Intervention Programs at WPS Are Overburdened but More Critical Than Ever

Right to left: Chuck Smith, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction; Andrea Leonardi, Assistant Superintendent for Student Services; and Kim Zemo, Safe School Climate Coordinator present on behavioral intervention efforts at Wilton schools

The COVID pandemic has taken a toll on both academic learning and social emotional wellbeing for students in Wilton Public Schools. At the Thursday, Dec. 16 meeting of the Board of Education, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Chuck Smith and a team of district representatives delivered a presentation on how intervention services have been addressing those challenges across the four Wilton schools.

Summer School

Smith began with an overview of the 2021 summer intervention program, which was offered to students receiving intervention services during the 2020-2021 school year.

“Our goal was to mitigate summer regression in reading and math, but we exceeded that goal,” he announced. Rather than simply remaining steady at their spring benchmarks, the students showed noticeable growth in both reading and math, especially those receiving services from trained school interventionists. Students in Middlebrook Middle School showed the most growth overall. Among the findings were the following:

  • In reading, students gained 12 percentage points in the first session and 9 in the second session;
  • In math, students gained roughly 7 percentage points in each of the two summer sessions;
  • And many of the students we now see exiting or preparing to exit the intervention program this year are those who successfully completed the summer school offering.

Of the intervention program itself, which outperformed summer school taught by Wilton classroom teachers, Smith said, “We worked for years to develop this intervention department, providing these teachers with a lot of professional learning and resources. Some of our classroom teachers don’t have the benefit of all those years of support.”

Academic Intervention

Turning to the broader academic intervention efforts, Smith noted that the number of students enrolling in reading intervention has mostly stayed the same; however, there has been an increase in students at both Cider Mill School and Middlebrook pursuing intervention in math for the first time.

“In order to receive services, students have to give up something like an elective class,” Smith said. “Historically parents have chosen not to avail themselves of intervention. But this year, very few parents declined.”

He added that this is particularly true for the current third grade class, which went fully remote during their first grade year. “What impacted those students the most is the acquisition of those basic foundational skills,” Smith said. “So it’s not unusual that we would see more students in third grade getting intervention than we would have historically.

Board Member Ruth DeLuca broached a conversation about the budget process, asking whether the trained interventionist team was funded through a grant or whether these positions would need to be accounted for. Smith clarified that the grant that currently supports these positions will shrink next year because the money was frontloaded. Therefore, a budget solution would be needed if the services are to remain in place in Wilton.

He added, “It’s rare that we hire people we don’t want to keep on forever.”

Board Member Jennifer Lalor thanked Smith and others for the effort to collect and compile this data on performance and impact. “We need this data to explain to the public, this is why the budget is going up.”

Behavioral Intervention

Smith then turned the presentation over to Kim Zemo, the district’s Safe School Climate Coordinator, for a discussion of the district’s mental health intervention efforts.

She began by sharing that Wilton schools are seeing an increase in need for behavioral intervention, but that it is “exponentially true at the high school.” She introduced the screening tool being used to identify students early on who may be at risk for some type of behavior or emotional issue.

During the week of Oct. 15-22, the program screened Wilton’s transitional year classes (third grade, sixth grade and ninth grade). With 85% of students found to be as expected, and only 12% at elevated risk and 3% at highly elevated risk, Zemo said, “I am surprised by the numbers — pleasantly surprised.”

That said, when asked by Superintendent Kevin Smith whether there are enough social workers in place in Wilton schools, Zemo said, “No. We’ve seen the need for a lot of crisis intervention at the high school level, which takes a lot of time. My dream has always been a full time social worker in each building.”

Andrea Leonardi, Assistant Superintendent for Student Services, added the following: “In the budget cycle, I won’t surprise you, we will be seeking additional support over the next two years at Middlebrook and then at the elementary schools.” Currently both Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill have only a single part-time social worker each.

Lalor asked, “So did you give up something else to get that or are you just asking for an increase?”

“We’ve tried to manipulate a lot of different things to get what we need, but you’ll see some of this in the budget,” Leonardi responded.

The discussion ended with an acknowledgement by many that the outside behavioral intervention services network is overtaxed, making it difficult to connect at risk students with appropriate help.

“We shouldn’t be providing clinical support,” said Zemo. “If a kid’s not getting the proper assessment and they’re back on our doorstep and struggling, how can they be ready for learning?”

Leonardi added that there are some resources, such as the new Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) course being offered this year, that allow the school to offer services that may help students at the elevated or highly elevated level. “We do use DBT as a skill-based program, but we don’t do other treatment in school. We’re just trying to triage the kids while resources are threadbare in the community.”

Board Chair Deborah Low concluded the discussion sharing that it’s a problem that’s larger than Wilton.

“Kevin and I were just at a breakfast with legislators, superintendents, and board members, and everyone is in the same place. It doesn’t matter the size or demographics of the town, mental health services are stretched. Everyone is trying to come up with a model that might work but there’s no easy answer at this point.”

Discussion of these topics and the ongoing budget process are expected to continue at the next Board of Education meeting, scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.