Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Board of Education Honors Departing Members

Last night's regular Board of Education meeting began with a farewell from BOE Chairman Gene Nocera and Superintendent Pat Charles to Ryan Kennedy and former BOE Chairman Ted Raczka. Kennedy, who was appointed in 2008 to fill a vacancy and then re-elected on his own, is leaving the Board to run for a position on City Council.  Raczka was elected to the board in 2005, served as Vice-Chairman starting in 2005, and then was BOE Chairman from 2009-2011.  Most recently, Raczka was the Budget Committee Chairman.  "We wish him [Ted Raczka] the best in his future, in his law practice, and we thank him for everything he's done," Nocera told the Board.

The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for November 19th to accommodate the election and swearing in of new town officials.  A newly formed BOE will meet that date and decide on committee assignments and leadership positions.

In District Highlights, Superintendent Charles recognized six MHS students as Commended National Merit Scholars.  Of the 1.5 million students taking the PSAT test nation-wide, roughly 50,000 of the highest achieving students are recognized as Commended Students or Semifinalists.  Commended Students do not continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarships like Semifinalists do, but they are recognized for their outstanding performance.  "We are so very proud of these students," noted Dr. Charles.  "They have met an incredible bar, and this is quite an accomplishment."

Ava McGlew is the new Food Service Director as part of the District's contract with Sodexo.  Many new initiatives are rolling out to increase participation in the Food Service Program and upgrade the quality and presentation of the breakfast and lunch program.
  • The Breakfast in the Classroom program has been implemented in 5 of the 8 elementary schools. Middletown received at $21,300 grant from the Dairy Council to purchase the specific equipment and supplies necessary to executive the program.  375 students participated in the program the first day of school, and that number is now up to 1200 student participants.  For Macdonough School, there is a universal breakfast program, meaning breakfast is free for all students because more than 70% of the school qualifies for free or reduced lunches.  For the other elementary schools, there is a sliding scale for the cost of breakfast: if you qualify for free lunch, you get free breakfast.  If you qualify for a reduced fee lunch, the breakfast cost is $.30.  If you don't qualify for free/reduced lunch, the cost of breakfast is $1.  The other interesting piece of the program is that students grab their breakfast as they enter the classroom and get to eat it as the school day begins.  The food choices are whole grain rich, low fat, include fruit, and are designed to be healthy versions of the breakfast foods kids love (whole grain mini-waffles, etc.).  BOE member Sheila Daniels asked about the possibility of every school becoming a universal breakfast program, and Ava McGlew replied that at the moment, the program couldn't sustain itself from a cost perspective.  McGlew did promise to look at what it would take to provide a free breakfast for every child and get back to the board at a later time.
  • A new Horizon software system has been installed in all schools to manage breakfast/lunch payments.  Students are given a pin number so that when they go through the food line, that number is entered and then payment is debited from the student's account.  Parents have access to the account online so they can deposit funds, or view their student's history to see purchases.  Pin numbers will stay with students as they move through the grades.
  • Dining environments are being "revamped" to look new and to provide more options (including vegetarian options) such as additional food stations at the middle schools, and a Boars Head deli bar and salad bar at MHS.  The combined emphasis on healthier choices and the availability of the breakfast program has increased participation in the food program by 6.2% district wide.  Currently, 21% of Middletown students are participating in the breakfast program, which represents a huge increase from last year.  There was no discussion of projected program losses like this time last year, so the board was very encouraged at the program turnaround in such a short period of time.  BOE member Franca Biales asked if the time students spend in lines (and therefore not eating) had been addressed, and McGlew said she's working on it: "Some improvements have been made, but we are still addressing some things so the process is more efficient."  
Superintendent Charles announced that Middletown has been awarded a multi-year Federal grant from the Safe Schools Healthy Students Program.  The program is designed to "encourage schools and communities to work in partnership to create safe and healthy school environments in which youth can learn and develop. "  (More information is available on the SS/HS website.)  Funded through a federal partnership between the Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services, Middletown will receive approximately $553,000 per year for 4 years.  The specifics of this program have yet to be determined, and the current government shut-down means that the program can't actually move forward until funding is restored.  BOE member Ed McKeon asked if all of Middletown's other Federa grants are similarly affected, and the answer is yes.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and today is National Unity Day.  BOE members wore orange last night in support of Unity Day, and nationwide, individuals are wearing orange today to send a message of support to students who have experienced bullying.  October 25th has been designated as Middletown's Unity Day (wear orange that day), and all students and teachers will receive an orange band that says "Be Good to Each Other."  BOE member Sheila Daniels commented on the positive message to end bullying: "If we are good to each other, we won't have these issues."

