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Monday, June 27, 2011

Menzo counts benefits of K-5 revamp

As published in the Record Journal, Monday June 27, 2011

By Russell Blair
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2225

WALLINGFORD — The debate leading up to the decision last year to reconfigure the town’s elementary schools was often heated and contentious. But once the plan passed, school officials said the first year of reconfiguration went smoothly.

The change has brought about the advertised results: smaller class sizes, budget savings and an increased focus on literacy education for students in the K-2 schools, but there have been other benefits, too.

And while there were some bumps along the way, and logistical challenges the district had to tackle, School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo called reconfiguration “a community success.” Reconfiguration creates two smaller groups of elementary schools and makes it easier to offer uniform instruction to the district’s students, said Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Jan Guarino. She said it has been easier to hold meetings with staff and administrators from the four K-2 or the four grade 3-5 schools, rather than getting people from all eight elementary schools together.

Two of the big strategic plan items the district purchased for next year — the Treasures reading program and hundreds of tablet computers to create literacy stations — should help bolster the reading and writing skills of the district’s youngest students. The reconfiguration allows for better resource allocation, Menzo said, and the opportunity for technology and personnel to be divided in a more consistent manner.

An unintended side effect of reconfiguration has been a greater balance in enrollment across the district’s elementary schools. Menzo said that, at times, Parker Farms and Moses Y. Beach were at risk of being considered “racially imbalanced” by the state, but reconfiguration has offered more equity across the district. Menzo said another unintended benefit has been the opportunity for him to get more involved in the community. The plan, created in Menzo’s first year as superintendent, “helped me get out in the community,” he said. Reconfiguration required input not only from parents, teachers and the Board of Education, but community organiza­tions and the police and fire departments. “I would have made those connections, but it happened faster,” Menzo said. “We had a real reason for working together; it wasn’t just a meet and greet. You can’t measure the value of those relationships.”

Financially, reconfiguration has been a gain for the district. Menzo said the move saved $1.14 million, much of it coming because the district no longer had to pay for rental properties. Menzo said the school district could not have dealt with the slight (0.42 percent) increase in its budget recommended by the mayor without the savings. The alternative, he said, would have been more teacher layoffs and elementary school classes that would be nearing 30 students.
The plan passed the school board by a 7-2 vote in May 2010, with the two “nay” votes not necessarily against the idea of reconfiguration, but rather the pace with which the district seemed to be pushing it forward. Jay Cei, a board Democrat who voted against the proposal, said at the time that the district should take at least the next year to work out the kinks. Reached Friday, Cei said he felt the plan had worked well in its first year.

The district “believed having only half the grades in each school would provide better focus and more resources at each grade level. It appears they were correct,” Cei said. “Although it will likely take another year to fully implement the programs associated with this new structure, we are already seeing some educational benefits. I think we will see many more in one more year.”

Michael Brooder, a Republican, was the other board member to vote against the plan. At the time, Brooder, like Cei, said he wasn’t against reconfiguration, but felt it would be better to wait a year. But Friday, Brooder also said he felt the first year had gone well.

“With anything you change, there’s going to be hiccups in the beginning,” Brooder said. “But I think what’s most important is that they have the same good teachers. I think it went OK.” Brooder had a daughter in second grade when the reconfiguration passed, but she avoided the transition because Rock Hill became a grade 3-5 school. “I haven’t heard anything that leads me to believe it didn’t go well,” Brooder said.

Guarino said it took the cooperation of the entire community for the plan to work, and once it was set into motion, everything went smoothly. “We were moving 10 schools and we had less than $1,000 worth of damage or items we had to replace,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been possible without everyone working together.” The difficulties with buses that some parents experienced at the start of the year would have happened regardless of reconfiguration, Guarino said, because the district had planned to redraw the bus routes anyway.

Menzo felt the district was responsive and honest. “We listened to parents’ concerns,” he said.

But not all parents agreed that the plan had been well thought out. Erin Labbe, who has twin sons at Rock Hill, said she felt there was a lack of communication between her family and the school. “I feel like it was a big mess all year,” she said. “They didn’t have it together.”

Labbe said she felt that the district had to spend so much time selling the program to parents and dealing with angry feedback that it didn’t have time to properly plan for reconfiguration. Labbe, who has an older daughter at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School, said she had good experiences with the middle school and only had trouble with her twins after they moved from Moses Y. Beach to Rock Hill.

Administrators, however, say they have gotten many more positive responses than negative. Menzo said he has been receiving phone calls from parents who have seen improvement in their children’s learning. He added that for most of the parents who were against the change, once it was made, they were onboard with doing what was best for the kids. Many of the parents who lobbied hardest against reconfiguration have helped lead the charge to implement it in the town’s schools. “The loudest voices against have become our best problem solvers,” Guarino said.

The impact on student test scores likely won’t be seen for three to five years, Menzo said. But even then, it may be impossible to ever draw a direct correlation between any test score increases and the reconfiguration.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to pinpoint what leads to higher scores,” he said. “We don’t want to ignore the hard work of others.”

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