NEW LONDON — The Interdistrict School for the Arts and Communication, known as ISAAC, is seeking the state legislature’s approval to expand to fourth and fifth grades, adding 60 seats in the 2025-26 school year
Nicholas Spera, the school’s executive director, said enrolling students before they reached middle school would “pay dividends.” Currently serving about 280 students in grades six through eight, the school faces a waitlist of 200 children.
Spera told CT Examiner on Thursday that 75 percent of sixth-graders who enter the school are performing at least two grade levels below the expected standard. He likened the school’s approach to a “triage” strategy, aiming not only to bring students to the appropriate grade level but also get them to a level where they can excel.
“I almost feel like we’re the ER unit,” he said. “We have kids that come to us [who have] been in school, public school or private school for over six years. And then they come to us and we’re saying to them, ‘How is this possible? How did no one see this?’”
On Tuesday, Gov. Ned Lamont and members of the state’s southeastern legislative delegation arrived at the school for a tour.
In one classroom, Spera led representatives to a wall of fish tanks decorated with plastic figurines — freshwater fish on top, saltwater fish on the bottom. Teacher Tiffany Devlin Perry explained that the students adopt a tank at the start of the year, and then switch midyear so they learn about both ecosystems.
In another classroom, seventh-graders were using Photoshop in a digital arts class. Others lounged on a couch in a different classroom, learning about climate and weather.
The legislators expressed bipartisan support for ISAAC, saying they needed to find a way to provide the school with funding to cover infrastructure expenses. According to Spera, the school still has about $1.9 million left on its mortgage for the building. He also said they are looking to add five classrooms onto the building to accommodate fourth- and fifth-graders, expand the gym and make HVAC upgrades — a total cost of $4.5 million.
If Connecticut approves the additional seats for the charter school, Spera said he plans to apply for a $1.25 million grant from the New England Charter School Network. The grant cannot be used for infrastructure, but can be used for programming and furnishings.
After the tour, State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, reiterated that charter schools were public schools, and that legislators needed to ensure all schools – traditional public and charter – receive adequate state funding.
“It’s not taking anything from any school. It just is, we don’t want ISAAC or any charter school to be left out. That’s all,” said Nolan, who served as the dean of students at ISAAC in the early 2000s. “All schools should get the same funding mechanism. … It has to be fair across the board.”
State Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, D-Groton, who attended ISAAC in the late 2000s, said he also wanted to obtain transportation for its students, a service currently lacking from the New London district.
State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said the state needed to improve the quality of all schools.
“I think this is a tremendous success story. We can learn lessons here, but we also need to be sure that all of our schools have our students achieving and doing well,” McCarty said.
High scores and ‘serious concerns’
In a conversation with CT Examiner, Spera touted recent progress in math and reading scores, and physical fitness and English language proficiency for non-native speakers, which lifted the district’s accountability score from 55.2 to 65.5 in a single year, ranking it above the majority of surrounding middle schools in southeastern Connecticut.
According to the data, students’ performance in English, math and science, while still below state average, all increased from last year. Student growth in math, however, surpassed the state average, going from 62.2 percent last year to nearly 70 percent this year. Growth in English also increased but on a smaller scale.
Spera said when he started as ISAAC’s director in 2020, the school had no written curriculum and no math-certified teachers. He said teachers spent the summer of 2020 writing their own curriculum.
“It was a blank canvas to say we’ve got to change things up and just do what schools need to do — have certified math teachers who are certified in mathematics, have a written curriculum that’s specific to student learning, state standards — and then figure out how do we get support systems in place for those students who come to this school to be successful?” he said.
A self-reported rise in the school’s physical fitness scores, which shot up from 2.4 last year to 33.7 this year out of a total of 50 points, was another source of the increased accountability score. Spera attributes this to Jessica Harvey, the school’s physical education teacher, who was able to motivate the students.
“She just created this atmosphere where it was like, ‘We’re going to get this number and I want everyone to pass this test,’ and it created this culture and climate where kids tried,” he said.
But the school has also faced challenges in recent years.
In spring 2021, ISAAC was placed on probation by the State Department of Education after doubling the special education rates it was charging the students’ home districts, an increase the department found to be unnecessary. According to a report from the department, the school’s finance director said the hike was to cover a deficit in special education funds from the prior year, but ISAAC did not produce documents showing the deficit.
The state ended the probation this past March.
Spera has also been the subject of complaints from two former ISAAC employees, who accused him of creating a toxic work environment. Spera told CT Examiner the grievances were “unbelievable.”
This past spring, ISAAC dropped its pursuit of accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges after NEASC began investigating the complaints, according to reporting from CT Public. A letter from NEASC’s president to the two complainants noted that the association found the complaints “raised serious concerns about the school’s climate and culture,” but that ISAAC administrators would not allow the group “unrestricted access” to community members and the opportunity to talk privately with staff.
Spera told CT Examiner that the committee should have paid attention to the “preponderance of the evidence” he provided, rather than giving credence to a few former employees.
Results of an online survey provided to CT Examiner showed that 91 percent of ISAAC faculty “strongly agreed” that the school had a positive and supportive cultural and emotional environment. None disagreed.
‘It’s old news’
Nolan told CT Examiner that the administration needs to handle the complaints and that the situation didn’t change his intention to ask legislators for additional funding.
“That is the chronic problem. It’s making sure that children are taken care of and that there’s no disparities for any of the schools,” he said.
Nolan also noted that schools across the state had faced similar issues, but his main concern was advocating for children.
Baumgartner agreed that transportation, a working HVAC system and warm, healthy meals — items the state pays for in other school districts — should be available to ISAAC students.
“There are funding opportunities before us that, at the end of the day, really have nothing to do with some of [these] issues,” he said. “I think it’s really critical that we, again, focus on the equity piece — ensuring that, for those items, that ISAAC is treated no differently than any other school district within southeastern Connecticut and my district.”
McCarty also maintained that her goal was to get funding to charter schools for projects like capital improvements.
“I truly was impressed about the advances that were made in a short period of time,” she said of ISAAC.
Regarding the probation period, State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said the state took all available corrective actions. Concerning the complaints about the work environment, Somers said ISAAC had been a failing school and employees may have been unhappy.
“The fact that they questioned the culture was disappointing, but I think the climate has absolutely turned around. It’s evidenced by the teachers and the school staff,” she said.
She also noted the faculty at ISAAC had voted unanimously not to pursue NEASC accreditation.
“I think it’s old news. I’m really excited about where they are and their trajectory going forward. And the best part about all of this is how happy the kids are and how successful they’re being under that school environment,” Somers said.