|The state of Connecticut will keep a close eye on Integrated Day—as well as the state's other charter schools—to make sure it lives up to its promises.|
The paint on the walls had barely dried when Integrated Day Charter School opened its doors on August 28. Things were so hectic that the official grand opening was delayed until October 10. State Commissioner of Education Theodore Sergi, along with officials of the CEA and NEA, attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. A representative from the Thermos Homeowners Association, a group of the condominium owners who occupy the other half of the building, presented the school with a large American flag. Surprisingly, two board members who voted against the local charter attended the ceremony, but superintendent Juzwic did not.
Since the school opened, the teachers and governing board members have been on a nonstop roller coaster ride. "It's an overwhelming task," Heffernan says. "I'm trying to do the director job and teach, and there are grants to be written and workshops to be done. We know what we're doing with the education component. I mean, I have total faith that these kids are going to learn and succeed. That's not the problem. It's everything else: the buses coming on time, the school lunches being planned the way they need to be. Who thought? Nobody told us that it was going to be so much work."
She pauses to catch her breath.
"I think we're all exhausted," she continues. "But it's a good thing. And we know that ultimately it will all work out."
Already, the school has received permission from the state to add 45 students to its enrollment next year. Heffernan hopes eventually to add 7th and 8th grade classes. Meanwhile, she has plans for a playground—as soon as she can find the money to pay for one. "Everything takes time," she sighs. Until then, the children will continue to play in a makeshift space called "the coliseum," an adjunct building with its roof removed.
Over the next few years, the state of Connecticut will keep a close eye on Integrated Day—as well as the state's other charter schools—to make sure it lives up to its promises. And the NEA will continue to study the school while offering assistance in such areas as pedagogy, assessment, budgeting, employee rights and benefits, and staff training.
Melissa Dearborn, who teaches a combined 1st and 2nd grade class, agrees that "it's been a heck of a lot of work." A former special education tutor, she feels fortunate to be part of such an exciting endeavor, particularly one that jibes with her own beliefs about education. "This is definitely where I fit philosophically," she says.
Dearborn can't say enough good things about her boss. "Joan has more energy than any woman I have ever known," she says. "Good things come in small packages. I mean, what she has on her plate and what she deals with day in and day out still amaze me. I have the utmost respect for her, and she's the prime reason I'm here. She had a vision, and she had the guts to go after it."
Inside Heffernan's classroom, with its high ceiling and exposed air ducts, the atmosphere is informal, but students are busy working. In one corner, there's a funky old couch, just large enough for four children to sit on. The bulletin boards are covered with research projects on a variety of topics, including Mark Twain, Jazz, Ancient Egypt, Tropical Rain Forests, Greek Myths, the New York Yankees, and 1960s Culture. Ten-year-old Tyler Menard, who transferred to Integrated Day from another Norwich school, says he prefers the charter school's program, with its emphasis on individualized instruction. "I have a lot more independence here," he says. "And there's a lot more time for research projects."
You won't find Heffernan or any of the other teachers standing in front of the classrooms lecturing their students. Indeed, Heffernan—who today is wearing a long, dark-blue, crushed-velvet dress, white tights, and black flats—seems more comfortable sitting cross-legged on the floor, leading a discussion of a novel with her students.
There is a bumper sticker on one of the walls in Heffernan's classroom that seems particularly appropriate. It says, "Question Authority."
The late Albert Shanker, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, had a keen sense of the difficulties teachers face when they try to break the mold. In a 1988 column, he praised such innovations as charters and schools within schools but added: "Many schools within schools were or are treated like traitors or outlaws for daring to move out of the lockstep and do something different. Their initiators had to move heaven and earth to get school officials to authorize them, and if they managed that, often they could look forward to insecurity, obscurity, or outright hostility."
Shanker later had second thoughts about charter schools, but his words from 10 years ago could easily apply to the founders of Integrated Day. They, too, had to move heaven and earth before they could open their school, and they paid a price for their efforts.
Michael Frechette, Norwich's new school superintendent, says he has an "amicable relationship" with Heffernan and the other Integrated Day teachers. After all, the district provides the school with special education instructors, bus transportation, and hot lunches.
But he makes it clear that a lot of people in Norwich still resent the charter school. "They've alienated themselves from a lot of their peers," he says. "A lot of teachers are furious. There's a pseudo-elite atmosphere at the school, and that's going to come back and hurt them. The perception is that the charter school teachers and staff think they're better than everyone else."
Heffernan regrets that her 20-year friendship with William Juzwic, the former Norwich superintendent, was damaged when he urged the school board to reject the charter school proposal. "That hurt," she says. It didn't help when Juzwic sent a letter to the state board of education recommending that Integrated Day's state charter application also be denied.
John Conway, who once served on the Norwich school board, is still angry at the board members who voted against the local charter. "Most school boards are fairly indifferent," he says, "but to take the tack that this board did just made them look extremely small. And that's putting it charitably."
"Educators are extremely conservative. And when something new
comes along, they take a very long and hard, hard look at
Barbara Myer, the Norwich Teachers League president, offers high praise for Joan Heffernan ("She was my daughter Beth's 1st grade teacher. And she's wonderful"), and she wishes the charter school well. But she doesn't hide her anger toward parents Anthony Alessi and Claire Warren, both of whom were members of Integrated Day's founding committee. "I think they caused a lot of hard feelings," she says. "Things are starting to heal around here, but it's going to take some time." She credits the NEA's Teresa Rankin with keeping the lines of communication open. "She calls me often," Myer says. "I think she just wants to soothe things between the charter school and the district."
"There's a lot to be learned from this experience," Rankin says. "So often, we shine the light on one thing and say, 'This is the thing to do.' And some teachers get defensive. It sets up unfortunate divisions."
Robert Murphy, Rankin's counterpart at the CEA, also puts a positive spin on the episode. "We have the opportunity to look at Norwich as a laboratory to see how these things can evolve," he says.
Heffernan thinks that more Norwich teachers would have supported the charter school if she and the other organizers had had more time "to educate them about what we wanted to do." Perhaps. But the fact remains that many people—teachers included—are highly suspicious of charter schools, even ones that have the official NEA imprimatur.
"I think it's called c-h-a-n-g-e," muses Con-way. "Change. Educators are extremely conservative. And when something new comes along, they take a very long and hard, hard look at it. But parents certainly understand that, in many respects, a lot of the traditional stuff doesn't meet the needs of the children, and we'd better change to meet those needs. We're not saying we're walking on water, but what we are saying is that there's a different way of doing things."