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                                 Parents Union, Students First join forces (2/14/2012)


The Connecticut Parents Union and education reform group StudentsFirst joined forces last week to promote a multifaceted educational reform in the state legislature.

The two organizations finalized their partnership last Thursday at a meeting in Hartford, said Gwendolyn Samuel, founder of CTPU and member of StudentsFirst — the national organization promoting teacher tenure changes. Samuel said she heard of StudentsFirst CEO and founder Michelle Rhee’s activism in the field of social work, and initiated the partnership to jointly back “profound and lasting changes” in Connecticut’s education system at the 2012 legislative session. One of the organization’s major goals is to close the state’s achievement gap, which ranked as the largest in the nation in 2011, according to the Department of Education.

“Connecticut’s large achievement gap, which is severely impacting the stability of its economy, as well as its unjust laws that enable unqualified professors to teach our children, require immediate legislative action,” Samuel said, adding that her organization’s cooperation with StudentsFirst has already resulted in plans for a parents’ rally scheduled to take place on March 13 in Hartford. Rhee and Gov. Dannel Malloy are expected to speak, and around 700 parents have already expressed their interest in attending, Samuel said.

Samuel said she believed both organizations’ commitment to grassroots organizing would prove crucial to their collaborative success, adding that hundreds of concerned parents as well as social justice advocates contact her daily with requests to join the educational reform cause.

Rhee expressed similar sentiments in a Feb. 9 StudentsFirst press release, announcing her organization’s plans to begin advocating for reform initiatives in Connecticut at the request of CTPU and other Connecticut-based organizations.

“We’re excited about the hunger for change we’re seeing at the grassroots level. There is a clear push for reform coming from state leaders, moms and dads, teachers and the business community,” Rhee said, adding that aware citizens should make sure the policies implemented and decisions made in Connecticut schools are centered around the needs of children.

Yet Samuel and StudentsFirst spokesperson Nancy Zuckerbrod agreed that while the grassroots movement is powerful, reform must also come from the top. There is “an undeniable conflict of interest,” Samuel said, in trying to protect both the interest of students and the interest of teachers — a conflict, she said, recently exemplified by the arrest of Tanya McDowell, a homeless mother charged with larceny for sending her five year old son to a Norwalk, Conn., elementary school despite having no permanent residence in the district.

Connecticut State Sen. Martin Looney — the State Senate Democratic majority leader who began the 2012 legislative session earlier this month by supporting Malloy’s education plan — said that issues of schooling reform “will be looked into.”

“There will be proposals to address tenure, and student progress will be a factor considered in evaluations regarding tenure,” Looney said, adding that a periodic review of teachers is a solution that might be debated.

Samuel founded CTPU in 2011. StudentsFirst was founded by Michelle Rhee in 2010 and now operates in 16 states.