Parent Response to the BOE's Decision to Waive the Bidding Procedure for the Equity and Excellence Review

This is a letter that I sent today, November 29th, to both the President of the Board of Education to the Superintendent of Windsor Schools.

November 29, 2012
Dear Ms. Richardson,
Hello – my name is Michaela Fissel, and I am parent of a child who currently is enrolled in the Windsor Public School system.  I am also a member of the Windsor High School class of 2004, and I am a strong supporter of fostering a positive school climate for all students.  With that said, I am very concerned by the Board of Education’s recent decision to contract Dr. Marlon James to conduct the Equity and Excellence Review without following the formal bidding procedures.  I am concerned because I strongly believe that there are researchers here in Connecticut who are fully capable of conducting a reliable and valid review of the key components of a successful public school that are outlined in the “Toward a Vision of Equity and Excellence” document posted to the Windsor Public Schools’ website (see http://www.windsorct.org/). 

I have been following the information provided in the media and within the BOE minutes, and I have yet to fully grasp the reason why the Board of Education would waive the bidding procedure.  I understand the need to close the achievement gap to ensure that every child is graduating at grade-level and with equal academic success - this is a shared concern by community members who have school-aged children  in our community.  However with your recent statement in the Patch article, School Board President: What Happened Was Unfortunate, “We did not hire Dr. James to close the achievement gap, as some have said. That is our job. His job is to create data and bring his educational expertise to the school, which will help us develop a response [to his findings],” has reaffirmed my concerns about the purpose of hiring Dr. Marlon James.  I would urge you, and other Board of Education members to not rush through a process that has the potential to produce results that will inform and steer the direction of our entire school district.
There are other researchers within our region who have the experience and qualifications necessary to conduct the Equity and Excellence Review, without charging 306K dollars.  I perceive that amount of money to be inflated by unnecessary budgetary items that can be cut.  I make this judgment based on my professional background as an Independent Consultant who is contracted to carry out research throughout the Connecticut behavioral health system.  Although the review has the potential to provide information that is of high intellectual value, it is only going to give us written information – how much more money will it take to actually carry out the reformation?
As an individual with research experience, I am concerned by Dr. Marlon James’ area of specialty being so narrowly focused on African American students, with his research interest in multiculturalism including the line, “Preparation of White teachers and leaders for diverse classrooms and schools,” provided on his CV.  Ms. Richardson, you were quoted in the Patch article, cited above, as stating, “This is not a race-based or gender-based study,” however that leads me to believe that the Board of Education has not been fully informed or fully understands Dr. Marlon James’ area of specialty.  Furthermore in response to the question of What will Dr. James and the University do over the next three years? “race” and “culture” are specifically noted.  This is an obvious contradiction and greatly reduces my confidence in the Windsor Board of Education.
I can appreciate the need for teachers to be culturally competent and acquire a degree of sensitivity for both group and individual difference; however I strongly believe that Dr. Marlon James’ will be unable to carry out the review free from the influence of both an observer and confirmation bias.  This is just a fact of research and life – everyone has biases.  However, in the case of Dr. Marlon James, his area of specialty and his published findings being rooted centrally in ethnicity and culture, will  limit the reliability of his findings and inhibit the best possible solution to be realized.  I respect the work that Dr. James has completed throughout his professional career and I support him to work within the Loyola University area to assist in the reformation of school districts within his region that are failing to ensure ethnic and cultural equity.  If the Windsor BOE believes that these variables are influencing the achievement gap, then I would support this review; however, the BOE has denied this repeatedly.
I strongly encourage the Windsor Board of Education to reconsider their decision to waive the bidding procedure.  We need to ensure that we are doing the best for our children, and we elected you to make responsible decisions that will protect our community.  As much as I have challenged myself to see this decision as being the best approach to assisting our lowest performers achieve the level of academic success that we know that they can, I still remain highly skeptical that this decision is being made with the best interest of all children within the Windsor Public School system in mind.
I would greatly appreciate a response to my letter because I only wish to better understand the BOE’s justification for seeing this as a reasonable case for waiving the bidding procedure.
Thank you for considering my position and I look forward to your response. 
Michaela I. Fissel
Cc: Dr. Jeffrey Villar
      Windsor Patch - Local Voices

