We’ll be starting to live blog at 7 p.m. when the meeting starts…

6:52 p.m.:  Dr. Kevin Smith says the meeting will not be recorded or broadcast, as it’s more of a conversation and not a formal presentation. As of now, teacher/educator/administrators outnumber parents.

7:00 p.m.:  Approximately 35-40 people here. Dr. Chuck Smith, assistant superintendent, has joined Kevin Smith at the front of the room.

Kevin Smith introduces principals, instructional coordinators and coaches.

“The theme of the conversation really is what do we think is best for the children who attend Wilton schools and what are the changes we’re trying to implement to better serve all students.”

“Questions of the programs we’re implementing and what the impact is on children. In the face of major budget issues, why are we choosing some programs over others.

“We hope to spend time addressing some misperceptions, clarifying programs, so we’re on the same page.

“Other theme that emerged is a desire for more robust communication. That’s something we talk about all the time to improve communication so parents feel they have info at their fingertips.

7:05 p.m.

Kevin Smith:  Let’s look at forces driving change:  1) changes in educational approaches.

Most significant changes impacting schools is Common Core Curriculum. A “major sea change” for teachers and staff. Corresponding are calls for greater accountability for teachers. Nationally and in CT, teacher evaluations has changed. Attempts to link teacher accountability to student achievement has inspired ire. Also, global shifts:  changes in communication patterns, requirements of work, technology has forced us to step back from what we’re doing and take another look at traditional models and hold them up against new demands of 21st C.  We talk about 21st C. skills, global literacy, etc. and how our children can adapt.

Locally:  The changes in leadership have been impactful. New Superintendent, New assistant super (Chuck Smith), 3 of 4 new principals, and entirely new leadership team with new thinking about how to shift the schools to ensure kids are being served best.

One prime local concern:  Special education. Cost, where we were hitting the mark,  etc. so we undertook an analysis (District Management Consultants) and they came up with recommendations–research based and important to frame the context. Because big picture, our goal is to serve all children well.

[Kevin Smith is reading the DMC recommendations, which can be found on the district website.]

The overwhelming majority of our students achieve really, really high, but not everyone does. And our goal is that everyone does. I can’t say to a parent that it’s ok that some don’t.

In a constrained budget environment we have to make choices, and these are the dilemmas we face and conversations we have.

Our work has been to introduce systems or structures to ensure every child receives the best instruction. The most productive way is through classroom teachers. Our job is to support classroom instruction. The coaching program

The MAP testing is to help the teachers design curriculum and teach.

We need to spend more time over a series of years to better help everyone work with it and understand how that can help.

7:17 p.m.:  Chuck Smith

What’s happened is a signal that we have work to do. It may not have been the most mature way, but we want to address it.

Parent Question:  How much time is instructional coaching taking from teachers being in the classroom and teaching the students?

Kevin Smith:  The model in Wilton has been the instructional leadership model, where one teacher was paid a stipend to help other teachers but it wasn’t sufficient for supporting teachers because the ILs were teaching themselves and encumbered with classroom responsibilities of their own.

WHS Coach:  The majority of my time is in the classroom. 1600 hours in the last year and a half. 5-7% of my time researching. We do professional development work, the vast majority of my time is with teachers. We work in coaching cycles. They’re different building to building but we work with teachers, identify something the teachers want to work on and we’re in the classroom with the teachers. If I help a teacher improve their instructional practice, their work is magnified with all their classes. I’m there in the classroom, sometimes modeling instruction, sometimes we co-teach, I suggest ways of approaching the lesson. It’s very individualized based on the teacher’s need and what I see in the classroom.

Parent Question:  What do you do?

WHS Coach:  It’s fair to say most of us teach the way they were taught. What we’re trying to do is encourage and support to teach in a way students need to learn for 21st century standards. Back in the day, I’d teach percents, and go practice 100 times. Today, I’d say, help me make a decision:  I have two different coupons, which is better to use? Requires students to apply concepts to practical situations.

K-2 Coach:  Teachers might wonder how they can make things replicable for all students.

Chuck:  Coaches are trying to help teachers learn new programs we’ve introduced.

Parent Question: Do those rollouts coincide with the school calendar? The Words Your Way didn’t start until November.

