Education Reform Activist Fired by Connecticut School

Education Reform Activist Fired by Connecticut School

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – A day after hosting a pro-education reform rally at the state capitol, the president of the Connecticut Parents Union was fired from her job as a workshop presenter with New Haven Public Schools’ Head Start Program.

CTPU President Gwen Samuel believes the local teachers union – the New Haven Federation of Teachers – is directly responsible for her firing, and says it is retaliation for bringing former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to speak at the March 14 rally.

Rhee gained national attention two years ago for firing hundreds of D.C. teachers for poor performance, and quickly became public enemy number one with the nation’s teacher unions – particularly NFT’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers.

One day after the rally, Samuel received a letter from her employer – the Gesell Institute of Child Development – telling her she no longer had a job in New Haven schools’ Parent-Teacher Connection Program, which is funded by a Head Start Link grant.

“We have been informed by New Haven Public Schools that your involvement with Head Start parents on a personal advocacy level is considered a conflict of interest and have been asked
to remove you from the Parent Teacher Connection Program,” the March 15 termination letter reads.

Samuel has been president of the Connecticut Parents Union since January 2011, long before she was hired as a parent educator last October. Samuel says the only thing that’s changed about her advocacy work is that it now has the endorsement of Rhee, which makes her firing appear politically motivated.

The timing “is just too convenient,” Samuel tells EAG.

“This was meant to intimidate parents from going against ‘the school agenda,'” Samuel says. “It was sent as a message to parents that, ‘If you try to help yourself and each other, we will get you.'”

“You’re not going to bully me.”

As a parent educator, Samuel’s goal was to help families ready their children for kindergarten, by emphasizing the importance of reading, talking and playing in a child’s development.

“My message was, ‘Parents, get involved in your child’s education,'” Samuel says. “There was no secret, undercover message about how to overthrow teacher unions.”

Not that Samuel has any love for teacher unions. The AFT Connecticut sabotaged Samuel’s efforts to introduce a “Parent Trigger” law into Connecticut in 2010. The union killed the bill that would have empowered parents to make wholesale changes at failing, ineffective schools – including replacing a large portion of the teaching staff.

AFT President Randi Weingarten had to apologize to Samuel after it was revealed that a union document referred to concerned parents as ” the opposition.”

That experience inspired Samuel to form the Connecticut Parents Union, designed to give families a voice in their children’s education.

Samuel says she was careful not to mix her personal advocacy with her professional duties as a parent educator. She acknowledges that some parents did speak to her about the union outside of the training sessions, but says those conversations occurred on her own time.

“The teachers’ union wasn’t even mentioned in those conversations,” Samuel says. “We just talked about the importance of getting involved with their kids’ education.”

Samuel has several email messages praising her work in the Head Start program, but says she never received any warnings or complaints about her parent union activism from New Haven school administrators or the Gesell Institute before being told she was fired.

In fact, the Gesell Institute’s executive director, Marcy Guddemi, spoke about the importance of parental involvement in a child’s development and education on the CT Parents Union Parent Express Bus on December 14th, 2011.

Samuel notes that there were no concerns about a “conflict of interest” when Guddemi spoke to the parents union four months ago. That only became a problem when Michelle Rhee appeared at the CTPU rally last month.

Samuel has contacted the superintendent’s office, asking that her one-year contract – which runs through June 28, 2012 – be honored. If her firing isn’t rescinded, she plans on filing a complaint with the state’s Labor Department.

While she strongly suspects the NFT is behind her firing, Samuel mostly blames lawmakers and school officials who refuse to stand up to the teacher unions, thus enabling their thuggish behavior.

She may have lost her job, but the experience has only strengthened Samuel’s resolve to push for meaningful education reform for the thousands of children who are stuck in failing, ineffective and sometimes dangerous schools.

“When you take away my bread and butter, you attack my family,” Samuel says. “I’m working poor to the tenth power, but you’re not going to bully me.”