Wilton schools drop plan for 80-minute block schedules at Middlebrook, but teacher layoffs remain on the table

WILTON — Many parents and students breathed a sigh of relief after Middlebrook School and the district brass decided to abandon plans for an 80-minute block schedule.

But the staff and the teachers' union remain concerned as the school administration continue to examine how to reconstruct the middle school's schedule, possibly with 60-minute classes, combining reading and writing into one class and cutting teachers in the process.

"We're not deaf to the feedback we received about the 80-minute block schedule," Middlebrook Principal James "Jory" Higgins told the Board of Education at its Feb. 9 meeting after an influx of unhappy feedback from parents, students and some staff.

"We're reevaluating our proposal and identifying the common ground that's necessary to move forward," he said, "so I'm happy to share that the Middlebrook staff expressed overwhelming interest in the concept of a schedule that delivers 60-minute classes for math, ELA, world language, science (and) social studies through the team model."

Higgins told the school board that the Middlebrook staff reaction is "very positive" and that the teachers are looking forward to working on the new schedule over the next month.

Andrew Nicsaji, longtime president of the Wilton Education Association, however, disagreed with Higgins' description of the teachers' reactions. The teachers are not so much in favor of a 60-minute class schedule as they are grateful to not be holding even longer periods with the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, Nicsaji said.

"I would suggest that the positive reaction was largely a sign of relief that the 87-minute block schedule was off the table," he said.

Nicsaji raised new questions in terms of how the teachers will react.

"None of the four iterations teachers viewed yesterday passed muster with the WEA's leadership," he said.

Higgins did not respond to follow-up inquiries about the matter, nor did Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith.

Meanwhile, Nicsaji pleaded with the Board of Education and Smith not to cut teacher positions.

"At least 10 teachers are slated to be laid off this spring,"  Nicsaji said.

"Teachers are already considering leaving the Wilton Public Schools," he said, with one teacher already resigning this week before facing a potential layoff.

"The WEA implores the board not to cut these teachers," Nicsaji said.

Smith, however, said that cutting a total of seven full-time equivalent teachers in the budget was sound educationally and not an effort to save money.

He and his team are working to combine reading and writing into one class under the umbrella of English Language Arts, or ELA, thus reducing the core class arrangement. They maintain that the two skills are best taught together, and that this configuration will also augment more reading in other areas, such as science and social studies.

"I don't think this is a discussion about cutting people to meet the needs of the budget, but this is a discussion about making an educational decision that results in the reduction of staff," Smith told the board.

Concerns about staffing cuts and other issues were also expressed to the school board by Dianna Paragon, who identified herself as the vice president of her seventh-grade class at Middlebrook.

"Middlebrook has been rated one of the best schools in Connecticut," Paragon said, questioning the wisdom and the feasibility of "lumping" reading and writing into one class.

She also noted that a significant number of students are potentially already at their attention-span limits with 40-minute classes.

"Many students approached me with concerns about the new block schedule," Paragon said, "and how it would greatly change their school life."

"There are many children who can barely stay focused on a regular 40-minute class," she said. "Imagine how stressful it will be for them if it is double."

Paragon also asked how a teacher could be expected to hold a class's attention for longer periods of time than the current 40 minutes.

Still, the board appeared pleased with the compromise, asking Higgins for a timeline of when they might expect a clear plan for next year.

"My goal is to have something very solid in a month,"  Higgins said, noting he intended to hold both daytime and evening meetings with parents, as well as staff.

He admitted there would be scheduling challenges as the school strives to keep the academic teams together with a new schedule, but said they would be working on them.

"It's some of those details that we have to figure out,"  Higgins said.