SPECIAL REPORT: Can Wilton Schools Face Learning’s New Normal Without Lowering Academic Standards?

No one is entirely sure what the 2020-2021 school year will look like. The Wilton Board of Education has spent significant time over its last three meetings discussing re-entry for next fall as the town continues to navigate the COVID-19 health crisis.

School administrators have presented how they’re approaching academic, financial, social-emotional, and practical concerns, and how best to integrate guidance from the state Dept. of Education and Gov. Lamont’s administration–all in the context of protecting the school community’s health and safety.

But that guidance is far from complete or official–with mid-June as the best estimate for when state officials might provide it to the district. Of course, no one can predict how the pandemic will evolve over the next several months. As a result, school officials are facing more questions than answers–leaving parents, teachers, and the community unsettled about just what school in Wilton will look like come September.

To complicate matters even more, last week two events raised deep concerns. One:  Lamont’s administration issued very stringent guidelines for summer school that demonstrate just how complicated and difficult in-person instruction will be. Just one example–restrictions on how students can be transported on school buses–shows the much larger puzzle that needs to be put together, says BOE chair Debbie Low:  “There are going to be others, the different tools and the different personnel and the amount of training and facilities and work and supplies and equipment–all of this is going to perhaps be overwhelming.”

The other issue caused many parents to sound the alarm:  curriculum development plans presented at last Thursday night’s BOE meeting led many in the community to believe Wilton’s educators were lowering standards and expectations. The discussion raised fears that Wilton’s students–already facing a COVID learning gap after a difficult last quarter transitioning to online distance learning–will be unable to make up what was missed, falling further and further behind, with serious, long-term implications.

The District’s Approach

At the start of the conversation on May 21, Superintendent Kevin Smith told the BOE he was committed to simultaneously figuring out how to serve students in a post-COVID world and seize the opportunity to improve upon Wilton’s traditional way of providing education in general.

How can we be better? While we might look wistfully at what was, we know that our traditional system, like every traditional system here in the country, doesn’t serve all kids. We have gaps in the way we’ve been doing things. This is a real opportunity to better serve many of those kids that we were under-serving in our traditional setup. We have built an emergency e-learning system that’s getting us through now, but it is absolutely not sufficient for what’s going to come. I’m committed, because we certainly have the talent and the intellect and the resources here in this community among our staff and with our families to do the work of teaching and learning in our public school system, far more effectively given some time, some additional tools and some planning and training. That’s a shared commitment among the staff, and certainly among the leadership team. We’re going to deliver on that. We’re up to the task. I’m positive about that,” Smith said.

School administrators laid out a plan with nine goals for re-entry:

  1. Develop a plan for deciding if, when, how, and for whom schools will be reopened. A corollary to this goal is to develop a plan for deciding if, when, how, and for whom schools may be closed again.
  2. Develop a robust Learning Management System (LMS) in case of continued or intermittent school closures.
  3. Develop a plan for determining what students know and are able to do academically in fall 2020.
  4. Develop a plan for adjusting the curriculum based on the diagnostic assessment of students’ status (Goal 3) and/or based on continued or intermittent school closures.
  5. Refine and/or reimagine the process for identifying students in need of remediation [i.e. intervention], as well as how they will be served.
  6. Develop a plan to promote the wellness of students, teachers, and parents, and reach out to support the social-emotional needs of students and families.
  7. Develop a plan to support our high school students in pursuing post-secondary opportunities.
  8. Develop a system of coordination and communication among stakeholder groups.
  9. Develop a staffing plan that supports changes in the learning environment and educational delivery model, taking into account a number of potential scenarios.

Committees have been formed for each goal and are meeting to discuss possible courses of action to accomplish these goals. Smith, along with assistant superintendents Chuck Smith and Andrea Leonardi, will be chairing the committees, and he has invited a variety of participants to join, among them:  BOE members; teachers and administrators; parents; Wilton’s Heath Director Barry Bogle; Dr. Christine Macken, medical advisor to Wilton Public Schools, and Barbara Schum, RN, the district’s director of nurses.

Prioritizing Health and Safety

First among all priorities will be health and safety, said Kevin Smith. Other considerations school officials are taking into account:  economic hardship on families; impact on student learning; new health and behavioral norms, and required training; changes to physical infrastructure, transportation, food services, scheduling and staffing; and reentry models for what Smith called “different groups of students.”

Administrators have made some assumptions about health and safety protocols that need to be in place for fall reopening. Students and staff can expect:  daily health and temperature checks; required mask-wearing (with some exceptions, including students with disabilities or medical reasons that make them unable to wear masks for extended periods); social distancing requirements that limit the number of people allowed in buildings and in classrooms, with student-to-teacher ratios of 10-to-one; contact tracing; suspending large gatherings; limiting the number of bus passengers;  cleaning routines; physical barriers; and more.

