Several hundred Hartford teachers, students, parents and school administrators converged in front of The Courant Thursday afternoon, angry over a column by Tom Condon on June 1.
They waved signs and made speeches with tough talk. Some called for a one-week boycott of the newspaper or for the firing of Condon, a longtime Courant opinion columnist. Others wanted an apology.
Condon’s column was about the need to cut bureaucracy in Hartford public schools. He cited the school system’s bilingual education program as a program that “needs close analysis” as the board struggles to bridge a budget gap of as much as $ 14 million.
But the protesters in front of The Courant’s entrance on Broad Street Thursday were angry about what they said was an unfair attack on the bilingual program. The program serves about 6,000 youngsters who speak mostly Spanish, but also Vietnamese, Portuguese and Italian, helping them make the transition to English while in school.
“We are here today to express our outrage over Tom Condon’s irresponsible journalism and The Hartford Courant’s promotion of irresponsible journalism,” said Rebecca Delgado Brito, a teacher who spoke through a bullhorn from The Courant’s front steps. “We need more bilingual teachers. … Maybe it’s time to get rid of Tom Condon,” she said to cheers and chants of “Tom Condon has to go.”
Some people carried signs with pictures of Condon that read “smells of racism” or “your racism is not a secret.”
Condon was not in the building during the protest. He is on a six-week leave of absence to complete work on a book. Reached at home, Condon said he was happy to have prompted debate but added that people may have misinterpreted his writing.
“My objection is not to the principle of bilingual education. It is to the way the Hartford program is run,” said Condon, who described himself as a student of Spanish. “I’m not against bilingual education.”
“Too many kids are staying in it too long. Too many kids let it become a club,” he said. “This has become a self-sustaining bureaucracy. The kids have suffered because I don’t think expectations are high enough.” Edwin Vargas, Hartford Federation of Teachers vice president and Democratic town chairman, acted as emcee for the different people who spoke in both English and Spanish at the rally. Organizers declined an offer to meet with Courant editors before the protest.
The crowd included board of education members, Superintendent of Schools T. Josiha Haig and city council members.
“We know that the bilingual program works,” said Felix Gonzalez, a bilingual teacher at Milner School. “For the past few years, Mr. Condon has been picking on bilingual education. I don’t know if Mr. Condon has even gone to a bilingual classroom. I would like him to investigate before he says anything.”
“The problem is when you single out a program,” said Hooker School Principal Raul Montanez, who marched with numerous other school principals and staff members of all races. At his school, he said, “the kids in the bilingual program score better than the kids in the mainstream.”
Duy Nguyen, a Bulkeley High School freshman who said he was in the bilingual program for one year before switching to English-only classes, said he didn’t know much about Condon. But he said he was marching to speak up for the program.
“I’m a mainstream student now. But I was in the bilingual program before,” he said. “It has helped me to speak English.”