For background on the Middlebrook schedule change debate and how we’ve produced today’s stories — including asking directly for an administrative response to teacher and parent concerns and criticism — check out our Special Report introduction article.
GOOD Morning Wilton: You told the Board of Education that the scheduling committee researched and reviewed multiple models, reviewed effectiveness, appropriateness for the students. You [told the BOE] the AB block was “the only schedule where there was an agreement with the scheduling group and the leadership and the administration.” A couple teachers said they’ve worked on the scheduling committee and it was never an option they considered. That it was presented as a done deal by Central Office and not a schedule that they agreed to.
Middlebrook Principal Jory Higgins: That’s just not true. I wouldn’t also say it’s the only one that we all agreed on either. I’ve said over and over and over again — there’s no one perfect schedule, and there are reasons not to like all the schedules. And something I’ll repeat again, if there was one perfect schedule, guess what? We’d be doing it. Not just Wilton, but across the United States for that matter.
What’s frustrating is every one of our scheduling meetings were open to everyone. Some folks couldn’t make it because it was after school. So, certainly from my point of view, from the scheduling committee’s point of view, anybody could attend, anybody could participate, but maybe they weren’t able to always do that.
But I would also circle back with everyone at faculty meetings and through leadership to give them updates on where are we, what’s going on, what’s happening. And always, but always welcoming. ‘Hey, you have ideas?’ And some people created drafts of ideas and schedules that they suggested.
Superintendent Kevin Smith: There is this misunderstanding that the scheduling committee has been one fixed group over time. That’s not accurate. There have been scheduling committees in place from the time Maria Coleman was principal [2013-2016]. Lauren [Feltz], when she was principal [2016-2020], did a lot of work. Jory picked up the ball with a team as well.
From a Central Office perspective or a Kevin perspective, I didn’t participate on any of them. So to suggest that this schedule’s being handed down by my office is inaccurate. Certainly, Karen [Brenneke] and Trudy [Denton] as [District Curriculum Coordinators] have played a significant role in providing feedback.
But the framing that’s important to go back to is what the objectives were in looking at a new schedule. And those haven’t changed. We’ve talked ad nauseam about the challenge with the current schedule and instructional time for math. We’ve talked about at length the desire to integrate reading and writing because having them bifurcated makes no sense. We’ve talked about the limits in this [current] schedule to provide our kids that are in intervention and with IEPs more access to STRIDE.
So every scheduling model didn’t meet all of those objectives. So back in October and November, when Jory invited me down to a meeting to look at the last model, it is true to say that the AB Block Schedule checked most of the objectives.
Speaking from my own experience with some of the schedule proposals that the committee has put forward over the years, there were many of them that shorted STRIDE time, and I really felt very, very strongly that that was inappropriate, so I objected to those kinds of schedules.
This [Block Schedule] was one where we got math time, we integrated ELA, we met the objective of trying to bring more kids into STRIDE and protecting that intervention time. And the thing I love about it that I wasn’t really, truly fixated on until I started to think about it, was we slow down the pace of the day for kids and for teachers. I don’t think people are really paying attention to that aspect of it. And I step back and think about all of the mental health challenges we have in this country and this community. There’s not a person, reasonably, that can step forward and say that this is a bad idea for kids from that lens.
GMW: Teachers talk about the low morale and have said they’re being misrepresented publicly. A couple said that you [Dr. Smith] haven’t come to talk to them directly. I talked to ILs (Instructional Leaders) and they felt they haven’t been consulted. That it hasn’t been communicated well to the teachers — the particulars or just in general. What do you say about that?
Higgins: It got to the point where I actually created the spreadsheet for how this has been communicated and who’s been involved. And whether or not folks have chosen to participate in it is a whole other piece. But I feel pretty good about the numbers of times we’ve had open communication about what’s going on and what’s happening.
It’s sad to hear that someone’s expressing that. In the end, it almost doesn’t matter what did or didn’t happen, it’s how they’re feeling, and you want to try to help them feel better about it, certainly. But so much of this is riding on so much of the emotion that’s attached to staff members that are going to be impacted, whether or not there’s a loss of staff in the building and that the fact that folks are going to be RIF’d [reduction in force]. We’re talking about a lot of things other than really what’s best for children rather than the emotion of, ‘I’ve got a friend, a colleague that isn’t going to be here anymore.’ That’s hard to take.
GMW: In 100% of the conversations with teachers, the first thing they all led off with was how the schedule’s not good for kids, for the kids at this age. That they’re thinking about what is best for the students. Most of them said, we accept [colleagues] are going to get cut, and that’s actually not the prime reason motivating them. The majority of the conversations have been about how this works for kids, whether or not the curriculum is going to fit into the time, that learning will suffer. They’ve talked about the social/emotional part. Somebody said that fewer transitions is actually counterintuitive for these kids coming up from Cider Mill who look forward to independence and changing classes and seeing different teachers and the variety — that this is counter to what this age group wants and needs. That sitting in a class for 88 minutes is not something a lot of them can handle or learning will be more difficult for them.
Smith: I completely reject that entirely.
I’ll go back to, you named me not speaking to the faculty. That’s a true point, I have not spoken to the faculty directly. This is a building-level initiative. I’m happy to speak to them all. I didn’t speak to the high school faculty either when [Principal] Bob [O’Donnell] changed the schedule there.
