Tuesday, December 07, 2021

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Education

TEAM Westport Chair Speaks to Schools Racism Issue

In her letter, Niah Michel, 17, writing “on behalf of the black community of Staples High School and racial issues that occur at this high school,” states that students and staff have demonstrated insensitive behavior, including asking students of color if they live in Bridgeport, some students being told they shouldn’t wear certain clothes “the white girls” wear, and even use of the N word in a joking manner.

“An environment which enables racial or other slights of this type for any of its students is wholly unacceptable and certainly antithetical to the values of this town,” Bailey said, noting that while similar things are occurring nationally and statewide, that was no excuse.

He said that TEAM Westport has been working directly with the Westport Public School for the past 18 months to address these issues and augment change, but stressed it needed to happen faster.

“We ask this board and the town to designate this work as a priority,” he said, “and as such set aside appropriate funding for the new superintendent to move forward on it expeditiously.”

Superintendent of School David Abbey voiced his support for TEAM Westport, as well as directly for Bailey and his wife, Bernicestine, who was at tonight’s meeting.

“We view TEAM Westport as partners in our work to move the school district forward,” Abbey said.

At last week’s BOE meeting Abbey responded to the issue for the first time publicly, stating that caution should be taken—both by parents and the news media—with regard to taking what was said at face value.

“We’re dealing with children here,” he said, simultaneously acknowledging Michel’s right to express her views, but indicating she was still an underage student.

“When issues come up it sometimes behooves us to take a step back and find out what occurred in a … responsible manner,” he said, cautioning people to “resist the impulse to pounce, resist the impulse to judge, and to resist the impulse to blame.”

“We know that in some ways we are just beginning,” Abbey said last week of these issues, “and we understand that we have much work to do.”

BOE Chair Candice Savin likewise expressed her support for TEAM Westport, noting last month that she and her board were committed to working with them.

John Bayers, director of human resources and general administration, said last month that Westport was one of eight districts participating in a pilot program aimed at increasing diversity in its workforce.

“This problem must be addressed effectively and addressed now,” Bailey said tonight. “We know that it will take some time to solve, (but) it must no longer be explained away or swept under the rug.”

“I do not want to hear my grandchildren relating the same stories I heard from my children,” he said.

Here is the complete text of Bailey’s remarks:

The school environment reflected in the student letter published on February 14 in WestportNow.com entitled “Racism at Staples” is in synch with the environment described by Westport children of families of color over the past few decades including my own.

More recently, the description was corroborated in the Teen Diversity Essays submitted in 2017 and 2019 as well as the Staples student podcast recognized by NPR last year. Specifically, from Diversity Essays to incidents to inputs from students and parents over decades, we have a common problem described which spans race, ethnicity, religion and LGBTQ.

That is a problem that we share with our state and the nation. However, the fact that similar problems exist in school systems with Westport’s demographics statewide and nationwide is neither comfort nor excuse. An environment which enables racial or other slights of this type for any of its students is wholly unacceptable and certainly antithetical to the values of this town.

Effective Global Citizenship demands an ability to navigate the world with genuine respect for people and cultures that are different from one’s own.

While our primary focus must be the students on the receiving end of the aforementioned aggressions, we cannot lose sight of the damage extended to all other students and faculty (whether perpetrator or bystander, intentional or unintentional) who come to see such environments as normal and acceptable.

In that sense, addressing these issues will positively affect every educator in teaching and student in learning effective Global Citizenship.

For the past year and a half, TW has worked with the Westport Schools on developing a framework including training, hiring, curriculum and staffing which would obviate the potential for such racist, religious and homophobic damage to all students from K through 12.

In his work since coming on board last July, Principal Thomas has developed a vision for Staples which if effectively implemented will address these issues at the high school level. That work has been very positively supported by Interim Superintendent Abbey and the leadership of this board.

TEAM Westport commits our continued support of the work underway. We will continue to work with students, teachers, administrators and parents within the school system as well as the Town of Westport at large.

At the same time, we ask this board and the town to designate this work a priority and as such set aside appropriate funding for the new superintendent to move forward on it expeditiously.

This problem must be addressed effectively and addressed so it is not swept under the rug. I do not want to hear my grandchildren relating the same stories I heard from my children.

Schools Updating Pandemic Plan if Closure Warranted

Here is the text of the email:

Dear Westport Families,

We want to assure you that we are carefully monitoring the status of Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) which continues to evolve internationally. In an effort to obtain the most current information, we participate in a weekly state conference call with the State Department of Public Health to receive information vital to the health and safety of our school community. In addition, we are collaborating on a daily basis with the Westport/Weston Health District and by extension, the State of Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH). Fortunately, to date, no cases of 2019-nCoV have been identified in Connecticut.

