Maria Zambrano, a 2002 graduate of Central High School, was one of dozens of speakers who made their case for a mayoral-appointed Board of Education during a public hearing Tuesday night conducted by the Charter Revision Commission. The mayoral-empaneled commission is expected to formulate a question to be decided by city voters in November regarding an elected versus appointed school board. More than 100 education stakeholders attended the hearing.
Mayor Bill Finch wants the power to appoint school board members, saying the elected process has created dysfunction detrimental to the students. If you’re going to fault me for education failures, the mayor argues, give me the power to improve the system.
As she explained in her presentation, Zambrano is executive director of the advocacy group Excel Bridgeport, excelbridgeport.org. See the text of her presentation below:
My name is Maria Zambrano and I am a graduate of Bridgeport Public Schools (Central High School Class of 2002) and the executive director of Excel Bridgeport. Excel Bridgeport is an advocacy organization working to ensure that all children in Bridgeport have the opportunity to attain a world-class education that prepares them for college, career and life.
Here is the reality in Bridgeport: We are the worst performing school district in a state with the worst achievement gap in the country. My organization, Excel Bridgeport, did a data analysis last summer and found that only 1 student in the sophomore class at Bassick High School is on grade level in reading, writing, math and science. One student! Across the district only 3% of our high school students are on grade level on all subjects. Three percent! As a graduate of this school system and a resident of this city, I am devastated by these numbers. And I know the rest of our community is too. We need change in this school district. And we need it now.
While there is no silver bullet to improving our schools, Excel Bridgeport believes that an appointed board introduces several very important components to our city’s school board that have been lacking for many decades.
The first of these is Accountability. For too long no one in our education system has been held responsible for the education of our children. And this has allowed for our system to fail devastatingly. With a mayoral appointed board there is a clear line of responsibility for improved performance of our school system–and it points directly to our mayor. In other communities with this structure, school boards are in fact more responsive to the community because it is easy to identify and challenge mismanagement.
In order for Bridgeport to achieve the dramatic academic improvements necessary to provide students with a world-class education, a school board or governing entity must take ownership over the progress in our schools and the community should be able to hold them accountable for that progress.
And if the community is not happy with the progress or direction, the community can vote the mayor out.
The second component is Unity and Respect. As our history shows us, a dysfunctional and fractious school board accomplishes little to nothing. School board members who are focused on their individual constituencies and positions lose sight of the bigger and more important picture–the best interests of all of our children and a school system that will continue to work for future generations.
We must have school board members who have a collaborative relationship with each other, our superintendent, our teachers, our mayor, and our community members. Research shows effective school boards are able to unite behind a shared vision, take unified action on complex and often divisive issues, work swiftly and decisively to enact improvements, and create and sustain an environment that is conducive to improvements that will benefit students.
In the past nine months we have seen an appointed school board in Bridgeport that meets these criteria and has been exceptionally attentive and responsive to our community. We believe we must continue with this progress.
The third component is Expertise. Our community cares about our children and wants a school system that does right by them. Running the second largest school district in the state is a major undertaking, and we need people with exceptional skills and talents to ensure it’s done correctly.
School boards in high achieving school districts have members who have experience in implementing good governance practices, who understand how to analyze data and use it to drive continuous improvement, and who are skilled at managing budgets so that dollars are allocated most effectively and resources are sustained even during budget challenges.
With an appointed board, we can ensure that our members have the necessary array of crucial skills and expertise to run the district, as well as the demographic diversity that is important to represent all our community.
I want to end with an excerpt from the testimony of a 2010 graduate of Central High School. She could not be here to testify in person tonight because she is a student at UConn but she had this to say:
“When I think of my experience as a student of the Bridgeport Public School System, I think in terms of ‘what ifs.’ What if there was no stigma attached to being from Bridgeport and being a student of Bridgeport schools? What if Bridgeport schools had the same resources as other Fairfield County schools? What if being from Bridgeport meant there was an expectation of achievement instead of an expectation of failure? Don’t misunderstand me, I am a proud graduate of Bridgeport schools, but I often wonder how my life could have been different, how many opportunities might have been available to me had I attended one of the successful schools outside of Bridgeport.”
Let’s eliminate the regrets and “what ifs” for our students. Our kids should not think that the only way to get a good education is to go outside of our school district. Let’s do something today that will change the current reality for our 20,000 students. They deserve so much better.