UConn Steps in to Help Bassick High Turn Things Around

Principal Alejandro Ortiz addresses the group at a parent's meeting on CommPACT at Bassick High School. Photo: Lindsay Niegelberg / Connecticut Post
Principal Alejandro Ortiz addresses the group at a parent’s meeting on CommPACT at Bassick High School. Photo: Lindsay Niegelberg / Connecticut Post

Widline Guerrier, 17, a Bassick High School senior in Bridgeport, wants more challenge. She is tired of friends picking on where she attends high school and insinuating her courses are less rigorous than theirs.

Judy Whittingham, a parent with three children at Bassick, wants books that go home with students, even if they have to be rented. She wants kids to respect their teachers a little bit more.

Jerond Rogers, another parent who has a pair of juniors at the high school, wants to see his kids excited to learn.

Ever so slowly, the three see things starting to happen.

Upstairs, on a recent afternoon, the entire faculty gathered after school in the library to continue a task that has been going on for several weeks — figuring out how to remove Bassick from a list of the worst performing schools in the state.

Overseeing the effort is Michele Femc-Bagwell, director of UConn’s CommPACT, which was put in charge of “transforming” Bassick when the district received federal School Improvement Grants funds last summer. Bassick marks the first time CommPACT is working with a high school. CommPACT has worked with six elementary schools in the state, including Barnum and Longfellow in Bridgeport.

Under the program, UConn will get $2.1 million over a three-year period. In exchange, they are expected to raise abysmal standardized test scores and student attendance records, and drastically reduce student discipline problems. CommPACT is an acronym that stands for “Community, Parents, Administration, Children and Teachers.”

A three-year-old educational reform model developed at the University of Connecticut‘s Neag School of Education, CommPACT is designed to give staff control over how they run the school and spend the money. At the same time, schools can feed off the latest research on effective teaching and learning strategies. Across town at Harding High School, another $2.1 million in federal grant money is being spent. There the Global Partnership, a private educational management organization, has been brought in to “restart” the school and make things right.

At Bassick, teachers are calling the shots. They work in so-called “cadres” on such topics as attendance, atmosphere and tackling the tricky topic of teacher incentives. There are 15 groups in all. In addition to faculty, each group has parental input as well.

In recent years, officials have worked with the state to use test data to make decisions about what and how to teach. The school has undergone a critique by Cambridge Education consultants and the National Urban Alliance. There has been movement in the right direction but not nearly fast enough to suit anyone.

Over the last three years, only one in 50 Bassick students met the reading or math “goal” on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test. The goal is a like scoring a high B. One in five reached the lower “proficiency” — or passing — standard in math, and one in four met “proficiency” in reading. Half of Bassick students take the SATs. Of those that do, the average score for reading and math is 746 out of a possible 1600. That puts Bassick in the bottom 5 percent of those taking the college readiness test. In the 2009-10 school year there were 31 arrests at Bassick. This year, there’s an improvement in that figure. In the first 10 weeks of school there have been just six arrests.

In its federal grant application, the district’s stated goal is to increase reading and math proficiency for all students by at least 15 percentage points by the end of the 2010-11 school year. It wants to reduce student suspensions by 15 percent this year and it wants to improve student attendance by 15 percent. In 2005-06 the average student attendance rate was 83.4 percent.

By the time UConn came on board over the summer, the district had pulled the first trigger on change by transferring its principal, Ronald Remy, to Blackham, a K-8 school. Alejandro Ortiz, principal at Central, was moved to Bassick. The Algebra 1 curriculum was revamped and Ortiz instituted a resource center to give students a place to get extra help during the school day. GEAR UP, a college readiness program, run by Yale University, started working in the school.

At other CommPACT Schools, teachers vote to accept the idea before the process starts. At Bassick, the vote of support was reversed, with teachers voting overwhelmingly in favor of the idea during a fall staff meetings after UConn was already on board. Still, there is a willingness to give it a try and a sense that things are happening.

During the recent cadre meeting, teacher discussions were wide ranging and veered off in several directions. The attendance group, besides discussing what makes students want to come to school, talked about advisory classes — where students are assigned to an adult in the building for one period a day.

“In my advisory, I’ve gotten to know the kids really well. If there are problems at home, I hear it, but I’m one teacher with a handful of kids,” said Ed Greene. Other advisories don’t function as well.

A group focused on culture and security touched on how the building looks. If there were fewer leaks and nicer displays on the walls, more students would want to come to school, members said. Another group wrestled with the topic of what motivates them to teach.

Lisa Jaszcz, a part-time CommPACT facilitator who flies in two days a week from Michigan, listened in and encouraged the group to trust the process.

In addition to Femc-Bagwell and Jaszcz, Kathy Young, a Bassick English teacher has been assigned the task of spending half her day as a teacher-coach. The school is also hiring a full-time site facilitator.

The school is crafting a school “vision” looking at where they see themselves in five years. When the vision is complete, there will be a celebration. Eventually each work group — culture, technology, curriculum, student data, discipline, remediation, instruction, staff evaluations, scheduling, professional development, attendance, parent involvement, career planning and facilities — will develop action plans. That’s where the bulk of the federal money will get spent, said Femc-Bagwell.

“It would be easy to come in and say, ‘Do these five things.’ Unless there is buy in . . . nothing is going to change,” said Femc-Bagwell.

Student Juliemar Ortiz, 17, says she’s hopeful things will get better in the future.

“I see a process. I haven’t seen the change yet in front of my eyes,” said Ortiz, 17, a senior, who is no relation to her new principal.

Juliemar says teachers and parents seem to have different attitudes. In her sophomore year, Juliemar remembers singing in a holiday concert where she counted 10 parents in the audience. This year, more than 80 watched from the auditorium and it was on a night when there was also a boys basketball game in another part of the building that could have siphoned off attendance at the concert.

Widline said teachers seem less quick to kick students out of class when they get out of line. Instead, there seems to be an effort to reason with the student.

Rogers, the parent with two juniors in the school, has been working with parents and students to create a pep squad that will cheer from the bleachers at games.

Parent Paula Rodriguez said the school seems to be less chaotic.

“There seem to be less fights and not as many kids loitering in the hallways. There’s a new principal and there seems more focus on education,” said Rodriguez, who spoke in Spanish, Her daughter, Paula, 16, translated.

Asked what needs to change most at Bassick, Rodriguez did not hesitate.

“The attitude of the kids,” she said.

Juliemar and Widline agree, but say teaching also has to change. A good teacher can ease troubled minds and mend hearts.

Widline said she’d like to see tougher academic standards. She was floored when a friend of hers, who goes to Fairfield Warde High School, spotted her reading The Scarlet Letter last year. The Warde student read the book in freshman English. Widline was in AP English.

“If you set the bar too low, students won’t even try,” she said. “I want to be able to say, ‘I go to Bassick’ and hear people say, `Oh, that’s a good thing,’ not `oooh.'”

This article was originally published Dec. 28, 2010 in the Connecticut Post. Reprinted with permission.