While the risk of contracting 2019-nCoV remains low in our area, recommendations from health officials may change frequently as new information becomes available. Recently, we have received questions about international travel by families, students, and staff members. At this time, our District continues to follow the Interim US Guidance for Risk Assessment and Public Health Management of Persons with Potential 2019-nCoV Exposure in Travel-Associated or Community Settings issued by the CDC.  Please be assured that if there are health and safety risks to the community, they will be communicated and appropriate measures will be taken.

The District is also updating our operational pandemic plan to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning in the event that schools are closed. To that end, we are exploring alternate procedures for instruction as well as developing plans to guarantee essential office functions remain in place.

The same measures which prevent other respiratory viruses, including influenza from spreading, can prevent 2019-nCoV from spreading. As such, the district is continuing with standard infection control precautions in our schools, including systematically cleaning common touch points. In an effort to reduce the spread of respiratory viruses, please remember to:

cover coughs/sneezes;
frequently and thoroughly wash hands;
routinely clean touched objects and surfaces;
keep children home when they have early symptoms indicative of flu (e.g. fever, headache, extreme fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, muscle aches or runny nose with unusual tiredness); and
keep children home until they are fully recovered from an illness (e.g., have no fever, vomiting or diarrhea for at least 24 hours, are no longer significantly fatigued or in need of extra sleep, and have significantly reduced respiratory symptoms).
If you or your children have had recent international travel and develop flu/ COVID-19 symptoms, contact your healthcare provider and please notify the Supervisor of Health Services. 

Additional information can be found on the links below.

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/notices

https://portal.ct.gov/DPH/Public-Health-Preparedness/Main-Page/2019-Novel-Coronavirus 

We will continue to be vigilant in monitoring this evolving situation and will provide updates as necessary.  Thank you for your support and help with respect to keeping our schools healthy and safe.

David Abbey                             Suzanne Levasseur, MSN, CPNP, APRN
Interim Superintendent                   Supervisor of Health Services

 

 

Modeling the Future

WestportNow.com Image
Student Adi Mittal today shows his model, entitled “Electropia,” as the Westport Library hosted the annual Utopia Fair for seventh grade students from Bedford Middle School who participate in the school Workshop Program under the supervision of teachers Kerstin Rao and Martel Rynderman. According to school administrator Coleen Banick, the goal of the Fair is for the students to create a model for a community that reflects what an ideal future would look like. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

BOE Narrowing Superintendent Search

“Parents are very active in Westport,” he said, “and parents want your new superintendent to see them as a partner.”

“I had a terrific, terrific meeting with parents … I believe the superintendent needs to know there are parents who truly want to hold hands and work with that new leader,” Erardi said.

As for school staff, he said, “They want somebody visible.”

“They don’t want somebody who’s not going to be sitting at Central Office,” Erardi said. “They want somebody who’s going to be in the building. They want somebody who knows kids.”

Among the 29 completed applications, 18 candidates are current sitting superintendents, with six of the remaining 11 having previously had experience in that role.

He said candidates have presented themselves from 11 different states, both men and women, though he didn’t provide an exact breakdown number.

Erardi said he held 22 separate meetings with various stakeholders, beginning in mid-October. He also entertained more than 40 individual phone calls with people wanting to share their thoughts privately, as well as collecting survey information from more than 350 people.

Along with a range of positive attributes, including honesty, intelligence, “quiet confidence,” and an “uncompromising moral compass,” people who were questioned voiced a strong desire for an individual who will stick around for a while.

“This community wants somebody who is going to stay … And they’re asking you to find a wait to insure that,” Erardi said, acknowledging that there was no real way to do that and that all candidates will indicate their intention to stay for a long time.

Some of the qualities summarized by Erardi’s findings were very general—and even vague—including “a superintendent who demonstrates best practice in all aspects of the work; thus, through her/his professional daily performance enhances climate and culture within the organization.”

Survey participants noted that additional attention should go toward enhanced partnerships with elected officials, staff retention, social and emotional needs of children, and recognition of diversity of learners.

Erardi commended the school system and community at large for being engaged, active and honest in its responses.

“This will assist us this evening in our post meeting and guide the hiring committee,” he said.

