Wilton will start the new school year with a new superintendent of schools. Dr. Kevin Smith is beginning his first year as chief of the Wilton school district, just as kindergarteners in the class of 2027 start their first school year.
Last week, Smith sat down for a Q&A with GOOD Morning Wilton to talk about coming to the district, what he’s hoping to accomplish and how he plans on leading the schools. We touched on air quality, school security and parent involvement, among many other topics.
Right off the bat, he reversed roles by extending the first question, asking how we found communication from the schools to be in the past, and whether we’ve have good access to information from administrators and the district overall. When he heard the answer–“Yes, for the most part.”–he immediately said, “Good.” From the sound of things during our interview, it seems more transparency is a trend he wants to continue and grow.
Knowing that he’s playing rapid-immersion catch-up, we started off talking about transition.
GMW: Let’s talk transition, it’s been since July 1st…
Dr. Kevin Smith: I started July 1st, but I was four days in Alexandria, VA at a superintendents’ conference, and then two weeks on vacation. So I’ve been in the district maybe 9-10 days total.
GMW: But I’m sure there was a lot of preparation that went into this, in the months before working with [former superintendent] Dr. [Gary] Richards…
Smith: That’s exactly right. Big picture transition, when the board appointed me, Gary was wonderful and reached out right away. In the intervening period–February through May–he was great at creating opportunities for me to come down, we spent a number of hours together. I was able to meet with the central office administrators; he arranged informal introductory meetings with the buildings’ staff. That work has been fabulous.
Getting up to speed on the major issues, [for instance] the indoor air quality issue, learning as much as I could about that, and just trying to get a sense of the culture, that takes a long time. But the things I’ve learned so far, most importantly around the people and the town, and the personnel here in the district, has really been fabulous. People have been very welcoming and open, which I found to be, not surprising, but a pleasant discovery.
GMW: Wilton people are always eager to help and get involved. I think people are excited and anticipate change, and the opportunity for the ‘glass half-full’ side of things. I think people are excited for new opportunities.
Smith: That’s been the tone, too, from the Board of Education members. They’ve been just incredible, welcoming and open. We’ve had one formal meeting, but I’ve met with each of them individually, and I interface with them fairly regularly via email, phone, whatever. They’re just dynamite. ‘What do we need to do? How can we help?’ I think that’s been consistent throughout.
GMW: What were the positives about the this district that made you say, ‘I’m excited to work in Wilton.’
Smith: I’ve lived in CT since 2000. As I learned CT, Wilton was one of those towns I’ve learned of. As of 2006, as a principal, I started to learn about districts, and Wilton has always had a positive reputation. When the opportunity presented itself, I looked at the community–the size of the community was important, it’s relatively small and comparable to Bethel [where Smith was superintendent until moving to Wilton] in terms of population. Knowing what a small community means in terms of getting to build relationships beyond just the school district was important.
Second to that, the very visible support that this community provides its public schools was probably the greatest attractor. To come into a community where people, almost universally say, ‘We live here because of the schools, and we want our schools to be great. We love our kids, and we’re going to commit the resources to insuring we can provide the best public education to our kids,’–you can’t go wrong. It was an opportunity to serve as superintendent and help shape what that means, working with the community, was just a no-brainer. As I’ve met parents and other folks, it’s just been reaffirmed over and over again.
GMW: With the pros, come cons. What have some of the challenges been, looking at Wilton? Even with just nine days in the district, I’m sure you have a sense of what things need more attention than others?
Smith: Sure. A couple perceptions. What I’ve heard is a perception about communication, and people want some confirmation that things are going well and that processes are in place to insure that, for example, with the air quality concerns at Miller-Driscoll. Just talking to staff members and starting to understand what the communication processes are, and what the actual processes are for insuring that the buildings are safe–those need to be in place, solid, and well-communicated. That was one of [my] concerns.
There is a perception that special education costs are rocketing out of control. I haven’t had the opportunity, because the kids aren’t in the buildings yet, to fully understand what the special education program looks like. It is a concern: the amount of money that Wilton allocates toward special education seems to be above the norm, above state average–not dramatically so, but… There are some questions about when students are identified. Some students seem to be identified at the high school level. So a question I have is, ‘Why is that happening and should kids be identified earlier?’ What are the processes that are in place–or not–that need to be examined?
