Board of Education Candidate Debate Reveals Differences of Opinion

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Left to right: Jennifer Dayton (D), Barbara O’Neill (R), Anthony Lopez (D), Peter von Braun (R), Gaetane Francis (D), and Lauren Rabin (R). Credit: Leslie Yager

Board of Education candidates had 90 seconds each to respond to a series of questions on Tuesday night at Central Middle school. The first question asked candidates to describe their connection to Greenwich Schools and reasons for running. Gaetane Francis (D), Anthony Lopez (D) and Jennifer Dayton (D) all still have children currently in the school system, with Dr. Francis’ 10th grader in his first year of Innovation Lab. Mrs. Rabin has sons in their 20s who went through Greenwich Schools as did she.

Mr. von Braun (R) said he attended Greenwich Schools as did his children. Mrs. O’Neill (R) said her decades of teaching experience in the district give her unique insight and that under her leadership as chair of the board, the group has come to consensus time and again.  “We respect each other’s point of view,” she said.

Mrs. Dayton, the incumbent of the three Democrat candidates, said she is running for re-election to “see the fruits of our labor realized.”

Asked to name the most pressing issue facing the district, Peter von Braun didn’t have to think. “School start times,” he said. “We’ve been trying to move the needle and we have the solution right before us.”

Mr. Lopez, a special education aide, who is at Greenwich High School every day said he is concerned about the roll-out of the devices in classrooms. Specifically he sees some teachers struggling with the devices, and wants to see an increase in training.

Mrs. Dayton said the biggest challenge is managing transitions between pre-school and kindergarten, grade school and middle school, middle school and high school, and, lastly, manage the transition of 12th graders entering the workplace. She said she is a big fan of returning to the model of apprenticeships.

Dr. Francis said she fears teachers have lost their ability to innovate. “Teachers need computer-free time to engage the students and get them excited to learn.”

Achievement Gap
Lopez said that a delayed school start time, combined with more collaboration with community organizations like CCI, the Boys and Girls Cub and YMCA, would go a long way toward narrowing the achievement gap. “Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom.”  But, moreover, he said, “We need better sensitivity to who our students are. We don’t have people who can’t achieve. Students need extra resources, extra time and extra help.”

Mrs. O’Neill said she’d like to see a stronger focus on reading in K-2. She said that research shows that if children aren’t reading at grade level by grade three, they are likely to have major difficulty getting through school and end up dropping out. She said that personalized learning through technology will enable kids to advance at their own rate, “rather than one size fits all.”

Mrs. Dayton said rather than waiting until children are in elementary school, high quality pre-school is the time to close the gap, particularly with low income students and children with non English-dominant language families.

Mrs. Rabin said she’d like to see senior citizens and retirees become involved in the schools, reading to children after school, participating on field trips, “to give them some of the additional relationships and exposure to reading and experiences that other children have.”

Dr. Francis, whose son participates in Innovation Lab at GHS, said, “Students need to learn to think critically and how to problem-solve.” She paraphrased a recent comment one of on Inn Lab teacher. “Too often kids come out of our schools, and the boss says, ‘Please do this for me,’ and the kid says, ‘Sure, show me how.’ They’re not prepared to solve the problem, to figure out how to approach it.”

Mr. von Braun said too often fashionable-solutions are implemented. “We need to structure our neighborhood schools to deal with the problems endemic to the community. We can’t continue to focus on the model of two college-educated parents reading to their kids.”

On the topic of equity, Mrs. O’Neill said it should be based on need. “Some schools need more in terms of English language support,” she said, for example.

Mrs. Dayton said 150 families in the district have no internet access, breaking the connection between home and school. “I will fight to bridge the digital divide,” she said.

Mr. von Braun saw a lack of equity based on the allocation of Federal Title 1 funds to three elementary schools. “52% of the achievement gap kids are outside Title 1. We’re ignoring kids in need… None of that money goes to any other school. It’s all focused on those 3 schools and ignores kids in need.”

Mrs. Dayton took issue Mr. von Braun’s comment on Title 1 Schools. “It is misinformation that we ignore students outside of the Title 1 Schools. We take care of the needs of individuals.”

Enrollment and Class Size
On the topic of enrollment and class size, Mrs. Rabin said she is no fan of redistricting and recommended that the district adopt the tactic of airlines: “Ask for volunteers.” Mrs. Francis agreed. “We don’t want to repeat mistakes of the past and close schools and have to reopen them a short time later.” Instead, she suggested that schools with great magnet programs will succeed on enrolling students who might otherwise be in overcrowded schools.

Mrs. Dayton was succinct. “We can never allow a situation of overcrowding like at New Lebanon to happen ever again.”

Mr. von Braun and Mrs. Dayton also disagreed about the contract with data-management company, ECRA. Mrs. Dayton described the contractor as world-renowned.

“I am skeptical of subcontracting a major task to a private company,” Mr. von Braun said. “We need to do a lot more of this on our own.”

“We take data privacy very seriously. We are not putting students at risk,” Mrs. Dayton said.

On the topic of mental and physical health, Mrs. Rabin said kids need more sleep and more recess.

Dr. Francis said the district needs to take a look at its bullying policy, adding that her son reports that the large assemblies where “they’re told to be nice to each other.” She said assemblies should be replaced with small groups to address situations in real time.

School Start Time
Candidates weighed in on the delayed start time. “We’re going to lose some staff members,” Mr. Lopez said bluntly, adding, “But we have to put our students’ needs first.”

Mrs. Dayton and Mrs. O’Neill both warned that for the start time change to be implemented, there will have to be a trade off against other educational services. Both said they support the change in start time, but only if the funding can be found.

“School start time is a litmus test?” Mrs. O’Neill remarked. “It’s a complex issue.” She said at last week’s start time forum there were parents opposed to the change who did not feel comfortable coming forward.

“You can’t put a price tag on the health of the students,” Mrs. Rabin said.

Digital Learning
On the topic of digital learning, Mr. Lopez said he feared that it was perceived as a magic pill. “We have to make sure it is a tool, not a replacement,” he said. “There is something magical that happens between your hand and your brain when you are writing.”

Strengths and Weaknesses of Greenwich Schools
Candidates were asked to name the biggest strength and biggest weaknesses of Greenwich Schools. While most of the Board of Ed candidates agreed that stress on young students is a serious concern, Mr. Lopez disagreed with Mrs. Dayton’s assertion that our high achieving culture is “made worse by parents who feel entitled to have whatever they desire.”

“Parents want to be heard! They’re not entitled,” Lopez said. “They’re not coming in with their hair on fire.” In fact, he said, he encounters parents frequently who have no idea who is on the Board of Education.

Mrs. O’Neill said the biggest challenge to the district is increasing parent involvement.”There is a lack of parent engagement at a high level,” she said.

Mrs. Rabin said she is concerned that children are stressed out, and that it impacts their ability to cope.

Mr. von Braun was dismissive of stress, saying, “The work world is stressful.”

The Board of Education candidates will debate on Oct. 28 in Greenwich High School’s new performing arts center. That debate, which runs from 9:45am until 11:30am. The debate will be student-run, with the assistance of the League of Women Voters of Greenwich.

League of Women Voters of Greenwich moderator Jara Burnett encouraged everyone to vote on Nov. 3. Voters may select up to any four candidates. Four candidates will be elected, but no more than two from any one party.


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