“Face To Face” Candidates Debate, Wed., Oct., 23; Sponsored by Town Tribune, NF Senior Center, Doors Open 6pm
October 17, 2019
New Fairfield Board of Education Candidates; Town Tribune Profiles 2019 Runners
October 31, 2019

     In an in-depth presentation, Assistant Superintendent Julie Luby walked the New Fairfield Board of Education through a mixed bag of test scores, acknowledging that there are large weak areas in the district. Staying positive while delivering the news, Ms. Luby took a “that was then, this is now” approach to the scores. While Ms. Luby relayed the test results, the principals from each school detailed the extensive plans that they have initiated to attempt to mitigate any educational deficits. Understanding that the district is playing the long game on these issues, the board members expressed hope for positive turns, but some also pushed back more heavily than recently typical to the news.

“These feel like very exciting times to me,” Ms. Luby said. With challenges ahead, she expressed enthusiasm that “the metrics are getting better and our ability to work with that data is getting better.” As recently as last year, the state began releasing more nuanced reports that allow administrators to better assess student achievement, in particular, pertaining to growth in academic performance.

Ms. Luby went through the overall results, test by test, for Smarter Balance, Next Generation Science Standards, SAT/PSAT, AP, and the state’s Accountability Index. In comparisons with 20 other schools in its District Regional Group (DRG), New Fairfield ranked below average in scores. “We are not at the average, we also are not miles from it,” Ms. Luby stressed. Board member Kathy Baker was candid in reply, “We dropped… let’s be honest, we dropped.”

In a common theme of dropping scores, grades 3 through 8 Smarter Balance tests in ELA fell from 76.9% last year to 73.4%, ranking the district 16 in 21 in the DRG, while in math the district’s scores dropped from from 69.3% to 67.3%. There were some higher points that beg research, for example 3rd grade–students who are now in 4th grade–math scores were much higher than other grades. This could indicate that due to changes in curriculum and programs over the last few years, that Consolidated is better readying them to take the test in 3rd grade, that the 3rd grade curriculum is stronger, or a combination of these and other factors.

The drops in SAT scores carry significant impacts for students who are seeking to enter college–the majority of students who exit NFHS. “These are hard tests,” Ms. Luby pointed out, explaining that it was eye-opening when high school faculty reviewed test questions recently. She pointed out that in SAT benchmarks, “if you achieve the benchmarks,” 530 in math and 480 in ELA, a student is “75% more likely to receive a C or better in their 1st semester of college.”

While the NFHS SAT ELA scores paint a strong picture of potential success at the college, that is not the case in math. In comparison to the DRG, New Fairfield still ranks below average in ELA, but is at least higher than in math. Ms. Luby acknowledged that in math “we’re not in the game” at all, ranking at the bottom of the group, “thus the self-study” and loads of initiatives that are happening. Though ELA is a little brighter story, Mr. Rick Regan stated, “We’re still in bottom of the DRG in both of those” subjects.

With several sets of fresh administrative eyes on the curriculum, there is a push to make significant changes. For example, Geometry is typically a full-year course, but if it was truncated to one semester, the school could offer probability, data analysis, and more–which are all covered on the SAT. A multi-faceted issue, another pain point in test results is the pacing in which much of the curriculum is set. While many of the tests are taken in April, students may not learn certain material that they will be tested on until June.

A fundamental discussion was had about AP courses. Roughly 30 students in each grade take AP courses and subsequent tests, of them two-thirds of students receive a 3 or better. Ms. Samantha Mannion pointed out that the school continues to report the number of students who receive 3s or better, but she has repeatedly asked for administrators to relay how many received a 4 or 5, the more commonly accepted numbers for receiving college credit.

Ms. Luby said that she would send that information to the board members, plus pointed out that more schools are now accepting 3s for credit.

Mr. Dominic Cipollone posed that, since a third of students do not receive a 3 or better, possibly too many students are taking AP courses and are not prepared for the material’s rigor. Ms. Luby explained that AP potential is suggested by the PSAT college board, plus suggested that this was a matter for guidance counselors to take up with students, but that she would rather have kids who are inspired by a topic to take the class, than to “turn away all of the kids who I didn’t think would get a three…If I had to guess, I’d rather guess in their benefit.”