Chuck:  Not every program will rollout Sept to June. Some may start in the beginning of the year. We try to stagger programs.

Kevin:  The time we deliver education has not changed. The pressure teachers have has ratcheted up. Pressures they feel now may not compare to what they were 10, 15 years ago. It’s trying to manage all the demands on a fixed schedule, we try to manage it the best way we can. It’s a major, major concern that can’t be understated.

A math teacher here says the 3-Cs are the major changes we’re facing:  Curriculum, co-teaching and coaching. and he says, “When do I have time to do all of this?”

Parent Question:  Talk about MAP testing. Is it used for placement, I’ve heard it shouldn’t be.

Chuck:  It’s not to be used for other purposes other than identifying the need for intervention services. But some kids are borderline, and for those kids you can reference the MAP to make the decision, but it’s not the criteria.

In terms of the frequency, best practice is three times a year. I don’t view that from taking away from instruction, because assessment is part of instruction. But no matter what we’re rolling out, it is a process and it’s not perfect. it takes several year to learn it, and integrate it.

We used to roll out by introducing and saying “Go with it.” Coaching is meant to help teachers work through it.

We looked at many assessments and MAP is the gold standard.

Question:  Are teachers evaluated based on MAP?

Chuck:  Federal guideline requires we look at achievement to evaluate teachers. I have decided that we use both MAP testing and other assessment.

Question:  The stress my M-D child felt, the pressure she felt from the teacher to do well, was awful. I didn’t have it with my other ones. [other parents said they heard the same thing.]

Kevin Smith:  “Here’s my belief statement:  We got it wrong. Our state’s approach to evaluation is wrong. But we’re obligated under the law to use particular requirements, and one is that teachers have standardized measure as part of their evaluation. You’re not going to find many educators who think it’s a good idea. WE think setting goals is a good idea, but we don’t think it’s good to rate them on goals. The reliability on systems, the way the state has prescribed them, doesn’t work. We have really good teachers in Wilton. We live with systems and do our best. Through coaching and visits by administrators is what we use to help them. But it has placed a perverse sense of pressure, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear about teachers putting pressures on the children to do well.”

Parent Question:  What about student evaluations of teachers in the High School?

Bob O’Donnell WHS Principal:  We don’t but I would like to. It would be one indicator, not the end all. I want to listen to kids, hear their voice, and it can inform the teacher. I think it’s worthy of exploration. Some teachers voluntarily do it, but it’s not systemic.

Parent Question:  How do we keep teachers on the path, because they’re only observed limited times? What’s to stop them from doing one thing when they’re observed and then reverting back to the old way when they’re on their own?

O’Donnell:  You want to introduce a system to see an improvement in achievement. There are pockets of more engaged students at the high school. I look to see if they’re enjoying the instruction. We’re making progress, one reason is the coaching. We have some teachers, people change at a different pace, and we have to get some people on board. We saw some promising data. Can you control what happens when you leave the classroom? no, but we’re changing the culture to be in the classroom more.

WHS Coach:  The changes we hope to achieve and the support we’re giving teachers is a long term process. I encourage them to try one step at a time, practice it repeatedly until it becomes practice to do it well. I go back into classrooms, to check in, ask them how it’s going. There’s a wonderful open-door policy at the high school, and I have yet to meet a teacher who is reluctant to have me walk in any time. Part is building the culture to expect the change. I buy into that. I think it’s great and work with the teachers to wanting to achieve the change.

Kevin:  I want to be clear:  Our teaching staff is one of the most professional and engaged staff I’ve encountered in CT. Yes, people are on a continuum, but I haven’t met a teacher in this district who isn’t interested in learning. The question about “Why are we doing this?” isn’t a bad question.  We have a very high achieving district. So it’s a question of deepening the sophistication of the work. It’s a wonderful place to be. We have stellar staff. I know there are people who haven’t had that experience and our goal is to improve the ones who haven’t been. We have an opportunity to build on an outstanding staff. I don’t want anyone to leave here to feel like we are broken or subpar. Absolutely not. This is about making a very high calibre staff and making them even stronger.

K-8 Curriculum leader:  I have teachers tell me they love teaching this way and they’ll never go back.

Parent Question:  How do you measure if it’s working?

