A View from Glen Hill: Now or never for great schools

It’s now-or-never time on the budget. If you haven’t voted, you need to do so on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Clune Center. Your vote really matters!  And remember that a “Rejected, too low” vote risks a second Board of Finance bite at the school budget. What we need is an overwhelmingly “Approved” vote to send a clear message now and for future years.

All over town so much is being accomplished for the good. On the town development front, consider the work of our town’s Economic Development Commission strongly supported by First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice. There is huge reason for hope about what these skilled town volunteers can accomplish. Consider also what new Zoning Commission member Scott Lawrence, a successful commercial Realtor, laid out in a fascinating in-depth interview recently. He offered a vision for what our town’s zoning regulations could look like as modestly revised to attract new business. Let’s see what a year’s worth of business development and zoning re-visioning can do to enhance the positive side of Wilton’s financial ledger and bring a “fuller glass” for everyone!  

And on the schools front, we can now look forward to the BOF and BOE working together on long-range planning beginning this spring, as both boards have promised.  Their work together to achieve a comprehensive long-range plan that avoids every-spring brinksmanship offers much promise for our outstanding school district.   

Here are just a few recent examples of the many very creative programs across our schools:

The entire fifth grade class went through a remarkable underground-railroad experience at Ambler Farm two weeks ago under the direction of Cider Mill teachers Kevin Meehan and Tim Gallo and volunteer Adrienne Reedy. The program is a really intense one as these students live, as much as one can for several hours, what a slave would have experienced: from capture in Africa, to perilous ship crossing, to auction block, to endlessly exhausting plantation work, to attempted escape through the Underground Railroad to Canada, including where it passed right here with William Wakeman as its courageous Wilton “conductor.” The result is to bring an enormously sad but hugely important part of American history for three and a half centuries to life and into very sharp focus.   

The annual eighth grade Great Debates program earlier this semester was run by teachers Marnie Kiernan, Maria Lateef and Michael Panoli. It takes much work to supervise 350 students in four- and five-person debate teams on more than a half-dozen different issues (all focused on interpretation of the U.S. Constitution), reading the team prep papers and the individual student-prepared comments on each debate (all students are required to comment as they listen to their fellow students debate) and also giving a formal on-the-spot decision and analysis for each debate. Three paraprofessionals — Beatriz Carvajal, Ellen Emerson and Christine Pucci — are also heavily involved in working with students in debate prep, focusing on honing their public speaking and oral presentation skills. In fact, there is a definite “24/7” element to these teaching professionals’ supervisory work: One teacher saw online that a team of her students was still at work reviewing their debate plans for the next day (in a school-run chat room) at 10:30 p.m. She let them know they’d be better off getting some sleep!  

Topics debated address such current-news matters as attempted state bans on Syrian refugees, American drone strikes on U.S. citizens abroad, and requirements for the wearing of body cameras by police. The students are expected to do a U.S. constitutional law (including case law) analysis based on a full development of the facts, and the debate format includes multiple presentations and even “cross-fires” with opposing teams questioning each other and doing follow-up.  

Another program this semester, Independent Fairfield, presented a detailed experience in legislative practice that imagines the towns of our county as independent states within the “nation” of Fairfield, under the direction of teachers Paul Schluntz and Michael Panoli. It’s very realistic, including excellent student background work, impressive committee reports, and outstanding oral presentations, followed by negotiation and compromise leading to legislative action.

The result of these public speaking opportunities for our students starting at young ages and continuing right through high school is that they become comfortable with, and skillful at, doing that which will be highly important throughout their lives: the comprehensive marshaling of evidence and thoughtful analysis of it based on close reasoning, followed by forceful presentation of carefully considered positions.  

In short, there’s lots of great school programs to be properly preserved and advanced.