Arlene Gottesman, Darien high school principal, and Matt Pavia, English teacher and steering committee chairperson, gave a report on the New England Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation process. The visiting committee spent four days, from Apr. 29 to May 2, meeting with the school’s staff and administration, interviewing teachers and shadowing students. The steering committee, composed of school staff members, supervised a “self-study” over 18 months to present as an accreditation prerequisite.
The high school received a draft of 64 commendations and only 44 recommendations that the school must respond to over two years. There may be additional recommendations in the final report. The group’s chairman assured them that the school would be accredited, Gottesman said.
Dr. Judith Evans, chairperson of the Association’s Commission on Public Secondary Schools, noted the “variety and quality of instruction and what they perceive as the unbelievable, healthy, kind, respectful relationship between students and teachers,” Pavia said.
The general recommendations were that the school should integrate learning expectations into every aspect of education. Although the committee commended the variety of classes and learning options at the school, it noted that multi-level courses with “a variety of prerequisites [provide] substantial barriers to movement between levels.” It also criticized the lack of heterogeneously grouped classes.
The association recommended that the school allow “all stakeholders” to review core values and learning expectations. It recognized the district-implemented professional learning communities, in which teachers review goals and teaching methods, but expected school-wide feedback.
“While it is clear the DHS teachers are using a variety of informal and formal methods to reflect upon and improve instructional practices, there are missed opportunities to enhance collaborative discussions about professional practices and solicitation of feedback on instruction from students and parents; these missed opportunities do not support active teacher instructional improvement,” the report stated.
The district’s goals are not inconsistent with those used in the accreditation process, Pavia, the high school’s commission chair, said. Some criticisms were redundant because the association has its own “buzz words,” according to Superintendent Dr. Stephen Falcone. The district should continue to use the language it’s been using, such as “learner-center instruction,” he said.
Darien High School must submit its progress on association recommendations after two and five years. It may choose to reject certain recommendations in these reports with appropriate detail.
Dr. Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent for elementary education, and Stephanie Furman, mathematics coordinator, reported on new math teaching practices at the elementary level. The administration “recognized the value of the workshop model as it develops children’s literacy skills,” Pandolfo said. Students are using DreamBox, a software that will supplement learning. The program is unique because it tailors the problem levels to the student.
The math curriculum is adjusting to “common core state standards” which have changed for “fewer levels and deeper learning,” Pandolfo said. The standards require students to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them… reason abstractly and quantitatively… construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”
Furman shared several examples of new types of problems students are solving, including the way they learn fractions. In one example, students asked to select a representation of the fraction two-fifths had to mark “yes” or “no” on any picture that was correct, as opposed to the regular problem set that only has one correct answer. This allows for a deeper level of thinking because students can’t use a process of elimination to get to one answer, Furman said.
Another question asked students to solve a series of addition problems, all of which were variations that added up to the same answer. “Students are taught to look for relationships to help them solve problems,” Furman said.
Elementary school teachers used a “math congress” to encourage collaborative problem-solving and help students learn at highest level. The students, arranged into groups by their problem-solving level, solve the same problem with different strategies. They write the answers on posters and other students write comments and questions on the posters about how they understood the strategies.
State standards apply across the district and Furman is working with Matt Byrnes, assistant superintendent, to integrate the same teaching methods to the middle school level.
Susan Vogel, co-chair of the council of Darien school parents, asked whether allowing teachers to group students by ability will create a hierarchy. “How does that play out in a classroom?” she asked. Pandolfo said that research shows that their methods are backed by research and in her experience, the levels blend.
“I understand what you’re saying,” she said, “but you don’t get that kind of feeling in the way that this is done. It’s just not that apparent to the kids.”
Workshop models will be fully implemented by next year.
Richard Huot, director of finance, and Mike Lynch, facilities director, proposed moving the capital project approval process up by a few months—from November to September or October 1—to allow for timely construction. The district has had issues in the past such as the delayed reconstruction of the roof at Middlesex Middle School due to funding.
The first part of a capital project, when construction plans are drafted and inspections are done, can take around eight weeks. Next, the Board of Finance must review cost estimates and the state must approve construction plans. This part is suppossed to take 30 days, Huot said, but it usually takes 60 or up to 90 days for the state to respond. This year, Governor Dan Malloy reorganized some of the state Department of Education’s duties into administrative services, which created a delay to the middle school roof project.
Huot suggested that the district accept bids and order materials in January or February so that it is the first to request services from local companies. This might ensure a better deal on materials and will ensure that the materials arrive on time, he said. The project can easily be held up because of funding issues within the district or at the town level. If funding is delayed, like it has been in the past, the district can take bids in the next year with the same construction plans. The state gives schools two years to complete approved projects.
“With state laws, you have to ask for money a year before you do the work,” Lynch, facilities director said, “or you can go through this process where we have bids, money and grants in place before summer starts so there is time to order materials as needed.”
Shea, board member, was concerned that the schools might lose money on unbudgeted actions that are not accomplished in the following year.
Lynch said that it is possible to estimate a part of the cost, especially for state-mandated standards. “That’s a very doable item if you were going to do a project in 2014 in 2013 budget,” he said.
The board approved several agenda items including a gift from the Hindley parent teacher organization for new playground equipment, a trip to China, two overnight sports trips and a $6,500.90 grant for Area 9 cable equipment.
Hindley school principal Rita Ferri told the board that the PTO would like to cover the estimated cost of $42,380. The playground had some replacements in 2008 but is still made out of wood, Superintendent Dr. Stephen Falcone said. “This will bring them, over time to a level that’s consistent with the other elementary schools,” Falcone noted. The kindergarten playground will gain handicap accessible equipment and a canopy, over Thanksgiving break.
The boys wrestling team will spend a night in an undetermined Connecticut city for the Class M Wrestling Championship on February 15, 2013. The cross-country team will spend a night in Maine on November 10 for New England Cross Country Championship.
The group of students traveling to China will go toward the end of March. Any trip farther than a 500-mile radius must be requested at least 60 days in advance of departure date and no later than Oct 25. Byrnes noted that the dates depend on travel arrangements but the school will try to minimize missed school days.
Board member Heather Shea was concerned that because interested students have to register for an elective to go on the trip, other students are not eligible to participate. Falcone expressed the issue of student commitement without a required course due to the amount of preparation involved.
“We need to go back and see what the specific obligations would be that people would have to adhere to if they only took the Chinese language class,” Falcone said.
The board also approved the A Better Chance program to accept up to 8 students in the 2013-14 school year as discussed at the last meeting.
The next meeting will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at 2 Renshaw Road. The board’s budget committee will meet on Friday, Oct. 19 at 8:30 a.m.
Dr. Julia Carrell, coordinator for student and family social services, will present on “skills that build confidence” for kindergarten through fifth grade parents, on Tuesday, Oct. 30. More information is available on Darien school’s website.
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