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Michaela I. Fissel December 02, 2012 at 03:36 PM
Mr. Curtis, Thank you very much for sharing this information. The roughly 25% gap between white and latino/african american students speaks for itself. I strongly support the need to develop a plan for addressing this issue and providing an equal opportunity for all students. I am a member of CCSU's HSC/IRB and we recently reviewed a protocol submitted by a graduate student. Briefly, he is conducting a study at Manchester High School to evaluate the difference in school climate between Latino and African American Students. Needless to say, his study is being conducted free of charge. Upon reading through his thesis draft and his research protocol, I realized that there are individuals here in the State who would like to have the opportunity to evaluate our school system who would be willing to do so at a much lower rate. The bidding procedures are there for a reason, and it is neglectful to waive these procedures with justification. That is my real concern. As for Dr. James' area of interest, I have been "google" searching information on Dr. James' previous involvement with Windsor as a community, and it appears that he was brought to the Windsor Public Library in 2010 by the State Black Connecticut Alliance http://stateofblackct.blogspot.com/2010/06/press-presents-power-hour-w-professor.html . could this be the reason why he was requested by the BOE President, Doreen Richardson, to present on his research and possible solutions for closing the achievement gap?
Michaela I. Fissel December 02, 2012 at 03:37 PM
without* justification
Tim Curtis December 04, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Alvin, I agree with you about the importance of parental accountability. But I don't think it is the key to narrowing the achievement gap, which does fall along racial lines. One conclusion could be drawn that white parents are more accountable than black and Latino parents with regards to the education of their children. To be sure, parental accountability in general is a significant factor. But I believe there is more to the gap than singling out bad parenting by race. My own full disclosure, I am a freshly retired high school teacher, 35 years. And I know that there is a bias, sometimes hidden, that affects how we perform in the classroom. That is why the James approach interests me. 6/185 that you refer to as teacher accountability, I call contract time. Accountability begins with contract time, but it involves so much more beyond that time: lesson planning, curriculum review, student evaluations, test preparation and grading, developing rubrics, parent contacts, attendance at events that my students take part to show them and their parents that they are more to me than just a grade.
Michaela I. Fissel December 05, 2012 at 12:35 PM
Mr. Curtis, I would have to call into question your ethnicity and the success of your two daughters who graduated from Windsor High School. Would you classify yourself and your wife as African American? Both of your daughters are college graduates. In addition I am friends with many African American parents who would be extremely offended by the statement, "... white parents are more accountable than black and Latino parents with regards to the education of their children". I also find this white verse black debate to be quite disturbing because I have recently come across the Alliance Grant that the Windsor Superintendent, Dr. Villar, along with 29 other lowest performing school districts in Connecticut, have recently signed. Through this $306K grant the achievement gap will be specifically targeted; however Mr. James' will not be paid through this source of funding. Mr. James' more than 327K dollar REQUESTED contractual amount will be a line item in the BOE budget. What is he even being hired for again? Using controversy around race (which is a highly politically incorrect term), to advance an individuals career is very unsettling. I will be working very diligently to educate all parents about the current decision making of the majority of the BOE members; along with the need to vote NO on the next budget referendum. This is another example of elected individuals failing to get all the facts to make informed decisions.
Tim Curtis December 05, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Michaela, My point was misinterpreted. I, too, would be highly offended as well if someone actually believed that the quality of parenting could be determined by race. That was my intended point, that if parental responsibility was the key factor in closing the achievement gap, then it must follow that white parents are better parents. I do not believe that to be true. And I am happy to see that you don't as well. But there are factors which do need to be explored if the gap is to be closed. And this is not just a Windsor phenomenon. It is a national tragedy which no one seems to have the complete answers for. I would only ask that instead of encouraging parents to vote no on the budget referendum, which would negatively impact all students, that the immediate effort might be to ask the BOE to revisit their decision on the hiring of Dr. James, or to at least give an answer to the question you raised regarding how his hiring fits in with the grant. As for my ethnicity, it has never been in question.


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