I see the principal and the [building] leadership team taking ownership, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be happy to express my points of view.
We have to go back to pedagogical principles. This has been one of the primary concerns I’ve heard echoed by parents, there seems to be this perception that kids are going to be sitting in a class for 88 minutes. Nobody would want that for kids.
If you go back to lesson structure and look at how time is allocated, the piece that’s being missed here is the opportunity to differentiate instruction, which is something we’ve talked about forever — the opportunity for kids to really engage in some deep thinking and some interdisciplinary work.
Years ago as we were implementing Connecticut Core Standards, some of these longstanding, very worthy projects that were fixtures — especially at Middlebrook — were squeezed out of the curriculum because of the demands of the standards. Reverting to a schedule that allows time to integrate a range of activities around a single learning target, it could be really good for kids and it could be active. What we’re talking about here is imagination and what could be, and we have to get past this idea that (they don’t even really do it today) — teachers at Middlebrook don’t stand in front of kids and lecture for 40 minutes. Why we would think that would happen in 88 minutes is completely absurd.
GMW: Can you describe in a way for parents to visualize what that will look like? That it’s not a teacher standing in front of a classroom of kids squirming in a seat for 88 minutes… explain how those 88 minutes break down, concretely.
Higgins: What’s dangerous is to make it sound like there’s a template. It’s not a template, but to kind of break down what are the activities that are happening? What’s the introduction, what’s the activity they’re doing? What is the independent practice that’s happening? How do you break that up? How do the kids move throughout that?
I hope that not only an explanation, but the visual will help folks recognize that it’s not 80-plus minutes of just sitting still or doing one activity, or for that matter necessarily, having just one learning target. It’s the conceptual application that’s also being dug into. And again, that idea that the possibility is there. Right now [40 minutes] feels like you’ve barely got into the lesson, the activity and start something independent, and okay, we’ve got to go — 40 minutes just isn’t enough time.
GMW: Can you give concrete examples for people? So people can visualize what that means.
Smith: So, the start of class is pretty standard. Kids land, there might be a warmup activity. Kids will engage in the warmup activity, whatever it looks like. A teacher will present the lesson — I think of the workshop model as an easy template in my mind that we use really heavily in the lower schools. So there’s a learning target and the teacher does some input and then the kids break out.
In that breakout time, kids do some team practice, so they’re working together, solving a problem. The teacher might work with a small group or might pull several small groups because he or she knows certain kids need particular refinement or extension.
There’s time privilege for that [in 88 minutes]. Pull the group back together and check-in. ‘Here’s the problem. How’d you work out? Describe and explain your thinking. Working through the teacher, highlight some really exemplars of good thinking. Okay, questions? Clarifications? And then you’re released back to independent practice. So that’s one model of what it could look like.
The difference is in the time allocation. In 40 minutes, all of that in that model, it’s all compressed. So, ‘You’ve got two minutes to think so…’ Step back from that for a second and think about that — you’ve got this [holds up both hands just inches apart] amount of time to really think. How does that make sense for kids? Especially when we know that kids require different amounts of time to do whatever.
So it’s the privilege of more time to engage in those different types of activities through the lesson. That’s one opportunity.
Another opportunity could be is, you might have a single learning target or a couple learning targets, and a teacher has set up a series of stations where kids rotate through station activities to reinforce learning around those targets. That’s another model. Again, the difference is you can do those things in 40 minutes, it’s all rushed.
So when we talk about the opportunity for thinking and reflection, as you close out a lesson, creating time for kids to go back and either summarize their thinking or engage in some kind of synthesis activity, those are the pieces that generally get missed in a 40-minute lesson. They might be assigned for homework. [But] we don’t control the home environment, so you can’t assure that as a quality exercise for every kid.
Other examples… We can go into a science lab experience. Again, I would just contrast the way we conduct science labs here in the high school versus middle school. Structurally they’re similar; timing, not at all. Kids really don’t have time to engage thoroughly in an experiment or an inquiry. None of those things are passive, they’re just not.
GMW: So even though they’re not necessarily transitioning on the team they are transitioning in the classroom?
Smith: Yes. The idea of passivity … nobody that works with kids in schools could reasonably suggest that’s going to be a problem here.
Higgins: There are layers to it too when there are projects involved, when there is time that the kids need to struggle with something and it’s the struggling with partners or struggling with the teacher. Whether they’re writing an essay or it’s a project they’re working on, in some cases you just need to give the children time to struggle with it, not be their answer man or answer woman, so to speak.
But also there are moments when they need feedback. They need to know what that feedback loop is going to be to spark them into…, not to lead the witness to where we want them to be, but to give them an opportunity to have that feedback loop or just time to actually sit in there and get at it and not feel like, ‘I’ve got three minutes before the bell’s ringing and whatever I don’t get done I have to do tonight.’
Smith: I would add to that about things that we really struggle to manage in the existing schedule. We know our reading curriculum is packed, and we know kids need time to read independently. We also know while we can demand from them to do it at home, that’s not an environment that we can guarantee.
So the opportunity we have with a block and combining reading and writing is we can privilege time in the school day for independent reading. And we know independent reading grows reading skills. So that’s a great opportunity that we should really think very seriously about. We’re contemplating all the benefits and drawbacks of the schedule change.
