Teaching Profession

Labor Pains

By David Hill — February 01, 1998 25 min read
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Open less than a year, Integrated Day is one of only six charter schools in the United States endorsed by the National Education Association. NEA President Bob Chase has called it “a successful collaboration between teachers, parents, and educators.”

But Integrated Day is the school that almost wasn’t.

In fact, it wasn’t even supposed to be a school at all. Three veteran public school teachers in Norwich merely wanted to expand their alternative program, called Integrated Day, beyond their basement classrooms in a local elementary school. When that idea went nowhere, they decided to take advantage of Connecticut’s new charter school law and create a school of their own.

No dice, said the school board. Even the local teachers’ union opposed the charter, although both the NEA and its state affiliate, the Connecticut Education Association, had backed the proposed school. Undaunted, the teachers turned to the state board of education, which, against the wishes of the district’s superintendent, approved the school anyway.

“All we were asking for were three new classrooms, and we ended up with a whole new school,” says Joan Heffernan, one of the three founding teachers and now director of the school. (She also teaches a combined 5th and 6th grade class.) Heffernan makes it sound easy, but the fact is, she and her colleagues fought a difficult battle to get what they wanted. And they’re not the first teachers to discover that starting a charter school is hard work. “When people try to do something different, they are often opposed by school boards and local teachers’ unions,” says Joe Nathan, director of the Humphrey Institute’s Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota and a longtime proponent of charter schools.

Hanging on a wall near Integrated Day’s front office is a framed certificate, issued by the state board of education and dated August 7, 1997. The document officially recognizes the center as one of a dozen charter schools sanctioned by the state of Connecticut. It’s just a piece of paper, really, but without it, the school would not exist.

Norwich, population 35,000, is an old Connecticut mill town, once one of the country’s largest but now struggling to get back on its feet after losing a number of manufacturing jobs in the past decade. Although only two-and-a-half hours from New York City, it is worlds away from the state’s Gold Coast, the wealthy suburban enclaves to the south and west. “This is the other Connecticut,” says John Conway, chairman of Integrated Day’s governing board and a professor of English at nearby Connecticut State University. “We’re not Fairfield, Wilton, or Weston.”

Nine years ago, Heffernan—a 48-year-old dynamo not much taller than some of her students—joined forces with a like-minded colleague, Joyce Werden, to create an alternative program at their school, Norwich’s Buckingham Elementary. They called it Integrated Day, and it offered a developmental approach to learning, with students grouped in multiage classrooms and subjects linked thematically throughout the curriculum. Students were expected to complete a number of independent research projects during the school year, and the resulting reports were displayed prominently on the classroom walls. Desks were arranged in groups, not in tidy rows, and each classroom had a carpeted corner area for the “morning meeting,” a daily ritual where students were encouraged to talk about their feelings toward one another. Instead of grades, students received written evaluations of their work.

The program proved popular, and a few years later another teacher, June Morrone, was brought on board. Eventually, Integrated Day would serve more than 60 students at Buckingham, and in 1992 the program was expanded to another Norwich school, Moriarty Elementary. But only students living in the schools’ attendance areas were eligible to apply. Children attending any of the other eight elementary schools in the 4,000-student, K-8 school system were unable to take advantage of the program.

“We wanted to open up enrollment to the whole system,” Heffernan says. “So we asked for three more classrooms at Buckingham—and we could see that the rooms were available. But the administration wouldn’t do it. They said there was no space. They said there was a lack of interest. But we did a survey showing that parents were interested. And we knew there was space.”

Faced with this resistance, the teachers were all but ready to give up on their dreams for expansion when the state of Connecticut joined the growing charter school movement. In May 1996, the legislature passed a law allowing for the creation of a maximum of 24 charter schools per year, 12 of them to be approved first by local school boards and then by the state board of education, and the other 12 to be approved solely by the state. Applications to operate such schools were due on December 2, 1996.

The three Integrated Day teachers, along with a core group of parents and other supporters, saw the new law as the perfect vehicle to expand their program. They began putting together two proposals for an Integrated Day Charter School: one to be submitted to the Norwich school board and the other to the state board of education. If the local board rejected the charter school, it could still be approved by the state.

“These teachers really knew where they wanted to go. And the parents were extremely motivated.”

