New Fairfield’s Board of Education (BOE) met on Thursday, May 18. They are grappling with the results of a recent youth behaviors survey that was administered to high school students. After contending with survey backlash earlier in the year, approximately half of the school participated in the survey, but the data that resulted gives an insight into the current student population. Among the most scary findings was a bearing out of oft-reported national trends of mental health issues among teens. Twenty-nine percent of NFHS students reported feeling severely depressed and/or had thoughts of suicide. Other notable aspects of the survey include the continued elevated use of vaping among local teens.
NFHS Principal Mr. James D’Amico explained, the survey is distributed with the district goal to “promote a healthy learning environment” in mind. The results are intended to both inform and aid in allocating resources next year. He clarified that the presentation was “really about the big takeaways for the community and the strengths that we have in the community among our youth, which are many, as well as opportunities for us to improve our teen experiences in our town.”
(I would move this sponsored by to previous paragraph after “survey”) Sponsored by the New Fairfield Prevention Council, Ms. Kathy Hanley, a Behavioral Health Director with Western Connecticut Coalition and a New Fairfield resident, gave a synopsis of the results. She highlighted the many positive results, saying, “Within the category of support we see very positive numbers coming from family support, that the students are saying that there’s high levels of love and support coming from their families. We also are identifying positive peer influence.” She went on to say, “we identified that students in New Fairfield are motivated to achieve in school, they’re engaged in school, which is wonderful. I also really love this next category of positive values where we’re seeing that the students feel it’s really important to have integrity, to be responsible.” Hanley also noted that high marks for diversity, equality, and justice are all strengths in the high school community. She was happy to point out that the higher the number of positive assets, the less likely a student is to engage in risky behaviors.
Hanley believes the community should focus on the category of positive identity, as the results were a bit low on feelings of self esteem, sense of purpose, and also a sense of personal power. There are “deficits” in the data, Hanley said, “with respect to positive family communication, active involvement from parents and schools in a caring school climate.” Acknowledging that this information is often difficult for adults to process, she said, “they are being honest and I think we owe it to them to think about what is being said here, and hopefully these are things that we can work on, which is why I’m calling them opportunities for growth.” Significantly low marks are given for “feeling valued by the community,” also low marks were given for “adult role models, students are maybe not identifying as much that adults are modeling positive and responsible behavior.” There were low marks given for creative activity opportunities as well.
Next steps include conducting focus groups with students to get more feedback. The Prevention Council will also develop a plan to address the issues with the Youth Commission. The results will also inspire new programming at the high school, especially regarding mental health issues and risky behaviors.
BOE Chair Mr. Dominic Cipollone said the survey, “certainly sheds light on what’s going on and I think some of that information is really a reminder that we need to do a better job of communicating with our young people and increase parental activism, if there is such a term. Parents need to engage with their young people on the regular.” In general, he noted, “we need to do a better job as a community, and maybe rethink some of the ways we do things and not get stuck in some sort of paradigm in terms of how things work.”
Superintendent Dr. Ken Craw gave a presentation on the fiscal year 2023-2024 budget, updating programs that can be brought into the budget following the resignation of elementary Assistant Principal Mr. Steven Groccia. Craw explained Supervisor for Special Education Ms. Melissa Busnel has decided to resign her post as well but will remain in the district as a special education teacher. After four years in the role, she would like a change for personal reasons. The supervisor position is posted and an extensive search has begun.
Given the resignation of an administrator, Craw was able to reconfigure priorities to allow more programming rather than hire a replacement for the fourth elementary leader. Among the items restored to the potential budget were: the middle school gifted program, the additional elementary art position, and team leader positions.
Reflecting on the budget vote that was scheduled two days after this meeting, Cipollone said that he thinks “we all learned, as a community, some valuable lessons in this budget process…I think we’ve learned a little bit about loyalty, transparency, and integrity…We hope we have a really good turnout because this is a really important vote—vote your conscience about what you think is best.”
Board member Ms. Amy Johnson asked that a censure be removed that was issued at a recent meeting based on her Facebook comments. She pointed out that several Board members have stepped out of line on the social media platform. However, the majority of the BOE voted not to lift the censure.
The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, June 1, 7:00 p.m.
By Sarah Opdahl