GMW: Let’s break down between math and ELA the specifics of what block scheduling will do to each of those core curriculum pieces, especially because people have focused on the number of minutes now and the number of minutes with block. And whether or not enough curriculum will get covered in the year.
It’s been posited by the district that this is more time for math and that the reconfigured time will let Wilton meet the demands of the math curriculum.
The counter-argument is, you’re taking two math classes and putting them into one block that’s not necessarily more time. One of the BOE members said it’s an average of three more minutes in the day you’re giving them. So you’re only relocating time every other day, and it’s not necessarily more time.
When Middlebrook teachers talked to the high school teachers, they were told high school classes only get through three-quarters or two-thirds of the curriculum for the year with the block schedule. It’s great, you get depth, but you lose the breadth.
Higgins: I heard those conversations too, and it made me wonder about the fuzzy math.
There are nine units in math for Middlebrook that the staff and kids are supposed to get through. We historically get through right now about six and change; this year, we’re doing a little bit better, closer to seven [units] — which is one of the reasons why we had the stats and probability [unit] turned into that STRIDE class. We hold that one unit out and the ninth unit was something that we never really believed we’d ever get to, but it’s meant to be that synthesis piece that pulls together some of those other parts. It’s an example of the trade-offs we made of having the [Illustrative Math] IM curriculum, knowing that it was good, but we recognized that it was designed for a 50- to 60-minute lesson, yet we try to do it in 40, 41 minutes. So we knew that there had to be some trade-offs there.
We consciously made that trade-off, but with the thought that there’d be a schedule change in a couple years, which has now been closer to five years ago. So, that’s part of the issue. What needs to happen moving forward is [figure out] what does it look like when we remove that stats and probability class from the STRIDE block [back] into the mainstream setting? Then what do those units look like? The work that [district math curriculum coordinator] Trudy [Denton] and the team has already started doing is looking at what that’s going to be.
It’s nowhere near this two-thirds number that people have been throwing out. Just by recognizing that to try to compare what we cover in middle school to what they’re doing at the high school, relative to the different levels that the kids are taking… it’s a little bit of [comparing] apples and oranges.
But the worry or concern is real for our crew to really better understand. That’s part of the work that needs to happen in March and April.
GMW: If I understand what you’re saying, it’s not only apples and oranges between high school and Middlebrook, but it’s also apples and oranges between how teaching happens within each schedule plan [42 vs. 88 minutes]. That one is qualitative and one is quantitative. And it’s not necessarily about the quantity of minutes, but it’s the quality of what you’re putting into that time.
Smith: You can’t finish a lesson cycle the way it’s described in 41 minutes.
I guess I would come at it a little bit differently and take a longer view of the questions around curriculum. There’s a very notable researcher who does meta-analysis in education, Robert Marzano. He described the K-12 curriculum nationally and said, if schools were going to meet all of the demands in the curriculum, you would need a K-21 system.
I would offer to you, the State legislature is in session now. There are, I don’t know, 3,000 proposed bills after three weeks? The Education Committee has increased in size by half. So we know there are going to be, as there are every other year, new education mandates. What has not changed are the goalposts on the day. We have a six-hour and 35-minute day that has not changed. We have always been asked to do more with a fixed amount of time. And in a conversation like this, people lose sight of that. Teachers, curriculum coordinators, districts all make decisions about curriculum all the time. Some of those decisions are planned, others are on the fly because a teacher is reacting to what he or she sees in front of her with the kids. So I am not at all concerned about the time, because I know we have a quality curriculum.
We didn’t start with an A/B Block proposal. We started with this understanding that we should have at least 55 or 60 minutes. We know we need at least 60 minutes for ELA. So one of the things that I found appealing about this model is that Illustrative Mathematics has a framework to teach the IM curriculum in a block. So we can get through the units we need to get through, we can complete a complete lesson in the IM model in the block. We’re cheating the model right now in the 40-minute schedule. That’s what we have to pay attention to.
I think that’s your point about quality versus quantity.
On the language arts side, we run six units of reading and six units of writing. They’re good, worthy units, but they’re clunky. When we get off pace, they don’t line up. So it’s an unnatural fit. Having a single teacher teach both is going to allow us to have a much more natural fit.
Every other DRG school around us runs one ELA block, and they actually do it in half the time that we currently allot. So when you ask, is achievement or performance going to suffer, I would just take a look historically at our English language performance on the SBA compared to some of our DRG counterparts. This year we were at the top. It wasn’t because of the bell schedule, it was because of what teachers were doing within the time they had.
So, again, we’re going to produce really good, cohesive units. Kids are going to have time to read and write and think. And in my belief, because of the time they’re going to have, it’s going to be actually better than what we have now.
GMW: So you’re saying the other schools have combined reading and writing and have the time, which is what this plan is? But half, because you’re combining every other day.
Smith: We’ll have integrated units. If you’re just calculating total minutes, yes, it’s less because we’re combining. But from a quality teaching and learning, are our kids going to suffer? No.
GMW: And the question about parents and teachers who have asked why change things when the test scores have been the highest?
Smith: This is where we need to be really clear and thoughtful about what’s different. The schedule conversation is hard because A) it’s a change and it’s a big change; B) it’s a change in the way that we’re proposing to reduce staff. Nobody wants to see that happen. That’s not my first choice. But given all of the pressures and constraints that we have to deal with it, to me it makes sense.
