Tonight, the various Middletown schools met with the Board of Education to discuss their improvement plans. As a point of reference, in case you haven’t seen them, the District’s “SMART GOALS 2008-2011” are as follows:
On the CMT in Math, Reading and Writing, the average grade-level gain in the number of students at or above proficiency over the three-year period of the District Improvement Plan will be at least 15 percentage points.
On the Grade 10 CMT in Math, Reading, and Writing, the grade-level gain in the number of students at or above proficiency over the three-year period of the District Improvement Plan will be at least 15 percentage points.
CMT and CAPT achievement gaps within all student subgroups in Math, Reading, and Writing will be reduced by at least 30 percent over the three-year period of the District Improvement Plan. In addition, all student subgroups will show growth in academic achievement in Math, Reading, and Writing.
The number of overall suspensions and the number of students suspended in the District will decrease by at least 15 percent over the three-year period of the District Improvement Plan.
The number of overall suspensions and the number of students suspended in targeted subgroups( (special education, and Hispanic and African-American males) will decrease by 25 percent over the three-year period of the District Improvement Plan.
The school improvement plans are directly linked to these goals in addition to the various issues each school faces. I didn’t make the meeting in time to hear the elementary schools present, but I did hear what Keigwin, Woodrow Wilson and the High School had to say.
One concern at Keigwin is about students’ transfer of knowledge. This refers to using skills in more than one place. For example, it shouldn’t be strange that a student would have to use math in science class, or write an essay in Social Studies (using proper grammar, etc.). Students are apparently not comprehending this fact of life (or resisting it because it makes them have to concentrate a bit more…).
Keigwin also mentioned coding books to match a specific reading level. That way a teacher or student would know that a book is or isn’t reading level appropriate. The thought is to move away from whole class novels toward individuals reading books at their specific reading comprehension level.
SRBI, or Scientific Research-Based Interventions, is CT’s new framework for school improvement. Learn more about this framework here.
Essentially, the Connecticut State Department of Education defines SRBI this way: “Scientific Research‐Based Interventions (SRBI) emphasize successful instruction for all students through high‐quality core general education practices, as well as targeted interventions for students experiencing learning, social‐emotional or behavioral difficulties. Core general education practices include comprehensive curriculums in key academic areas, effective instructional strategies, creation and maintenance of a positive and safe school climate, and a comprehensive system of social‐emotional learning and behavioral supports.”
This approach drives our school improvement process for the foreseeable future, and several buzz words like “best practice,” “data teams,” and “differentiated instruction” were mentioned again and again. Without having a specific definition of those teams, I surmised that they refer to teachers tailoring instruction to the specific student (how he or she learns, where he or she needs additional concentration, etc.). When students fail to do well, there will be a whole team of people ready to pounce in “scientific intervention” to get the student back on track.
Woodrow Wilson mentioned the “new” building as being a much better layout for a middle school than its previous location. The principal, Gene Nocera, was quick to point out that the myth that WW has tons of extra space is completely false. WW was originally built in 1958 for a high school population of 800, and the middle school currently has 740 students. Every classroom is used. The Co-Chair of the transition team mentioned that the building has several physical needs that need financial support – even though the budget is tough this year, these needs can’t be put off forever.
BOE member Sally Boske expressed concern over the transition students have to make from Keigwin to Woodrow Wilson, and there was much discussion about the drop in reading scores in 7th and 8th grade. Apparently 7th grade is the lowest performing grade nationwide, and Boske wanted to know what was happening during the summer to prevent this drop. There wasn’t a clear answer to her question other than the comment that as changes take root in the elementary schools, the improvement will flow upwards into higher grades. There was additional discussion about connecting core teachers to after school programs, focusing on creating a welcoming climate, and maintaining the social connection to kids and parents.
When pressed about the less than ideal reading scores for 10th graders, and what could happen during the summer to combat this decline, Middletown High School Principal Robert Fontaine said “I’m a big fan of summer vacation.” This response drew tons of laughter, but it did highlight an interesting distinction between the BOE and the Principal: school improvements depend on resources and staff to turn goals into measurable outcomes. With a budget meeting next on the agenda, and principals hanging on every word in case something is revealed, summer enrichment programs have to be at the bottom of the priority list! If our schools don’t have the basic tools they need DURING the school year, what students do with their summer vacations is the least of their worries!
Bill Boyd asked about the possibility of a program that lets students graduate high school in 3 years. Fontaine responded that most families are too traditional to be excited about such a thing. Even those students who have had the credits to graduate at 3 ½ years often don’t because they would have to give up their extra-curricular activities once they graduated.
