Even though Wilton students are on summer break, school administrators and teachers are hard at work over the summer. We checked in with Wilton Public School superintendent, Dr. Kevin Smith, at the end of July to get an update on what gets worked on, implemented and addressed over the summer months.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  So what do people do here in the summer?

Dr. Kevin Smith:  To be really concrete about it, the first few weeks, we closed out the 2015-16 school year, so all of the end-of-year paperwork evaluations; financial operations; and the work that we’ve been involved in over the course of this month is really focused on hiring. We haven’t had a high number of positions open, but a lot of really key positions—the principal position at the middle school; earlier in the summer we finalized the two assistant principal vacancies at the high school, those were two key positions. We’ve transitioned staff into new roles—Maria Coleman is now functioning fully as our human resources director. Dick Huot is the interim director of financial planning and operations, and is fully involved in that.

GMW:   Where did he come from?

Smith: Dick is a retired financial director from Darien and he has been doing interim stints around the state, so most recently he has been in Hebron. He is a 40-year veteran in the state with a wealth of experience, so I am really satisfied that he was available to come and join us. It gives us an opportunity to take a look at our operations with some fresh eyes. Someone who has a lot of experience in the state and knows all the laws and regulations and has a really strong school business background. So his contributions are already apparent.

And then, the majority of the work has been on professional learning and planning. We have groups of teachers all over the district who have been working on curriculum revision and curriculum implementation. That’s taking place in social studies, our school counselors at the high school have been working on revising the Freshman Advisory Program, which is a new program we are starting in the fall. It’s a way to better aid that transition into high school. A group of us spent a week up at Harvard University at their Universal Design for Learning Institute.

GMW:  I’ve seen #UDL (hashtag) all over Wilton teachers’ Twitter feeds.

Smith:  That’s right. If you go back to our vision and our ‘Theory of Action and Strategic Plan,’ building the capacity of our staff to design and implement using the principles of universal design is a high leverage area for us. Essentially what that means is, UDL is a framework and we’re just in the learning stages right now. Our ultimate goal is to train all of our staff in a different way of curriculum instructional planning that intends to make learning accessible for every child.

Right now, I don’t think we fully plan at the outset, understanding the diversity of learners. Rather we kind of have a plan and then we make modifications to that plan to accommodate and differentiate for kids in the classroom. So it’s a bit of a paradigm shift. It’s not a simple approach, there are a lot of pieces to it. But fundamentally it’s trying to provide multiple means for student engagement. Multiple means to represent information for kids based on needs, and then to provide multiple means for student action and expression. So how they are learning together and the kinds of things that they produce. And really just training teachers to think about what that means at the beginning of unit design or lesson design. Really powerful work…

GMW:  How long does that take to roll out though? When you say ‘a group of us were at Harvard,’ how many were there and then how do you bring that back and implement it concretely with everyone?

Smith: You have to be thoughtful and take the time to 1) learn in depth, and 2) to phase it in carefully and ensure that there is the right level of investment for all the staff. So that dictates that you don’t just rush it in. You won’t see it on Sept. 6 that teachers all across the district are talking about Universal Design. It’s not going to happen that way.

Rather, we’re spending the rest of this summer really working with the administrative team. We have a wealth of resources that we came home with that we’ll be sharing with the rest of the team. And really learning the principles, the science and the brain research that guides the development of that program. We have put together a plan to begin to introduce the concepts to our staff over the course of this year in very small ways. So, as it happens in any district, you have some folks who already are aligned to that kind of thinking, so we’re going to be looking for those areas of opportunity to explore the language and compare notes, to conduct walks through the classroom. It will be a multiyear implementation.

I think our classroom teachers are really feeling that there are a lot of new initiatives in our district. To me this is not an initiative. What we’re talking about is really the deep architecture of learning and thinking. It’s really a framework and a way of thinking. Two years down the road, three years down the road, as we develop the capacity, it will become an expectation, with the final outcome being that this is the way Wilton designs and develops instruction.

GMW: What are some of the other things you’re working on the rest of the summer?

Smith:  It’s really about solidifying, at least for the district and building leadership teams, really being clear and concise with our plans. We get through this week and then we have to come back and finalize plans. That will be the work that takes place over the next week.

And then [starting in August] you have just the annual work of getting the buildings ready for school. There are lots of other pieces just in terms of the pragmatics—ordering supplies, making sure the facilities are ready to go, finalizing scheduling, getting all of the operational pieces in line. That takes quite a bit of time and attention. That’s pretty annual work. We’re busy preparing for our opening convocation.Then we have a number of new staff who are coming to the district, so we have new staff orientation. So that is being planned.