It’s not a knock on any teacher or any person. This is just one of the outcomes of this change. And do I think it’s worth it? I do. But it clouds the conversation and people have emotional reactions.
As I’ve thought about what’s different about 2022 compared to 2021 — and even remove the pandemic years for a second — what’s different is our use of the accelerated learning framework. Because we knew we were confronting unfinished learning, and we knew we have a fixed day and a fixed year, we had to prioritize curriculum. So we had to systematically go through all of our units and say, what’s the absolute most important standard-aligned work our kids need to do? So we did that. What else did we do? We really had to study the gaps for kids and where unfinished learning was. So more than we ever have before, across this district, we privileged student learning information. We leaned really heavily on the MAP test data. We looked at who those specific kids were that were approaching benchmark and we tailored instruction.
Our teachers, to their great credit, really invested in this. They’ve always known where kids were generally, but with all of that support, they knew where kids were specifically and had pathways forward to help them grow. So I’m not at all surprised that we saw the kind of remarkable growth we saw. That’s what’s different.
The opportunity that I see here in this schedule is that kind of personalized support that teachers were providing kids and they were doing it in between hours, after school, before school, wherever they could during the school day… What’s elegant about this model is the Skills Block they’re proposing. It’s got a lot of merit that is worthy of thought and consideration. If we choose to, we’re going to be able to provide that kind of tailored instruction to kids in 44-minute [Skills Block] chunks.
Then the other kids who are receiving more formalized intervention services or IEP services, they get the benefit of working with those teachers during that time as well. So it’s additional support time.
For those reasons I step back from this and say, yes, this could be really good for kids and can continue to grow achievement.
GMW: So the lessons learned from the 2022 approach with accelerated learning and all the reliance on the data, that’s going to continue?
Smith: Absolutely. We’re doing it now.
GMW: Will it continue beyond this year? Is this a philosophical adjustment that’s now the way forward for Wilton Public Schools?
Smith: Absolutely, yes. We continue to use the MAP data, teams continue to work in, IETs [Instructional Effectiveness Teams] across the district. We continue to meet with principals and administrative teams to look at specific data, specific kids, trends and patterns across grade levels, and look at gaps in the curriculum and reinforce where we need to improve. It’s a primary focus. It should be a focus. To me, it’s a better way of doing business.
GMW: One thing a few people pointed to was the way learning can be impacted by the every other day part of the schedule. An example, a kid is in class on Wednesday, they’re absent on Friday, so the next time the student sees that class and teacher is Tuesday, a week later. So not only does the student have that gap in time away from class, but there’s also twice the material effectively that student has now missed.
Smith: That’s a legitimate, structural concern. That question came up to when the high school transitioned to the block schedule. I don’t have a scientific answer and maybe —
Higgins: I do. One of the pieces that gets lost is that on a given day you’re going to have three academics, the next day, two. But on that [day with] two, there’s also a Skills Block. So the idea that they would go potentially for even five days before they would see that teacher isn’t accurate. So if I miss Monday, then Tuesday that Skills Block is a wonderful opportunity to do that.
Now nothing but nothing can replace the classroom. And if we learned nothing from Covid, that whole idea of remote learning and how difficult that is for everybody involved, so anytime someone’s absent — maybe the staff member’s absent, let alone the student being absent — there’s going to be an issue that you need to address somewhere along the line.
[WHS Principal] Dr. O’Donnell and I talked about how do you manage it? Of course, at the high school age group, there’s a certain level of maturity and responsibility. They —
GMW: They do it on their own outside of class.
Higgins: — recognize, okay, I’ve gotta go see and work with [Teacher X] because I missed, right? [At Middlebrook,] we’re with an age group that still needs to learn how to do that. It’s more about them being active participants in their own learning. Schoology also opens up a whole other opportunity for us relative to that. So it’s not a completely blind, ‘I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in class.’ At least there’s a starting point. Again, nothing can replace the time in the classroom, but at least it gives the student a leg up on an opportunity to be able to say, ‘All right, what’s the right way to handle that? Well, I need to make an appointment to see that teacher. I need to make sure that I come in early that next morning or stay late that next day.
Smith: Haven’t we been dealing with extensive absences for —
Higgins: Exactly, nearly three years.
Smith: I don’t want to minimize the concern, but to me, it’s not such a high barrier that we shouldn’t move forward.
Higgins: The idea that our kids in this age group can’t manage every other day, that there isn’t an ability to learn the material. That just not only is not proven through the research, but even just anecdotally talking to our partner districts that are doing it. I asked those specific questions. They just said, it’s absolutely not true. How they know is that, every lesson, even when we meet day to day, there’s a certain piece that’s always, ‘Hey, remember what we did? What is it we’re working on, et cetera…’ There’s that quick hit reminder. That still would happen, still be part of the vernacular that we’re going to be using in the classroom.
To the worry that there are going to be children that are going to struggle with that… There are now. And that’s part of what we do anyway.
Smith: As we’ve gotten into some of the research on just the block as a model, and there are different versions of a block schedule, but one of the things that’s been consistent through everything I’ve read so far is the impact on school climate.
You’d started with some worries about some of the staff saying they really need the 40-minute increments and the 10 [daily] transitions. I don’t understand that. But what the research suggests is that fewer transitions, the longer chunks of time that enable better, more intimate contact with teachers, actually create stronger relationships.
