the state and the federal level, something he hoped he could help do.
State Senator Mary Abrams said that another aspect of diversity that needed to be emphasized was in what is being taught. She expressed her hope that the state would pass a law mandating a diverse curriculum, in which students would learn the history and culture of the multiple different communities that each have contributed to what Connecticut is today.
In addition to Abrams, other elected officials in attendance were State Representative Quentin Phipps, Councilmen Phil Pessina, Seb Giuliano, and Gene Nocera, and Board of Education member Ed Ford.