School System’s Top Wage Earners for 2019

Tina Mannarino, assistant superintendent of pupil services, was the fourth highest paid with wages of $212,362.

John Bayers, director of human resources and general administration, ranked fifth with $199,171.

The sixth highest paid, according to Longo’s report, was Bedford Middle School Principal Adam Rosen, who earned $186,650. Kris Szabo, Coleytown Middle School principal, was the seventh highest wage earner with $185,150.

Eighth place was shared by Mary Lou DiBella, Kings Highway School principal, and Deborah Dunn, Long Lots School principal, each with a salary of $181,709.

Four educators ranked ninth, with each earning of $180,209 in 2019. They were: Natalie Carrigan, director of technology; Kevin Cazzetta, principal of Greens Farms School; Elizabeth Messler, principal of Saugatuck Elementary School; and Janna Sirowich, principal of Coleytown Elementary School.

With a salary of $169,263, Patrick Micinilio, assistant principal at Staples High School, was the tenth highest paid.

WestportNow requested the top municipal wage earners for 2019 but had not received a response at the time of this posting.

-– James Lomuscio

Staples Principal Responds to Racism Allegations

“Building a more inclusive environment where everyone feels welcomed, is a significant challenge. The challenge we are addressing impacts our entire school population. It is however, something we have the power to overcome. In order for real change to occur and long awaited answers to be provided, a Staples High School social infrastructure has to be constructed.

“So, how do we begin to create this social infrastructure? I believe it starts with the strategic building of community—an effort which started in earnest at the beginning of this school year.

“While we will surely never be finished-much like our country’s everlasting struggle in regards to equality for all—I believe in and have faith in our students, faculty and administration. Working together, over time, we will create a robust social infrastructure in order to achieve a cohesive and inclusive school community.   

“If you were to create a visual representation of what I see when I view the school community as a whole, the image of an unfinished puzzle comes to mind. The pieces are all there, the image on the box is astonishing, but it just needs to be connected.

“Enter the key role that the Connections program will play in the gradual building of our community. We know that a school community is more than just a group of students attending a particular school. A community is a group of people we lean on when times are tough; who are there for each other when we need love, support and encouragement. I have seen this with regularity this year, but too frequently, in separate groups. We are going to change this.

“In my latest podcast ‘This is a Wreckording: My First 100 Days,’ I addressed the need to develop a school community and commented on our progress towards creating a school experience that speaks to all of our students. We are working on identifying bias, being mindful of behaviors which could be viewed as offensive and ultimately are working towards accepting all students on a more open and consistent basis.

“Towards this end, we are strengthening our partnership with Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism (TEAM) Westport, our community based partners, who are assisting us in our efforts to develop a more inclusive school environment. 

“I thank you for taking the time to read this. You have my assurance that we will develop the social infrastructure necessary to make Staples the best high school for all of our students; a place where everyone shares in our Wreckers Pride.”

School Officials React to Allegations of Racism at Staples High School

Board of Education Chair Candice Savin said that Thomas met with Michel earlier today after the letter was published.

“They are looking into her concerns, so I’m waiting to hear more back from them,” she said.

“I have confidence that they are handling this with sensitivity and care,” she said of the administration.

Coincidentally, Savin said that on Tuesday she attended a meeting of TEAM Westport—the town-run committee centered on issues of diversity—which she described as “a great group of people who are really interested in working with the district to improve sensitivity.”

“I know that everyone on our board is fully committed to doing everything they can to create and encourage an environment that is equitable, respectful, supportive and fair to every student,” she said.

“I know that we always are interested in a more diverse staff,” she said, “and that’s a goal.”

In her letter, Michel also states that the hiring of Thomas as principal was done “for the Images, meaning he was only really out there to show that Staples looks diverse.”

While he didn’t respond directly to her accusation, said John Bayers, director of human resources and general administration, outlined the process for hiring any new principal, which in this case included the work of an outside consultant.

“Westport is continually seeking to diversify its workforce,” Bayers said.

Owing to a statewide push to diversify the workforce in public schools, he said Westport is one of eight districts participating in a pilot program called “Creating a District Plan to Increase the Racial, Ethnic, and Linguistic Diversity of Your Educator Workforce.”

“The work will not only assist us with the recruitment of a diverse workforce, but with the retention process as well,” Bayers said, noting an initial meeting was just held last month, with many workshops planned this year.

“We are excited about the work and eager to apply the learning to our district recruitment and retention efforts,” he said.