Robert Murphy, Connecticut Education Association

By late September, more than 25 prospective charter school groups had filed letters of intent with the state board of education. Meanwhile, the Connecticut Education Association and its parent organization, the National Education Association, were looking for a proposal they could endorse. Although the NEA used to be a staunch opponent of charter schools, the union in recent years has softened its position. NEA president Bob Chase, who once called his own organization a “traditional, somewhat narrowly focused union,” now preaches the gospel of New Unionism, and he’s out to transform his 2.3 million-member union into a progressive agent of school reform [see “In The Line Of Fire,” November/December 1997]. Chase believes that charter schools, “if done right,” can be part of the platform. NEA officials hoped that one of the projects in Connecticut—Chase’s home state—could be added to its Charter Schools Initiative, a five-year effort involving a handful of NEA-sponsored charter schools around the country.

Robert Murphy, the CEA’s director of professional practice and government relations, read through all the charter school letters of intent, looking for a proposal the union could put its weight behind. The Integrated Day plan, he says, was the obvious choice. For one thing, it was the product of three teachers, all of them CEA members. Moreover, their proposed school was based on an existing program with a solid track record. “These teachers really knew where they wanted to go,” he says. “And the parents were extremely motivated. And they were further along in their thinking and planning than some of the other groups.” In October, the CEA officially put its stamp of approval on the proposed school, and shortly thereafter the NEA followed suit. Indeed, Murphy, along with the NEA’s Teresa Rankin, an organizational specialist with the union’s Center for the Revitalization of Urban Education, both worked closely with the Integrated Day teachers as they completed their proposals.

It soon became clear that a number of parents and teachers in Norwich were adamantly opposed to the idea of a charter school.

On October 29, 1996, the Integrated Day Charter School Founding Committee—which included the three Buckingham teachers, along with eight parents and five community members—presented its proposal to the nine-member Norwich Board of Education. They wanted a school with nine classrooms for 210 students in grades K-6, open to all Norwich families. Students would be selected through a lottery process. The curriculum would be based on the existing program at Buckingham and Moriarty elementary schools.

The board was noncommittal, but the teachers and their supporters found reason to be optimistic. Although some board members had already spoken out against the new charter school law—one called it an “unfunded mandate” imposed by state lawmakers in Hartford—others seemed inclined to go along with the Integrated Day proposal. Superintendent William Juzwic was known to be an enthusiastic supporter of the existing program; it seemed likely that he would back the charter school. “School officials were impressed with a strong proposal for a local charter school given Tuesday night by a group of parents and teachers,” an article in the New London Day noted on October 30.

One month later, a unanimous board gave the plan a preliminary thumbs up. A public hearing on the matter would be scheduled, and the board would make its final decision in late January.

It soon became clear, however, that a number of parents and teachers in Norwich were adamantly opposed to the idea of a charter school. Surprisingly, much of the criticism came from parents whose children were enrolled in the Integrated Day program at Moriarty Elementary. At a question-and-answer session held by the board in mid-December, parents from the school complained that they had been left out of the charter school planning process. “Can you explain to us why the application focuses almost unilaterally on the Buckingham program, its parents, and its personnel, to the near exclusion of the ongoing efforts of the Moriarty school program?” asked one mother. Some parents wondered if the creation of a charter school would spell the end of the Integrated Day program at Moriarty. Others feared the charter school would skim off the district’s best students.

Charges of elitism surfaced, as well. Wendy Mathieu, co-president of Moriarty’s parent-teacher organization, wrote a letter to the Day in which she accused the charter school supporters of having a superiority complex. “Why should every Norwich resident’s taxes increase because a group of parents, mostly representing Buckingham Elementary School, feel their program is so much better?” she asked. Her proposal: expand the Integrated Day program to all Norwich schools, “and let the parents and teachers at each school decide which way they want to run their program.”

Then there was the money issue. Some critics feared that the charter school would drain revenues from Norwich’s existing schools. If approved, the Integrated Day Charter School would receive $6,500 for every student enrolled; assuming an enrollment of 210, that would amount to more than $1.3 million—money that would otherwise go to the Norwich Public Schools. (Of course, the district would have 210 fewer students.) “This is a loser for the city of Norwich,” one parent told the school board members at the question-and-answer session.