Smith:  We have a variety of measures. Over the last year we developed a pretty robust score card with student achievement measures:   SBAC, math assessments, SAT/ACT, AP scores, social and emotional measures, physical fitness, and we’re growing measures for 21st c. skills around technology, literacy, global literacy that are still vague but we’re working. It doesn’t fully exist yet, but we’re looking at the matrices, and we evaluate the coaches.

We’re a year in, and it’s new. We’re looking at the right measures, but it will continue to be refined as we move. As part of the coaches evaluation, we survey the teachers they work with.

Parent:  I have a HS freshman who is struggling, but I have a 2nd grader who is moving through this and loving it. The differences I can see the way my 2nd grader is learning and taught how to learn is refreshing. His basic understanding of what he’s doing is great. If that’s a testament to how coaching is working, then I’m all for it.

Parent question:  One important 21st C. skill is creativity and it concerns me that teachers are evaluated on MAP, they’ll start teaching to the test. It’s a concern I have about the MAP test. If you even use it for the borderline kids, it’s still troubling. I’m concerned about those kids. As an educator myself, I hate to see poor morale for teachers even if it’s just a handful. Do teachers need to have more of a voice and more collaboration, more input. I hate to see the teachers not happy, it’s distressing.

Kevin Smith:  Our efforts to minimize the importance of MAP:  it’s not the sole determinant of a teacher’s rating. You have a class of 17-18 kids, all with different experiences they bring to class. That’s part of my reaction to federally-driven mandates. We’ve worked to create a rubric to use as a bridge alongside the coaching to move teachers to a better place. I wouldn’t minimize your concern, because it’s a concern I have.

I worked in a district very concerned with having very high CMT scores. It’s not the only data point, it only measures a portion of the curriculum, and it created a really unhealthy environment because it focused on the wrong thing. Even by creating a scorecard–because we owe it to the community to lead to high achievement on those measures–it’s not the only thing.

We haven’t spent a lot of time talking to the staff, and it creates fear and misunderstanding. If there’s something we can do better is circling back to our staff, provide voice and agency and do it better.

I could say the same thing with you as parents. This is a great opportunity to circle back and talk about where are we, what’s working and where are the gaps?

Parent:  Having kids at different ages, teaching to the test has been around a long time–I’ve seen it with my older child than with my younger child at Cider Mill. It seems that teachers have more support for MAP, but for me as a parent, you’ve approached this with more transparency than was done with my older child. I think there’s less testing than it used to be.

Kevin Smith:  We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of talking so much about assessment because that’s where the conversation is happening.

Parent:  What about making sure there’s the balance between academics and structured play?

MD principal:  We still have recess, centers (where kids have choices), and I give the teachers freedom that if they think the kids need to move around they can. In addition, in the academic, it’s woven in. A lot of it is play based and it’s integrated in. We also facilitate those developmentally appropriate activities.

Parent: I hear from my teachers is that it’s harder to integrate it with the academic demands.

MD Principal: The day hasn’t changed, but what we’re expected to get in it is always a challenge.

Parent:  [Question about eliminating grades at the high school, and standards-based grading.]

Kevin:  Great question. If you don’t know the background, the fear is that it’s going to hurt chances for getting into college. Are we moving to standards-based grading? Probably not wholesale. It’s a conversation, the concern for me is I haven’t had the conversation about the consistency of grading practice. Here and other communities. There are other districts doing that.

Parent:  Those tend to be low-performing districts. In our district, we need grades to get the kids into college.

Kevin:  [Discussion on weighted grades]–limitations. [sorry this conversation has moved too quickly.]

Chuck:  We have always sorted kids, from high to low. We’re not ready for a change and in the long run colleges will be looking at a different way of evaluating kids, but not now.

Parent:  Why don’t we weight grades?

O’Donnell:  we considered the impact it would have on the climate and the competitive nature. It’s an equity issue, when you have students in one level where they belong being penalized if they aren’t at a level of another student. And we look at the hard data, where students are still doing well in terms of college acceptances. Looking at all the schools, and it went to a process with the Bd. of Education. I think we made the right decision. If I had seen any compelling evidence we were disadvantaging our students I would feel differently.

WE didn’t think we were disadvantaging students and the data bears that out.

And we do not intend to go away from grades. WE need to do a lot of research. We don’t want to take a step like that and risk disadvantaging our students.

