The future of an old Fairfield mission rests on three Bridgeport high school students.

In January, part of the Connecticut’s response to the critical condition of the Bridgeport Public Schools came into effect with the appointment – not election – of a new superintendent.

Enter Paul Vallas, the urban schools rejuvenator of Chicago, Philadelphia, Haiti, Argentina and post-Katrina New Orleans.
The school system Vallas inherited is one riddled with very low standardized test scores and a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students.

The same month he began working for Bridgeport, he contacted Fairfield University with a proposal featuring the enrollment of worthy high school students in core classes.

Vishnu Nair, a senior at Bassick High School in Bridgeport, is one of those students who made the cut. He is taking MU 120 “History of American Song,” instructed by Dr. Laura Nash.

“The hardest thing is stepping up … I definitely feel different here,” Nair said. “There’s a big gap I jump up.”

Every Tuesday and Friday morning, Nair takes a bus provided by Bridgeport Public Schools from Bassick to Fairfield. After class, he returns to high school and his tuition here (at a reduced rate) is covered by Bridgeport.

“The learning itself here impresses me. It keeps going forward,” he said. “Some classes in high school are like this, others are just repetitive.”

Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions Dr. Christine Siegel has been toggling the logistics of the program to perfect everything from transportation to campus resource access.

She helped determine a list of 12 courses that would suit the high school students in terms of course style and workload. Though the list created 12 openings, only three students from Bassick could be admitted to the program – a number that Siegel said Fairfield hopes to improve as the program develops.

“Fairfield University is committed to social justice and has always had a long-standing commitment to Bridgeport Public Schools,” Siegel said. She also added that, “Bridgeport is a school system that has all the problems urban school systems in the U.S. have.”

Admittance to the Duel Enrollment Program requires that applicants have a cumulative minimum GPA of 3.3, submit an essay and a letter of recommendation from a teacher or counselor.

While Nair comes from a district where the high school graduation rate in 2009 was 25.5 percent lower than the state average, the program’s challenges are not only based in Bridgeport.

One of the challenges that Nair faced was a research assignment due last week in which he needed to find 30 sources and write a one-page thesis for his MU 120 class.

And to help with the challenges this semester, Dr. Bryan Ripley Crandall, another urban high school veteran and Director of the Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield, has assumed the role as a mentor.

“ … even in the United States, the pursuit of education is not as common as we might think,” Crandall said. “A lot of our instruction has been aesthetically driven, rather than practical. Perhaps we should focus more on critical literacy skills so students are prepared for the changing world they will inherit.

“Having a tremendous work ethic is one thing – a quality all of the Bassick students enrolled at Fairfield have.”

Commenting on the program’s future, Crandall said: “[Superintendent] Vallas is a visionary. People like myself, Dr. Crandall and Dr. Nash are working to make this vision work.

Junior Sam Keach is in Nair’s MU 120 class. “I think [the program] is valuable for both sides,” he said. “We get to reflect on ourselves and Vishnu gets to be exposed to our side.

Even Keach thinks the research project was challenging, yet, “[Nair] seems to be integrating into the class well. … It’s nice to give someone that age some guidance.”

What keeps Nair going?

“There’s more than one way of solving a problem but there is always the same variable,” Nair said. “ … You can’t go back, you just have to get to it.”

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