A clash over the provider of diversity training in Bridgeport
BRIDGEPORT — A program geared toward helping Bridgeport do a better job teaching students of color drew close to 100 educators, students and community members despite an effort by the teachers’ union to discourage attendance.
In what one forum goer called “the elephant in the room,” and another likened to “bullying,” the Bridgeport Education Association distanced itself from the program offered by Educators for Excellence, an organization made up largely of teachers and that gets funding from places like the Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation.
In a letter to union members earlier this month, Bridgeport Education Association President Gary Peluchette characterized those organizations as conservative, corporate reformers trying to undermine public education and teachers’ unions.
“Talk about shades of Paul Vallas,” Peluchette later told the Board of Education in an effort to prevent that panel from supporting a motion to endorse the forum. Vallas was a former interim school superintendent brought to the district during a state takeover in 2012.
Peluchette told the board that teachers don’t need to turn to another organization to get professional development on students of color; that the local and Connecticut Education Association have long provided such training.
The board ended up not voting on the proposed endorsement, but two members, Jessica Martinez and Sybil Allen, participated in the event, which was held Wednesday at the Trumbull Marriott. Board Chairman John Weldon also issued a statement saying he personally encouraged all educators and education supporters to attend.
Peluchette, in an email before the forum, said that people were free to attend and that there would be no consequences for any union members who did.
“We are here because we are teachers of color and we support our young people,” said Toni Cates, an assistant principal at Black Rock School who attended the conference.
Called “Expanded: A Teacher’s Role Outside the Classroom,” the program addressed teacher diversity, keeping males of color in school, and discussed solutions to racial inequality faced by students in the school system. At least half of the participants work for the city school district as teachers or administrators.
Former School board member Sauda Baraka said she was there to advance a Males of Color initiative she spearheaded in the district before she stepped down last fall. The effort works to reverse suspension and drop-out rates of black and brown students.
A number of participants in her ad hoc committee were there as well, along with students from Harding and Bassick high schools who talked about what keeps them in school.
“There are three types of people in my school: the ones who want to get to the books, the ones there for sports and the ones knowing they are going to the streets,” Knazier Clarke, a Harding sophomore, said in his forum breakout session.
Jordan Gallimore, a Bassick junior, said students need adults who can inspire them to do things differently, especially those who lack positive role models at home.
“A lot of people go by what they see in the streets,” the 17-year-old said.
The forum heard from Tiana Krause, who described enduring a great deal of bias before graduating in 2017 from Fairchild Wheeler High School.
“It’s your job to make them feel comfortable,” Krause told the educators. “It’s your job to create a safe learning space. It’s your job to acknowledge and help when (students) say they feel uncomfortable.”
The educators, meanwhile, talked about efforts to connect with students of color and create more culturally responsive classrooms.
Denisse Garcia, a first-grade teacher at Columbus School, talked about how she learned to motivate a couple of her students by giving them extra attention, praise and hugs.
Eric Torres, a city native, teacher at Tisdale School and the keynote speaker, said he survived a rough upbringing because someone in school understood him and encouraged him.
“I was traumatic, not problematic,” said Torres, who said he now refuses to kick troubled students out of his classroom. Instead, he said he sits them next to his desk.
“Every child has potential,” he said. “It just has to be stirred up.”
Torres also described himself as a union member who would not sign on to an organization that did not support organized labor.
Ebony Walmsley, director of external affairs for Educators for Excellence — E4E, for short — said the organization has about 800 members statewide and about 300 in Bridgeport. She said the group has been vocal in its support of unions.
“We encourage all our members to be more engaged and participate with their unions,” Walmsley said.