Parents:  I hear teachers are upset. They tell me they don’t have a voice.

Kevin:  If you look at teacher morale across the country, it’s at the lowest level. We need to circle back. It’s hard to speak to the fear of reprisal. Nothing we’ve set in motion is intended to victimize teachers. This work is hard and really complex. We’re all working for the same team, the kids of Wilton. The demands have ratcheted up. WE absolutely struggle to provide the right support. With insufficient communication, they’re unsure where to go and they fill in the blanks. Our schools are fabulous places and the teachers are the ones that animate the students. WE need some direction from the faculty about how to aid that, what structures worked.

Parent:  Do you survey teachers?

Coach:  each coach does survey the teachers anonymously and that’s how we set our goals.

Parent:  You talk about the time constraints, and there are so many distractions in our society, with technology. Our teachers are such important role models for our kids, Even before all this implementation, teachers do feel stressed. It breaks my heart to hear teachers say, “We don’t have time for that. We only have five minutes.” That environment means low morale, high stress, and this environment just means more of that. What is being done to support the teachers, the emotional level of the class?

And I’m wondering about Middlebrook with the team-based model, will there be any changes?

Kevin:  Administratively our efforts have not been enough to support teachers. It’s up to us to find ways to address it. The concept of stress comes up at the high school is the number one concern of students and teachers. We’re trying to address that. But you’re right, it’s changes to society, the way we’re trying to keep up with mandates is hard. We’re trying to keep up and we’re committed to that.

I’m imagining that some response from teachers will lead us to ways of better supporting teachers in each school in a different way.

The team structure is important for kids and the needs of the adolescent (as research shows), they require a great deal of social support. The purpose of the team structure is to bring teachers together to provide mechanisms to support the kids.

At MB, the team structure is unique with world language. The conversation has been about the benefits and drawbacks of keeping world language on the team. The other important factor contributing to that is the conversation about budget.

[Kevin introduces state rep. Gail Lavielle, referring to the work she does in Hartford.] You as a community have very generously supported these schools. You have a generous budget and we provide a high level of service. But I’m concerned about the structural drivers in our system that contribute to annual increases. In this community, enrollment is declining but our costs in many areas continue to rise. We have a sector in this community on a fixed income, each year becomes an increasing stress. The grand list hasn’t grown substantially and we have debt obligations (including Miller-Driscoll) and a strong desire to restrain tax growth. That leads to a challenging budget environment.

I don’t get the sense since I’ve been here that the community supports the 6% or 8% increases of years past.

This year the BoF issued guidance that we come in at 1.25% BELOW zero. I presented a zero budget, I think the first time the community has seen that.

As we try to balance initiative and declining enrollment, the drivers for us are collective bargaining agreements, fixed costs, other contracted increases, and factor in what’s happening at the state level, the threat is enormous.

My thoughts about the governor’s budget–it’s to zero out all support for communities like ours. In two years, it’s a $1.2 million revenue loss from the state. there are other municipal grants to the town that are being zeroed out. Another problem the state has is with the unfunded teachers’ pension, and the governor’s move is to shift part of the burden back to the local municipalities, which didn’t have a role in the problem. That would mean for us an additional $4 million bill. How do we manage that–raise taxes, lower costs or a combo of the two.

The other thing about the Gov.’s budget is what he plans to do on special education funding. The excess cost grant, annually we receive $1.2-$1.3 million but that would be reduced to $400,000. A community’s wealth has nothing to do with the health of kids.

What that brings us to is a place where we’re forced to make hard, painful, awful choices. It’s not a choice of whether to cut, it’s a choice of WHAT we have to cut.

Here, in MB, the conversation, when you take away the budget concerns starts with what’s best for kids, and how does world language teaming serve kids. The fear is if world language is taken off team, then we reduce staffing. That choice hasn’t been made but it has been discussed. We have to look at all choices and where we’re spending money. If we have to look at $4 million reduction. Most of our expenses has to do with staffing. It keeps me up at night. If we have staff members who have to lose their job because we have to absorb this enormous cost. We should be offering more world language, not less.

