It’s no secret that Bridgeport has become ground-zero in the fight for educational equality and school reform. Unfortunately, as readers can attest, much of the debate surrounding Bridgeport Public Schools has been dominated by politics, pushing aside the voices of the most important stakeholders—students and their parents.
That’s why I’ll be publishing a series of interviews with parents from across the district, seeking to answer the questions: What do parents think about the education their children are receiving? What are their concerns? And, most importantly, what do they think needs to happen to improve our public schools?
To kick this off, last Thursday I sat down with Paula Valencia, a fifteen year resident of Bridgeport and mother of four, who, unlike many parents in Bridgeport, counts herself as extremely lucky.
Paula Valencia: “All kids deserve the same education”
Two of Valencia’s four children are currently attending Multicultural Magnet School, and the other two went there for elementary school and are currently attending the new interdistrict magnet high school, Fairchild Wheeler.
She counts herself among the lucky because Multicultural Magnet is one of the three selective magnet schools that consistently score well above the rest of the district on state testing.
To put that difference into perspective, nearly 80 percent of students at Multicultural Magnet met the state grade level goals on the CMTs last year. That’s about 15 points higher than the state’s average. Yet, if you look at Bridgeport’s performance as a whole, only about 33 percent of students met grade level goals. At some schools only a few children in each class met these same goals. That’s a huge difference—one that cannot be explained away by simply pointing to demographics. (For the record, Multicultural Magnet has a smaller percentage of Special Education Students than the traditional schools in the district, but a slightly larger percentage of ELL students.)
While Valencia is extremely happy for the opportunities her children have had, she’s also upset by the inequality she sees and wonders why the same quality of education isn’t accessible to all children in Bridgeport.
“I remember a long time ago I went to a meeting for the Board of Education and there was a mom that asked the question to one of the members, ‘Oh, why are only three schools in Bridgeport on an outstanding-level.” The answer that mother received, according to Valencia, was “Oh, well that’s because they are magnet schools and you should be happy because your kids go to that school. It’s like a private school, but it’s free.”
“Yes, I know it’s free, but all the kids deserve the same education,” said the mother. To which the board member replied, “Oh, you know, this is Bridgeport.”
“I was very disappointed,” said Valencia. “I couldn’t believe I lived here.”
The problem is cultural
Valencia believes the problem is cultural. Parents who do not speak English, or who have limited English language skills are often dismissed.
“There are many parents that don’t speak the language, they’re afraid to ask questions, they’re afraid to go to the school. That’s why we need more support from the Board of Education, but we are not getting that support,” said Valencia.
For her part, when Valencia was a member of Multicultural Magnet’s Parents Advisory Council, she assisted non-English speaking parents, helping them with individual problems— support that is largely unavailable at most Bridgeport Schools.
One of Valencia’s friends has had trouble trying to get help for her 11 year old son who attends Madison school. “Two weeks ago I was talking with her, and she said, ‘Oh Bill*, he doesn’t know how to read.’ I asked her, why? Did you speak with the teachers? She said yes, but they said they don’t know what to do with him… She’s not happy. She says, ‘Paula I go every week to speak with the teacher and the principal, and they are not doing anything.”
The most astonishing thing is that, according to Valencia, administrators at the school told her friend she needed to wait and see. “They told her, no you have to wait,” said Valencia. “Wait for what?”
Wait for what is a good question. Bill* will be entering the fifth grade this fall. While interventions will still help, at this point he is already leagues behind his peers.
Unfortunately, in Bridgeport, where only one out five 3rd grade students read at grade level, this is not an isolated problem. Last school year, a state investigation concluded that Bridgeport public schools “systematically violated” the state’s Child Find mandate. The investigation was a result of several parents’ filings complaints that their requests to evaluate their children were routinely denied.
Valencia believes parents have the power to help change Bridgeport Schools, but they need support. “We have the power… but the problem is we need to educate parents first.”
*Name changed to protect the child’s identity.
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