Wilton schools seek waiver from CT mandated reading program. Why the district wants to keep its own

Cider Mill Students head to their buses after the first day of school on Aug. 30, 2021, in Wilton, Conn. A school bus shortage is causing a problem for sports teams throughout the state.

Cider Mill Students head to their buses after the first day of school on Aug. 30, 2021, in Wilton, Conn. A school bus shortage is causing a problem for sports teams throughout the state.

Bryan Haeffele / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — The local public schools plan to request to be excluded from a new state-mandated reading and literacy program, instead preferring to stick with their own newly redeveloped curriculum.

Assistant Superintendent Chuck Smith said at a Jan. 12 Board of Education meeting that Wilton will submit a waiver from being included in the so-called “Right to Read” Act on Feb. 28. The district has already notified the state of its plans.

The legislation in question, passed in June 2021, requires the state to oversee all school-led literacy efforts. The act allows the state to “(set) curriculum requirements for districts, provide professional development, hire external literacy coaches, and coordinate teacher preparation programs,” per the Right to Read Coalition’s website. Following the legislation’s passing, the state Department of Education established a Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success, which consults with a Reading Leadership Implementation Council to guide and implement the program.

But Wilton Public Schools says they underwent a curriculum revamp that is already meeting the literacy needs of students. District Humanities Coach Karen Brenneke told the Board of Education at the Jan. 12 meeting that Wilton began reviewing its literacy curriculum in 2020 — just before the pandemic lockdowns — as part of its regular five-year cycle of evaluating the district’s learning materials and whether they’re working. 

The review process involved receiving feedback from the Tri-State Consortium, a group of public school districts that come together to peer review and help districts meet standards.  From this, the district set goals to increase its intentional focus on foundational skills in kindergarten through second grade, grammar and vocabulary use/acquisition in kindergarten through eighth grade, building background knowledge at the elementary level, and integrating philosophy about choice and rigor at the secondary grade levels. The new curriculum was ratified in May 2020, Brenneke said.

“As you can see, our organization’s attention to foundational skills acquisition, vocabulary acquisition of use, the construction of background knowledge, and the language development embedded in grammar instruction, precedes this unfunded legislative mandate,” she added. “We’ve been steadfastly proceeding with this work in a fiscally responsible manner since the spring of 2020.”

The district will continue to refine and implement new reading units, Brenneke said, with the aim of having 80 percent of learners reading at grade level. Many of their students have already made progress under the new curriculum, according to the report Brenneke and Smith presented to the BOE.

Brenneke said some of the district’s goals from the review match those laid out in the state’s legislation. However, Smith said when the district submitted an 82-page document to the state outlining how its program satisfied Connecticut's criteria, it appeared to not have been reviewed “in totality.”

“Many districts repeatedly requested information and it’s crickets,” Smith said. “They’re not even answering us.” 

Thus, Smith said the district plans to move forward next month with submitting a waiver request to the state. He added they have already informed the state of Wilton’s upcoming submission.

“We need to keep our students and their needs central in this work,” Brenneke said.  “Connecticut statue has historically left programming and methods of instruction to the discretion to local educational agencies.”

Costs and other concerns

Beyond the fact that Wilton already seems to be doing the work the legislation hopes to achieve, officials expressed concerns about the cost. Brenneke said only Alliance districts — schools identified by the state as underperforming — will receive money and professionals to meet the new requirements. 

But Wilton, which is not an Alliance district, will be on the hook for the costs of implementing these new resources, some of which Brenneke said could be nearly half a million dollars, including a year of access to a digital program that would need to be renewed annually for the elementary classrooms.

“For our district, this is unfunded,” Brenneke said.

Smith added that, in addition to this, 52 percent of students reading below grade level are in Alliance districts which already receive additional support from the state.

“The state is now expanding their reach to schools outside the Alliance districts yet they have not yet shown themselves to be able to produce results they’re seeking,” he added.

Adding to the complications is the fact that the state is behind on its rollout of information on the new requirements. The list of programs the state plans to use were announced in September, three months later than promised and after budgeting for the following school year began.

“There was simply insufficient time to review instructional resources to make sure they fit Wilton’s standards,” Brenneke said. “Our decision making remains grounded in selecting materials that support all of our students in becoming skilled readers…We can never move forward with programs or practices that are not meeting all of our learner’s needs.”