Smith said that there have been initial discussions about whether the school calendar would need to be adjusted, but without firm guidelines from the state, nothing is set at this point.

Curriculum–Assessment and Development 

This past Thursday, assistant superintendent for curriculum Chuck Smith presented to the BOE about how the district will approach developing a plan for curriculum and learning (goals 3-5 in the re-entry plan).

Smith said the first step the committees are working on is developing “re-entry units” for students’ return in September, whether learning happens in-person or remotely, to “set the reset button” for moving forward.

Smith described these re-entry units as focused on instructing teachers and students how to use Schoology–how teachers create and deliver lessons and how students post materials and submit work on the platform–especially when instruction may shift between in-person and distance models.

During this first re-entry unit period, educators would also try to assess and identify student learning gaps.

Covering these first re-entry units could take up to the first month of school before teachers would move into the first formal academic units, Smith said. Designing and developing those lesson units could be challenging for teachers, he said, depending on the learning context they find themselves in.

As a result, teachers will have to “prioritize standards.”

“We need to recognize that no matter what situation we’re in next year, we’re probably not going to be able to deliver the curriculum the way we would if we were in a traditional setting. This is going to be hard next year for everybody. And so we have to focus on the most important standards,” Smith said.

Smith explained that although the Instructional Leaders (ILs) for each subject already have begun to develop the introductory lessons, the process will take much longer than just the summer months, and won’t be finished before the 2020-2021 school year begins.

That’s due mostly to a transition to a new learning management system called Schoology (explained in the section below on technology).

“It’s not possible for us to load the entire curriculum into Schoology for the teachers over the summer. So we’re going to have to think about how we can find time within the calendar that we have to give teachers time to get support in how to use Schoology and design their lessons in their units in that platform. We’ve begun to map that out for next year. We then take that and plan it out in detail by school, and we’ve begun identifying the topics that will be covered,” Smith said.

He later clarified further, explaining that the overarching curriculum does exist in Schoology, but that what would take much more time is for teachers to integrate their own lesson plans with the new platform.

“The teachers need to create their courses. Teachers have lots of materials and resources that they like to use, they like to sequence their lessons in a certain way, depending upon the kids who are in front of them. Their units are currently written for face-to-face interaction with students. So they need time to take the Schoology template, load their resources, and then design their lessons. It’s not something that we could do for teachers, and I don’t think they would want us to.”

Rather than looking to the summer to do that work, Smith said he’s looking at “how can we provide teachers with time throughout the year to figure out and do this work.” He and the ILs are mapping out professional learning, something he said needs to happen in stages.

“Between now and September, what we want our teachers to know and be able to do is to navigate Schoology, engage with their students and establish routines and instructional practices. Beginning in September through November, we want to help them to use learning targets and students’ assessments effectively in Schoology. And then from November to February, um, how to do goal setting and student feedback and using student performance rubrics,” he said.

Curriculum Intervention–the “COVID Slide” and Lowered Benchmarks

Smith said he anticipates many more students than in years past will qualify for intervention, due to something he termed “COVID slide.”

But Smith said he’s “reluctant” to either increase the number of students in intervention groups (this “would defeat the purpose of intervention”) or to add more teachers (“I just don’t think we have the budget or capacity.”).

As a result, Smith said Wilton will have to aim a little lower than usual.

“it’s likely what we’re going to do is to lower the benchmark, so that the interventionists can continue to be effective in meeting the needs of our most struggling learners. That said, there’s going to be a number of students who are still below grade level.”

Interventionists will likely have to save one-on-one time for the neediest learners, so they’ll have to focus on students “just below benchmark” within the general education classroom environment.

“Our initial thought is that for a period of time, at the beginning of the school year, the first several weeks, the interventionists will probably be redeployed, to provide support to the general ed[ucation] teachers in designing intervention programs that general ed teachers can do within the classroom. These will probably be the students who are closest to benchmark and just below benchmark. The interventionists will still see our neediest learners, but because they can’t see everybody who we anticipate will technically score below benchmark, we want to give them some time to build some capacity in general ed classrooms to work with those students.”

Board member Jennifer Lalor questioned why Smith was reluctant to hire more interventionists.

“I’d love to leave open the possibility of increasing our number of interventionists. We’ve talked about this a number of times and the concern of the gap and having a larger number of children who are going to have a gap. As a board, we set aside money just in case, not solely for that, but just in case like things come up and I would love to leave that as an open possibility.”

Smith said he was hesitant about that, and pointed to concerns about training new hires.

“I’m not closing off the possibility at all. I would just ask the board to think very carefully. Onboarding new interventionists takes time and effort. And given the current circumstances we’re in, I just would like to think very carefully about how we could do that effectively. I wouldn’t want to put our neediest learners in front of people who we haven’t trained appropriately or oriented appropriately.”

