WNPR

Bridgeport Teachers Say Turnover in Top Leadership Affects Students

Jan 3, 2017

In Bridgeport, the typical story goes something like this: A superintendent comes in eager to make his or her mark on a failing district. They stay two or three years, then they're gone.

But in their wake, students and teachers remain.

"As superintendents come and go, what they value changes -- and that affects everyone," said Sheena Graham, a music teacher who's taught in Bridgeport for over 30 years.

Teaching in an urban school district comes with many challenges. Some are well-known -- many have high poverty and crime rates with greater concentrations of disadvantaged families. But there's another challenge teachers face that makes it hard to tackle these problems: turnover in leadership.

Shawn Mitchell has been teaching theater at Central High School for eight years. He said Bridgeport is too often the guinea pig for emerging programs that promise to turnaround failing districts or schools.

"We're always this Petri dish of testing," Mitchell said. "They're injecting new things all the time. In Bridgeport you'll go a year, maybe two years, and if it doesn't work, you try something new. And every time a new leader comes in, there are new initiatives, and we can't keep up with all that, especially as teachers. It's exhausting."

Superintendents from Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford -- the state's three largest urban districts -- resigned abruptly this year. In Bridgeport, disagreements between a school board member and the superintendent led to her leaving. All the teachers WNPR spoke with supported her and hoped she'd stay.

But do superintendents really have an impact on the classroom? Music teacher Graham says they do.

"So even though people think you're in your room and you do as you want to do, that's not always the case depending on leadership," Graham said. "If they are being given the freedom to do what is right for their building and to trust our expertise, then it does open that door, and it does trickle down."

And, she said, if the superintendent doesn't give teachers that freedom, and instead dictates exactly how and what the students learn, and when -- students also feel these restrictions. So at the end of the day, school leadership matters.