Meanwhile, the school board asked the Norwich Teachers League, the local NEA affiliate, to poll its members on the charter school question. Only about one-third of the union’s 319 members voted, but a slight majority of those rejected the proposed school. Barbara Myer, president of the league, believes that many teachers were put off by the Integrated Day parents, some of whom, she says, took every opportunity to bash the Norwich school system while extolling the virtues of the Integrated Day program. “It ruffled a lot of feathers,” she says. “Teachers were really hurt by it.” Myer singles out two Integrated Day parents in particular: Anthony Alessi and Claire Warren, longtime supporters of the program at Buckingham. “They did a lot of damning of public education,” she says, “and that hurt people. And until that is stopped, then I think people will still be upset.”

Alessi denies the accusation. “I never did that,” he says. “I dare her to find a quote of me saying something bad about the Norwich Public Schools.” The Integrated Day teachers, he says, “wanted to do something different, not necessarily better.” Two of Alessi’s three daughters went through the program at Buckingham, and the youngest is now a 5th grader at the charter school.

“I’m sorry that she feels that way,” Warren says of the NTL president, “but there’s no way that we’ve damned public education. We just felt the program should be available to all students in the Norwich Public Schools.”

Other teachers were concerned that the charter school would be allowed to make its own rules, some of which could violate the union’s contract with the district. For example, the Integrated Day proposal stated that teachers would eat lunch with their students, “family style.” But teachers in Norwich were guaranteed a “duty free” lunch hour, and they weren’t about to give that up. Some NTL members feared that such exceptions to the existing contract could set a dangerous precedent for future negotiations.

“Any time you try to do something different, you’re going to encounter some folks who are worried about it.”

Teresa Rankin, National Education Association

The poll of the NTL members was nonbinding, but it caught the NEA and the CEA off guard. After all, here was a model charter school proposal officially endorsed by the nation’s largest teachers’ union and its state affiliate, yet the local union refused to get on the bandwagon. Would the NEA stand firm? “There were discussions held about it,” admits Teresa Rankin. “But we felt that our responsibility was to continue our commitment to the research effort. Any time you try to do something different, you’re going to encounter some folks who are worried about it. But you have to look at the resistance and learn from it.” The CEA’s Robert Murphy agrees. “One of the things you have to deal with is a built-in resistance to change,” he says. “So in that light, the vote was not unexpected.” Besides, he is quick to point out, not all the district’s teachers participated in the poll. “It was a majority of the teachers who voted who opposed the charter school,” he says, “not a majority of the teachers in the district.”

On January 7, 1997, about 100 parents, teachers, city officials, and students attended a public hearing at the Kelly Middle School library to discuss the proposed charter school. Proponents made their pitch one more time, but critics spoke out, too. The board listened to both sides and set a final vote for January 28.

Joan Heffernan continued to be optimistic. But it was clear that the school board had some serious questions about the proposed school. The board’s lawyer spelled out some of these concerns in a 13-page letter to the Integrated Day Charter School Committee. “It was becoming obvious that there was a good possibility that they were going to turn us down,” says Joyce Werden.

And that’s exactly what happened. In a 7-2 vote, the board rejected the charter school application, citing, among other reasons, skepticism that the state of Connecticut would follow through with its financial obligations to the school, leaving the Norwich school district holding the bag. Before the vote, superintendent Juzwic proposed expanding the district’s own Integrated Day program by 80 students, and he made clear that it would now be available to all students in the district. To many board members, the superintendent’s plan rendered the charter school unnecessary. (Juzwic, incidentally, has since retired.)

The organizers had three short months to transform a run-down factory into a brand-new school.

“Nobody had ever done this kind of thing before,” says Ann Alfiero, the board’s chairwoman and an opponent of the charter school. “And that made it difficult to make a decision. Where were the guarantees from the state? There were a lot of unanswered questions.” Also, some board members felt rushed by the tight timeline imposed by the state board of education. “Sometimes when you try to do something too quickly,” she says, “you don’t do it well.”

Supporters of the school left the meeting feeling frustrated. Some were in tears. “I’m extremely disappointed,” Joan Heffernan told a local reporter. “We’ve been working on this for eight years now. . . . They just didn’t get it. They just didn’t get it.”

It was time for Plan B.

“I think the board members assumed that the founders of the charter school would just tuck tail and run,” says John Conway, then a founding committee member. “Well, not this crowd.”

Heffernan says that after the meeting, the teachers and the other members of the founding committee retired to her house “to lick our wounds and try to regroup.”

“We had gone so far already,” Morrone says, “we weren’t about to give up. So we just kept on working.” A state charter was now their only hope. “We didn’t want to go that route,” Heffernan says, “but we were forced to.”