There are some stones to turn over around special education. The perspectives I’ve heard as I’ve talked to members of the community, both internal constituents and from the broader community, there’s a sense that something’s going on but we’re not sure what. So I’ve been working with [assistant superintendent for special services] Ann Paul to really understand what that dynamic is. At the end of the day, the goal is to provide the best program for every kid, and then to communicate that and help people understand that this is the best program, and why.
GMW: So [Ann Paul]’s recent title change [to assistant superintendent] reflects where the piece of the pie special education fits in to the whole picture of education. We have a fabulous program and it’s amazing that people are able to receive the kind of services that they do, and also that it’s part of the fabric of this district for every student. It’s great to take an honest look at it, to see what’s working, and what’s not.
Let’s also talk about your operational changes, the committees you’ve put together–let’s talk about that so parents understand what that means.
Smith: One of my philosophical beliefs, not to sound cliche, but it takes a village to raise a child. The best experiences I’ve had, decisions that have been made in consensus, where people can contribute to and share in, often result in best practice. I tend to be very collaborative.
During the transition, in some of the early feedback from the Board of Education, each of the members had expressed a sincere desire to contribute more meaningfully to the work of the district. A committee structure is a way to do that and serves a number of purposes: One is, to provide a different format that allows them to get a more intimate look at various pieces of the operation–finance, the curriculum. It allows them to interface with the folks in this [Central] Office and in the buildings much more intimately to learn how it really works, and then to make really good, informed governance decisions–as well as champion some of the great work and have a voice in saying, ‘Here’s what needs to be modified to really provide the best program for kids.’
The administrators are really excited to do that with the board. I think there’s a shared understand that there’s a lot of expertise in this community. Wilton is a wonderful, educated community, so folks offer a great diversity of perspectives and a great wealth of experience that we simply find the mechanism to tap. Utilizing the board members in that way is just one example of that–for me it will be a broad approach in trying to tap into the wider expertise in the community.
GMW: You want other community members and parents to be part of it as well?
Smith: The committees of the Board will be subgroups of the Board of Education. But I’ll give you a different example of ways I imagine involving community members. We’ll go back to the indoor air quality concern. My vision is aligned with the Board of Education–we agree on the need for transparency. Number one, we want the buildings to be safe for every kid, every kid. So that has to happen, non-negotiable. Number two, we want a process that involves community stakeholders. One of our plans are to conduct indoor air quality assessments at each of the other three schools, similar to what was conducted at Miller-Driscoll, so we can feel good about what’s happening at each of these buildings, in terms of ventilation and air quality, and so on. To add integrity to the process, it’s important that parents are involved in the selection of whoever is going to do that. I’ll be working with the PTAs to put together a panel–it will include parents, some folks from the schools and we’ll interview the best companies that do that work, and together we’ll make a decision.
Those kinds of opportunities that are more ad hoc are the ways I imagine involving parents. Along the same vein, getting to know as well as I’m able the other elected officials in town, the police chief, the fire chief, the folks at the Wilton Library and the Wilton Family Y, and so on. Having good relationships so we can tackle whatever issues come up in this community together. It’s a good thing for kids and the community as a whole.
My approach will be as opportunities come along, we’ll either take advantage of or try to create them.
GMW: There are some programs coming up that, as a parent, I’m really looking forward to. One is the anti-bullying program, ‘Rachel’s Challenge.’
Smith: Rachel’s Challenge is a program that’s been in existence for quite some time, the folks in Bethel participated a few years ago. It’s a wonderful opportunity for kids to develop empathy. The team at the High School were working on that before I arrived. Broadly, I’ll be looking to take those kinds of experiences and make them coherent across the district. One of our priorities is to insure safe and positive climates in each of the school buildings, so it’s through programs like that, through systematic curriculum implementation that focuses on social skill development that you can do those types of things. I’ll be helping to connect the dots for people so they can see it’s part of a broader strategy.
GMW: I had the chance to talk to Ofc. Diane MacLean, who was chosen to be the second School Resource Officer. I think she’s fantastic. But talk a little about the concern of security in schools.