GMW:  One small thing I saw as I drove up, I assume it’s for security, there are numbers on each of the windows.

Smith: Did you notice those? [Building supervisor] John Murphy and his staff have been working on that. That was a recommendation that came out of the Wilton Security Task Force. He’s been steadily putting those numbers up around. It’s a great example of a small but important piece of work, which we see all over the place. All of our facilities guys are busy in the buildings doing everything they need to do.

It’s all steady improvement. I don’t know that I could capture all of it, but it’s an exciting time of year because we are really focusing on what’s to come and that always creates anticipation and excitement.

GMW:  There were a couple, I know, state laws that came into effect over the summer that impact the schools…

Smith:  More than a couple, yes.

GMW:  The ones that stick out most were you now need to teach CPR and Social Media usage. How does that mandate get implemented?

Smith:  I don’t have a good answer for you about the social media per se, except to say that we have digital citizen curricula embedded already in our work and that will continue to be refined through the Learning Commons work that we’re doing. CPR and AED training was brought to our attention, it was a topic at a board meeting I think two Aprils ago. So working with Bruce Cunningham and the PE department at the high school we crafted a plan to begin training all of our staff and to begin to expand our training that is taking place in the high school. So he actually started that work several weeks ago, so we’ve trained, I think, a majority of the administrators at this point, as well as a majority of the custodians.

We have one more summertime training for staff in August and then we will run it forward in the buildings as part of our pre-planned professional development days, with the goal that over the next couple of years we will have all of our staff trained.

Then they are working on the curriculum areas. I think it was, if I remember correctly, first embedding CPR training into the sophomore health classes and then expanding it from there. And the goal is the same, to make sure that we get every kid trained [in CPR] at some point while they are in high school.

GMW:  Someone emailed me a question about how the new athletic department manual is coming?

Smith:  I believe it is just about finalized. [Athletic director] Chris [McDougal] and I met on that a few weeks ago. He is going to prepare an update for the Board of Education. He was working on the website, so I think we are pretty close. We’ll be ready to go for the fall and the Board will have a preview of that at their next meeting.

GMW:  What else is going on? What else do you want parents to know about what their kids are going to have going on, what parents are going to see when kids return in September?

Smith:  I think the important messages are, number one, the work never stops. Just because the kids aren’t here, this is for many of us, a rich time of the year because we actually get to do the really important planning to ensure that kids return to school. It’s going to be a really powerful experience.

I’m really excited about the new staff we brought on board, we hire very very well here. We’re thrilled and impressed with the curriculum improvements that we’ve made and that continue to be made. So what I would say is we are a district on the move and people should feel very proud, and I expect that they’ll see the tangible evidence once kids return to school and start to have the experience in the classroom with their colleagues.

We continue to work on school climate too, a significant priority for us. I’ll be meeting with the administrators in several weeks and we’re really going to spend a significant amount of time looking at our messages and programs and practices around bullying and anti-bullying, and how we respond to kids, and working with Kim Zemo and her role as school climate coordinator to feel confident and make sure that we have the support and structure in place that really ensures that kids are well cared for in our school and that there are mechanisms to intervene appropriately when things go wrong. So I think we are focused on all the right areas. The work that we are doing is leading edge. Wilton children should really benefit from all of that.

GMW:  It is, as you know, election season. It is an opportunity but also it is going to be a fractious one I think. Curriculum wise, school climate wise, how does the district approach an election year?

Smith:  Like anything else, it’s an opportunity for learning and teaching. I think what is probably most important for us is that we teach kids what it means to engage civically in our governmental processes. So really learning as deeply as possible what the issues are, and what the multiple perspectives around those issues are, and enabling students to get the right information and teaching them skills to get the information so they can come to the conclusion and make reasonable judgments.

I think that’s really where we partner with parents to do that work. I mean this is a rapidly changing, pluralistic society, so we need to teach our kids skills to live in that kind of changing world. Certainly part of that is that understanding of the many sides of issues that are confronting us today.

It’s fair to say that concerns around sensitivity and awareness have been presented, and we’re going to facilitate some opportunities to explore them further and to increase awareness for the betterment of our kids, the staff, our entire community, so that we can truly be more sensitive and welcoming. And that is work that truly fits with our community.