Students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School and other Newtown public schools will have a shorter and hopefully less stressful spring, thanks to votes Wednesday both in Hartford and at home in Newtown.
The measures were designed to help teachers, administrators, students and others within the Newtown public school system recover after the events of Dec. 14. On Wednesday afternoon, Connecticut's State Board of Education granted unanimous approval to allow Sandy Hook Elementary School to waive a state-mandated minimum of 180 class days over the 2012-2013 school year. The state agreed to allow Newtown to set a 177-day calendar for Sandy Hook Elementary School, which lost six school days after the December tragedy.
The Newtown Board of Education took even further steps Wednesday night, including one that would give three vacation days to Sandy Hook, in what Superintendent Janet Robinson called "a very compassionate move by the board."
State Sen. John McKinney (R-28), who helped draft language allowing the 180-day waiver for Sandy Hook, assured the board they had the state's support.
"It was purposely broad to allow you all the flexibility to do what's right for the kids of Newtown," he told members. "The language requires the State Board of Education to do what they are required by this Board of Education."
The measures would:
- Add three vacation days -- Wednesday, Thursday and Friday -- to an already-scheduled February vacation for students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School, leading to a total of one school week off;
- Allow staff across the district an additional two days off at their choice (but not in conjunction with existing vacations);
- Request a similar waiver of the 180-day rule that would allow the entire Newtown school district, not just Sandy Hook Elementary School, to be excepted from minimum state requirements;
- Keep an existing vacation in April on the calendar; and
- Request a waiver of the standardized Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT), a required test for grades three through eight.
Each measure brought its own share of contention during the meeting, the public portion of which began at 7:30 p.m. at Newtown Municipal Center and ran for well over four hours. (Board members cast a vote to enter a private session to discuss a personnel issue minutes before midnight.) Several measures did not pass unanimously.
"My concern is that we would be opening a door that people would then try to push," said board member Keith Alexander about asking the state for a 180-day waiver for all Newtown schools. Alexander was one of three board members to vote against the measure, along with Richard Gaines and William Hart.
Board chair Debbie Leidlein emphasized there were no plans to take additional days off in schools aside from Sandy Hook, but the waiver would allow leeway in the case of events like severe weather.
"It adds some peace of mind -- to know it exists," she said. "I would prefer to secure it now and use it if we need it"
Robinson warned the board that asking for a waiver on CMTs could lead to complication.
"Just be aware," she said. "The first two weeks of school next year, you may be having to use some kind of standardized test so we have some kind of data on which to measure outcomes."
Leidlein said the tests would only cause added tension in an already difficult school year for students and teachers alike.
"We wouldn't want to use our students as guinea pigs," she said. "The whole testing thing causes anxiety, but we already have a lot of anxiety. I would hate to think we could hurt our students and teachers in a very negative way by keeping this additional anxiety-producing event."
Gaines and Hart voted against asking for the CMT waiver. The Board of Education will meet again Thursday night to continue ongoing budget discussions.