Some of the indicators that some researchers have identified, not that discipline’s a big issue for us, but fewer discipline [issues], just a generally more peaceful environment, better relationships, higher morale. So we ought to pay attention to some of that too.
Higgins: And that student experience too. ‘I know I have these three classes today. I don’t have these eight classes today, that helps as well.
GMW: The Skills Block… I’ve heard how undefined it is. Dr. Smith, your quote at a BOE meeting, was, “I see it more of a concept than anything that is chockful of opportunities.” Do you have more specifics about the Skills Block?
Higgins: Structurally, the student experience is four 80-something-minute blocks with lunch in there as well. One of those 80-plus minutes is broken into two different Skills blocks.
What we’re working on now is a rotation of what that looks like. So the student experience, if you think about Monday, Wednesday, Friday following Tuesday, Thursday would be a cycle through the the schedule. Out of that cycle, they’d have two skills blocks in each of those disciplines.
The student experience would be, I have this additive opportunity to meet with and work with my teacher specifically on whatever my needs are, what the curriculum is asking for, small group instruction, problem-solving, et cetera.
If I made a mistake, it was that I thought the teachers would want more ownership of what that skills block would look like. So early on, it probably did feel nebulous because it was, ‘What do we want it to be? How do you want that to look?’ Because right now teachers are doing that outside the classroom time anyway. Whether that’s before school, after school, during tutorials, at lunch, catching students in the hallway sometimes in a bunch of quicker ways.
Now, here we have this opportunity to slow it down. So there has been a shift from that original presentation to today where it is certainly more clearly defined. That this should feel like and look like an extension of time and opportunity from the classroom. If you think of the 80 minutes and the 40 minutes being this [40 minutes] is time with your teacher that you’re going to be able to attack the curriculum. That’s probably a neater way to look at it.
GMW: Does that mean the onus is on the student to say what they need to work on today, or is that the teacher planning ahead to tell each student, ‘You need to do X, and you need to do Y in this skills block?’
Higgins: Look at it a little differently than that. A broad generalization here in fairness, [but] a teacher, how many kids can they get to in the 40 minutes on any level of an individual, let alone small group, setting. Frankly, it’s five on Monday, five on Tuesday, five on Wednesday, et cetera. In other words, I’m trying short hits to be able to give you this one-on-one opportunity not only for me to check in, do some formative assessment, then drive the instruction.
This is going to give [teachers] an opportunity to be able to do that. There’s two ways — the student’s going to be able to express, ‘Hey, I’m struggling with…’ or ‘Hey, I’m not sure about….’ And other times the teacher’s going to be the one that needs to say, ‘No, no, come here, sit, let’s work on et cetera.’ Whether it’s a formative or summative assessment that has obviously highlighted something that child is not demonstrating an understanding, that’s that opportunity. Maybe two [students] have something similar, maybe we do that in pairs and small groups.
GMW: So will teachers know who’s coming in a particular Skills? It’s not a very fluid, don’t know who’s coming in and figure it out on the fly kind time?
Higgins: No, if you can imagine in a middle school setting, the children need to know where they’re supposed to be and the adults need to know where they’re supposed to be too. So that needs to happen.
GMW: Can you tease out the compensation and teacher contract time? Does this add time? Are teachers gonig to have the same amount of time they have now? Are working at a 1.2 FTE level, but getting paid at a 1.0 FTE level? How does the Skills Block figure into that part of their responsibilities, their teaching time, their planning time, and what they are contracted to do?
Higgins: The short answer is it’s not additive in terms what they’re doing now. When you think about their work day from a perspective of the, six hours and 35 minutes, there are times where I think it’s going to feel a little different for our staff.
The way it’s set up now, students have tutorial periods. And each teacher has a tutorial time that’s assigned to them that they won’t have assigned to them moving forward. So the trade-off is that when I talked about that cycle earlier, over the course of two weeks that there are two periods per class that you’re going to be doing that. It’s going to feel like a trade-off that’s not unlike when I had my tutorial time in terms of what’s my responsibility as an educator.
But the other side of it is that, if we were to go back in time and talk about when we started all this schedule process, every single discipline was saying, ‘I need more time. I need more time too.’ And fill in a blank cause for different reasons. This is going to give an opportunity to say that in addition to the class period, you’ve got this [additional] time that you’re going to be able to slow things down. Because if we think about the number of kids going to be in these Skills blocks, some kids are ging to have very specialized instruction with their special educator or interventionist, other kids are going to be working with that classroom teacher. And it’s an opportunity to really say, ‘It’s okay, we’re going to be able to work on it.’
GMW: Explain what a tutorial is for people who don’t know.
Higgins: Study Hall.
GMW: Right. But my impression of Study Hall is the teacher is a proctor, making sure kids are quiet and sitting and doing their independent work. That feels different than what I think you’re describing with Skills, which is more active. I don’t know if a teacher looks at tutorial as time to check email or get administrative work done while students work independently. Which seems very different from more of an engaged, active, ‘I need to prepare for this differently than I did a tutorial’ experience.
Smith: That’s, I think that’s fair point. The way I conceive of it is not an additional chunk of time that you need to prepare for, because it’s an extension of the instructional time you already have with kids. But the way we’re conceiving of it is different from a tutorial and we’ll have absolutely have to engage with the WEA about what the impact of that is and how we plan for that.
So for this group of teachers in the school, it will be a change.
