Give Ritchie chance to heal, reshape New London schools

A new year provides a fresh start, with students set to return to New London schools after the Labor Day holiday. But in meeting recently with the editorial board, Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said she was under no illusions that the aftershocks from last year’s sex abuse scandal are over.

“We felt the ripple effects through the end of the year. We still feel them. There is a lot of healing to be done,” said Ritchie, who brought along members of her leadership team.

But the superintendent, who enters her second year leading the city’s schools, also made it clear that she and the administrators, teachers and many support staff won’t let the scandal define them.

She is a woman with a plan. Whether that leads to the ultimate goal of improved academic performance remains to be seen. But what is evident is that the plan won’t work if not given time. After a constant churn of superintendents through the system during the first two decades of this century, what New London schools may need as much as anything is stability.

Ritchie said she is committed to see it through, estimating it could take several years to see substantial improvement in student performance. There will be problems and setbacks. Planning for the high school campus and middle school construction projects has dragged on far too long. Staffing remains a challenge. But the Board of Education must show patience and, short of malfeasance or malpractice, give its superintendent every opportunity and the time to succeed.

The sex abuse scandal was a serious one, with multiple suspensions and arrests tied to credible allegations of the sexual assault of students and the failure of others to report that abuse. But while the arrests happened on Ritchie’s watch, the misdeeds were rooted in hiring decisions and policy lapses tied to past administrations.

The administration and school board await the results of a human resources consultant’s analysis and an examination by the state Office of the Child Advocate. Ritchie said, however, that some of the factors that contributed to questionable hiring decisions and lack of oversight have already become evident.

These included frequent turnover in the human resources office, a lack of common procedures and consistent hiring and evaluation practices. Individual schools were provided too much latitude in hiring, contributing to a lack of consistency, she said.

Hiring has been centralized, she said, as has employee record keeping. Background checks will be thorough and consistent. Professional development training has been enhanced to assure all know their shared responsibilities to protect students. Concerning where to draw lines whether to hire individuals with criminal records — some tied to the scandal had prior convictions — Ritchie said she will look to guidance from the HR review.

As for the healing, New London schools will seek to involve staff, students and families through the work of various committees, the sponsorship of community events and forums, frequent student recognition events, leadership clubs at the elementary, middle and high school levels, and improved opportunities, both electronically and through school officials, to report concerns or complaints.

In pursuit of an academic turnaround, Ritchie and her staff outlined a detailed, three-year strategic plan with strategies, action plans, and measurable results in four focus area — Student Achievement; Climate and Culture; Operations, Systems & Structures; and Engagement and Recognition of Student Excellence.

Ritchie, hired after her work as assistant superintendent in East Hartford contributed to improved student performance there, said in New London she inherited a school system with “big ideas” but “lacking a plan.”

The plan is largely in place. Ritchie has reshuffled administration in a manner she expects to be more efficient, productive and accountable. That was hard. Now comes the harder part. Results.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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