Now that Governor’s education plan has passed, the Newtown schools will be faced with added pressure to fully implement education reform. With a proposed budget cut of one million dollars, resources are already stressed.
Principal, Charles S. Dumais, explained, “We are expected to make a million dollar cut and the challenges are already there. The budget becomes a little polarizing. If you keep full day Kindergarten, they say, ‘Well, clearly there is room to cut.”
Superintendent Janet Robinson, Ph.D. said that full day kindergarten is one of the programs that has become imperative in today’s educational climate. “Full day kindergarten is almost a necessity to meet the standards that are set out for the Kindergarten level. There simply aren’t enough hours in the total year without the total Kindergarten day. You really need that extra time.”
In the last two years, 48 states, including Connecticut, have adopted Common Core Standards, which standardizes education. Robinson said, “The part that is critical is a bigger picture of coherence. If you move from here to Oklahoma, there would be the same Common Core Standards. There is an assurance for parents that kids are going to have these common things taught by the time they graduate from high school. There is a minimum level that you all have to establish within these content areas.”
Robinson said that until recently, what was taught depended on the teacher and the school. “You could have that English class in one school and another math program in another. It was divisive in terms of teaching, but now we have grade level standards.”
“In the past, it was acceptable to have schools operating independently,” Dumais said, “but we are handling budget solutions systemically now. If there is not a systemic solution to education problems right now, you are not going to succeed.”
“Whether you are talking about common core standards, Malloy’s SB24, we have an accreditation visit in 2015, and you have secondary school reform in the State of Connecticut. Those are all things that will have to be in place between 2015 and 2018, and there is no funding for that,” Dumais said.
One recent challenge in education has been the movement for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education. Robinson said, “STEM is about trying to do deeper, more meaningful work. We are looking at increasing rigor.”
Rigor is not about making education more difficult, according to Robinson. She said, “It’s about requiring the kids to use their brains. Science is perfect for higher order thinking skills, you learn to do problem solving, you learn to do experiments, find out which variables contribute to the outcome.”
Even elementary grades now have expectations that go “way beyond learning to read and write by third grade,” Robinson said, adding that the skills needed for first grade today cannot be learned in half-day kindergarten.
“The kind of writing that students are expected to do in first grade is phenomenal. It's beyond one or two sentences. They now write little books,” she said.
The Internet and use of technology in the classroom is bringing more information into the hands of students than ever before. “Technology plays a very big role in the classroom,” Robinson said.
“We have Smart Boards in the classroom, and the students are adept at using them, it’s almost intuitive for them. In our second grade classrooms, they can’t even reach so they are on a bench, and it's so cute,” she said.
“Technology has allowed us to show the kids the rest of world easily," Robinson noted. "You can take a virtual field trip kids can ask a question and we can say, ‘Well, let’s go see,’ and you can actually take them there.”
“The expectations are much greater now," she cautioned. "The school that everybody remembers, it is just not that way anymore. Every budget season somebody will come up and say, ‘You know, when I was a kid we had 45 kids in the classroom and we did just fine.’ It doesn't happen that way anymore.”
NHS Senior Alex Kelly enjoys science and math classes. He said, “You have to be self motivated. Teachers are more of a guide to show you what you have to do, but you are responsible for how you use the information they give you.”
Robinson agreed with Kelly’s thoughts.
“Once a month all of the administrators go into a school, and we visit different classrooms. We come back and ask, ‘What is it we observed in there? Is the teacher talking like crazy? Were the kids sitting there quietly and playing school, or how engaged are they? Are they really participating in their learning? Are the questions causing them to think deeper and harder?”
Kelly said that his education in NHS has been great. “One year I will say it was the best teacher I ever had, and then the next year, I will say the same thing.”
Michelle Green, a junior at BHS, said she wished there were more opportunities for engineering in the school. Kelly said that he thinks the school will suffer if there are major budget cuts. “I take a lot of engineering classes, and other kids may take art. There are different needs for different kids. If they cut art, parents will fight about that.”
Dumais said, “I support full day kindergarten and nine years from now, it is going to make a significant difference in the HS. Programs that are susceptible to the budget cuts are anything that is outside of the core academic area, and potentially the arts. The hard part is the town wants us to tell them what you are going to cut, but in reality there are so many pieces involved, we have to see what happens on May 15.”
"We have great kids and great teachers. Everybody is working hard," Dumais said. "The analogy with the budget is, if we were to slightly dim the lights, it might be a little harder to read, but we could still do everything. But if they kept getting turned down more, well...”
“This is one of the larger school districts," he added. "A lot of communities have an ability to absorb some of this, but once you get into a pattern where you keep cutting, you get a little limited.”
For more information of how education is changing across Connecticut and the country, visit these links: