The state of Connecticut boasts some of the best schools and reading scores in the nation, and yet it also has one of the highest achievement gaps in the U.S.

The state of Connecticut boasts some of the best schools and reading scores in the nation, and yet it also has one of the highest achievement gaps in the U.S.

The so-called “achievement gap” refers to the difference in performance between low-income and minority students and their higher-income peers.

The White House Report: Giving Every Child A Fair Shot (July 2015) reported that nationally there is a 31 percentage point literacy gap between students in the nation’s lowest-performing 5 percent of elementary and middle schools and their peers in all other schools.

In Connecticut, that gap is 43 percentage points.

Inspiring Literacy Leadership

Fairfield University’s Dean Bob Hannafin, PhD, and his colleagues in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP), are taking the lead on closing Connecticut’s achievement gap, moving policy forward and working with the State Department of Education.

GSEAP is collaborating with faculty and students from underserved and low-performing schools through service-learning courses, intensive writing labs and professional development for teachers to raise the standards of literacy for all children in the state.

The University’s contributions to this cause are many and varied. For instance, through service-learning courses, approximately 100 undergraduates a year participate as literacy tutors at Cesar Batalla School in Bridgeport, where many of the children are from recently immigrated families and speak English as a second language. Roughly 500 students have served as literacy tutors since the program’s inception in 2011.

Meanwhile GSEAP graduate students serve as interns in Bridgeport, New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford, and Stratford, as well as high need schools throughout Connecticut.

To further encourage higher achievement among public school students, this year the University has welcomed teachers from Bridgeport’s Bassick High School to hold their regularly scheduled Friday classes in Fairfield University’s classrooms — providing 80 students the opportunity to learn on a college campus, and maybe therefore better envision the possibility of attending college after high school.

While there are scores of University initiatives that address the achievement gap, there are also a number of flagship programs:

Partnership with Cesar Batalla School

Recently, the University created a special fellowship program, funded by the Anne E. Fowler Foundation and the Grossman Family Foundation, to give teachers a year off from their classrooms to come to Fairfield for a year of specialized training in literacy education.

After a one-year leave of absence to participate in the program, candidates will return to their classrooms in Bridgeport, Stamford, Norwalk, East Haven, West Haven and Danbury where they will serve as literacy experts in their schools and districts.

Robyn Anderson, one of these 10 Anne E. Fowler fellows, is applying what she’s learning in the Fellows Program at Cesar Batalla School in Bridgeport this semester.

Cesar Batalla School educates 1,202 students, Pre-K to 8th Grade. It is the largest elementary school in Bridgeport, and one of the only Bridgeport public schools with a traditional, transitional bilingual program. English Language Learners and Special Education students make up almost 50 percent of the student population.

During a tour with Fairfield University Magazine, Room 1209 was bustling as first-graders settled in to their school day. Some students gathered on the floor, listening attentively to the Adventures of Curious George, while a small group met in the back for testing with Ms. Anderson.

Encouragement and positive feedback filled the room, as the students spelled out words together. “Good job!” “Let’s go!” “What do we need now?” “Can everyone check to see if we have an upper case ‘I’ – who has an ‘I’?” “Good job, team!”

Assistant Principal, Steven Cassidy spoke candidly about the hurdles urban educators face and the Fairfield University/Cesar Batalla partnership: “I see it as a win-win and a necessity. In terms of resources and professional development, Fairfield’s expertise can enhance what we’re doing here — we’re combining their resources with ours.

“Fairfield students get a chance to immerse themselves and see what it’s like to work in urban education,” Cassidy said. “When you factor in that we have less resources and more needs than a suburban system, it’s tough. We have to think outside the box about resources in general and how we work.”

Despite the challenges, GSEAP in collaboration with the University’s Center for Faith and Public Life’s Office of Service Learning, are expanding their partnership with Cesar Batalla. The partnership has grown to include counseling, marriage and family therapy, school psychology, special education, educational studies and other areas of collaboration. It began in 2011 as a service-learning course (ED 200) where Fairfield students tutored elementary students.