I’ll go back to looking at the way that teachers at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill operate. They teach all day long. So in terms of meeting the demands of the contract with prep time, lunchtime, those things like that, that’ll all be in place. So we’re not violating the contract or anything like that. But this is a point of refinement with the union for sure.
Higgins: One of the [other] dynamics we have is world language, that in effect is cross teams right now. That’s a complicating factor rather to how many teachers are on team to be able to do the Skills Block. So therefore how many are the kids rotating through? But that aside, one of the other pieces to that cycle of the two-week period is we’re looking to add in an additional prep period for the teachers so that they have that additional time. What that means is the 60 or so kids, are we going to group them in three classes or in four classes? And if we can group them in three based on the numbers and enrollment, then that means two teachers would have an additional prep at that time slot.
GMW: So you are trying to work in additional prep time for them?
Higgins: That’s part of the, if the work was according to Jory, we’d have a lot more prep time to be able to just let me manage my day and what I need to do to work it out. Because the other part of even present tutorials is teachers are pulling kids in at that time too, they’re borrowing kids from either other teams or on teams to say, ‘Hey, let’s come and sit and work as we have this opportunity.’
GMW: Explain “RIF.” Because there’s this concept of 10 teachers who will lose their jobs potentially, but it’s not necessarily all those who teach reading. How does RIF work — what does that mean and what are the implications for the rest of the district?
Smith: Yes, there are implications. So in the collective bargaining unit, there is a provision. Conceptually, when we’re downsizing, it’s the kind of ‘last in, first out’ model, generally speaking. So the teachers who were newest to the district would probably be the first to be laid off, or “RIF’d.” RIF is Reduction In Force.
We have a collective bargaining agreement with the union that stipulates how that’s done. It’s based on years of service and [professional] degree. In that formula, and I’m not able to tell you precisely, but teachers are assigned a RIF number. So they know kind of where they stand if layoffs are made.
So there are implications across the district. So the idea that nine teachers at Middlebrook would be laid off is not accurate.
If we reduce nine positions, then likely nine staff members could be laid off. But we also know people retire, people resign, things happen. So there’s always a lot of shifting. But what Maria Coleman and her team in HR have been working on is just trying to be really precise. Looking at the staff members that are going to be impacted, looking at certification, looking at years of service and then also trying to understand what we know about retirements today, what do we know about potential resignations, what do we know about other shifts that would impact FTE.
So for example, because of the enrollment shifts, we’re adding two classroom sections at Cider Mill. All of those factors impact who would go where.
GMW: Meaning somebody might be certified for third through eighth who may, now that there’s an opening at Cider Mill, go from Middlebrook to Cider Mill?
Smith: Right. Or up to the high school. Correct.
I’m glad you asked the question. The issues are conflated. There’s the issue of the schedule, which is not an issue of staff, if we think in isolation for a second. It’s really important for everybody to consider each of these things separately and then we can talk about the intersection. So we need to look at the merits of the schedule change independently. And as we’ve talked about, look at what are the benefits and what are the drawbacks, and make a decision about the worthiness of the schedule. In my mind, I’ve made that decision based on everything I’ve seen, what I’ve heard.
And then we need to consider the staffing impact. And that’s different.
Some of the feedback that I’ve heard is, why does it feel so rushed and what are you doing? Again, in my mind, it’s not rushed because we’ve been engaged — at least some of us have been engaged — in this conversation for years about a schedule. But the staffing impact is real. And I don’t want to minimize that. Our first interest here is not reducing staff. That’s not the primary motivator. We need to come up with a schedule that makes sense for kids. One of the outcomes of this block schedule is a potential reduction of nine staff.
Those are real implications for real people, and I don’t want to minimize that in any way. These are colleagues that we care for very much and want to see them land in a good place.
So process-wise, as we get deeper into this month, once we get a clearer picture of how the schedule’s going to work, what’s going to be happening in other buildings, working through [HR], we’ll start to talk to staff about potential implications and what may or may not happen for them. It’s a dynamic environment as things change right until the end of the school year and beyond.
The reason we’re talking about this now and it feels like there’s a sense of urgency around it is because it’s tied to the budget. And that’s a decision that I made, to assume because it’s a worthy schedule that I believe very strongly can work really well for this school and for kids. When I put a budget proposal together, I assumed this schedule until I assumed a reduction in staff.
You know all about the budget and the budget challenges that we’re facing in this particular year. We have to also weigh that out. One of the constraints — I don’t know how many people pay attention — but we’re trying to deliver the best service we can to kids and families at the most reasonable rate possible. And I feel a very strong obligation to deliver a budget that people in this community are going to support.
So the dollars and cents here are, if we have a schedule that we can operate well with nine fewer staff, that’s a good thing. I took seven out, I left two in, um, but the dollar equivalent of the reduction of seven is about three-quarters of a million dollars. If we were to keep things as is, we’re adding three-quarters of million dollars back to the budget.
It’s already a near 6% increase figure that pushes it closer to 7%. My personal belief after working here for nine years and living here for three, is that’s not a budget that is going to receive a lot of support from the town. I don’t think it’s a good idea because of this schedule change. They’re two separate things, but that’s where they intersect.
GMW: Coaches. The argument keeps getting put forward: why not cut the people who are not directly student-facing? Several teachers I talked to acknowledged they’ve benefited from coaching and understand it, but if you’re looking at needing to reduce staff, why take not staff that aren’t directly facing kids?
