MERIDEN — A Wallingford town councilor is suing the administration of H.C. Wilcox Technical High School, alleging the rights of his daughter and other students to an adequate education have been violated when the students started the first two months of this school year without a certified math teacher instructing their geometry class.
Wallingford Town Councilor Jason Zandri and his wife Renata Zandri, were joined by one other family, Todd and Suzanne Herbst of Meriden, in filing a civil complaint in New Haven Superior Court against their children’s school and its administration last week. That complaint was supplemented by a motion for a temporary injunction, which was posted to the state’s judicial website on Monday.
In legal filings, the plaintiffs, represented by Harwinton-based attorney Cameron L. Atkinson, stated that when their children, Angela Zandri and Hunter Herbst and their classmates arrived at their geometry classroom on Aug. 30, they were informed their class did not have a permanent math teacher. They had been assigned a substitute teacher instead.
“The substitute teacher assigned to teach Zandri and Herbst’s class can scarcely be called that. The extent of her classroom activities amounted to simply sitting in the classroom, making sure the Room B211 students physically behaved themselves, and acting as a proctor for their graded geometry assignments,” the latest legal filing stated. It added that the substitute supervising the classroom neither provided instruction, nor assistance to students who were struggling with the geometry concepts they were supposed to be learning.
“Based on this behavior, both Zandri and Herbst concluded that she was not qualified or trained to instruct 11th grade high school students in geometry and that other math teachers at Wilcox Tech were programming their assignments, which were then computer graded,” the motion stated.
The students struggled to complete their assignments on time, and subsequently received failing grades, the complaint and motion stated. Legal filings stated they were not the only students who were struggling. The plaintiffs estimated between 80 to 100 students in 11th grade at Wilcox experienced similar difficulties.
Before enrolling in that class, both students had strong academic records. Angela Zandri had repeatedly received high academic honors, according to legal filings.
The Zandris and Herbsts’ complaint noted the students sought assistance — through online math tutorials and reaching out to other geometry teachers at their school.
Angela Zandri “could not get enough consistent instruction though to learn the geometric concepts that she should and to perform adequately on her graded assignments. She also faced direct opposition to her efforts to seek adequate instruction.”
Legal filings stated the student was threatened with discipline by the substitute when she sought assistance from another geometry teacher. Angela Zandri was also rebuffed by the defendants in her efforts to transfer into another geometry class that had room for additional students, according to filings.
“Angela Zandri’s and Hunter Herbst’s parents did not stand idly by as they watched their children’s future be treated like numbers on a bureaucratic roulette wheel. They made strenuous efforts to communicate their concerns to the Defendants and Wilcox Tech,” the Nov. 11 filing stated. Jason Zandri immediately attempted to contact Wilcox administrators, but received little more than a “we are working on it” response, the filing stated. The plaintiffs were told repeatedly about teacher shortages and pinned blame on a slow hiring process, according to filings. Complaints, reassignment
After one contentious phone exchange between Jason Zandri and the school’s principal, Stacy Butkus, the complaint noted that the plaintiff’s calls after that were subsequently ignored. So he reached out to the state’s central office for technical education, in particular its superintendent Ellen Solek. Those calls were similarly ignored until Zandri reached out to state Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, who reached out to Solek by email in early October.
Solek told Abercrombie that administrators had made an offer to a finalist math teacher candidate, and hoped that candidate would accept, thus providing a solution. That candidate ultimately did not accept the job.
The plaintiffs stated the defendants had failed to meet their state constitutional obligations to provide students with an adequate education.
Ultimately, the administration reassigned one of its current math teachers from teaching algebra to geometry. Legal filings stated the Zandris’ “nightmare continued” as that teacher had been teaching their younger student, Adam. The same substitute teacher who had been assigned to the older Zandri’s geometry class was then assigned to the younger student’s algebra class.
“Since the substitute teachers took over Adam’s Room B211 algebra class, he and his classmates have not received any instruction at all,” filings stated.
“Adam’s plight is no different than his sister’s or Hunter Herbst’s. He has been an excellent high school student, bringing home “A’s and B’s” for almost all of his classes. He now is in jeopardy of being subjected to the same recipe for failure that his sister and Hunter Herbst were,” their lawyer wrote.
The plaintiff’s demands include that Wilcox provide enough personnel to teach all math students at the school and to “refrain from regarding any mathematics grades” for those students who did not receive geometry instruction.
The demands include the appointment of a third party educational consulting firm to audit and monitor Wilcox for compliance with the state constitution, and financial damages covering the plaintiffs’ legal fees.
Jason Zandri, in a phone call last week with the Record-Journal, said his main issue with Wilcox is how the school responded when his daughter “tried to advocate for herself.”
“She was trying to get extra help during class hours, she was trying to get transferred into another class with a certified instructor. She was declined,” he said.
Zandri said he did not make any headway until he contacted Abercrombie and sought legal counsel.
“I can’t measure the impact on my daughter’s learning,” he said, noting his daughter tried to get caught up on an entire marking period’s worth of learning within one week’s time.
“No matter how fast she catches up, no matter how much extra work she puts in,, it’s a lot of stress and anxiety and it wasn’t necessary,” Zandri said. ‘Toll on teachers’
A Record-Journal reporter reached out to Wilcox and administrators with the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System with questions pertaining to the lawsuit and regarding staffing levels both within Wilcox’s math department and across the technical school system overall.
Kerry Markey, director of communications for CTECS, wrote in an email on Monday, “There is limited information we can provide about this matter given its legal nature. However, CTECS believes the lawsuit has no merit and plans to defend against this case.”
The statement did not address questions a reporter posed related to staffing.
Zandri’s legal complaint notes that the family reached out to Abercrombie to inform her of the long-term substitute situation and that the family had gotten nowhere in their efforts.
Abercrombie, who did not seek re-election, confirmed that she was contacted and that she reached out to CTECS leaders.
Solek responded the school was in the process of hiring a then-candidate for the job, and that the situation would be resolved in a matter of weeks.
Abercrombie said her involvement in the matter ended once she became aware the Zandris had hired a lawyer.
Abercrombie and others pointed out that there is a shortage of educators around the state, not just in CTECS operated schools.
“The pandemic has really taken its toll on teachers —more specifically on special ed teachers. There is a huge shortage of special education teachers,” Abercrombie said, adding she has discussed the topic with leaders in the state Department of Education, about the best course of action to address those shortages.
“They’re changing the criteria for teachers, for certification, to get teachers in schools, and into the classroom. I think (the state) is doing everything they can,” Abercrombie said.
Statewide education leaders with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents indicated the complaint is the first they’re aware of related to a single course.
Educators with special education, science and math backgrounds have historically been in short supply.
“The shortages are more acute this year than ever before. Math teachers are particularly in short supply,” Frances Rabinowitz, CAPSS’ executive director wrote in an email to the Record-Journal, noting it is an issue she faced during her tenure with the Bridgeport Public Schools.
“It is imperative that we work to attract more math candidates and encourage more alternative routes and cross-certification programs,” Rabinowitz wrote, stressing that addressing the shortages requires creative solutions.