With additional reporting by Julia Nichols
Judging by the enthusiasm and excitement Wilton Public Schools educators showed at the Wednesday, Aug. 17 regular meeting of the Board of Education, the 2022-23 school year starting in less than two weeks will defy expectations.
“We’re going to have an absolutely amazing school year this year, so, you can mark my words, that’s going to happen,” Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith promised.
Each of the four Wilton schools’ principals echoed their boss’ sentiments, describing how excited teachers are to return to work with their students — and how high their hopes are for what they’re going to accomplish right out of the gate in the new school year.
Miller-Driscoll Elementary School Principal Kathy Coon was the first to report her anticipation to the BOE members, from praising the custodial staff for making M-D look great to planning new programs designed to hone in on making up for pandemic-related disruptions to academic learning and social-emotional (SEL) development, especially critical for the Pre-K to Grade 2 students.
“We hosted probably over half of our incoming kindergarten students in summer fun programs… so over half of them have already kind of been to kindergarten,” she explained, setting up those students for success.
She listed some of the new programs that will be put in place this year. “We launch the ‘Continuous Improvement Cycle’ and … we have our areas of focus for each grade level for this year. … Kindergarten is going to launch a new SEL program called ‘Everyday Speech’ and officially launch ‘Play Workshop,’ … Our first grade will work on the new [Teacher’s College] reading units, and second grade will be piloting the new illustrative math. … So all kinds of things are happening, even coming out of COVID, and we’re very excited ”
Cider Mill School Principal Jennifer Falcone described similar improvements that will be implemented. “We’re super excited to continue our focus on well-being… and really refocusing on responsive classroom and all of the things that, coming out of COVID, we just need to kind of regroup,” she said, adding, “I could say there’s a very positive vibe just going into this school year.”
After similar summaries from Middlebrook Principal Jory Higgins and Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell, Smith summed up what all of the building principals and their teams will be focused on — students quickly making up lost ground.
“That’s a bit of a paradigm shift for the way that we’re approaching this work. … We’re trying to accomplish change in shorter cycles, and test ideas much more rapidly than I think we’re used to and schools, in general, are accustomed to. So we’re hoping to see some different results sooner,” Smith said.
One of the key areas Smith and his administrative team are watching closely is enrollment and how the higher-than-expected numbers of students enrolled for 2022-23 could impact the drive for results.
Smith reported that there are 3,713 students total enrolled in K-12 — 82 more than had been projected. It’s a surprising number, coming in on the higher side of what the consultants at Milone and MacBroom forecasted. Including Pre-K, outpaced and Community Steps students, the total district count is 3,818 students. He added that some grade level numbers would likely change as administrators learn of students who withdrew from the district after transferring to private schools or moving out of Wilton.
The average class size in grades kindergarten through fifth grade will be between 19 and 21 students, with most kindergarten and first grades averaging 19 or 20 students. Smith said that number comes in at the “little bit higher end of our comfort level,” and higher than it’s been in the last couple of years.
Citing a budget that is “as tight as it’s ever been,” Smith said opening another kindergarten class would “drop the average to 18” pupils but there aren’t funds in the budget to pay for adding another teacher. He said that M-D principal Coon would keep an eye on how the higher class sizes are doing, but that he’s not overly concerned — although he acknowledged that “there was a little bit of anxiety over 20 in kindergarten” for Coon because the number of kindergarten students typically increases as the school year progresses as well.
“We’re going to work with [and] manage the class sizes. We’ve had class sizes of that number in the past. … I think that the teachers are going to have the work cut out for them when the kids are coming into the school to start as they get the routines established. But beyond any comment I’ve just made, I’m not worried about it,” Smith said.
Another enrollment area that’s raised some questions for Smith is the increase in student numbers in all four grades at Wilton High School. Those numbers typically don’t trend higher than predicted.
“We’re showing, plus-17 right now in grade nine; plus-19 in grade 10; plus-15 in grade 11; and plus-four in grade 12. We typically see a dip in the incoming freshman because that’s the year leaving eighth grade when a number of families choose to go on to private school. That we’re so far above projection is a question mark for me, so we’re going to be paying attention to the high school numbers pretty carefully in the next few weeks,” Smith said.
He also noted there were more students enrolled in the preschool program, necessitating the addition of a sixth preschool class over the summer.
The enrollment increases contributed to a bit of re-allocation of staff, including adding a pre-K teacher, newly-opened math coach positions, and creating a 0.8 school psychologist position, among others.
“That was the area of greatest need. So we were able to add some school psych support…we’ve expanded some mental health there,” Smith explained.
Covid Protocols, Building Updates
Smith and other department heads provided some other updates.