Smith: Then why aren’t we eliminating the prinicipal? Why aren’t we eliminating deans?
GMW: They didn’t point out principal, but there were others they suggested as well. But coaching gets brought up a lot.
Smith: There’s a human infrastructure around teaching and learning, and I’ll be happy to debate with people [about coaching] until we run out of oxygen. We are engaged in continuous systemic improvement. We have been for years and for a variety of factors, we are seeing return on that investment.
It’s regrettable that the [Op-Ed] that [Former BOE Chair] Deb [Low] published earlier this year was so misconstrued. Nobody, not her, not anybody, was pointing to coaching and saying they’re the reason we’re so successful. That is inaccurate and nobody would suggest that. But it’s the system that’s strong and we know across the system, and including for some at Middlebrook school, coaching has been a valuable support.
We have a group of folks who are ardently and loudly opposed to coaching and they don’t see a benefit in the model. That’s confusing to me because why wouldn’t you want to have somebody standing next to you helping you get better? But we can disagree and agree to disagree, it’s fine.
There are some historical events in Middlebrook that conflate issues. One of the decisions that I made years ago early on in my tenure was to eliminate the department Instructional Leaders (ILs). That is a sore point for me and I own that. I regret that decision today. If I could go back in time and undo it, I would. I didn’t understand the impact of that decision and what it would mean for people. But that’s one of the key realities here.
The other is around the introduction of [the Teachers College] Readers and Writers Workshop [curriculum] at Middlebrook. And some have really, really struggled with that. So all of those things get combined, and then gets manifested in this really loud over-objection to instructional coaching.
We just completed another survey at the behest of the BOE. The pattern remains unchanged, it’s what we’ve seen and what we’ve known for years that many, many, many across this district really see and value the work of instructional coaching. It is supported by research. When we look across what districts are trying to do, they point to Wilton as a model for professional learning. People come here and want to teach here because of the model for professional learning.
There are some who don’t like it and think it would be really expedient just to eliminate the two coaches at Middlebrook and get back to life as it was. I’m not doing that.
So my short answer is, in being presented with a budget that’s a near 6% increase, it is our obligation to look at every single staffing position. If you have followed our budget progression over the years that I have been here, there are two patterns that I would offer to you. One, we’ve worked really hard and we’ve found opportunities to present, comparatively, budgets that represent lower increases than our DRG neighbors. That doesn’t manifest itself in a per-pupil comparison because of the enrollment decline, but it’s created opportunities for us to invest in certain departments. So we’ve been able to invest in LLC, we’ve been able to invest in mental health, we’ve invested in instructional coaching to the benefit of our teachers in general.
On the whole, we’ve been lower; now, we’re much higher. And we have to come back around and look at all of these positions. Everybody should rest assured, we’re looking at every single position. When I say every single position, I mean every single position. What that debate involves is a competition of priorities. So if we are forced with reductions again, we have already paired down all of the discretionary accounts and our budget’s been frozen since August. We’re seeing the fruits of this. Our kids need stuff, so it’s not like we can just zero out the supply account. So if we have to make reductions it’s people and programs. Then it’s a question of how do we preserve the best of what we have while trying to contract?
GMW: So, no new coaches are being added?
Smith: No. And we’ve had a proposal for a couple years to add an additional coach at Cider Mill that we’ve deferred.
As you read the responses, looking through the survey feedback, [and knowing] we still operate in an environment of scarce resources, coaching is a scarce resource. We have two at the middle school; one-and-a-half at the high school; three coaches at Cider Mill; and four at Miller-Driscoll. It makes sense to me because the work around early literacy is really complex, so privileging literacy coaching in those earlier grades is important. I don’t lose sleep about this because coaching is the most effective professional learning support we can provide staff, despite people’s disagreement.
At the end of the day, as the Board deliberates, we have to go back to what’s most important. We’ve said it all along. Our teachers are a specialist resource, and providing supports to those teachers is one of the most important things we can do. Making sure we hire really great teachers and then supporting really great teachers — and I maintain that the instructional coaching practice is one of the best ways to do that. And I think when you look at the survey results across the district, you know, most say the same thing.
This is where I think, when people feel desperate, and don’t have the benefit of maybe seeing the big picture, the way forward here is to focus on our values. What do we believe? What are our choices based on what we believe? How do we know it’s going to work? What’s the evidence?
We’ve tried to be consistent about that in the most basic form. It’s not always clear to everybody given their perspectives. But that’s generally been the pattern of decision making. It’s not reactive. It’s not, ‘Oh my God, the sky is falling and we need to do something.’
GMW: It’s been suggested by a few people that this schedule change is actually not something that the BOE will vote on because it’s an operational choice that is in the purview of the administration.
Smith: The Board intends to vote. They voted on the high school schedule chang as well. Different boards in different communities can make those decisions and could go one way or the other. But our job is to make a recommendation based on our best professional judgment and the Board’s job is to hear it and deliberate and come to a conclusion.
Higgins: That was my understanding too. Someone might have said that to you because I said there was no expectation that it would be. That did shift in the last month or so that we’ve been talking about the schedule so I can appreciate why someone’s saying that.
GMW: How will you assess the success of the schedule?
