The BOE held an informal meeting last night at , inviting community members to voice their questions and concerns about the education budget. With a crowd of more than 50 people, comments took all of the allotted two hours.
The evening started on a lively note with observations from a Ridgefield first grade teacher. She noted that .
"Students in my class right now are a product of full-day kindergarten, and I have one word to say," said Andrea von Amelunxen, a Newtown resident. "Wow!"
"My students were already at grade-level goal in January," said von Amelunxen. "And the three students that aren't get the services they need." She pointed out that those who need help have more time to receive those services with the longer day.
Von Amelunxen concluded her animated presentation by reading a story that one of her first graders wrote, using entertaining tones that the child used when reading it to the teacher.
Another parent advocating for the all-day program commented on the stressful atmosphere of the classroom. Because of the time constraints, "I am stressed going in to volunteer in that classroom and the kids are stressed," she said.
One resident, who is a teacher in Brookfield, was against full-day kindergarten but wanted the district to consider the extended day model to ease kids into full day by first grade.
"It's a long, hard day for them," she said, noting that there are very few area preschools that offer longer hours to prepare children for a full-day kindergarten program.
Questions also arose about whether the board fully supported the all-day program because of questions that were raised about space and other issues.
Michelle Assante said the process was confusing and the communication unclear. Understanding that the Board of Finance and Legislative Council have yet to approve the funding, Assante wanted the BOE's assurance that if the money is there, the board will approve it.
"I'd like a yes or no answer right now. Will we have full-day kindergarten?" she asked.
Chairman Debbie Leidlein responded that the critical issue is space, but the board hopes and expects that should the funding remain in the budget, full-day kindergarten will be implemented.
After the initial kindergarten discussion, the evening quickly shifted to a more serious note when parent after parent spoke up about bullying, specifically in the athletic department.
Citing the recent school shooting in Ohio, Melissa Mottola wanted to know what the district is doing about bullying and violence in school.
"It's heartbreaking," said Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson. "The only thing we can do is try to set up a safe school environment and make connections with the kids."
Robinson explained there is an anonymous reporting system in place at each school, with boxes at the elementary level up to online reporting for NHS.
"But the majority of the bullying we hear about comes from the parents," she said, encouraging parents to talk to teachers and administrators.
Assistant Superintendent Linda Gejda told parents about the recently adopted Safe School Climate initiative, which is coordinated in the Newtown district by Tony Salvatore, Sandy Hook Elementary's assistant principal.
Under this new initiative, "anyone who comes in contact with students on a regular basis needs to be trained in what to look for and the process of reporting" unacceptable behavior, said Gejda.
"This is the fourth district I have been in and one thing that struck me about Newtown is the attention to behavior," Gejda said, praising the district's awareness of cruel behavior.
After this response, several parents spoke out about bullying in the sports' programs.
One mother noted that coaches at NHS treat do not treat players the same.
"The rules from the classroom should apply the same in the gym," she said. "Parents hold back from complaining because they want their kid to be played."
Susan Engler commented on the peer mentoring program, saying that her son, who graduated last year, mentored another student who was constantly being bullied at school.
"That student made it through high school because of peer mentoring," Engler said.
Perhaps the most effective voice came from a student.
"I'm the only kid here and I have to point out something you as adults don't see," he said. "We as kids don't know how to handle bullying."
The NHS student went on to describe a bullying situation within his sports team.
"When I addressed my coach about the situation, my playing time was cut from 20 minutes to four minutes," he said.
The board applauded the youth's courage. Board member John Vouros raised the question of the coach selection process and certification.
"This is something that I promise will be addressed," said Vouros emphatically.
Discussion concluded at about 9:45pm.
Other topics included:
- Expanding foreign language to the .
- Expanding the art program at the high school to offer honors art classes.
- Homework and sticking to the 10-minutes-per-grade guideline.
- Having a detailed protocol and following it for student searches by police.
- Protocol for lockdowns.
- PPT process in the district.
The meeting was recorded by volunteer high school students. Check the Board of Education website for a link to the video.