There were other questions about the collaborative atmosphere and more specific teaching of study skills. The data teams meet once a week, but there isn’t time to get everything done. A Freshman orientation program hasn’t been possible because of staffing issues. Study skills are integrated into individual course curriculum because you can’t teach those skills in a vacuum. And, as study skills are now being taught at earlier grade levels, this area should improve.
Principal Fontaine said his biggest problem is kids who can’t read at the high school grade level. Too many Middletown High kids are reading at about the 5th grade level, which makes it impossible for them to excel at high school level courses. They can’t study when they can’t read or comprehend what they’re studying. In a private interview after his public comments, Fontaine had this advice for parents: “Be involved!” When pressed to define “involved, ” Fontaine said:
Parents should attend the extra-curricular activities their kids are involved in. Go see them excel.
Families should eat dinner together so kids have a chance to talk about their day and what they’re doing.
For parents of younger children, reading out loud on a regular basis is crucial.
When asked what he’d do with a blank checkbook, Fontaine said he needs more staff in elective and support services. When the high school population swelled from 800-1350 a few years ago, the core class sizes were mandated to stay the same. This meant that teachers were pulled away from elective courses like music or art. Those areas are really suffering, but Fontaine doesn’t get to control what staff he gets. In Middletown, schools get an allocation per student that principals can decide how to spend on things like supplies, equipment, etc. However, staffing levels are determined by the BOE/Superintendent’s budget, and principals only have some control over the type of teacher. Basically, Fontaine has very little control over the budget other than during the final stages when something has to be cut and there’s a negotiation over what that it.
When to school improvement reports were finished, the BOE had a discussion about its priorities. However, there was confusion over whose priorities were being discussed, and the budget goals/objectives handed out by the Superintendent, Michael Freschette, were not what the agenda was talking about. BOE Member Corinne Gill clarified that the BOE was supposed to be examining itself to come up with a list of its own priorities - to set goals for itself for the year. This process was pushed off to a summer workshop.
After a short break, the BOE began a discussion of the budget. BOE member Jay Kaiser motioned to send the mayor only a dollar amount representing a 2% increase over last year’s budget, and not the specific line item budget. BOE members Sheila Daniels, Corinne Gill, Ryan Kennedy, and Bill Boyd argued forcefully against such action. Corinne Gill mentioned that the recent community discussions have specifically targeted the notion of transparency in government, so it would be wrong not to disclose the actual impact of a 2% budget (apparently a 5.6% (or so) increase would be holding even on the budget from last year plus contractual increases in salaries, etc.). Daniels, Kennedy and Boyd completely agreed, with Boyd saying it would be "totally inappropriate" to just send a number that doesn't demonstrate the board's funding priorities. Gill and Daniels were particularly upset about just sending a number because it wouldn't allow the public to comment on the budget while knowing what the money would actually be spent on.
The motion was eventually defeated. Please note that BOE Chair Ted Raczka and Judith Russo were not present at the meeting. For a meeting that was supposed to be a key step in finalizing the budget…
The BOE then voted to table the budget discussion until next week: there will be a special meeting, Tuesday, March 3rd at 7pm at the High School to consider the budget. The meeting will be televised and there will be a public comment session. There is a copy of the budget available but this link is to a budget representing a 5.61% increase over last year. The budget handed out at tonight’s meeting is just a 2% increase, which is actually a 3.61% cut from last year’s budget. The Superintendent should update his webpage shortly.
What no one is saying very loudly is that the proposed budget includes a loss of teachers (13 classes are to be consolidated) and an increase in class sizes. Granted, there is an early retirement package being offered, but the number of takers is not known yet. Field trips will not be funded, the 21st Century After School program has been eliminated (affects Bielefield, MacDonough and Snow Elementary Schools), and funding for instructional and maintenance supplies have been reduced. While the price of diesel is down, there has been no mention of whether or not this year’s bus route changes are permanent (If you remember, 300 stops were cut in August 2008 to save $50,000 in fuel costs.).
A few board members expressed concern over the budget, but nothing specific was mentioned. There was no evidence to indicate what board members felt was important to preserve even in difficult financial times. Next week’s meeting includes a public comment period, so in the absence of any obvious leadership from the BOE, please let your preferences be heard! The BOE email list is available and it only takes a minute or two to express your opinion. Or, come to the March 3rd meeting to deliver your comments in person. Essentially, the school budget is about $70 million in a $130 million city budget, and now more than ever we need to make sure it is spent wisely! The budget is due to the mayor in about 2 weeks, and it’s rather unbelievable that we still don’t know what it is exactly.
Now is not the time for political jockeying or any other nonsense. The BOE needs take responsibility for its actions, present a clear and well-thought out budget, and get on with it. The Mayor and Common Council have no control over how the money is spent, but they do have control over how much money is allocated to the school board. Without a complete and transparent discussion of how a 2% budget impacts our children, the BOE simply isn’t doing the job it has been elected to do.