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Hagerty-Ross: Schools have much to be proud of, challenges loom

The following State of the Town address was delivered to the RTM by Betsy Hagerty-Ross:

Good Evening, Madame Moderator, members of the RTM, fellow elected officials and the Town of Darien.  On behalf of my colleagues on the Darien Board of Education, it is my pleasure to report to you that the current state of the Darien Public School system is excellent, and that our schools remain among the top public school districts in Connecticut.

Before discussing the 2012 achievements, I would like to give you an update on our enrollment statistics.
Enrollment
The official October 1, 2012 district enrollment, including the ELP Pre-Kindergarten program, was 4,846 students, representing an increase of 29 students.

Elementary enrollment is at an all time high of 2,381, an increase of 45 students.  The number of classroom sections increased by 5 to 116 sections.  The cost of these additional sections was covered by funds in budget control and savings associated with teacher turnover.
The middle school population decreased by 20 students this year, as forecast, bringing our total number of students to 1,135.
There was a slight increase of 4 students at the high school, bringing enrollment to 1,330.

For 2013-14, we are currently projecting 4,906 students, or an increase of 60 students.  We are anticipating a continued increase in our elementary population with 43 additional students.  The Middle School is projected to decline slightly by 10 students and the High School will increase by 27 students.  I will return to enrollment at the end of my speech; however, it is important to note that Darien remains a very desirable small town with a low mill rate whose residents place a high value on education.  Our community will continue to draw young families who wish to take advantage of our fine educational system.

Accomplishments
Much was accomplished in 2012 both by students and by administrators.
Student Achievements
In standardized testing our students favorably compared with our District Reference Group.  (DRG)
The Connecticut Academic Performance tests (CAPTs) are administered to all 10th graders.  Our students either met or exceeded the DRG averages in Math and Writing.

Enrollment in the advanced placement courses continue to increase with 603 tests taken. The percentage of Darien students posting a 3 or better on their AP is at a 5-year high of 95% as are the percentages of students posting a 4 or better (82%) or 5 (52%) proving that as we have improved access to these courses our students have met the challenge of these intellectually rigorous classes.

Darien students continue to do well on the SATs, achieving an average composite score of 1,764 out of 2400.  The number of Darien students choosing to take the ACT continues to grow.

305 students graduated from Darien High School last June, with 96.2% planning to attend two or four-year colleges after high school.  Over 2600 college applications were submitted to over 380 different colleges and universities.
36 members of the Class of 2013-were recognized in the National Merit Scholarship program, 31 as Commended Scholars and 5 as National Merit Semi-Finalists.

On the athletic fields, Darien High School continues to be successful.  In the school year ending June 2012, DHS fielded 63 athletic teams in 21 different sports.  Nearly 83.7% of the student body participated in at least one sport.  The Blue Wave once again won state titles in Boy’s Cross Country, Girl’s Swimming and Boys Lacrosse. Laurie LaRusso, long-time Darien Blue Wave’s Volleyball coach, was inducted into the FCIAC Hall of Fame.
Darien Students artwork could be seen at many art shows and exhibits throughout Connecticut.  Our music department was busy with concerts and competitions. Participation in Band and a variety of music courses is at an all-time high and students continue to reach high levels of accomplishment. For the first time a Darien High School student was selected to perform in the All National High School Honors Choir, at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

District Achievements
The 2011-2012 school year continued with the theme of learner-centered instruction achieved in a collaborative, respectful atmosphere where students are encouraged to develop “ deep understanding of concepts, critical and creative thinking and problem solving skills  through meaningful applications of content. “ Dr. Stephen Falcone refined these goals and objectives and they continued to be integrated into our schools efficiently.  Professional Learning Communities are an integral part of our teachers’ professional development.  Our students are beginning to experience the results of the teachers work.

Other areas of accomplishment for the District include:

The High School completed a very successful NEASC Accreditation visit and feedback has been positive.  We are awaiting their final report.
Hindley Elementary School has been recognized as a 2012 National Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education.  Dr. Pandolfo, Mrs. Ferri and a contingent from Hindley PTO were presented with the award in Washington D.C.

Major curriculum revisions were completed and approved by the Board of Education.  A sampling includes Comparative World Religions, Developmental Guidance, Spanish 4 and French 5, Multivariable Calculus and Web Design 2.  Curriculum Updates were approved in Western Civilization, Applied Math, English 10, Biology and Physics.

Last Spring we bid farewell to Mr. John Rechi, Principal of Ox Ridge School, Mrs. Robin Pavia, Director of Special Education and Mr. Dan Haron, Principal of Darien High School.  We welcome Mr. Luke Foreshaw as Principal at Ox Ridge, Dr. Deirdre Osypuck, Special Education Director and Interim Principal of Darien High School, Mrs. Arlene Gottesman.

