BOE: Is Cider Mill Eliminating Social Studies? Possible Changes to ’18-’19 Calendar, & Communication Award

The Wilton Board of Education (BOE) held a regularly scheduled meeting last night, Thursday, March 29. We’ve got a roundup of some events from the meeting.

Is Cider Mill Eliminating Social Studies?

At last night’s BOE meeting, school officials addressed a concern some parents have expressed about recent changes to the Social Studies curriculum at Cider Mill School.

In mid-March, Cider Mill families received the monthly newsletter from the school’s principal, Dr. Jennifer Mitchell, and in addition to typical items of interest, the newsletter contained a blurb about some changes to the school’s Social Studies curriculum. Mitchell wrote that in the school’s third trimester, students would be receiving modified instruction during what would have been time for Social Studies. Instead they would “read content area materials and practice their note-taking skills” and teachers would use the time “to help our students feel prepared and confident to take the Smarter Balanced Assessment.”

“Trimester 3 Social Studies Update: The second trimester will end on Wednesday, March 21 and progress reports will be sent home via email on Friday, April 6. During the third trimester, we will not be assessing social studies on the progress reports. This is due to the fact that our third unit of study has not been fully developed. Students will be using the time to read content area materials and continue to practice their notetaking skills. In addition, we will be utilizing this time to help our students feel prepared and confident to take the Smarter Balanced Assessment [SBAC]. If you have any questions, please contact our K-8 Humanities Curriculum Coordinator Gina Dignon at dignong@wiltonps.org or Cider Mill School Principal Jen Mitchell at mitchellj@wiltonps.org.”

After finding out that a third Social Studies unit wasn’t classroom-ready and instruction would shift as a result, parents discussed their confusion and dissatisfaction about the news with one another. Some parents contacted Mitchell with questions and concerns.

At last night’s meeting Chuck Smith, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, addressed the BOE about the issue. Smith began his remarks by expressing his own frustration about the speed with which the conversation among parents went viral.

“I’ve been made aware that there’s a lot of buzz going around about this issue. I realize this is a function of my age, but I am constantly amazed at the speed of electronic communication. But I’m equally mortified about how it seems to corrupt the process of meaningful dialogue around important issues. So we’re glad to have the opportunity to meet face to face with you so we can explain our thinking behind this decision,” he said.

He wanted to stress three points.

“First, we made this decision in the best interest of our students and our teachers. Second, the decision will result in students engaging in meaningful authentic work. Third, they are not going to be missing critical content.”

He expressed “dismay that that message got muddled,” and is hopeful that the “communication breakdown” can get repaired.

Then Principal Mitchell and the K-8 humanities curriculum coordinator, Gina Dignon, addressed to the Board.

Mitchell explained that her attempt to be “to the point” and concise may have contributed to the breakdown in communication. “That was not our intent,” she said, adding later, “I feel badly because it was an attempt at ‘less is more.'”

She addressed what seemed to be on the minds of some of the parents, who feared that Mitchell had written that students would be doing ‘test prep,’ or what some people call ‘teaching to the test.’

“I am very passionate about this. I do not believe in test prep. I would not be working in a district that actually enforces test prep. It’s something that I have a philosophical belief in. We termed the unit ‘Test Readiness,’ and it’s a little bit of a misnomer.”

“What is measured on our high-stakes test, the SBAC, is informational literacy–it’s our students’ ability to think critically on very short pieces of text, to be able to do research, to do synthesis across texts. There’s a real purpose and a time and a place for that kind of thinking. Along the way throughout units of study, we are beginning to embed this type of thinking into our curriculum. But there is a need, based on reflecting with our current test scores, to be a little more intentional with providing opportunities to get this type of thinking and work and tasks in front of our students. That’s what this unit is–it is an opportunity for our students to practice the authentic experiences they will be engaged in, in what is measured by this assessment.”

According to Mitchell, the texts students would be provided for this type of work would align with the content of what would have been in the third Social Studies unit. She repeated more than once, “Students will not miss critical content.”

The texts, she said, will be tackling “higher level” and students would be doing “close reading” of them. According to best practice, students need to read at their own independent level, but there is “also a time and a place for having to read text that is slightly at a higher level, and that’s what we’re doing. Students will be challenged to read at a higher level because there are certain skills to get through that kind of text.”

Dignon added that because the SBAC test is administered on computer, students who previously only had worked on reading stamina with books, now needed to work on building stamina by reading on a computer screen. Students will also be working on building other literacy skills through the unit, including discussion of character, theme, key detail, main idea, written response, using evidence, using multiple source texts, critical thinking, academic vocabulary, note-taking, and more.

“We’re really providing students the opportunity to hone in on information literacy skills as well as study skills that are important across all content areas, all academic areas, and really are life-long skills,” Mitchell added.

She also said that she would be sharing a link to an example of how the test is administered to show the community how complicated it is to take the test on a computer.

The other issue is that there is no complete unit of study to teach–because of the switch in standards and adoption of a new overall curriculum, it’s still being written. Having seen past examples that partial adoption of curriculum can result in knowledge gaps down the road, Mitchell said there was a conscious decision to not move forward on “teaching the old unit” while waiting for the new one to be completed. And as Social Studies was the last core area to undergo curriculum review since Smith’s arrival, it is still a work in progress.