Figuring out how much has been lost in the “COVID slide” and adjusting the curriculum would also take more time.

“The coordinators and coaches have already identified the priority standards. But part of it also has to be informed by what we see as the learning gaps come back,” Smith said, something he knows will happen given that curriculum was “scaled back” during this past spring’s distance learning.

As a result, Smith said it may not be possible to cover everything in a typical year’s curriculum.

“If we see there are major learning gaps, we may have to reprioritize things because I don’t know how much time it will be to cover that material,” he said.

BOE chair Low said she was “stunned.”

“The line that stunned me was–this is not a criticism–but we’re already talking about not delivering the curriculum that we normally would and lowering the benchmark for kids who need intervention, both of which are just antithetical to what our normal world would be,” she said, adding that she had faith in the district staff but was “overwhelmed at the complexity and obstacles” the district was facing.

Parent Reaction–and a Clarification from Kevin Smith

Parents responded on Friday to what the board discussed after an article appeared in the Wilton Bulletin that said the schools “may lower academic expectations.”

In an email to parents Friday evening, Kevin Smith said the Bulletin reporter “misinterpreted” Chuck Smith’s comments.

“To be clear, we are not lowering academic expectations and Dr. Smith never stated that,” Kevin Smith wrote.

“He did say that the curriculum will focus on priority standards, which are a carefully selected subset of the total list of grade-specific and course-specific standards within each content area. These priority standards provide the foundation for subsequent grades and courses. We should have made clear that emphasizing priority standards does not mean we are not teaching other standards. Focusing the curriculum on priority standards is a responsible and effective way to ensure that all students are acquiring essential content and are well-prepared for subsequent learning. Again, this does not in any way represent a lowering of academic expectations, it simply means that some standards are emphasized over others. It is a way to help our teachers focus their time and effort on the most important learning for our students. Given the unknowns we are facing, including what direct, in-person contact time we will have with students, it is prudent to have a clear and shared understanding of what learning is most important at each grade and in each course.”

Kevin Smith acknowledged that the term “lowering the benchmark” in discussing students who need intervention “understandably caused confusion and concern.”

He said that the district would intervene “in some way” for any child in need of support–but that support may fall to classroom teachers to provide.

“We are currently able to offer intervention services to all students below the 60th percentile in reading and below the 40th percentile in math. If the number of students falling below those benchmarks increases significantly in September 2020, we have to determine how best to support the increased level of needs. One approach would be to adjust the level at which we would offer the direct, usual intervention services. However, we would still be intervening in some way for all children who need support.

“This might be accomplished through classroom teachers providing additional reading, mathematics, or other support. I regret we did not make this clearer at the Board of Education meeting last night.”

He said Chuck Smith’s presentation reflected “preliminary thinking” and the district is “not [yet] committed to an approach” because what the future holds is still unsure.

It is also important to note that Dr. Chuck Smith was sharing some partial, preliminary thinking. We are not committed to an approach because we don’t yet know what we will be facing. At this point, please know we are fortunate to have a robust intervention program but it is also our current practice for classroom teachers to address the needs of students who perform below grade level.

He reiterated that addressing students with learning gaps is a top priority. “Foremost in our considerations will be how we best address the needs of students who are below grade level.”

Technology and a “Blended Learning Environment” (Online + In-Person)

As the community saw when the schools transitioned to distance learning, adapting to a reliance on technology will become even more critical. Fran Kompar, the district’s director of digital learning, emphasized this during the May 28 meeting. She said the district needs to come to terms with the likelihood of a “blended learning environment” for the 2020-2021 school year.

“This ‘blended learning approach’ is something you’re probably going to hear a lot more about because a lot of districts are going into this path as they’re planning for next year. It combines the best approaches happening right now online, but also with in-person and traditional classroom interaction; and being able to have a structure in place where you have opportunities for independent work, but also practice reflection,” Kompar said. “That really requires a strategic integration of technology with some sort of a robust learning management system.”

She explained that a learning management system (LMS) would combine data, an ability to personalize instruction, and an ability to look at standards to implement curriculum and content delivery.

Choosing the right LMS is critical because, as Kompar explained, it is the way that gets everyone–educators, students, and parents–”a way to deliver highly effective, engaging, and equitable education to every child.”

Kompar worked with a 60-member group of parents, students, instructional coaches and administrators to identify a Learning Management System(LMS) to use across in-person and distance learning.

They decided on Schoology, a platform Kompar said was simple enough for use at the Pre-K/elementary level, but is also suitable for students all the way through high school. It integrates with the Google Suite that students and teachers are already familiar with and is compatible with PowerSchool as a grading and assignment tool, that students, teachers, and parents can use. The site’s parent portal would allow parents to see their children’s upcoming assignments and any that have been submitted.