Our Facilities remain in very good shape thanks to the hard work of our facilities director Mr. Michael Lynch and his maintenance/custodial crew.  We continue to be proactive but prudent in planning our capital projects, making preventive maintenance a high priority within the school system.  Completion of the Middlesex roof was delayed by state reimbursement paperwork; construction will start in June 2013.  Bids have come in favorably and we are confident this project will come in on budget.  We are also working with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to finalize the work that needs to be completed this summer on the School Oil Tanks.  This project has been included in our 2013-2014 capital plan but we may seek RTM approval early to ensure state reimbursement is available.

We are currently in the first year of our new 3 year Teacher Contract. Our contract, which was settled in the Fall of 2011, includes a total salary increase of 6.63% over the term of the contract.  By comparison, Stamford, and New Canaan settled last month for 9% and 8.5%, respectively.
2011-2012 was a fiscally challenging year for the Darien Board of Education.  The slow economy and reduced funding from the State of Connecticut for Special Education Excess Cost required us to tighten our belts early in the school year.  However, the Board of Education is happy to report that we were able to overcome these financial obstacles without requiring additional funding from the Town for the first time in three years.  The Board of Education appreciates the efforts of our elected officials and all the citizens to adequately support our schools, and provide safe, clean, and modern facilities for our students and staff.

Mrs. Mao will give you an overall picture of the town’s financial position.    Financially, for the first time in many years, I can stand in front of you and say the Darien Board of Education is comfortable with its current budget.  We will continue to carefully monitor our Special Education expenses and are still awaiting information regarding excess cost funding from the state, but at this moment, we are in sound financial shape.

One of the 2012-2013 district objectives states that we will “continue to monitor enrollment and space utilization at all schools including special education.”

As the Board began to strategize our annual five-year forecast for the Board of Finance, it became apparent our enrollment numbers would become the key driver and have a direct impact on our school facilities.   Two real estate development projects: The Heights (formerly Allen O’Neil) and Kensett (formerly Procaccini) coupled with overall growth in school age population can be expected to put continued pressure on our schools facilities.

We have projected 38 additional students from the recently expanded Heights project, beginning next school year: 7 at the High school, 7 at the Middle school and 24 at Royle Elementary.

We were informed this spring that Kensett had been re-zoned as age targeted not age restricted.  The project consists of 62 luxury 3- and 4-bedroom townhomes.  The developer expects 8 homes sold and occupied by the starting of the 2013-2014 school year with construction continuing through 2017.  A conservative estimate could be about 80 new students, 20 each at Darien High School and Middlesex and 40 students at Ox Ridge Elementary.  If Kensett draws more empty nesters, than families, the impact would be distributed across the five elementary schools rather than just Ox Ridge

Using conservative enrollment estimates for Heights and Kensett, and existing student enrollment, we are projecting that our elementary sections would increase from the current level of 116 to 120 by October 2013, 123 by October 2014 and 124 in 2015 and 2016.

This increasing enrollment will stress our school district and town facilities. We expect to be able to house our elementary programs, including our ELP preschool program, in 2013-2014 within our current facilities.  However, each school will be very tight.  In the school year beginning September 2014, we do not expect to be able to accommodate the six classrooms of ELP within the current elementary facilities.  We have tasked our Administration to look at possible solutions that are available to us.  The Board of Education has established a Facilities and Capital Committee and its first charge will be to review district facility needs.  We look forward to working with the Selectman, Board of Finance and RTM as we plan our Educational facilities for the Town of Darien.

Finally, there are a number of people I would like to thank on behalf of the Board of Education.

Our thanks to the many volunteers, parents and donors who contribute so  much to our efforts, and especially to the members of the Board of Finance, the RTM and the Town as a whole for your generous support.

I would to thank Mr. George Reilly and Mrs. Amy Bell for their dedication and commitment to the boards and for their volunteer service in the community of Darien.  We wish them both the best in their future endeavors.

The Board also extends our deep appreciation to our Superintendent, Dr. Stephen Falcone and all of the employees of the Darien School System, for their outstanding work again this year.  Their professionalism and dedication are the   foundation of our success as a School District.

Personally, I would like to thank my fellow Board members.  Vice Chair, Clara Sartori, Secretary, Heather Shea, Michael Harman, Susie Perticone, Jim Plutte,  Sarah Schneider-Zuro, Katie Stein and Morgan Whittier.  It is a privilege and a pleasure to work with this group of volunteers, and it is an honor to be your Chairman.  I am very proud to be a member of this dedicated Board.

Overall, 2012 was another excellent year for the Darien School System, and we look forward with positive anticipation to 2013.

On behalf of the Darien Board of Education, I wish you and your families a joyous holiday season, and a healthy and prosperous New Year.

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