Wilton BOE chairwoman defends $1.45M for instructional coaches in schools

Photo of J.D. Freda
Board of Education Chair Deborah Low, pictured here from a previous year, explained the need for instructional coaches in the district.

Board of Education Chair Deborah Low, pictured here from a previous year, explained the need for instructional coaches in the district.

Jarret Liotta / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Allocating $1.45 million for instructional coaches in the schools was a topic of frequent discussion and even contention during the last school budget deliberations, but Board of Education Chair Deb Low is emphasizing their efficacy and need ahead of the upcoming budget.

While the Board of Finance passed a $86.7 million BOE budget this summer, it questioned certain expenses, despite the board not having line-item control on the schools budget.

During the review process, BOF Chairman Michael Kaelin was just one of the members to question whether the coaching allocation was appropriate and distributed fairly. He pointed to the district's need for four coaches from kindergarten to second grade, totaling $565,000 in salaries and benefits, while noting there were just six others combined for every other grade in the district, with three at Cider Mill Elementary, two in Middlebrook Middle School and just one at Wilton High School.

"Last year, I think they were a little too quick to criticize the program when they weren't too sure about it as a whole," Low said. "That can cast doubt on something in a negative way."

Kaelin said this week he is looking for evidence from the administration and the Board of Education that the teachers in the classroom believe the coaches are beneficial to the teachers and worth the expense.

"I also would like to know why the coaches need to be full-time, salaried employees and how much of the coaches' time is actually spent coaching teachers," Kaelin said.

The coaching program was implemented in the 2015-16 school year and has instructional coaches work with district teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade. The coaches are "experienced, certified teachers with training and expertise in the coaching model" and help improve in-class strategies to meet students' individual needs in the classroom, Low said.

As of this year, the district employs a total of 10.5 instructional coaches with six assigned for humanities and 4.5 assigned for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Low said it's healthy that the selectmen and finance board have oversight over the school budget. She worries though that they might not understand the importance of the coaching program and is trying to share the student performance data ahead of the upcoming budget. 

According to student performance statistics compiled over the last few years, Low said third through eighth grades showed "significant improvements of students reaching mastery in language arts and math" year-over-year for the past two academic years. Students in these grades also met their individual, state-defined growth targets in both subjects at the highest clip out of any of Wilton's peer towns.

During that time at the middle school level, Wilton students scored in the top three in language arts and math out of peer towns Darien, Easton, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston and Westport, Low said.

Low contended that instructional coaches played an integral role in attaining these results.

"Over time, the art and science of teaching have become more complicated and demanding," Low said.  "Long gone are the days of teachers in front of classrooms hoping that most students, behaving as passive learners, master the material. We luckily know much more about how students learn and research continues to develop that knowledge. We also know the importance of using assessment data to pinpoint specific student needs."

Low said the staff has refined the coaching model consistently since 2015, looking to act proactively to better serve to the needs of the district's students. 

Low pointed out that while the district has enjoyed some successes over the past few years, it still looks to improve in some areas, such as helping the students at Cider Mill Elementary who are not performing near the top of the peer towns when it comes to percentage of students at subject mastery.

"The instructional coaching model provides essential support and partnership for teachers so they can be at the top of their game," Low said. "In order to maximize student learning, coaches organize and interpret assessment data and collaborate with teachers to map out an instructional game plan to meet the needs of individual or groups of students."

Due to the coaching program and other strong opinions on the last budget, the BOF has asked to be more involved in the drafting process for the education budget this year.

BOF member Matthew Raimondi said he was grateful to the education board for the invite into its drafting procedure.

"Every budget has trade offs in terms of how best to allocate resources," Raimondi said, "and understanding their perspectives will be valuable."