In District Financial news, there is a projected balance of $113, 876.  While this is way better news than last year's projected deficit of about $750,000 at the same time, it is very early in the year.  Given the rapid increase in the number of students leaving to attend Magnet schools, out-of-district tuition costs are already approaching the budgeted amount, and it's only October.  Assistant Superintendent Enza Macri was asked to talk about this trend, and she commented, "It's not good news.  I can just cry about that and it will make us feel better, but it won't help the budget."

Specifically, Middletown is obligated by contract to pay for 120 students to attend the Thomas Edison Magnet School (TEMS) in Meriden.  It's $5500 per student, and more for students with special needs.  In total, $720K is automatically budgeted for TEMS.  In 2012-13, an additional $340K was spent on Middletown students going to other magnet schools.  In the current school year, $363K has already been spent, bringing the total to $1,083,000, and the amount budgeted for the year is $1.2 million.  Looking at the recent trend (both TEMS and open choice), there were 183 students in magnet schools in 2011/12, 268 in 2012/13, and currently 285 for 2013/14, with additional students anticipated to move to magnet schools during this school year.

A discussion then ensued between board members and the Superintendent about what is being done to halt the exodus to magnet schools.  Dr. Charles stated that all departing families have an exit interview, and the overwhelming feedback is that parents are looking for a STEM program (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or a program to support gifted and talented children.  Board member Ed McKeon asked if it was true that test scores at magnet schools are not remarkably higher than regular public schools.  Assistant Superintendent Macri replied that it was true: "We're forced to pay tuition, the facilities are state of the art, the technology is better, but the kids don't have better test scores....the magnet schools haven't solved the problem of racial imbalance either."

On the subject of racial imbalance, Middletown was notified in May that Macdonough Elementary School is again out of racial balance and that there is a pending imbalance at Moody Elementary School.  Because of the 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court decision in Sheff v. O'Neill, any one school in a district may not be more than 25 percentage points above or below the district's minority average.  For example, if a district has a 40% minority average, and one school has a 65.1% minority average, that school is out of racial balance according to CT state law.  Macdonough Elementary School is one minority student outside the upper limit, and Moody Elementary is approaching the point of not enough minority students to maintain the lower limit.  In the past, management techniques such as re-districting and changing school boundary lines have been used to manage racial averages.

The BOE voted last night to try a new approach.  A talented and gifted program (TAG) for 4th and 5th grade students will be created at Macdonough.  This year's second graders will be the first class eligible to participate in the new program.  All third grade students will take the OLSAT test to identify who is eligible for the TAG program, with about 5% of those students expected to be identified (or about 18 students).  Those invited to join the program will then attend 4th and 5th grade at Macdonough and participate in a regular classroom.  There will be a certified TAG teacher who will teach a pull-out class to these students with an emphasis on STEM, in addition to an after-school enrichment program and a 4 week summer camp.

Only three children need to participate in this program to make it run and to alleviate Macdonough's racial imbalance issues, but administrators have to make sure that this program doesn't get large enough to crowd Macdonough's 4th and 5th grade classes and cause another yet another problem.  The long prep time to identify students and prepare teachers is expected to result in a well-designed program that addresses a gap in the kind of education that Middletown provides.

Finally, the BOE voted to accept revisions to the K-5 report card language and to amend Policy 5111.  The new Common Core standards were not measurable with the old report cards, so those changes have been in the works for the last year.  Policy 5111 is about Admission/Placement standards, and the language had to be updated to reflect changes in state and federal laws.  Additionally, there is now no exception to the Kindergarten age requirement (five on or before January 1st of any school year) and high school students have to be seventeen to be able to drop out of school with a parent's consent.  Previously, a 4-year-old student could get special permission on a case-by-case basis to attend Kindergarten early, but the District's attorney argued at the September BOE meeting that allowing a case-by-case decision making process made the district liable for lawsuits for unequal access: if one 4-year-old can have access, it is unfair that all 4-year-olds can't (for space and budget reasons, etc.).

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