Smith: There’s a number of indicators of criteria, both quantitative and quantitative. Assume the schedule change goes through. Assume we will take from now through the start of school next year to really work through a plan to prepare teachers. As part of that, as many of them as possible need to see good functioning models of what a block schedule looks like. They need to get into the weeds with experienced teachers who have operated in that model and get some feedback about practice. We need to bring in the curriculum folks to present the instructional models. And then if we need consultants to support the work around developing the instructional model, they need to do all of that. You can just assume that will happen over the next six months or so.
Beyond that, using all of the time we have available to set it up so we’ve got team time embedded in the school day. Some folks have asked can we run a pilot? If we can run a pilot to work out some kinks sometime between now and the end of the school year, that would be ideal. It’s a complex endeavor to pull off, but not impossible.
What are we gonna be paying attention to? Well, we’ve laid out objectives. To what extent are we seeing a return on the investment and the change in the quality of the experience kids are having in language arts, in mathematics? We would collect that feedback in two ways: talking to them like we do every other day — ‘How’s it going? What’s it feel like? What’s working, what’s not working?’ Then, empirically we’ll continue to look at our student achievement data and try to tie it back as best we’re able to instructional practice. So what about the changes influenced, for better or for worse, any variations in our pattern of student achievement?
We’ll do that over time and then we can come to a judgment about is this successful or not? Or what do we really find working for us and what do we really find unsavory and how do we respond and make the unsavory better?
GMW: What happens if the Board turns it down?
Smith: If they decide no, then we continue to live with the schedule we have. Maybe this article can help, but folks need to just come home to the idea that there have been a group of people at Middlebrook School invested in exploring a different schedule for years. They’ve looked at every model that I think probably exists that we’re aware of. We have tapped into some of the best thinkers on scheduling that are on the planet that we know of.
So if the Board comes to a conclusion that this is not going to work, then I’m not going to suggest that Jory and his team go back and continue to hammer at this. The work has been done. We’ve got other models we’ve looked at and there are good reasons why those models don’t work for us. If they were better models, we wouldn’t be talking about this one. So I feel like we’re done doing a schedule exploration.
GMW: But you still have the staff issue.
Smith: Correct. In real practical terms, what that means is we keep the eight-period day as it is. So now how do we respond to the budget? I have a few thoughts on that.
One of the chief priorities at Middlebrook School as we’ve explored any schedule, is to preserve the team. From a student enrollment class average perspective, the teams haven’t been subject to enrollment fluctuations, because the model is not sensitive the way that it is here at the high school with sections or the way it is with individual classes at the elementary schools.
So one approach to think about this is if we’re going to just start with class averages as a beginning point. I’m not comfortable running classes of 20-21 at kindergarten but 15, 16, 17 in sixth grade. It’s not that I don’t want small classes, but if I’m choosing, I’m choosing small classes everywhere and our budget doesn’t support that.
So if we want to keep our class averages around 20-21, then we look at FTE by grade level. So one scenario, if we’re going to try to keep the class averages where they are, then we’re still reducing staff at middle school. I think it’s about 7 FTE roughly. The problem with that approach is you’ve now violated the team [model]. You start to get teachers working across teams, you’ve got kids crossing teams, it gets really, really messy. But we owe it to ourselves and in fairness to the entire district to look at that if that’s our decision-making point. So that’s one scenario.
You put everything on the table and you make some choices.
GMW: What else do you want people to know?
Higgins: The thing I keep thinking about is, at some point we’re going to be on the other side of all these discussions and there’s a decision in place and there’s work to be done necessarily to be ready for it. But I’m really concerned that folks remember that at some point we all have to live with each other again. What worries me is that because it’s such an emotionally charged conversation, folks are saying and doing things that may be hard to come back from, and there is going to be need for some repair on the other side. You mentioned earlier the culture and the climate… a leader has a certain level of influence, but we all have an ownership of what climate is and what the culture of a building is.
We need to make sure that we get back to that most important thing of doing right by kids. So that’s weighing heavily on me right now because I know the staff very well — I had a hand in hiring a lot of them, and I really deeply care about them. And some are reacting in ways that are really surprising me, but I recognize that there’s an emotional piece there.
I’m looking forward to being able to get to that point of the repair. That worries me.
GMW: I know how long you’ve been at Middlebrook and I know how important and meaningful that school is to you and that family is to you. In so many of the conversations with the teachers I had, that was acknowledged — their relationships with you and their respect for you and how difficult that is for them too. There was an acknowledgement of how tough a position you’re in and how hard this is for everyone.
Higgins: Thank you for sharing that.
Smith: This feels really heavy. I appreciate that because we’re talking about a significant change in the way we do business at Middlebrook School. I hope your readers will look at this change in the context of all the work that we’ve done as a district. It’s not our practice to put forward bad ideas, and I stand by that. This is something we’ve given a lot of thought to and we recognize there’s a human cost here and I wouldn’t minimize that at all.
I would just also say in trying to look at the entire picture of operating a district and continuing the mission of getting better at getting better, this is a good option for us. It’s a fiscally responsible option for us. And as people are contemplating all of that, I would just invite them to see the whole picture.
My last point is, it feels divisive with the staff and the administration, and at the end of the day, we are all colleagues serving kids and families, and that’s not going to change. Even in the heat of a debate, we can disagree. It’s okay and we can still really care about each other. So none of that’s going to change either. So I want people to rest assured, it’s okay that we disagree and in fact, we should model this for the rest of humanity.