Boards discuss Common Core, enrichment and excess cost grant


The Board of Finance met with the Board of Education on Tuesday, March 17, to ask additional questions and discuss the proposed fiscal year 2016 education budget.
Finance board member Jeffrey Rutishauser said the budget was “the best” and “tightest” one he’s ever seen from an education board.
“It came very close to our target, and I like the fact that you went down and kind of built the budget — almost like a zero-base budget,” he said.
“I hope that happens every year and not just when we have a new superintendent.”

Common Core


Finance board member Lynne Vanderslice asked Superintendent Kevin Smith to explain Common Core to the finance board.
“I often hear from parents who say, ‘We’re high-achieving — look at the 12th grade results,’ and they’ll ask why we have to provide more resources to get that same achievement level,” she said.
“I’ve spent a lot of years working with kids from low-performing districts. If Wilton has to have this much in resources to get us — a high-performing district — up to the standards, how do you see this rolling out?”
Dr. Smith explained that Common Core is a set of standards in English, language arts and math that “raise the bar.”
“There is a greater emphasis on reading comprehension at the earliest levels, so the expectations for our youngest children have [risen] considerably,” he said, “but I think the most important change is in mathematics.”
Dr. Smith said schools are now asking students to “reason more deeply, defend their thinking and positions through different instructional models, collaborate, and challenge each other on their answers.”
“It is a pretty dramatic shift from what we had been doing for a very long time,” said Dr. Smith. “The challenge is that we’re trying to ensure that we’ve met all kids’ needs at every grade level.”
Dr. Smith said the old curriculum “had different opportunities to address some of those curriculum gaps in later grade levels,” but the new curriculum seeks “mastery in every grade level.”
The Common Core has changed the role teachers play in the classroom, said Dr. Smith, which is why the district is looking to bring instructional coaches to its schools.
“With this change, our teachers have to learn new, different kinds of content. They’ve had to implement new materials and then adapt their instructional methodologies, so it’s all kinds of new learning that we’re asking teachers to do simultaneously,” he said.
“I don’t know when the last time was that you had to learn seven new things all at the same time, but I’m sure if you’ve had that experience, it was stress-inducing, so that’s where our teachers are today. We need to provide the right kind of support all the way through.”
Dr. Smith said Common Core requires teachers to be “facilitators” and for students to be more “actively and intellectually engaged.”
“Teachers are now creating experiences for kids in a much more constructed approach to help them discover the learning, apply the learning and work with their peers to create new learning, with the right kinds of facilitation support from the teacher,” he said.
“It’s no longer the teacher-in-front-of-the-room kind of transmission to 20 kids or so — it’s about more differentiated experiences, and we need to have that across the board in every classroom.”

Enrichment


Mr. Rutishauser said although he is glad to see some attention paid to enrichment, he would like to see even more programs brought back to the school district.
“We had them 15 years ago and they are what made the school system special,” he said. “Over time, we sacrificed them with budget cuts. I’m seeing some … starting to come and that’s a good start.”
Cider Mill Principal Jennifer Mitchell explained some of the enrichment efforts being made at her school, including student newspapers and the WordMasters Program.
“We’re implementing the WordMasters Program and running it with enrichment instructional leaders,” she said. “Parents are taking on small roles as well, such as planning the history bee for next fall.”

Excess cost grant


Ms. Vanderslice suggested that the excess cost grant be included in the education budget.
After looking at its special education cost over a five-year period, Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly said, the board realized it had been “consistently under-budgeting by about $600,000.”
“You could say history is going to repeat itself and we need to account for that,” he said.
According to Ms. Vanderslice, she had been under the impression the education board purposely under-budgeted, knowing that it would receive the grant.
“If you look at the language in the law, the law says that the town is required to transfer if you’re under budget,” said Ms. Vanderslice, “so the law is kind of perverse in that it encourages the school district to budget the number too low.”
Mr. Likly said the education board has been talking about setting aside a fund using money from the excess cost grant “to manage some of those anomalies” and “get the budget in a more accurate position.”
Ms. Vanderslice said there has been “taxpayer confusion” about the schools’ receipt of the excess cost grant.
“ Ken [Post] will say we’re over budget, but it’s going to be offset by the grant,” she said. “People never hear that second part because they either stop listening or they don’t understand.”
Ms. Vanderslice suggested the two boards work together to come up with a financial statement that “makes the most sense for taxpayers.”
There will be Board of Finance public hearing on the education budget on Monday, March 23, in the Middlebrook auditorium at 7:30 p.m.