BOE Forum Touches on Personalized Learning/Screen time, Achievement Gap, Superintendent Retention

Board of Education candidates left to right Karen Kowalski, Gaetane Francis, Christina Downey, Karen Hirsh and Joe Kelly. Oct 15, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager

On Tuesday night the League of Women Voters hosted a forum for the Board of Education candidates at Central Middle School.

There were about 40 in the audience, a far cry from the crowd at last week’s Selectmen debates.

Whether that was because all but one seat on the board are guaranteed or because people were home watching the national debate among Democratic Presidential hopefuls is anybody’s guess.

There are three Democratic candidates for two seats – Gaetane Francis (incumbent), Christina Downey and Karen Hirsh.

The other candidates – Republicans Joe Kelly and Karen Kowalski are assured spots on the board.

Moderator Jara Burnett said the questions had funneled through PTA Council from individual PTA’s in town.

There were no opening or closing remarks, but the final question to the candidates was whether there was question that should have been asked but wasn’t.

Candidates took advantage of the chance to introduce themselves list priorities.

Several candidates said they were surprised they had not been asked about playing fields or food service, both hot button issues in town.

Karen Hirsh said, “We need more fields in town. They need to be safe and properly maintained. I was surprised we weren’t asked about food because students need access to the best quality foods. A hungry student is not available for learning.”

Joe Kelly said he’d have liked to have been asked his motivation for running.

He said often the Board of Education is a lightning rod for criticism in Town.

“Luckily I have thick skin,” he said. “That gives me the ability not to worry about people criticizing me, but to also keep an ear open to listen to the criticism. I’ve been a volunteer firefighter, a coach, been on sports boards, neighborhood boards, and working as a coach it was so exciting and thrilling that you entrusted me to work with your kids.”

Kelly said after years of coaching, a seat on the board would be a step up. “I don’t mind a lightning rod position. I’ll put the kids’ well-being first,” he said.

Karen Kowalski said she would have liked to talk more about both food and fields. Kowalski, a ten year Greenwich resident with three children in Greenwich Schools, is a prosecutor.

“I wanted to feel more involved in helping shape the education of my own kids,” she said.

Gaetane Francis, an incumbent seeking another term said she’d decided to run for a second term as a way to support the new superintendent, Dr. Toni Jones.

Dr. Francis, whose younger son is a senior at GHS, said  school safety is an issue that hadn’t come up in the forum. “We’re working on that policy now,” she said, adding there’s been a lot of work from the superintendent behind the scenes.

Dr. Francis is a physician who is on the Greenwich Hospital Executive Board.

Christina Downey, who has a background as an attorney and RTM member, said 26 years ago she and her husband selected Greenwich to raise their three children based on the great pubic schools.

“Greenwich Public Schools provided an excellent education to prep them for college and careers,” she said.

A question about the biggest issue facing the school system focused on achievement.

Ms. Kowalski said for several years achievement has been stagnant while Greenwich has the highest paid teachers in the state and pays the most per pupil.

Dr. Francis pushed back, saying, “Everyone is here for student achievement.”

Ms. Downey said, “Achievement is a perennial issue, but we need to focus on the master facilities plan. We now have the blueprint to make our schools truly excellent schools. I want the 15-year plan to be a focus.”

Ms. Hirsh said achievement is the mission of Greenwich Schools.

“Half of our issues are a lack of communication. If we don’t explain how board decisions are made, that leads to confusion. Special education has also been a concern for a long time. And our facilities. We need our town facilities to be ADA compliant and we need to focus on program reviews.”

Superintendent Retention
It was noted multiple times during the forum that she is the fifth superintendent in five years. Candidates were asked whether it would be their responsibility to assure stability?

“The board should support the superintendent but also not give her carte blanche,” Ms. Downey said. “Acting in a collaborative fashion is important. Being respectful, positive and collaborative, we can put the superintendent issue behind us.”

Mr. Kelly said that in his career on Wall Street he’d spent several years on management. “You can’t run a proper organization with a revolving door,” he said.

Ms. Hirsh said Greenwich is not an easy community to work in. “We have high expectations for both students and staff. We have a high bar for excellence. We need to change our mind sets. We should focus on retention, not turnover.”

