To the Editor:
In his interview with GOOD Morning Wilton, superintendent Kevin Smith suggested that administrative personnel changes and the skepticism of veteran teachers have led to the resistance against new instructional initiatives. I would submit that fast-paced hiring coupled with fast-paced curriculum changes, together with a “top-down” leadership style, have produced that resistance. Going forward, we need to rebuild trust by pausing to evaluate the changes in instruction through open conversations with parents and the classroom teachers.
Fast-Paced Hiring: An Overview
Over a brief, three-year period, 2013-2014 and 2015-2016, almost 70% of the district’s administrative leaders were replaced with new hires. Six administrative positions changed personnel after decades of consistent leadership by superintendents and principals who not only lived in Wilton but who also educated their children in Wilton schools. In “one fell swoop,” 11 new administrators (only two of whom live in Wilton) replaced veteran leaders who, for the most part, had lived in Wilton for decades. Hired were a new superintendent, Dr. Kevin Smith, and assistant superintendent, Dr. Chuck Smith, in addition to nine other principal-level administrators. Over 50% of the new hires were from Central Office and elementary schools in Greenwich (4) and Bethel (2).
Consider that the past two superintendents, with a combined tenure of 32 years, had lived and worked in Wilton. Two principals, with a combined tenure of 26 years as principal and 28 years as teachers at Middlebrook and Cider Mill, also lived and worked in Wilton. At Cider Mill, an assistant principal for 15 years had taught 14 years at the same school, and at Middlebrook, one dean served 18 years following a teaching career in another district.
Fast-Paced Curriculum Changes Since 2013
At the onset of 2013, math, English, and science departments had already begun realigning instructional goals in 2011-2012 with Connecticut Common Core standards, and teachers were implementing technology, tiered instruction, and differentiation in classrooms.
In fact, upon their arrival, both Dr. Smiths expressed their respect for the teaching staffs in the Wilton Schools, consistently recognized in their DRG group for high scores in math, science, and language arts. In an interview with the Wilton Bulletin, (Sept. 2, 2013), Chuck Smith said, “I have thoughts of some goals but I want to be respectful of the work that’s been done. I heard a phrase recently, ‘don’t tear a fence down until you know why it’s been built,’” suggesting a pause before considering changes. A year later, (Wilton Magazine Sept/Oct 2014), Kevin Smith remarked that, “The caliber of the teaching staff and leadership team is exceptional,” again suggesting a cautious approach to change.
Within a year, however, Chuck Smith proposed changes. English and Reading Writing Workshop were changed to Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop, to begin with 6th grade in 2015-2016, as a means of meeting Common Core Standards. It is of note, however, that–according to the Connecticut Post (May 22, 2014)–the Tri-State Consortium concluded that the 6-8 Workshop Model–the same as proposed by Chuck Smith–was problematic, leaving gaps in students’ education by failing to support “mastery of discrete skills and content” and reducing teachers to “facilitators.”
Meanwhile, SRBI methodology and realignment in special education were already in effect at the high school, and school administrators had begun attending workshops at Harvard to learn how to implement the Universal Design for Learning K-12, to specifically target students with disabilities and learning differences.
Top-Down Leadership Style: Some Concerns
The assistant superintendent, Chuck Smith, arrived in Wilton before the superintendent. According to his Greenwich Bio Brief, Smith’s background of 32 years as an administrator focused on data collection “to drive instruction,” teacher evaluation, and professional development. He anticipated mainstreaming special needs students into general education classes with “behavioral” support from the paraprofessionals. He told the Bulletin (Sept. 2, 2013) two months after his arrival, that by January 2014 (four months later), he hoped “…to be in a position where I can give some thoughtful input into how the district is going to move forward,” saying, “I don’t really view general education and special education as separate…I like to think in terms of universal design for learning so that we design for everybody.”
With his arrival as superintendent, Kevin Smith brought experience as an elementary teacher and three years as an assistant principal and principal in parochial elementary schools in Newark and the Bronx before coming to Bethel. Shortly after his arrival to Wilton, his remarks to the Bulletin (July 17, 2014) suggested that he had reviewed and was in support of Chuck Smith’s intentions for the district. Yet, no input from the “exceptional teachers” in Wilton, earlier lauded by the two Dr. Smiths, was sought as they moved forward with their plan.
Before 2013-14, Wilton superintendents relied on the shared wisdom of classroom teachers and instructional leaders, making decisions in the best interests of students from the ground up–in sharp contrast with the “top down” leadership style of the two Dr. Smiths. Teachers have been surprised that the new administrators have ignored the “teaching staff in the trenches” and not sought their input into a shared vision of excellence.
It would seem that the traditional model focusing on the teaching relationship between student and teacher is changing to a business model, which focuses on numbers and data collection.
In his recent interview with GOOD Morning Wilton, the superintendent characterized experienced classroom teachers as “veterans” who are resisting change. He commented, “Wilton Public Schools culturally is a place where autonomy has ruled the day forever. There hasn’t (sic) been, until recently, strong evaluation systems. There hasn’t been strong support-system-tied support. … some folks don’t embrace coaching…We have some very veteran folks that just have very strong convictions about the way things ought to be.”… “I also know that a lot of our staff hold on to these very antiquated ideas about what’s good for kids.”
However, these very teachers have been responsible for Wilton’s high achievement. Graduates have benefitted from their early training at Miller-Driscoll, their ongoing opportunities at Cider Mill, and their team experience and support in reading and writing at Middlebrook–before arriving at the high school where educators have honed their thinking in readiness for college or other post-secondary opportunities. Dr. Kevin Smith and Dr. Chuck Smith have forgotten to listen.
In their [remarks to GMW about the anonymous letter critical of the administration], teachers expressed their frustration with how these changes have occurred. They were not asked to share their ideas in the planning; their repeated requests for reflection and assessment have gone unheeded. Instead, it seems Central Office is imposing a template of “assured shared experiences” so that every classroom is studying the same thing at the same time in the same way.
Furthermore, based on their bios as reported in the press, it appears that our new administrators have a wealth of experience with elementary schools, but little or no experience in the middle school or high school classrooms. Chuck Smith taught two years in a special ed classroom in New York City 35 years ago; Kevin Smith spent several years in a parochial elementary school in New Jersey teaching grades 2, 3, and 7, and some time teaching high school English in Massachusetts. How much classroom experience in a public school do the two Dr. Smiths bring to the table?
Both Dr. Smiths have acknowledged they must continue their discussions with parents and teachers, admitting, “Trying to change a system is slow…the district has some work to do.”
We Need to Rebuild Trust
Administrators should monitor and adjust as teachers are taught to do, especially when a plan falls short of expectations. Our district now needs to pause, initiate a mid-course evaluation of the program to date, and rebuild mutual trust–by holding listening sessions where classroom teachers can share their experiences and ideas for going forward.
The district has acknowledged it needs to reduce spending. However, in order to pay for the coaching and testing, physical education is being cut, class sizes are rising, and other budget items like classroom supplies have been chipped away. If we put these new changes on pause for a year or so, and then go forward with our teachers on board, we can save about a million dollars in this coming year’s budget.
All of us would agree with the superintendent when he says, “Our commitment is to meet the needs of every kid in our system.” Our teachers, however, want to contribute the wisdom of their experience to refresh that commitment. The success of an effective school district does not depend on a flow chart, but rather on the mutual trust of individuals at every level. What unites us is our common pursuit to develop the minds and the character of our children in this community of Americans, children who will be ready to lead us in (not into) the 21st century.
Retired Wilton Teacher
Current Wilton Substitute