Three former Fairfield University master’s students are now teaching at Cesar Batalla School, including Naseem Senan MA’15, who started teaching 4th grade this past fall. Senan, originally from Yemen, and raised in Bridgeport, graduated from Fairfield last summer with a master’s degree in elementary education and had interned at Cesar Batalla School while completing her graduate studies.

Senan discovered teaching when she helped her mother learn how to read and write in both Arabic and English. The teaching profession, she said, fulfilled her desire to help young people connect to their world, “to give students the tools to make text to text connections, text to world connections and text to self.”

Teaching English as a Second Language

Increasingly, children entering the school system do not have English as a first language, and so addressing the literacy gap also means developing teachers who have the skills to teach English as a second language. According to data from the Connecticut State Department of Education, approximately ten years ago one of every 27 students in the state of Connecticut was classified as speaking limited English; today the ratio is one in 16.

Fairfield was awarded its first bilingual and special education teacher education grants in 1991. The most recent grant award, the B.E.S.T. Education Project co-directed by Anne Campbell, PhD, and David Zera, PhD, is for more than $1.4 million. It is providing certification coursework in bilingual education, special education or TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) to 50-60 teachers in four high-needs partner districts: Bridgeport, Danbury, Norwalk and Stamford.

In total, since 1991 the Fairfield TESOL, bilingual, and special education programs have been awarded seven federal teacher training grants totaling about $5.8 million, helping at least 200 teachers become certified in these critical shortage areas.

Dr. Anne Campbell, associate professor TESOL and Bilingual/Multicultural Education and Director of the TESOL, World Languages, and Bilingual Teacher Education Programs, said, “Connecticut is a global, multi-lingual state. Some of the districts have as many as 30 languages spoken there. Kids are coming from areas of conflict like Syria, Ethiopia and Haiti and being resettled here. The cultural groups are different, the linguistic groups are different and the complexities of teaching these kids are very different than when there were fewer linguistic groups.”

The Connecticut Writing Project

Another special area of focus for GSEAP’s literacy efforts is the Connecticut Writing Project-Fairfield (CWP), one of 200 National Writing Project sites that work in partnership with area schools and other agencies to offer high quality programs for educators and writing opportunities for youth to build literacy leadership.

CWP-Fairfield hosts summer programs including the Invitational Summer Institute and Young Adult Literacy Labs which include Ubuntu Academy. Last year, 450 educators received 2,700 hours of professional development through the Summer Institute.

Throughout the school year, CWP-Fairfield leads professional development efforts in classrooms across southern Connecticut. Last spring, CWP-Fairfield sponsored a cross-district, year-long project called We Too Are Connecticut through funding from National Writing Project, the MacArthur Foundation and the John Legend Show Me Campaign. Writing opportunities reached over 350 high school writers where students composed blogs, created Ted Talks, designed radio plays and and wrote an ethnography that was presented at the Writing Our Lives—Digital Ubuntu conference hosted at Fairfield University.

Fairfield University recently honored Bryan Crandall, PhD, as the faculty recipient of the 2016 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Vision Award, “in recognition of his tireless effort to instill and inspire the teachings and ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” In his acceptance remarks, Crandall said, “My work with the National Writing Project allows me to invest in the voices, integrity, excellence and creativity of K-12 teachers and students in southern Connecticut. It includes work in communities often marginalized by America’s educational traditions.”

Fairfield University’s mission recognizes that in order to effectively close the achievement gap we cannot afford to ignore our lowest performing schools where far too many students continue to fall behind and fail to graduate high school.

“Fairfield has been chosen to take the lead in this important work because of the very high standards that we have established for teacher training, and our existing commitment to literacy training and teacher mentorship in our
neighboring communities,” University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. has said. “Educating our youth and giving them what they need to reach their full potential is the most effective way to ensure a brighter future for all of us.”