BOE Backs 4.24% Increase in School Budget

For the past two months the BOE has deliberated on Superintendent of Schools David Abbey’s proposed budget, which he had reduced to $122,305,502 in response to the BOE asking he keep it under a 3.5% increase.

But taking a first step to move forward with a 10-year facilities study known as the Antinozzi Report, the BOE is requesting $834,000 to go toward funding some of its first-year recommendations.

Emphasizing its point, the BOE also had Elio Longo, chief financial officer, separate other building and grounds costs totaling $2,273,541 out from the budget proposal, at least for discussion purposes, which in themselves account for a 10% increase over the current year.

In a meeting that went past 11:30 p.m., the board reviewed a list of specific items members had considered adding back in or cutting, including staff, tech materials and bus monitors.

“If it’s a safety feature, we need it on every bus,” said member Lee Goldstein. “If it’s not on every bus, it’s not a safety concern.”

The BOE realized a $90,000 saving with the cut, despite Abbey recommendation that it remain.

The board also took away $20,000 for a furniture account, $36,000 from the ongoing purchase cycle for Smartboards, and $25,000 from the innovation fund.

At the same time it added back in $228,200 for the two elementary science coaches, plus benefits, and another $94,880 for a middle school literacy coach, plus benefits.

A motion to cut a .5 FTE (full-time equivalent) assistant principal at Saugatuck Elementary School with a $79,000 impact was narrowly defeated in a 3-to-4 vote, following a good deal of public input on maintaining the position.

With both Coleytown Elementary and Greens Farms Schools each operating with only 1.5 FTE assistant principals, while the other elementary schools have 2 FTE, several members of the public expressed a need for the district to maintain parity.

In terms of items being cut, one parent raised the question of why certain programs like elementary science had been brought to the chopping block, while others—in particular the elementary world language program—are not being looked at.

“Maybe take a look at what can be cut on the parts that are not as successful,” Jen Greely said, noting the elementary Spanish curriculum costs $1.26 million and testing results of fifth graders who have participated in it for six years are very poor.

“Instead we’re taking cuts in the programs that do work,” she said, speaking on behalf of her school’s assistant principal and the impact she has had.

Kristin Schneeman, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 9, agreed with Greely’s assessment, noting many parents have brought the program into question.

“What evidence are we using to base decisions on?” she asked, noting there was “a lot of unhappiness in Westport” about the elementary world language program

BOE Moves School Start Time Back

A number of parents spoke in opposition to any change, mainly concerned with the impact it will have on elementary-age students and their families, with later start time also meaning later dismissal.

Others spoke in favor of the change, however, demonstrating what several parents said has become a rift in the community regarding the issue.

“I’ve been very interested to see how divisive this particular conversation has been,” said parent Elizabeth Coe, claiming that one of the members of the SSTC accused her of having “no compassion” for opposing the change.

“What about compassion for working parents?” she said, noting it would be impossible to find a babysitter in the morning, and also that it stole away time that she shared with her kids before work.

“I will lose this time with my children … For what? So a high school kid can get a little extra sleep?” she said.

Some parents also opined that the elementary schools weren’t adequately represented on the committee itself, and that the process was rushed and had not been given adequate public airing.

“We had a committee that worked for two years,” noted BOE member Lee Goldstein, calling the research “very credible and compelling.”

“This was not a decision that was made by the committee in haste,” noted BOE member Vik Muktavaram, who served on the SSTC.

He said he was originally skeptical about the concept, but became convinced over time by the research reviewed by the committee.

“It is going to be hard for some of the families … but frankly I think we have to make the right decision for the students,” Muktavaram said.

“I don’t think there’s been enough work done on a before-school program,” said parent Alexis Bancroft, calling it irresponsible on the part of the BOE.

She and several others suggested delaying the vote until a plan could be put in place by the school administration having to do with before-school care opportunities.

Christine Meier Schatz, a District 2 Representative Town Meeting member who spearheaded the change, told the BOE that they could make things easier for the elementary students in their authority.

“You have the power to change the structure of the elementary day,” she said, including adding more recess or shortening the day.

“I’ve been talking to you all about this issue for three years … There is no reason to wait,” she said.

BOE member Karen Kleine, who voted against the change along with member Elaine Whitney, remained steadfast in her skepticism.

“I don’t believe it’s harmful to have kids starting when they’re starting right now,” she said.

Whitney said that while she was a believer in the research, she too hoped to see more of a plan in place, suggesting they wait a month in order to give the administration time to set things up.

“To me this ultimately comes down to the integrity of the implementation plan,” she said.