“So, this part is going to hurt for a minute,” Ms. Luby said, while giving an overview that showed that special education scores significantly dropped. She went through the growth data that is available for these students and is hopeful that they will benefit from this information with targeted instruction. Testing scores for high needs students, a group which include special education, English language learners, and students who receive free and reduced lunch, went down significantly, in fact ranking New Fairfield last in the DRG.

The Next Generation Science Standards Summative Assessment test scores serve as a baseline, given that it is a new test. Taken by three grades, the 5th grade scored a high 82% overall, while the 8th graders averaged 56%, and the 11th graders an even bleaker 48%. “I have to tell you…it’s troubling to me that when kids get to 11th grade they have less than 50% mastery of science standards,” Mr. Cipollone said. Ms. Luby pointed to the plans that have gone into place over the past three years that are intended to solve this by beginning to incorporate Physics courses in the Junior year, starting next year.

So many positives were cited in the state’s Accountability Index for New Fairfield, including the town’s high graduation rate, low absenteeism, and more. Looking at the Accountability Index, “it doesn’t jive that scores are as low as they are,” Mr. Cipollone challenged, to which Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino chimed in to say, “We agree and we are working on it.”

With the hard truths addressed, Ms. Luby shifted to plans for the future. She said that there are two ways to improve your tests scores, first, to “goose it” with quick fixes that are intended to help students perform better on the next tests, and second, to look down the road to “increase what kids know and can do.” At this point, the district is doing a combination of both goosing it, while also making changes aimed at increasing future performance.

In discussing administrator classroom visits, Mr. Greg Flanagan asked whether there is too much reliance on technology and independent study in the classroom, rather than classic teaching. As a father of several children in the district, he has a unique insight into the high number of educational websites and videos that are being employed in homework and day-to-day teaching. He asked whether “surprise drop-ins” are employed regularly at the administrative level, and was assured that there are. Ms. Baker observed that many of the presentations detail how great the elementary schools are doing, but that regarding the upper schools, “when we move up, that’s where we fall off.”

Principal James D’Amico spoke about the particular challenges that the high school faces, foremost the “lack of coherent articulation in the curriculum.” In closely examining the status quo, they have found that teachers were choosing their own curriculum based on what they wanted to teach, not necessarily what is being assessed. He feels that it is important to “make sure that teachers know that we are all working together.” He explained that the faculty is now looking at the SBAC type of questions to help better align curriculum, looking at past scores to identify weak areas, and more.

“Nobody is happy,” with the low scores, Mr. D’Amico said. In particular, “The math teachers are feeling pretty beaten up” and “They are looking to us to help provide them with resources.” In addition to targeted professional development, the math teachers are implementing warm-up/do-nows for students that are related to SAT content and creating SAT-aligned benchmarks. They are also developing pullout groups during Rebel 33 and establishing math seminar times which will be used to help kids who need to be retaught.  At this point, if a student doesn’t grasp a concept the class still moves on, but they are investigating way to intervene. Mr. Cipollone was surprised to hear that, due to block scheduling, the high school students do not attend math class daily. “To me that’s absurd,” he said. Mr. D’Amico explained among the many reasons why the schedule works, that research shows that with the block schedule kids “don’t feel as stressed.” In the end, it was agreed that the schedule can be part of the conversation, though Mr. D’Amico said that he values Rebel 33 so much that he would “fight to keep that time.”

In addition to math shifts, the high school English teachers are working on grammar instruction, teacher modeling and student practice, using Khan Academy to help identify skills weakness and practice, and more. In Social Studies, faculty are focusing on a number of areas, including essays, research papers, peer editing, shared inquiry, analytical thinking, complex problem solving, and historical writing. In Science, they are working hard to embed SAT skills into the new Physics curriculum for all Juniors.

Dr. Cosentino explained that the administrators are trying to support the teachers as much as possible, “Change is very hard for people, and you have to do it in a way that they feel supported and that their voices are heard,” she said. Mr. Cipollone pointed out that time is of the essence, as “our kids only have one chance to go through the school system, teachers do it year after year.”

