We’ve seen a lot of news in the last few weeks about problems with Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE) and their operation of schools in Hartford. But in all of the coverage, there has not been much talk about the students, like my own kids, whose school districts had failed them and whose lives have been changed for the better by attending a Connecticut charter school.
I understand how parents at Dunbar Elementary School in Bridgeport feel. Every day, as I send my kids to school, I am not thinking about the politics of education, or FUSE, the organization currently running Dunbar. Like Dunbar parents, I’m focused on making sure that they have finished homework and have their lunchboxes. I think about whether they are being challenged in the classroom, and whether they are learning. And I think about their safety.
There has been a lot to like in the turnaround at Dunbar this year as part of the state’s Commissioner’s Network. Most importantly, students are coming to school every day and they are learning, and it shows.
Before the school turnaround began, Dunbar’s academic record was terrible. According to the results of the Connecticut Mastery Test, fewer than one in 10 eighth grade students was at grade level in math, science, and writing skills; and slightly more than one in four could read at grade level — some of the lowest scores in the city of Bridgeport and in our state.
At the same time, student absenteeism rates were some of the highest in the state, and more than half of all students had been suspended.
Our community came together to transform Dunbar because we understood that our children deserved better and that this failing school needed new leadership. That need has not changed with the recent news about the organization that runs the school.
Since the turnaround began in September 2013, we have seen a transformation at Dunbar. Chronic student absenteeism has dropped from 25 to six percent — well under the state’s 11.5 percent average, and staff attendance is the highest in the district. Suspensions are down from 130 students with two or more the previous year, to only 41 this school year. And the percentage of first- and second-grade students who are considered to be “on track” has jumped by 25 percent.
With the turnaround came a longer school day, new and energetic teachers, and a community-service requirement for every student. Students were taught to respect and value themselves and their peers. I hear many students say that they feel safe at Dunbar for the first time.
Our community’s children, particularly those who have worked hard this year to be part of the Dunbar turnaround, deserve a plan for the coming years that builds upon this early success and keeps moving forward.
The mismanagement of FUSE and its impact on schools like Dunbar is heartbreaking and, frankly, infuriating for parents like me. Like everyone else, we want to understand how and why it happened, and we want the problems fixed.
But, while we’re fixing the problem with FUSE, I hope we can stay focused on improving schools for all kids. We want to make sure that the best-possible leaders and organizations are running schools. We need more excellent choices and more accountability for results, not less. Parents expect the best from our kids, and we demand the same of our schools.
As a charter parent, I urge the state and city boards of education to act quickly to restore stability at Dunbar and every FUSE operated school in Connecticut. But, I also urge everyone to remember that the Commissioner’s network — and public charter schools — have been life-changing for kids like mine. Let’s figure out what went wrong and fix it, but let’s not forget our focus: our children, and the great schools we’ve chosen for them.
Owen Francis of Bridgeport is a father of four children. Three of those children attend a charter school, but not Dunbar.