Perhaps the greatest strength of the town of Darien is the school system. Boasting high achievement at every level, Darien schools are counted among the best in the nation, let alone the state. A number of families in town point to the schools as the primary reason for choosing live in Darien. One such family made that decision, but recently feels as though the school system has let them down. They spoke to the Darien Times on the condition of anonymity about how they have lost trust in the Darien schools.

It began over a year ago. The time was coming to send a child into the Darien schools for kindergarten. However, this family was facing a difficult decision. Their child was young for the grade, and was behind classmates in social and emotional development, despite being above average academically. The family made the choice to keep their child out of the school system for a year, and go through another year of preschool. Daycare professionals and the family pediatrician agreed that this was the correct course of action, having observed the development and behaviors up close.

In April, a comprehensive assessment was done. Following that assessment, the family specifically mentioned their concerns and intent to hold their child out of the school system for a year to a Darien administrator. The administrator informed the parents that in fact the better choice was the send their child to kindergarten in the school system, the parents said. It would provide a more challenging environment and the child would be able to receive services from the district as well.

The parents asked specifically about holding their child back for a year and going through kindergarten twice, and the parents were specifically told by the administrator it would be the parents’ decision.

“That changed our mind,” the parent said regarding their decision. Rather than an extra preschool year, they would send their child to kindergarten and retain there if needed.

The district administrators do not deny that this conversation took place.

“[The administrator] was the one I truly feel made the right recommendation that was in the best interest of my child. If held in preschool, because the staff wasn’t as knowledgeable, my child wouldn't be where [my child] is. [The administrator] made the right recommendation,” said the parent, also happy that the choice to keep the child back in kindergarten would be a family decision.

In September, the student went to kindergarten. A PPT meeting was held, the family met the teacher who had noticed issues already brought up by day care and the family pediatrician. While progress was made, the social and emotional development still was behind, and the family decided staying in kindergarten another year was for the best, and planned to make that choice as they had been told was their right. Again at that September meeting, they were told that as parents they would have the choice to keep their child back in kindergarten.

And then in May, everything changed.

At a meeting, administrators explained that in fact, the policy was that it would be a district choice, not a parent choice, and that the student in question would be promoted along to first grade.

“They started explaining, extremely apologetic, that they were not denying what they told us, but they misinterpreted policy. From then on, it’s no longer parent decision, and my child would not be retained,” the parent said.

These parents now felt misled by the district. It was already May, extremely late in the year to be blindsided by this news. The parent explained that the district had, in other cases, used Light’s Retention Scale as a tool for determining retention or promotion. Light’s Retention Scale is a tool that evaluates a student in nineteen areas, and is used by over 90% of the schools in the country. The child in question scored as a “fair candidate” for retention, and yet was still to be promoted.

Another meeting was held in June, and this time an advocate came as well. The teacher, who sees the student every day, said that while the student was sharp academically, the social and emotional concerns were legitimate and gave many examples of those concerns, even though the child was above average with academics.

“The teacher didn't feel comfortable making the judgment about retaining my child,” said the parent. The teacher did however, seek feedback from other teachers the student had, including physical education, art, and aides.

“The teacher came with facts. They are not denying [my child] is immature, so why can’t they honor this?” asked the parent.

However, according to this parent, both Holmes School Principal Paula Bleakley and Dr. Susie Da Silva, the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, were “very pushy” about promoting the student, saying the belief was that students should be promoted and get support where they are. Following the meeting, the parent explained they did not believe they received strong, fact-based reasoning for why their child was being promoted.

“We trusted the school that the policy was what we were told,” said the parent, “I really tried many times to work within the school. I’m angry, upset, but other parents should know.”

The parent also claims to now know at least four other families in Darien to have gone through the same issue.

After learning that the promotion would happen, the family was told that their child would be welcomed back if they decided to repeat kindergarten at a private school.

