BOE meeting tackles security, elementary curriculum

The BOE members assemble before the meeting begins.

Under the hot cafeteria lights and rows of repurposed cafeteria tables, issues on the Board of Education’s agenda often take more than their allotted time. But when it comes to the topics covered in Monday’s meeting – security and Common Core curriculum challenges – timing is everything, and there are no minutes to spare.

The meeting began on a light note, with the unanimous swearing in of a new member, Paul Block, as well as a performance from the Staples Orphenians and recognition of Beth Messler as a 2014 Conn. Elementary Assistant Principal of the Year.

After the last strains of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the congratulations had died away, the discussion turned to business. Elaine Whitney, Chair of the BOE, briefly addressed a projected shortfall in the health insurance fund for the current fiscal year. “We have begun planning so that we will have sufficient funds to cover future expenses,” she said. According to Whitney, the Board will schedule a public works session to address the issue.

Next, Superintendent Elliott Landon discussed the timing of a report from Kroll Advisory Services about a security audit examining possible security risks. “Once we get back in January, we can report on that progress,” Landon said.

Once the podium was opened for comments, RTM member Jack Klinge, questioning the drawn-out timeframe of the process, asked for a certain date for the final report, which Landon pinned for January.

Klinge also questioned the lack of progress on a project to replace the door locks in the schools. “This didn’t require a Kroll study. It should have been a slam dunk,” Klinge said, “I was disappointed because now it’s December, one year after Newtown, and the BOF has not yet seen a request for funding.”

Landon countered that the request had to be revised for thoroughness. After analyzing the locks with Kroll, the board thinks that the locks might be much more expensive. Landon estimated that the issue would be discussed with the BOE at the start of February, then move to the BOF and RTM.

“I’d love to do it yesterday, but it’s a huge job,” Landon said.

The discussion moved from questions on security scheduling to a discussion of how minutes unpack into successful results in the elementary school classroom.

The kindergarten schedule and overall allotment of time In the elementary schools, as well math, reading, and writing units, have been changed to align with national Common Core Standards. “It has been a rigorous three years for elementary school teachers,” said Director of Elementary Education Cynthia Gilchrist.

Gilchrist, along with King’s Highway Principal Susie Da Silva and math and literacy resource teacher Kim Ambrosio, presented an Interim report on full day kindergarten and implementation of instructional minutes guidelines. They reported an overall success of the five full day schedule, changed from last year’s three full days for kindergarteners. Gilchrist reported broad positive results, stating that 88% of kindergarten teachers agree that the new program is successful.

Gilchrist also gave recommendations gleaned from focus groups with teachers, who asked for an addition of 0.5 paraprofessionals per school, as well as the addition of a second weekly music class.

Beyond just kindergarten, Gilchrist reported on instructional minutes in the elementary schools as a whole. This year, literacy minutes have been increased from 90 to 120, with physical education being cut by five minutes per class for fifth graders. Also, a formal computer class has been replaced by the integration of ITL with other subjects.

Although Gilchrist reported positive results, she qualified that the adjustment has been challenging. “Teachers at the elementary level have been hit hard with learning a new curriculum,” she said.

Board and public response to the presentation was varied. Board member Mark Mathias, who opposes the switch to five full days, questioned how the new schedule puts the schools any closer to measuring up to the Common Core. Furthermore, Matthias suggested getting feedback from parents.

Both Mathias and Block asked for more specific results rather than anecdotal information. “It comes down to the methodology. In looking at the survey, it felt like it was a little soft,” Block said.

John Horrigan, Diann Drenosky, and Karen Defelice, leaders of the Westport Education Association, a local teacher’s union, also spoke.

“I was disappointed to see the survey results,” Horrigan said. “They flew completely in the face of a meeting we had with a meeting with elementary teachers.”

Horrigan criticized the survey’s results as oversimplified, categorizing responses into “Agree” or “Disagree” while the questionnaire had four levels of agreement.

Drenosky referenced teachers’ feedback about difficulty acclimating kids to block scheduling and their questions about whether long time blocks are appropriate developmentally for the students.

Psychologist Jill Greenberg criticized the survey’s methodology, noting that its questions were unclear, for example never concretely defining success. “The survey doesn’t work as more than a screener,” she said.

Parents represented varying perspectives, with one criticizing the new curriculum’s reduced storytime for academic blocks and the other praising the system.