- Smith said COVID protocols from last year are the same, but the State Department of Education (SDE) has implemented a new, “Test-Mask-Go,” policy: if a student has mild symptoms but tests negative and has no fever, and no one else in the household tests positive, that student is allowed to be in school.
- All meet-the-teacher days, orientations and parent open houses will be in person this year, with the exception of the virtual parent open house at WHS, which O’Donnell said was not due to COVID but for “parent convenience” instead.
- Smith is waiting for clarification from the SDE about a legislative change that has outlawed “dual teaching,” an approach the district relied on as part of the quarantine learning plan through the pandemic. It allowed COVID-positive grade 3-12 students to live-stream classes while quarantining at home. Smith said additional guidance from the SDE will be communicated “early next week.” “This could potentially be a problem for us if we’re not able to stream for kids at home. It’s really an incredible disappointment, to say the least,” he said, adding that it’s outside the district’s control.
- With the exception of the air conditioning unit at Cider Mill that was damaged by a lightning strike last year, the new high school elevator still not ready (both delayed by components that should arrive in September), and flooring that still needs to be installed in the WHS weight room, all buildings are in good shape and ready for school to start ahead of schedule.
Computer News, New Website
- New Chromebooks have arrived, and 64% of classrooms are ready now, and district Information Technology Director Erik Haakonsen said that will be at 100% by the time school starts.
- Class assignments were accessible in PowerSchool and Schoology, and Haakonsen said all portals are open.
- Digital Learning Director Fran Kompar said the newly-designed district website was launched on July 1, and families can download a new Wilton Public Schools mobile app.
- Kompar said she did outreach to parents new to the district and others without Schoology accounts to provide access codes to the portals. She will lead a workshop on Thursday, Aug. 25 on using Schoology (more information will be forthcoming).
Special Education/Student Services, Athletics, Finance and Summer Programs, and Hiring
- Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Andrea Leonardi said her team had a very busy summer, but that they’re ready. “We had a number of students move in to the district over the summer. So our staffs are busy onboarding kids and families, welcoming them, having PPTs, planning IEPs, and putting things together. So students will have programs and services in place on day one.”
- A number of students with a “wide array of needs, some more significant” have come into the district since last year. Since the budget was finalized there’s been an increased need to accommodate “students with some significant mental health and psychiatric issues,” so Leonardi said she’s monitoring that tuition line very, very carefully. “It is tight.” For the first time in several years, the district has had to provide services through outplacement for students at the elementary level. She hopes that adding additional support services at the elementary level will help relieve that budget concern.”We’re, we’re monitoring very carefully, some of those budget lines, as Kevin said, the budget is tight.”
- Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Chuck Smith said there was not enough interest at the high school to run a summer intervention program, but it was a success for grades K-8 with a four-week-long program that ran 45-minute sessions in English or math four days a week; 119 students were enrolled in the summer reading program, and 112 in the summer math. “We will, of course, be examining the MAP [testing] data when we administer that at the end of September to see how those students did. If you recall from last year, we saw much less regression in skills for the students who attended summer school. So we’re hoping to see that again,” he said.
- Chuck Smith detailed the extensive curriculum development and review work done over the summer in all areas: “Applied arts, digital learning, STEM, diversity-equity-inclusion, [English Language Arts], gifted [learning], Library Learning Commons, math, fine and performing arts, PE/health, science, social/emotional learning, and mental health, social studies, special ed intervention and world languages. In addition, “a team of teachers and support staff developed resources and a refined framework for addressing the social/emotional learning and executive functioning needs of our students, which seemed to have become more intensive as a result of the pandemic,” he added.
- District CFO Dawn Norton said the Finance Department spent most of the summer reconcile numbers to prepare to close fiscal year 2021-22, “Adding all those numbers up, we expect our final expenditures to be slightly over the $86 million mark,” which left just $3,000 unspent from last year’s budget (although figures won’t be final until September). “When we talk about using every dollar, we literally use every dollar,” Superintendent Kevin Smith said.
- New Athletic Director Bobby Rushton spoke about his new position and his excitement to join the district, which was official on July 1. There are 456 students enrolled in Fall sports, he said, 118 of those in the freshman class. New coaches were hired, with an effort to increase female coaching staff by 50%, and engage more teachers to become coaches.
- Human Resources Director Maria Coleman called the summer “a busy and fruitful hiring season,” which capped off with 43 new hires. Remarkably, with the exception of 1.4 FTE positions not yet filled, the district is fully staffed for contracted positions. “We have people who range from very, very experienced [with] more than 20 years of experience in the field, and people who are brand new in their first year teaching and each person brings something really unique and special,” she said. Kevin Smith lauded the work Coleman and her team did. “You’ve been probably seeing the headlines about a national teacher shortage and we know other districts around us who are experiencing that. We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve had good candidate pools for just about every position we posted for and we started [hiring] early.”