“The only private school in Darien is $37,000 per year,” said the parent, citing the obvious financial difficulty. Other schools in nearby towns have waitlists, and have had registration open since March, when this parent only found out they might need one in May.

The family spoke with Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner as well, hoping that they might have the original word of the district honored. Once told it was a transparency issue, this parent says Brenner made it clear that he was open to having a meeting with all parties involved. Once the parent said they would bring an advocate, however, they claim Brenner cautioned her.

The parent claims Brenner did not want those present to be put in the position of being on the defensive about this decision, and if that happened, the meeting would be ended. The parent claims to have been told the purpose of the meeting was for all involved to explain why the student was to be promoted.

Brenner addressed the nature of the policy and the way in which it is applied. The policy itself is available on the Darien Public Schools website, and specifically reads, “Student promotion shall be determined by academic performance and social and emotional maturity. The Administration and faculty shall apply these criteria when determining whether to promote or retain a student. Retention is an extraordinary measure that should be the result of the combined professional judgment of the School principal, teachers, guidance counselor and/or other support personnel, in consultation with the parents.”

“Extraordinary measure,” may seem challenging to define with exactness. Brenner said the district typically looks for significant outside trauma that is unpredictable, or when a student arrives with such a high level of need that the district already knows that the student will be with the district until age 21.

Brenner said that this policy predates his time in Darien, and in the past it seems it was “loosely held to”. Ultimately, the policy is defined by the Board of Education and applied by the superintendent, which Brenner believes is what is happening. Brenner also said that when questioned by parents, administrators and staff often take second and third looks at cases.

Brenner also spoke to the nature of student development, particular at a kindergarten age, saying that it is not linear. “It comes in different ways. We know early reading is not necessarily an indication of being a stronger reader later on. Similarly, with social and emotional growth, students who appear immature doesn’t necessarily mean the die is cast and this is the way it will always be,” Brenner said. Brenner also said there is a great deal of research suggesting that placing students in a position to be challenged can raise them up. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” said Brenner.

When asked about this specific case, Brenner was unable to comment as it would be a violation of privacy laws. Brenner spoke only about the policy that the district has and the way it would be applied to all students in Darien.

Still, the family in this case feels hurt.

“We are very disappointed. It’s about transparency,” the parent said.

“I lost trust. I feel like I'm getting inconsistent information. How can I trust them for the future of my child?” the parent asked.

“We believed so much in the district.  We moved to this town for the schools. It’s just a shame of a situation,” the parent added.

The hope for the family would be that the district simply honors their word and allows the student to be retained. The district can start fresh next year with a policy that decisions regarding retention are made by the school system with parent consultation. The parent has spoken to the families in the district that have made the challenging choice to retain their child, and the parent says not one of them regrets it. When asked about repeating first grade, the parent said they had already been informed that would not happen either. The parent claims to know of other parents in previous years who were allowed to make the decision for themselves, and that the district had not denied that this was the practice. The parent also claims to know of other students who were retained, and that those students are very similar in development to the student in question.

“I’m surprised they are not honoring what they told us. I don't think it’s right. I feel like they want to enforce this policy moving forward, and they are using my child as an example,” the parent said.

District administrators are faced with challenging decisions every day. Darien is also a town laser focused on results and success. Data points, rankings, results, grades, all things that drive this town, and to be fair, things that drive the town to be so successful. However it is important not to lose some of the human element in the data. Sometimes the decisions made are over thought in the interest of favorable statistics, studies, and goals. It is sad that a policy was simply loosely applied for years, and places the current administration in the unfortunate position of having to suddenly adhere to the policy as it was written, taking a family by harsh surprise as a result. This family believes their child’s future is being negatively affected by the decision. One would hope it is possible for the district to simply honor what this family was told about their child, and move forward with strict adherence to the policy. At the same time, it is rarely ever that simple. The board retreat that took place on July 10 is immediately relevant, as discussions about policies and the best way to have an exchange of information with the public were extensive.