Connecticut Visit Highlights School Modernization Needs

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School modernization funds included in the White House jobs bill won a compelling brick-and-mortar argument for congressional support on Oct. 21 when AFT president Randi Weingarten, AFT Connecticut president Sharon Palmer and U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) toured a New Britain, Conn., primary school that exemplifies the thousands of public schools currently stretched beyond capacity.

Rep. Murphy and Sharon Palmer

At Chamberlain Primary School, the AFT president and congressional leader visited a block of portable classrooms that have been in use for more than 20 years. "There is nothing portable about those portables," Weingarten remarked about classrooms now entering their third decade of service.

The four-portable cluster was recently flooded when a pipe burst, and the children are being taught in temporary quarters, including a room normally reserved for faculty meetings. As workers removed water-damaged fixtures, school leaders explained somewhat tongue-in-cheek to visitors that there was one saving grace to the disaster—due to poor foundations, the portables sit on a slant, meaning water from the burst pipe could seep out of one side of the damaged buildings relatively easily.

Capacity problems are being compounded by job cuts. The New Britain public schools lost 10 percent of their school staff last year. Class sizes of 27 students in K-3 classrooms are common, and specialists are stretched thin. In fact, the portables at Chamberlain are used to teach children with emotional challenges because it is the only way to ensure daily coverage by social workers, psychologists and other professionals.

Randi Weingarten at Chamberlain Primary SchoolPalmer and AFT president Randi Weingarten meet with the school’s teachers in a roundtable discussion.

At a press conference in the school media center, tour participants and Chamberlain staff took the opportunity to call on Congress to pass vital support that would help relieve problems at the primary school and other public schools nationwide. The White House jobs bill would help modernize and repair 35,000 schools. Connecticut would stand to receive $185 million under the plan, supporting as many as 2,400 jobs.

With Senate Republicans refusing to let the full bill come before a vote, congressional Democrats and the administration have moved to offer the bill piece by piece in a series of congressional votes. On Oct. 20, the U.S. Senate blocked a vote on the first component, which would have provided $35 billion to rehire teachers, police officers and firefighters.

"We need to make an investment in this school, and the president's jobs bill will do that," Murphy told reporters. Connecticut, he stressed, is the only state where unemployment has not budged since the recession. "Our country is in stall mode," he said; a big reason is "dramatic public sector job losses, [and the] decision not to invest in teachers is irreversible" for the children whose learning depends on them.

Conn. teacher Diane BrylleTeacher Diane Brylle, with Weingarten and Rep. Murphy, speaks about the school’s poor physical conditions during a news conference.

"If we tell our kids that it's important to get an education," then elected officials had better be prepared to offer the resources that match their rhetoric, Weingarten said. "We can't talk the talk and not walk the walk for our kids."

"We are all on the same page—we all want the same things for our children," said Palmer, who is also an AFT vice president. "That message has to get through to Congress."

One of the most poignant arguments at the news conference came from teacher Diane Brylle, who spoke of students wrapped in winter jackets, or sweltering in 90-degree classrooms on summer days, due to the school's overmatched heating and cooling system. Peeling veneer, doors that won't shut and health problems due to poor ventilation are common, she said. "Chamberlain is like my second home," she added. "We've been cited for excellence, but we need the space to maintain that honor. … These children deserve it."

The event wrapped up with a roundtable discussion with teachers on topics that ranged from wraparound school services to strategies for engaging students with profound reading difficulties. [Mike Rose/photos by John Muldoon/video by Brett Sherman]

October 24, 2011