Mr. Kelly said that if a corporation had five CEO’s in five years, the stock price would not be doing well.

“Why are we struggling? The BOE has one employee, picks the superintendent and all of a sudden the person is leaving. Something is wrong either in the selection or retention process. Now we as Board of Education members will have to make sure that super is given every tool possible to do their job. Plus also make sure if she is not dong her job that we identify that. Our role is to make sure the super can get the job done.”

Narrowing the Achievement Gap

After a question about narrowing the achievement gap, Ms. Downey said a number of methods had been tried and were unsuccessful. She recommended expanding the pre-K program. “There are many studies that show the gap exists when children arrive in kindergarten.”

Ms. Hirsh said it is important for parents to support education at home. And, she said, “A main factor in reducing achievement gap is making sure every student has an adult in the building they can connect with.”

Ms. Kowalski said parents need to be involved and there needs to be good communication from school to home. “I don’t think a six hour school day will catch all the kids up,” she said.

Dr. Francis and Mr. Kelly defended the efforts of teachers and staff to close the achievement gap.

“Greenwich Public Schools deserves a pat on the back. …Look at Western Middle School’s amazing work. We’ve done a lot of great things with our high need students.”

Mr. Kelly said that growing up he was one of six children with its own achievement gap.

“Three kids could barely read because they were called dumb back then and put in a lesser group and ignored,” he said, adding, “The other three were top students who went on to higher education. Even the ones who could not read well, the lesser students, did very well.”

Kelly said his family had recently taken in a child who needed a home for a few months and he was impressed the way Greenwich Schools were proactive and organized meetings on that child’s behalf.

“My family got ignored and called dumb. It’s incredible how far we’ve come. Kids learn in different ways.”

Personalized Learning and Screen Time

There were questions about personalized learning and quantity of screen time.

Ms. Hirsh said the district needs to conduct a “deeper dive” along the issue of screen time.

“We don’t have a good sense of how our students are utilizing these devices across the district,” she said.

Mr. Kelly said he developed an appreciation for personalized learning as a coach. “Every kid plays differently, every kid responds differently. We don’t coach them all the same way.”

On the topic of digital learning, Dr. Francis said, “Digital learning has huge potential and we’re tapping into it. It’s amazing to see children find original work on their own,” she said. “Never should it take over from active learning. I’m also a proponent of project based learning.”

Ms. Downey said the district had invested heavily in technology but that the investment is relatively recent.

“When my kids were in elementary school and middle school, the devices did not exist. We don’t know how much time is appropriate,” she said, adding that it is important to monitor usage and content. “It’s about balance.”

Hirsh said that with the introduction of devices kids don’t have to lug around heavy textbooks. “But now I can’t look and see what my child is learning,” she added. “It’s time for the district to look at a policy for screen time and digital wellness.”

Issues to Be Addressed

Responding to a question about what issues the district should address, Ms. Downey said, “The board is supposed to be about policy governance and setting standards, but not getting into the minutiae. There is a danger in Town that the Board of Education is looked to for answers. But the board is the overseer and the superintendent is the single employee in charge of academic programs.”

On the topic of special education, Dr. Francis said the new superintendent has a background in special education.

“I know there are a lot of people with good things to say about our special education program, but there is room for improvement,” she added.

“There are a lot of special education parents who came forward with stories that were very hard to hear,” Ms. Downey said, referring to the September BOE business meeting where many special education parents voiced their frustrations.

“A substantial number of students in the district qualify for services and have a wide variety of needs,” she continued. “Every child should feel valued. The community can be the pulse of what’s going on, and it sounds to me that we do need to consider another special education review….The next review should be really objective.”

Ms. Hirsh said she had children with learning differences and that her own mother was a special education teacher.

“We must address the needs of every single student. …Reviews of the special education department have occurred, but we’ve been missing an active plan….We have to start the identification process early,” she said.

Mr. Kelly said by its nature special education will always be criticized.

Ms. Kowalski said, “Having a superintendent with a special education background – we need to leverage that. We need an action plan with substance and boxes we can check. We need to eliminate road blocks to parents in getting those needs met for their children. We need to assess the problem overall and make sure each child walks into and out of the school day feeling special and they are learning and motivated.”