Curriculum development was started last year, Dignon explained, and teacher involvement in building that curriculum is crucial. But without available teachers over the summer, and hesitating to pull teachers from classroom instruction time during the school year, they couldn’t proceed as fast as they needed to. And they certainly didn’t want to introduce a unit that wasn’t ready.

“We needed to put a ‘pause’ on the pace. I needed teachers in the classroom with the students. I made a decision that I thought was in the best interest of the kids,” Mitchell added.

Mitchell said that she and Dignon would be available at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, April 4 at the school for parents who have additional questions about the change.

During public comment, Dr. John Priest–who is both a social studies teacher in the district (at Middlebrook) as well as a parent of two children enrolled at Cider Mill–addressed the BOE about the issue.

“What I offer is a perspective as a lifetime educator who is living in this town, an educator who’s extremely familiar with the workings of this town for the last 15 years.”

He called the situation of having his daughters work on “test readiness” for the SBAC instead of social studies a “monster that we have to live with” but one which he said, “we have to take partial responsibility for creating.”

Priest then said, “I’m not angry because I’m a social studies teacher. I’m furious and sad because the narrative being developed seems to be that the SBAC is a good test and the more our instruction looks like the test, the better. Nothing is further from the truth.”

He called the instruction that happens in the classroom “magic.”

“It involves students actively engaging in multi-modal receptive learning, and differentiated expressive learning. It’s inspirational and it looks nothing like a test question on a Chromebook with four choices.”

Using his daughters as examples, he said that they loved reading books, but they had learned to hate reading the kind of texts used during test readiness. That they love experiential learning, citing the Oregon trail unit–a well-known 5th grade social studies unit that was discontinued this year.

“We’re losing our way. Over the last 25 years I’ve been able to, as an educator, live in this uncomfortable spot, where I took the standardized tests and we dealt with it, and felt a little dirty about it. But we always prepared for it, and our kids crushed it. But we need to flip the narrative and our focus,” Priest said.

He then quoted a colleague, saying, “The teachers in this building and district would tear down this school and build it brick by brick if they felt they would have a say in teaching the right way, and we don’t feel like that’s happening. So please consider, as we move forward, the work we’re doing and what good teaching is.”

Priest was followed by retired Wilton teacher Susan Graybill, who has continued to substitute teach in the district. Graybill started to cry, saying to the Board members, “I love what [Priest] just said and it is so true that you all need to listen to your teachers. You need to let them be part of building the curriculum. John is absolutely right,” later adding, “I don’t feel that they’ve been asked.”

Possible 2018-2019 Calendar Changes May Mean Earlier End Date

Snow days took a toll on this year’s 2017-2018 school calendar, pushing the last day of school to Wednesday, June 27.

Considering how late into June this year’s school calendar has been forced to extend, Superintendent Kevin Smith told the board that he wanted to re-examine the calendar for the next school year–despite it already being approved by the Board. He said feedback from around the district suggested that would be a popular decision.

In 2018-2019, the last day of school was scheduled to be Monday, June 17.

While some parents had asked Smith to have the year start before Labor Day, he explained that certain professional development programs had been scheduled for the week before the first day of school, and as a result he couldn’t adjust the start of the schedule.

However, he proposed rearranging another solution in order to change the last day of school to Thursday, June 13.

First, he suggested shortening the long weekend break around Columbus Day, eliminating Tuesday, Oct. 9 as a day off for students. The, he said he wanted to shorten February break (Feb. 14-18) by one day as well–sliding a scheduled early dismissal on Wednesday, Feb. 13 to Thursday, Feb. 14, making the President’s Day long weekend now Feb. 15-18.

“It’s not the perfect, it’s not what we would all want, given all the feedback, but the common goal is to buy a couple more days to mitigate a winter like this one.”

Smith said he was required to get the calendar change approved with the Wilton Education Association (WEA)–the Wilton teachers’ union. As of the BOE meeting time he said he had received 140 responses from teachers overwhelmingly agreeing to the change. He has asked that all responses be submitted by the middle of next week.

He added that overwhelming opinion from the district seemed to indicate that a start before Labor Day would be preferable, so school officials will likely make that change when putting together the 2019-2020 calendar. Smith also said that they would take another look at making the February break a longer one, given how many families would like it–and how many families often take a longer break despite it only being a scheduled partial week off.

The Board agreed to take a vote on the proposed calendar changes at its next meeting, after Smith receives more response from district teachers, which he anticipates will be overwhelmingly positive.

BOE Receives Award for Excellence in Communication

The Wilton Board of Education received an award from the CT Association of Boards of Education (CABE) Area 6, the regional coalition of Boards of Education from the surrounding towns. Karen Klein of the Westport Board of Education came to Wilton’s BOE meeting last night to present CABE’s Bonnie Carney Award for Excellence in Educational Communication for the social media content produced by the district.

“To win this award, you need to have clarity of message, image and consistency, and specific guidelines of  readability editing graphics, type and format. I really enjoyed reading what you had–your Notes from the Board Table. Westport is just starting to do some social media so I’m glad I’ll have such a good example to bring back to our board.”

Wilton BOE chair Christine Finkelstein thanked Klein and said the award was unexpected.

The award is named in memory of Carney, a long-time CABE employee who passed away in September 2017.