If you wind up at Sarah Schneider-Zuro’s house for a visit, chances are you’ll end up talking about education. The mother of three has two master’s degrees under her belt, and her yen to learn and teach appears to be as natural as breathing for this Ohio native.
“I think I’m the only candidate this year that brings first hand experience in the classroom,” said Zuro, who is seeking one of three available openings on the Darien Board of Education this year. “I’ve been a teacher. I’ve been a school administrator. I have walked the walk in the educational world.”
The Board of Ed race — the first in nearly two decades — finds Zuro battling three others for the available seats. Zuro, a Republican, was appointed to the board in May when board member Amy Bell stepped down to become executive director of the Darien Community Association.
For Zuro, Darien’s greatest educational challenge is also its greatest asset.
“Our district routinely jumps into very large, complicated educational issues,” Zuro told The Darien Times. “Learner-centered instruction, program development, student achievement data… As a team of administrators, faculty, the school board, we run right into the field and tackle those challenges. That’s a lot of work, and it’s a big challenge, but at the same time, that is what puts us ahead of the curve. That is what makes our district so great.
“I think our willingness to get involved with those challenges takes us to a uniquely high level,” she continued. “As a board member, I plan to roll up my sleeves and bring my expertise to the table and work right alongside” the decision makers and the community.
As a relatively new face on the board, Zuro said the community has had a chance to see how she interacts with her fellow board members.
“I’ve now been on the board long enough to build trusting and collaborative relationships with my colleagues, but I’m new enough on the board that I’m still bringing a fresh perspective,” Zuro said. “In a sense, the community has had a little bit of trial run with me to get a chance to see how I act amongst my board colleagues… I think I’ve shown that I’m a collaborative board member.”
Zuro, an 11-year Darien resident, is a graduate of Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and holds both a master’s degree in arts and in education from Columbia University’s Teachers College.
She is a former teacher and school administrator in the Ossining, N.Y., school district and has been a Council of Darien School Parents budget rep for the past three years — first at Holmes and then at Royle.
She has served on the Parent Awareness Board and other Parent Teacher Organization roles throughout the schools. During the recent school budget talks, Zuro spoke in favor of the Spanish program in the elementary schools, although she declined to say whether she would have voted for the program had she been on the board.
What brought her into the public eye originally was the full-day kindergarten proposal, which the school board approved unanimously in 2009 for the 2010 school year.
“To this day I think it was one of our most successful initiatives,” Zuro said. “I knew we would be successful in the program, so I wasn’t afraid to step up.”
Speaking about other issues, Zuro didn’t say whether she was in favor of permanent field lights at the high school and she didn’t offer an opinion on whether the burden of proof should be put on parents instead of the school district in special education court proceedings. She also didyn’t convey her opinion on whether she supported an open campus at the high school. Last year, the board shot down a proposal with a 4-3 vote that would have allowed high school seniors more freedom.
Zuro said she worked in a school district that had an open campus, which meshed well with that school, but regarding the Darien proposal, she said, “I think it’s a good discussion.”
“I think what’s important is that people understand how I’m thinking,” she said. “We have a great big picture. When we’re faced with an issue, we need all the pieces of that picture to be able to make a decision that is right for the Darien community.
“There are lots of pieces of that picture,” she continued, adding that the administration, the school board and the community all play roles in that decision-making process.
Turning away from hypotheticals and focusing on the issues, Zuro discussed ways Darien can deal with rising enrollment and increasing special education costs.
“Millions of people are choosing Darien these days,” Zuro said. “It’s a real testament to the quality of our administration and our schools system.”
“We monitor [enrollment] carefully,” she said. “It requires ongoing monitoring so we can best apply our resources in the most efficient way.”
Zuro said she was “very encouraged” by the directions special education is taking in town, noting that aide positions have been left open to allow for more special ed teachers to be hired.
“We reach kids on a whole variety of different levels,” Zuro said. “The fact that we have a whole team of people surrounding a child, we can get to the best possible road for that child.”
Recent district initiatives have created a push for more collaborative between general education and special education teachers, which Zuro said blurs “the lines between the two fields,” ultimately helping all children succeed.
“Having these services closer to the classroom is something that will promote independence for students, and that’s really our goal,” Zuro said.
What would Zuro change in Darien Schools?
“Unfunded mandates,” she said. When asked to specify which unfunded mandates she was referring to, she reflected for a moment.
“When we’re deploying limited fiscal resources, that’s just a frustration,” she said.
Zuro talked at length about the positive aspects of Darien Schools, which, in her opinion, are many.
“I guess the simple answer is, we hire great teachers,” she said. For Zuro, the process of public decision making is something she admires and respects.
“Our process is a good one,” she said. “The fact people don’t shoot from the hip, and take their time, do their homework… there’s a value in that process. The value is that a town comes together. Do we always agree? No, but [everyone] gets a chance to opine and eventually it goes to RTM.
“It’s a community process, and as a Board of Education member, I’m very proud of that,” Zuro said, “It’s one of the great things that makes me proud to live in this town.”
“That is why I’m one of those crazy people that loves to follow [the budget process] every year,” she said. “I myself find tremendous satisfaction in that…. People say, ‘Is it fun?’ Well, ‘fun’ isn’t the first word. There is a deep sense of personal reward.”
Zuro added that hundreds of people have helped her family over the years, and as a third generation school board member, she thinks she has what it takes to continue educational excellence in Darien.
“When I think about the fact that every single snow closing in this school district, that a PTO mom calls my house to make sure our kids get home safely, that we do that across the district. That PTO parents are planning enrichment in my school so that my kids can meet a world class author.”
“This is my small way of taking my professional experience and my educational experience and giving back and saying thank you, and sharing,” she said.