NEW BRITAIN – In light of community calls for more change and funding to the education system, New Britain schools is focusing on becoming more culturally proficient and continue intentional spending.
“This isn’t something that can be fitted into a timeframe because it’s an ongoing journey,” said Dr. Nicole Sanders, assistant chief talent officer for New Britain schools. “Being culturally proficient includes justice, equity diversity and inclusion. This gives us a wide scope of who we are coming into the work around racial achievement gaps and for the adults to have a better understanding to meet our kids’ needs. We want this to be sustainable.”
During an education rally held last week, the New Britain Racial Justice Coalition argued school administrators failed to challenge institutional racism in the public school system and there needed to be better treatment toward non-white students and staff.
Superintendent Nancy Sarra said there’s no denying the district has a lot of work ahead of them, including taking adults who has worked a certain way for a long time and changing their hearts and minds through conversations.
“There’s also a need to understand that this is a slow but continuing growth that we, as a district, have been working on for the last five years,” she said.
As part of the district’s strategic five-year plan from 2016-20, they’ve embarked on renewed curriculum units that were reviewed through the lens of equity and cultural responsiveness, making sure that English learners and special needs students are front and center. The plan also includes starting school wide practices that disproportionately impact underrepresented groups, ongoing professional learning, and strategies to help teachers support students. They also hired 20 family school liaisons over the last two years to increase the connection between schools and families.
Structurally, Sarra said the systemic problem is apparent through achievement gaps with students of color. To bridge that gap, the district has created enrichment opportunities for every student in New Britain, she said, including STEAM, representing science, technology, engineering, arts and math, which is a kindergarten through eighth grade program that focuses on critical thinking and problem solving, engagement and perseverance.
But the work, Sarra recognizes, is incredibly slow and there are many things going on at once, including future community forums to break down barriers.
“The work is never done,” she said, stating being a leader while learning herself can be difficult.
“I’m very aware of the privilege I have but I’m as vulnerable as anyone else,” she said. “There’s a lot I want to do to be better.”
Even with the best plans in place, Sanders said it won’t work unless adults start listening to the kids and the community. “We’ve been talking to the kids, not with the kids, and that needs to change,” she said. “They know more what they need than often times what the adults think they need. That becomes the discord when we’re not actively listening to them.”
The coalition also called on Mayor Erin Stewart to stop flat-funding education, an accusation she maintains as untrue. Stewart said, “education funding for the school district exists as a single line item in the city’s general fund budget, which is currently at $125,700,000 or 54% of the city’s total budget.”
Since she took office, Stewart said the city increased funding to the Board of Education by over $6 million, they invested over $130 million in school renovation projects and they recently created a separate savings account for the BOE and funded it with a starting $500,000 investment that they have yet to access.
“Additionally it is important to note, that because of our aggressive lobbying efforts with our state delegation, we have secured almost $20 million in new funding from the state of Connecticut since 2014 – a number set to increase again next year, despite the school district’s anticipation of a year-end surplus,” Stewart said.
Even so, New Britain continues to put less money toward schools compared to other state communities, according to an analysis by the Rutgers Graduate School of Education on underfunded U.S. school districts.
The research shows Connecticut has one of the strongest spending disparities in the states and among the most financially disadvantaged, New Britain comes in second place, with Bridgeport third and Waterbury at 17th.
According to Sarra, the district’s total general fund budget for the next fiscal year is about $174 million. That includes about $118 million from state and federal funds, about $53 million from property taxes and other revenue through various grants.
This ties into equity, Sarra said. “It’s very difficult to hire new personnel when there’s a continuing drop on per student expenditure, which has been happening for the last 20 years. But we have to do better.”
Sanders agreed, especially with the youth starting to become more involved.
“The rallies and protests are our youth’s voice,” she said. “That is the city’s heartbeat and we must do more as educators, that’s what we’re here for.”