A focus on communication, frequent analysis of programs and working together are some of the things Shannon Silsby thinks the Darien Board of Education can use to make sure a great educational program gets even better.
“We should all share one goal: what is best for the kids of this town,” said Silsby, making her first run for the town’s school board.
Silsby, a Democrat, is one of four candidates running for three seats. The other candidates include fellow Democrat Callie Sullivan and Republicans David Martens and Christa McNamara.
Silsby, a mother of four children attending Darien schools, said she’s running because she’s interested in giving back and wants to share her knowledge and experience with the Board of Education. She serves as a co-chairman of the Royle School Parent-Teacher Organization, is a vice chairman of the Council of Darien School Parents and volunteers with several community organizations as she believes in giving back to ”leave the world a little bit of a better place than we found it.”
“I have leadership to share with the board. I have professional skills and I work, too,” said Silsby, who works as a brand manager with Sun Products Corporation and serves as deputy treasurer of the Darien Democratic Town Committee. “I innovate, cultivate what’s already in place in our schools in the community and leave things a little bit better. Not by myself, but with others. I want to run for the board because I feel I have something to share.”
Silsby adds that she wants to take what’s already great about Darien schools and make it better. “We can’t rest on the fact that these are such strong schools. If anything, our recent understanding of the special education situation in town is an opportunity for us to say ‘Oh goodness, there’s a weakness that we can strengthen and strengthen the whole.’”
Silsby said the recent special education crisis shows that there were some “cracks” in how things were being run.
“Any child wronged is the entire town wronged,” she said. “We’re here because we have let budgets drive our thinking. We have let budgets drive where we place our bets and how we deliver our product and our product being this fantastic, tried and true, heads and shoulders benchmark product called Darien education.”
Still, she says the board has led the district through uncharted territory and “learned along the way” and should work to not repeat what’s happened. She said the situation has helped educate parents to become better advocates for their children, whether they are traditional or non-traditional learners.
Silsby, who has two dyslexic sons in the special education program, said the board should be commended for hiring attorney Sue Gamm of Chicago to investigate the district’s practices as well as for saying they will do something about righting what happened.
“We are now moving in a positive direction,” Silsby said, noting that her sons had a good experience with a teacher who recently retired after 41 years.
As for regaining the trust of parents who have concerns, Silsby says she sees a gap and an opportunity. Being a parent of four, Silsby says she is part of the parent community and wants to look at things “creatively, innovatively and qualitatively.”
Silsby said the district needs leaders in the administration, those who will “push the envelope” to deliver the most innovative ways to teach students, including in terms of developing other administrators and hiring the best staff.
“They did the best they could and it’s for us to say, ‘Is that what we want, did that meet our requirements’,” she said, noting that personnel issues are tough and she would need more information on what the goals were before determining if changes should be made in the schools administrative offices.
The new six-day rotation at the district’s five elementary schools has helped to add flexibility to the school day, Silsby said. It also gets children and parents ready for the rigors of middle school and high school days. Even if some parents are uncomfortable, she thinks it will be beneficial.
“At the end of the day, I think we’re going to look back and say ‘thank goodness we did this,’” she said, adding that it will build great responsibility in children. “It has given us something we couldn’t achieve in any other way.”
The best way to improve the schedule is to communicate with parents to make sure they know what day on the schedule is, she said.
Silsby said the new elementary school language program is “a great start” because today’s children are growing up in a global economy and working in an even more global world with the goal of developing “global learners.”
“It is evolving. We’re taking the right steps,” she said, agreeing with most people that starting with Spanish in the lowest grades is the best way to go.
She’s hoping to push for more language and different languages at Middlesex Middle School, including Mandarin, something already being taught at middle schools in New Canaan and Westport. Mandarin is currently being taught at the high school but not at lower grades.
“More than one language builds a better bandwidth and ability to learn as a child,” she said. “We want to build students who love (foreign) language, who excel at language.”
Silsby likes the district’s IDEA program for high-achieving students so far and says it is delivering to the needs of its students, but the district should not be afraid to examine how it’s working and see what can be done to make it work better.
The new math resource, called Investigations, is good, but Silsby said she wants to take time and see if there are areas that can be improved. The same goes for other aspects of the school system.
“We should make sure everything is working. That’s the monitoring that we need to be doing to make sure what we’re investing in works,” she said.
She also wants to see some improvements with writing and reading, saying it’s already strong, but can be improved. While Darien has been seen as one of the best school districts in the nation, Silsby says the district cannot afford to rest on its laurels.
“We are good, but good is good until it’s not good,” she said. “We should always look for ways to strengthen ourselves.”
The biggest concern Silsby has going into the next budget season is where the district will spend its dollars. She wants the board and district to look at it with a “dynamic eye” to determine what can and cannot change. Specifically, she wants to make sure the money is being spent wisely to benefit all learners with a keen eye on special education and buildings given the expected rise in enrollment.
“It’s easy when you’re doing it for a household. It’s a small group that you’re deciding for. When you’re deciding for a community, it gets more complex,” she said.
Silsby also thinks the schools should examine possibly sharing services with the town for some services, such as mowing lawns.
Silsby supports placing permanent lights at the Darien High School football field, something that’s been debated by Darien residents because some neighbors of the high school don’t want them. Silsby says the school district and neighbors should work on finding a common ground where fans and neighbors can be happy, including restrictions on how many games can be held under the lights.
“We need to compromise and collaborate to reach a solution,” she said.
Improving the efficiency of heating and cooling school facilities are one area of capital projects Silsby wants to look at. She also thinks the projected enrollment increases will drive the need to make improvements.
The increase in enrollment is a good thing, according to Silsby, because it shows families like the Darien district and want to be here. She considers the idea of having Tokeneke School ready for possible expansion “brilliant” and likes the proposed Royle expansion plan. “There’s great options on the table,” she said, noting that Tokeneke and Royle are still in their development stages.
Silsby expects Middlesex will need to be expanded in the future if the elementary schools are already dealing with growth. So the district should make sure to hold on to the Edgerton property as an option if more space is needed, she said.
“It’s about planning, it’s about foresight and smart thinking,” she said.
Silsby wants to ensure that all of the district schools have a “learner-centered environment” that meets each student where they are. She also says the district needs to have the right people leading the schools and making sure the parents are partners.
“We all have the same goal,” she said. “All of us want to educate our children to the best of our ability. In fact, we want it to be excellent. What a fantastic thing to aspire to.”
Silsby credits the board for giving their time and expertise, but she feels as though the board could use more of a voice, including improving the school district’s website and adding another public comment period during school board meetings.
Mostly, Silsby wants people to recognize that the board is of the community and not some separated entity.
“This is not the Darien Board of Ed. This is our Darien Board of Ed,” she said, emphasizing “our.”