Ana Ortiz

Ana Ortiz is in her first year as the superintendent of Windham public schools. (Patrick Raycraft, Hartford Courant / February 24, 2011)

Five years ago Windham had a blue-ribbon school.

The small, blue-collar community in eastern Connecticut, which includes the city of Willimantic, had a nationally recognized urban elementary school and Windham schools were considered to be among the best of the state's urban districts.

But since then poverty has soared there. The number of students who don't speak English fluently has nearly doubled. Town residents have balked at education budgets and whittled them down. And alienation has worsened between town officials and the school district and between the community's urban and rural taxpayers.

Now, by many measures, Windham schools are headed in the wrong direction.

Connecticut Mastery Test scores have declined in many areas. The dropout rate is twice the state average. Only half the students are proficient in reading. And the school district has the largest academic achievement gap — the persistent disparity in academic performance between poor students and their more affluent classmates — in the state.

Teachers grumble that many students are disrespectful and roam the hallways during class. Not that many parents are involved with their children's schools. The number of special education students is unusually high.

The school system's problems became so severe last summer that then-state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan stepped in and threatened to replace the school board, a move that has sparked resentment in this hilly town of 23,000.

Windham's problems came to a head in August when McQuillan saw the latest Connecticut Mastery Test scores, which showed that the town's 3,361 students lag far behind statewide averages. Among the trouble spots: Fifth-graders' scores had dropped, and eighth-graders' reading and writing scores had plunged. From fourth to fifth grade, academic growth in reading and math was slowing considerably and, in some cases, regressing.

McQuillan visited the Windham school board to discuss the "dire condition of education in Windham" and the need for strong, proven leadership. The superintendent position was vacant and McQuillan wanted the board to hire one of his associate commissioners, Marion Martinez.

But the board said the community felt more comfortable with Windham's assistant superintendent, Ana V. Ortiz, an experienced administrator who was serving as interim superintendent.

In September, McQuillan ordered a comprehensive audit of the school system and told the school board to take the Lighthouse Training Program, a leadership program for school boards that focuses in depth on student achievement.

He also threatened to replace the school board if the situation didn't improve by April. A school reform law enacted last May allows the state education commissioner to replace school board members.

This did not sit well in Windham.

"Who the hell is he to tell us what to do?" said Kenneth Folan, chairman of Windham's school board, recalling the standoff.

"Why us?" Ortiz recalled thinking. "Why is he picking on little Windham all of a sudden?"

The school board ignored McQuillan's recommended choice for superintendent and voted in December to make Ortiz the permanent superintendent. McQuillan, meanwhile, resigned for unrelated reasons, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has not yet named a permanent replacement.

In the meantime, the state Department of Education recently conducted seven audits of the Windham district — which has four elementary schools, including blue-ribbon winner Windham Center School; a middle school and a high school — covering everything from student achievement and governance to finances. State education consultants have begun to share the findings with school administrators, the school board and teachers. Next, the state consultants plan to work closely with the board and administrators to develop a comprehensive set of recommendations that they hope the community will embrace.

This is not the first time the state has intervened in Windham. In 2008, the state forged a partnership with the school district to raise student achievement. The state also sent coaches to work with principals in each of Windham's schools.

McQuillan said in a phone interview after the standoff that he felt an increasing urgency to pull Windham out of its tailspin after seeing the test results and the widening academic gaps. Despite working on a district improvement plan, Windham was still going in the wrong direction, he said, and demoralized staff and disenfranchised families seemed to be giving up hope.