MB Principal:  If we were to de-team world language, we wouldn’t offer less options, actually there would be more options. It’s very much an open conversation and one our teachers are involved in. If we were to de-team, there would be no fewer instructional minutes. It would allow us to even out class size. It would allow kids to mix with a wider population of schools. We’re not saying we’re going to offer less exposure to world language or global interest.

Our commitment to the team and culture is very strong. The way our curriculum is further certainty that we’re not going to abandon teaming anytime soon. Lots of evidence shows philosophically we are married to teaming. It’s just a question of if this program is better for kids.

We have some world language classes as small as 12 children, and others at 25. We may have decrease in teaching hours. The flexibility to add languages is much more open in a de-teamed model.

Parent:  I’d like to know more about the social-emotional curriculum. With increased anti-semitism, I have an asian son, and he asked if he was going to get sent back to Taiwan. Wilton had white-supremacist flyers. What’s going on in the schools at all levels to address what’s happening in the outside world? To create an environment of diversity and acceptance?

Kevin:  The social and emotional well-being of kids is priority number one, creating environments that promote connectedness between kids and between kids and adults. This is getting attention from us in each of the buildings, and between buildings to coordinate programs. I’ll ask each building principal to articulate what they’re doing in their respective schools.

O’Donnell, WHS:  We brought in Michael [unclear], an expert on diversity and race. We had that plan before the Build-the-Wall chant. He’s has a way of getting kids to think deeply about these issues, particularly in these times. We try to embed follow-up opportunities with learning tasks in advisory, to involve students in different view points to get them to come to understanding empathy, civility. It’s pre-planned and a strategic part of the overall school climate initiative. It’s one of the things in the forefront of our minds and one of the most pointed issues. We engage the student leadership team to make this a systemic part of the school. We’ve had discussions about what we can do with the student voice about the Civility Proclamation the town made. Our student leaders want to be part of the discussion and the solution and part of humanity in our town and beyond.

Lauren Feltz, MB principal:  We have our “Life” classes, direct instruction about making powerful life choices and about what kind of adult you want to grow up to be. We focus on social justice and decisions we make, including bullying, poverty, struggles of immigrants, racism, able-ism. Non-fiction reading on related topics and writing themselves. One of the most important is to be responsive to kids who have fears, we have a robust response through mental health counseling and our deans. We have flex blocks for the teams, student driven and faculty freedom to choose activities. We solicit feedback from students on what works.

We’ve had kids teach our faculty about words that hurt that they may be hearing that teachers may not hear. It’s a tall request to ask middle schoolers to stand up to one another when things are unkind. We’re trying to provide a community of support so they feel strong to say, “That’s not Cool.”

Jen Mitchell, Cider Mill:  We try to prepare our kids to have a voice, to be true participants in moving issues that are important to themselves forward. The amount of students who come forward with projects important and others that rally to support. We have a student leadership team, “Helping Hands,” involved in social justice project, to get with teachers and lunch aides about things that are happening in the lunchroom and recess. Through the curriculum process imbeds ways to bring to life some issues, the way students talk to one another, digging into texts gives younger students a safe place to explore.

Kathy Coons, MD:  for the first time we have a student leadership team, 7-8 year olds surveying teachers and picking issues that are important to them. We have guidance counselor who introduce lessons the teachers continue. We have morning meetings to facilitate the community. We have the buddy bench, and “Nobody eats alone.” We celebrate differences.

Kevin Smith:  We haven’t touched on UDL, which is not a program, but more of a concept, and we’re going to wind up soon. And I’d like to get direction on how this worked tonight. But perhaps Chuck can speak to UDL.

Chuck:  I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘differentiation’ which is taking curriculum and adapt it for individual kids. We’ve been working on it for decades and haven’t mastered it. Universal Design Learning is more about being proactive to design the curriculum so options are built in.

We do not have any expectation that teachers understand or should be learning Universal Design for Learning. We need to be mindful about how we adopt these changes. It’s going to be a multi-year, longer process. WE’re going to engage the staff in engaging what it means and inviting them into participating in their learning. Then we’ll take a year to learn without any expectation for doing it. It won’t be until the third year, for teachers to try it out and evaluate how it’s working.

It’s being more thoughtful for how we roll it out. We have not set any expectations for staff at this point.

Kevin:  Thank you for coming and I’d welcome feedback on whether you’d like further conversations like this.