Smith: I attended a meeting of the town’s Security Task Force and I was so pleased to see that it was something that first selectman [Bill] Brennan put into place and made a priority. Those folks were really tasked with examining the school infrastructure and policies and practices that govern how people come and go [in the schools]. I think the decisions they made–they’ve chosen to keep a lot of their work out of the public eye, for good reason–they’re absolutely focused on the right things.
Our first obligation is to guarantee school safety, that kids are safe. They’ve got to be safe in school. If they’re not safe, you literally can’t teach. The work this town has committed to, in terms of hardening the infrastructure, expanding the scope of surveillance, are all steps in the right direction. Some of that work was already done in terms of building design, but retrofitting some of the other spaces is steps in the right direction.
Part and parcel to that is creating safe, positive environments in the school–programmatically I’ll be working with the building administrators to see what they have in place. For example, the folks at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill use a ‘responsive classroom’ approach. I don’t know if it’s systematic across every classroom, but a lot of the folks I’ve talked to so far reference it, so I assume it’s work that’s been in place. The core concept behind that is developing a community of learners, where kids develop the skill to engage with each other in the right, appropriate way. Taking programs like that and making sure they’re in place and functioning well in each of our schools. And then adding on some of those one-off kinds of programs, similar to what you mentioned earlier, will be part of the overall strategy for promoting kindness, wellness and safety in the schools.
GMW: What used to be called the ‘Threat Assessment Coordinator’ and now will be called the Safe School Climate Specialist–that person hasn’t been named yet.
Smith: No, in fact [assistant superintendent] Chuck [Smith] and Ann and I are going to meet about that today. The role as it was conceived, the recommendation was made by Dr. [David] Bernstein, who is a renowned expert in school safety. Conceptually, what the district was going for was to develop some expertise about identifying kids most at risk and providing intervention supports to those kids. Absolutely right on track.
That came out of the conversations about school security, so the connection is broadening that role, so you connect all the internal work that’s happening around building school climate. It’s a very specialized role. Rather than fill the role with somebody, let’s get the somebody that’s going to be able to do the job well right out of the gate. I think it’s a really unique position and unique opportunity, so we need to talk again about what are the qualifications we want. Initially they were looking for a school psychologist, and the candidate pool was thin, in terms of people who had the right background. We need to go back and look at that.
One of the functions of that person is going to have to be to train other staff members. We need to have somebody who has the right skills to do that effectively. In my mind it’s worth slow-walking it a bit, so we can be crystal clear about what we’re after so we get the right person, rather than put someone in the role and then decide six months down the road it’s not a right fit.
It is a high priority.
GMW: At this point, is there anything else you want to say to parents, as we head to the first day of school?
Smith: I’m really excited to start school this year, and really excited to be in Wilton. I just came back from Miller-Driscoll and the little guys were over there doing the Scavenger Hunt. I wish you could bottle and sell the enthusiasm and excitement in the building. That’s what I look forward to starting. I have five of my own kids, my wife can’t wait for school to start! [laughs] I hope that parents really are excited.
I’m looking forward to a new beginning, to working with the staff to really help push Wilton to its next level of evolution. I’m excited about the talent that works in this district. I’m excited about the parent support. All the pieces are really there to have truly the premiere district. That’s what we’re working towards.
GMW: Do you have a first day of school ritual?
Smith: Aside from not sleeping…
Smith: Yeah, I’m up and out early.
GMW: The butterflies…
Smith: Every year.
GMW: Do you pick out what you’ll wear the night before?
Smith: Always. [laughs] It’s part of the fun.
GMW: Will you be at each of the schools on the first day? How do you handle that, the first day on the new job?
Smith: I started this when I was superintendent in Bethel. My practice has been to basically follow the buses. I will be there to greet kids off the first bus, and chase the buses around the district. There’s just nothing better than to do that. I intend to spend as much time in the schools as possible. I want teachers, administrators and parents to see me as a very visible presence. The work of this district is about teaching and learning and if I’m not focused there–literally and physically there–then I’m focused on the wrong things. So you can expect to see me, beginning the first day. I would fully expect to encounter [parents] as we’re walking in and out of schools.