Smith acknowledged that adopting a new LMS doesn’t make everyone happy. The decision to implement Schoology has “ruffled a lot of feathers, particularly among our middle school and high school staff.”

“Traditionally as a community of educational practitioners, we’ve employed fairly democratic processes as we’ve entertained changes. We’ve sought a lot of stakeholder input. But in this emergency environment, the timing was such that we needed to make some decisions. While we did have a broad base of people weighing in, it wasn’t necessarily all of the people that we would have engaged in the way that we would have engaged them traditionally. I don’t want to understate the importance of that. We definitely stepped on some toes as part of this consideration and that’s really important to say out loud,” Smith told the BOE on May 21.

Many of those teachers questioned the Schoology decision:  “Why this tool and why now? Isn’t this the worst possible time to make such a significant transition?”

Smith said it’s a fair statement and worry given the experiences students, families, and teachers have had over the last few months–but that Schoology will address those worries.

“We think Schoology really does check a lot of boxes even for teachers who are well immersed in Google classroom, what it can do to make life easier for lesson planning; the integration with the grade book for providing assessments; the need for some greater rigor as we normally would have as well as some greater consistency. We think this platform can really help us pretty far down that road,” he said, adding, “I’m absolutely convinced that this is a tool that will better support teachers, kids, and parents.”

Kompar reported that Schoology has been in use within the district on a limited basis:  it’s been piloted at the Genesis Program, it’s been used for curriculum mapping, and some students have been ‘test-driving’ it. Kompar said it will be a system that “makes it much easier to communicate with students and families,” and is user-friendly, even including an app for mobile phones.

Staff training for using the Schoology platform already started last week with a comprehensive six-hour train-the-trainer session for curriculum and instructional leaders as well as library learning commons and technology staff. Training for the wider faculty team begins June 8 with three-hour training sessions to teach fundamentals and help teachers feel more comfortable with the platform. An optional curriculum day will take place over the summer to help teachers set up courses for blended learning. Self-paced resources, videos, and a virtual help desk will be provided for additional guidance. Resources and trainings to help students and parents to adjust to the platform are also in the works.

That’s not to say administrators expect everyone will be happy about adopting Schoology–especially teachers. Kevin Smith said on May 21, “While it’s not going to be easy, it will be easier for some, harder for others. We’re really committed to meeting them where they’re at and delivering on an approach to teaching and learning that really does meet [their] own aspirations, that meets our aspirations, and better serves our children and families.”

Kompar told the BOE that New Canaan High School has been using Schoology for the past three years, while Westport has been using it almost two times longer than that. Other districts are exploring using it as well.

Staffing Considerations

As school officials start exploring multiple scheduling and instructional models, this will impact how the district will approach staffing and hiring for the 2020-2021 school year. This will be led by Maria Coleman, the district’s human resource and operations director.

One factor they will have to contend with will be teachers’ availability and childcare responsibilities.

“One of the things that we’ve been thinking about is staff whose children may not be in school next year. We’re hearing that decision-making is going to be left to individual school districts. If that’s the case, our school district may be open, and other school districts may be closed, so we may have staff that have limited availability because their children are at home, [or] they may have a complete lack of availability,” she described.

Potential ‘out-of-the-box’ options being considered are whether there is interest among staff members for on-site child-care or job-sharing.

“These are really just things that we’re exploring. There’s nothing that we’ve committed to, but we recognize that now more than ever, we need to entertain all possibilities. We need to be very creative in trying to create an environment that’s going to support all staff members and students so that this effort can be as successful as possible,” Coleman said.

The district will have to take into account new Family Medical Leave laws (FMLA) that requires the district to provide staff members paid leave for issues related to having to care for family members impacted by the coronavirus.

“We’ve already had staff members during this closure period who’ve had to take advantage of that for different reasons, and I would anticipate that would continue particularly if we’re seeing a resurgence in rates of infection in the fall and throughout the school year,” Coleman confirmed.

Operations will also be concerned with any safety protocols that will have to be put into place, whether that means having to move hiring, recruiting, and training online, or providing resources like PPE to teachers. There will be a need for pandemic response teams in each building as well. Also critical will be how the district implements and strengthens communication protocols within the district to staff as well as externally with students and families.

Coleman said the committees she’s working with are also looking at wellness–including assessing how learning was delivered and what impact the pandemic had on people. “We’re looking at things like what the impact has been on people, what their readiness level is to return, what [teachers’] readiness level is to support students as they come back in, because naturally students have been through trauma and staff members have been through trauma throughout this. So we need to think about what types of professional learning we need to provide, what types of support we need to provide,” she said.