New Fairfield Middle School Principal Christine Baldelli and Assistant Principal Cheryl Milo spoke with conviction regarding the passion and commitment of the faculty, saying that “They want so badly for their kids to succeed.” They are hitting the educational weak areas hard with a variety of data analyses, “I pray to God Karen gets the data dashboard up and running,” Baldelli half joked about Power School data, explaining that she uses that information extensively.

They are reworking their pacing to better fit all of the testing standards before the students are tested in spring. Plus, they are giving SBAC interim assessments to identify holes for future test taking. They’ve already taken steps to target weak areas–for example, vocabulary was identified as a weakness and is now a focus area in all subjects.

She explained that they have a network of interventions in place for all of the disciplines and have developed a workshop model class that gives students who need catch-up or one-on-one instruction in whatever subject is needed. Currently 76 Middle School students have been pulled out of language classes and slotted into a workshop spot. They meet every other day right now and are considering meeting every day.

Regarding professional development and other resources, Ms. Baldelli said, “We have to support the math teachers,” saying she gets emails with ideas and comments from them “at 10 o’clock at night.”

Mr. James Mandracchia, Principal of Meeting House Hill School, said that they have a number of initiatives in the works including modifying anchor tasks, problem solving, voice and choice math menus, and more. As they delved deeper into the SBAC data one of the things that they found was that communication was an important strength, including in math, getting students to explain their answers. They are focusing on having kids be challenged and persevere through.

In addition to a focus on communication, data collection through modular assessments, benchmark assessments, and other means is a priority. Coaching cycles in math and ELA have been very important, he stressed, saying that coaches are now regularly spending time in the special education classes as well this year.

Consolidated’s Principal, Rob Spino, said that their emphasis continues to be setting the stage for the “little guys” to gain a love for learning and “instill [a] problem-solving mentality and perseverance.” Like the other schools, they are analyzing data to perform interventions as needed, offering professional development, ensuring the students’ social and emotional needs are met, offering opportunities for student led discussions and small group instruction, and many more new initiatives.

Buildings Project Update

Director of Finance and Operations, Dr. Richard Sanzo, thanked supporters of the projects and said “It is very exciting to have this long-term comprehensive solution.” He reminded everyone that the town’s Permanent Building Committee (PBC) now becomes responsible for the projects, saying that it is a “Very strong PBC right now, with extensive experience in the industry…I encourage any member of the community…to attend the PBC meetings.” The committee will meet on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month, plus have occasional special meetings. He encouraged people to check www.NewFairfield.org for up-to-date meeting times and locations. Mr. Rick Regan also urged community members who had questions or doubts about the building projects process to “stay involved from this point out, go to the PBC meetings.”

At this point, the PBC is gathering bids and qualifications from firms, they will create a a shortlist of no more than four firms, and then the firms will be invited in to interview. “A lot of the work over the next several weeks…is in getting our key consultants on board,” Dr. Sanzo said. He went on to say that there will be many group meetings after the new year for students, staff, and the community to gather input on building plans.

In subcommittee news, Mr. Ed Sbordone reported that the Business Operations Resource Management approved bringing budget transfers to the board. He described potential special education issues that “may crop up” to impact finances. At this point, they are projecting out the year end balances and are not comfortable with what they are seeing. Dr. Sanzo took to the podium to explain that “we are experiencing some pressures in two areas of our budget right now.“ First, in payroll “we have not recognized the turnover savings that are accounted for in the budget.” And secondly in special education, with “medically complex students that have moved into the district recently.” As a result, administrators are going to be instituting a cap on discretionary expenses to be sure that they can anticipate future needs. The board members did not ask which types of items fall under a discretionary heading.

In board member comments, there were several cryptic references to anonymous letters that board members have been receiving containing complaints and allegations about people in the district. The board members all disparaged this use of communication and encouraged people to have accountability for the things that they are saying.

The next regular Board of Education meeting will be held on Wednesday, November 6, 7pm.

By Sarah Opdahl