The following night, a representative from the state board of education presided over a hearing in Norwich to discuss the matter of granting a state charter to the Integrated Day committee members. All but one of the 30 people present supported the proposal.

Despite the Norwich Board of Education’s decision, both the CEA and the NEA continued to support the proposed charter school. “The vote,” admits Rankin of the NEA, “was not what we expected. Typically, we like to work with the local districts on charter schools. But it didn’t matter in terms of the criteria we had set for endorsing the school. It was just an external event.”

On February 27, the Connecticut Board of Education announced its decision: 10 proposed schools, including Integrated Day Charter School, would receive state charters. (Two other charter schools were approved by local boards.) The board set Integrated Day’s first-year enrollment at 175 K-6 students.

Apparently, the members of the state board were so taken by the proposed charter school that they were willing to effectively overrule the decision of the Norwich school board. “They were impressed by the excitement of the teachers,” says Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles who is conducting a study of the school for the NEA. “And they liked the fact that the school had been endorsed by the NEA and the CEA.”

The following day, members of the founding committee gathered at Heffernan’s house to celebrate over champagne and Junior Mints.

“It’s overwhelming,” Heffernan told a local reporter. “It’s so exciting. It’s been such a long time coming.”

But there was hardly time for jubilation. The teachers had only six months to create a school from scratch. There were students to enroll, teachers to hire, and supplies to purchase. But first, they had to find a suitable building for their new school. To Heffernan, who, along with Werden and Morrone, had to finish out the academic year at Buckingham, it all seemed too much to handle. “I didn’t know where to start,” she says.

Little by little, however, things began to fall into place. By mid-March, parents of more than 130 students had submitted applications to the school. Meanwhile, the founding committee re-formed into a governing board, which included the three Buckingham teachers, three parents, and three community members. John Conway was elected chairman of the board. (When Heffernan became the school’s director, she was replaced on the board by another teacher.)

For months, the members of the school’s building committee had been trying to negotiate a lease at a former printing plant in a Norwich industrial park. It wasn’t the ideal site for a school, but it was big—36,000 square feet—and, apparently, available. Then someone on the committee found out about another empty building—the old Thermos factory, part of which had been converted into condominiums in the mid-1980s. The vacant section of the building could be leased for just $30,000 a year, but it needed extensive renovations before it could be converted to a school. No problem, said the building committee members.

By the end of the summer, the school’s 175 slots had been filled by lottery, and a waiting list had already been started for future openings.

But Heffernan, for one, had to be convinced. “When I first saw the building,” she says, “I just sat in the car and cried. I couldn’t believe it. All the windows were busted, and part of the roof was caving in. There were huge piles of trash inside. I just couldn’t picture it as a school.” But she came around, and in May, the governing board signed a five-year lease. The charter school was scheduled to open at the end of August; the organizers had three short months to transform a run-down factory into a brand-new school. “The building itself will be a learning experience,” John Conway said after the lease was signed.

Thanks to an $800,000 loan from three local banks, the organizers had the resources to hire an architect and a contractor, who got right to work on the project. “The builder kept assuring us that, yes, it was going to be done,” says Joyce Werden. “But during the summer, I would stop by and look around, thinking, I don’t know. It really didn’t seem possible.”

June Morrone agrees. “I couldn’t see how it was ever going to be done in time,” she says. “But when I would look out the windows at the view of the river, and at the size of the building, it was very exciting.”

By the end of the summer, the school’s 175 slots had been filled by lottery, and a waiting list had already been started for future openings. Fifty of the enrolled students had previously been in the Integrated Day program at Buckingham, but only one had been in the program at Moriarty. Sixty-nine students came

from other Norwich schools; the rest were newcomers. “We have the whole gamut here,” Heffernan says. “We don’t just have the best and the brightest.”

The student body, she adds, is about 26 percent minority and includes about the same percentage of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches as can be found in the Norwich Public Schools.

The three core teachers, with input from the governing board, hired five new teachers, and together the instructors formed a new NEA local: the Integrated Day Charter School Association. The CEA’s Murphy and the NEA’s Rankin helped the teachers negotiate a contract—officially called a compact—with the governing board. As part of the contract, Heffernan, Werden, and Morrone were to be paid at the same salary level as if they had remained at Buckingham. “We didn’t have to give up anything,” says Heffernan, who receives extra pay as school director. “We’re motivated, not stupid.”

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 it.”

John Conway, former Norwich board member

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 Conway. “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.”

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