Back to school: A Q and A with Schools Superintendent Dan Brenner

With the first day of school arriving, The Darien Times sat down with Dr. Dan Brenner to talk about reflections on the last year and his feelings about the upcoming year.

DARIEN TIMES: To start, let’s look back at the last year. What are some things that you think the administration and the district can improve upon after last year?

SUPERINTENDENT DR. DAN BRENNER: First of all I think there’s a lot to be proud of that took place last year. We made a lot of really positive changes. I think we’ve supported our teachers and our students at a very high level. If I was going to look at places we could improve, we always look to improve how well we communicate. I think we are going to spend a lot of time looking for ways to communicate better with all our constituent groups.

DT: And for the coming school year, what would you say are some of the primary goals for the administration?

DB: Well, we continue to spend time looking to infuse our schools with 21st century technology. You’ll be able to see that in further development of the Chromebook initiative in kindergarten through 8th grade, and the beginning of the rollout and utilization of the iPads as an an efficiency tool, but more important as a creativity tool for our students. By extension, we will be providing staff with professional development and a strong support network. And I think we will spend a lot of time on the goal around social and emotional learning and helping to create healthy, solid citizens that graduate from Darien schools. So I think that’s a big goal for us. We’re emphasizing it. It’s not that it hasn’t been going on, but we want to take a step towards creating an even healthier environment, acknowledging that our students and children are growing up in stressful world, and we want to give them coping techniques to manage that stress.

DT: One of the first things you mentioned there was the ongoing technology roll out. That’s just one of a number of things that will be new this year. There’s Fitch Academy, the new stadium, the new department chairpeople to name a few. What would you say is the most exciting of these new initiatives for students and for parents as well?

DB: Well initially, I think there will be tremendous excitement around turning the lights on that first time. That represents a great moment both for school spirit and community spirit. That’s visible and tangible, and having seen them go on in a test run, people will be wildly impressed. So that’s one piece.

Fitch Academy has garnered a lot of attention, but what I think will be seen is that it will be very, very impactful for a very small number of students. So I’m very excited to see how this evolves, because it has the makings of being a wonderful program. It’s going to support this small group of youngsters who really need the additional support. It’s going to be less visible - it’s caught a lot of attention - but from the pure perspective of how many people are impacted, it’s a far smaller number.

The department chairpeople, I’m really excited to see the impact these folks will have. I think it’s going to be definable, people are going to be able to tangibly feel that impact as well. People are going to be really pleased. This is really going to help us take a step forward in our secondary schools as it applies to curriculum and instruction.

DT: Another new approach this year is the commitment review, the substance abuse policy changes. Have you had much feedback from students at this point?

DB: Well we had 800 people at the first one. There’s almost 400 signed up for the second one. By the time we run through these first four, we probably we have gone through 1200 of our 1400 kids. And that’s with a parent in place. The feedback on the first night was outstanding. I was there and the program ran without a hitch. It was an hour and forty minutes, no one left their seat. It was really good education. So I think from the commitment perspective, it will be a wait and see as to what kind of measurable effect we have from putting this in place. But, I can say with confidence that we created an opportunity for parents and kids to share on their way home around some powerful education that they witnessed.

DT: It’s great to hear that the response was so strong. There was talk that it might be hard to get a parent there, or finding a day that worked would be hard, but so many people have already come.

DB: Yup, they all came. In truth, when you ask parents to come, along with their student, you are compelled to provide something that is both meaningful and engaging. And I think we accomplished that.

DT: You spoke earlier about wanting to improve communication. Obviously there has been a lot of talk about how the Board of Ed and the administration can be more transparent moving forward. How do you see the administration and yourself fitting into that idea of improving transparency throughout this coming year?

DB: Again, I think the issue for us is the better we communicate, the better we all are. What I can say with confidence is, we have nothing to hide. We are proud of what we do and how we do it. The issue is how can we communicate in an effective way with all our constituents. We are doing some great stuff, and we should be championing that to our constituents. So that’s one of our internal goals, and I’m pretty confident that we are figuring out ways to make that happen.

DT: Well that ties in a bit to the recent discussions about the Freedom of Information Act request log being made public. Do you see that as being part of this transparency conversation? Do you think it could possibly deter someone from seeking information?

DB: I don’t think we ever want to participate in a practice that deters people from getting information. That would not be the intent here. The Board is carefully considering their options about how to do this. They have to carefully navigate that balance of allowing the community to know what’s going on inside the district on all fronts, but not doing it at the expense of parents feeling intimidated to ask.

DT: Closing question, if you had to put a theme on the coming school year for students, parents, and staff, what would it be?

DB: Well I would say the overarching goal is to build a community of trust and kindness that allows students and administrators to operate in an environment that makes them feel like they can take risks, make a mistake, and grow.