Connecticut has taken a national lead in empowering youth voices.
Now Staples has taken a lead in making it happen.
This morning, the high school welcomed Governor Ned Lamont, Congressman Jim Himes and State Senator Will Haskell. They, and 2 members of the state Department of Education, outlined a new $1.5 million program — part of the national American Rescue Plan — that allocates $20,000 to 85 schools. Current students propose ideas for their building, then vote on which one to implement.
Then the adults sat back and listened, to a dozen student ideas.
Westport Schools Superintendent Thomas Scarice (far right) greets Governor Ned Lamont. Also at the event (from left): Congressman Jim Himes, State Senator Will Haskell and Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas.
Himes noted that while the federal government works “at scale” — allocating $6 trillion in COVID relief — it can’t understand the needs of individual communities. That’s where the “Voice4Change” program comes in.
It was an intriguing morning. Lamont, Himes and Haskell addressed the Staples students as intelligent, involved people. They did not talk down or pander; they did not try to score political points, often pointing out the bipartisan nature of COVID relief funds. They listened and took notes.
Lamont did give props to Connecticut as “an entrepreneur factory.” Why, he wondered, can’t some entrepreneurial ideas come from students?
“I’m all ears,” he said.
Governor Lamont at the podium.
Among the ideas: strengthened school security, including ID cards for student access to the building, and metal detectors; installing solar panels in the parking lot, as at Fairfield Warde High; and enhanced ties between Staples and neighboring, less affluent school districts.
Proposals are due to the state Department of Education by January 9. Each school will have its own ballot, for voting on March 11.
First Selectwoman Jen Tooker offered to mentor students who have ideas. Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice challenged them to find sources to match the $20,000.
Staples High School students listen to ideas for Voice4Change.
Lamont had to leave for another engagement. But Himes, Haskell, the state Education reps, and town officials stuck around to chat.
It was a tossup who was more inspired: the students, or them.
Staples High School senior Natalie Bandura is the high school representative on the state Board of Education. She spoke to fellow students about the Voice4Change initiative. (Photos/Dan Woog)
Starting next fall, Westport will follow the same school calendar as 16 other southern Fairfield County districts. That follows a state Board of Education decision mandating uniform calendars in regions throughout the state. For Westport, it means — among other things — a shortened winter break.
A new bill being debated in the state legislature would allow the Commissioner of Education to withhold 10 percent of a district’s transportation grant from any board of education that does not use the uniform regional school calendar.
Last night, Westport superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon testified before the legislature’s Education Committee (members include local Senator Toni Boucher and Representative Gail Lavielle). Landon addressed not only the proposed bill, but the entire uniform school calendar concept.
I am here today to speak against this latest legislative proposal which would have the effect of imposing severe financial penalties upon those school districts that do not abide by the unfunded mandate regarding a Regional Uniform School Calendar.
However, I am also here to urge the members of this Committee to do your best to undo in its entirety the unfunded mandate of a Regional Uniform School Calendar. After all, this unfunded mandate was introduced into a Planning and Development Committee bill as a House floor amendment without it ever being discussed or commented upon at a public hearing.
Dr. Elliott Landon
The ability of every school district to create its own calendar for its students and teachers had long been a practice in Connecticut before the mandated Regional Uniform School Calendar became a reality. Consistent with the New England tradition of supporting local control, the state legislature for decades has not interfered with this particular local option for school districts. With this unfortunate unfunded mandate, the Legislature has expressed its disdain for allowing any school district in every community to create a calendar based upon its own very special local culture, local traditions, and local needs.
Landon said that the loss of a full week of recess in February has been hard on families that cannot visit relatives who do not live nearby. For many reasons, those visits are not possible during the December or April breaks. He fears that parents will take their children out of school anyway, to visit grandparents and other relatives.
I know from firsthand experience that the February recess enables the rash of extended illnesses to be broken as school children are removed from crowded school environments where viruses, colds and other illnesses are shared. Additionally, when schools have been closed during the February recess for an extended 9 day period, the savings of fuel during the coldest month of the year have been substantially reduced.
Harsh winter weather plays havoc with school districts. Heating costs are high in winter too.
The Regional Uniform School Calendar was originally intended to save on transportation costs through regional cooperation and by reducing the cost of professional development.
That proved to be unrealistic, purely wishful thinking, indeed. The vast distances and long travel times between school systems across the state have resulted in generating few, if any transportation savings. In Westport, for example, and all the school districts in Fairfield County, I would venture to say that not a dime has been saved in transportation costs because of the unfunded mandate that all school systems abide by a regional and uniform school calendar.
Landon said that because school districts are required to provide professional learning opportunities for teachers “based on their individual needs identified through the local evaluation process,” that the regional calendar — calling for “generalized regional professional development” — contradicts a key component of the teacher evaluation law.
Even before Staples High School was founded in 1884, local school districts in Connecticut created their own calendars.
I can share with you unequivocally, that in Westport, for example, the Regional Uniform School Calendar has resulted in not a single reduction in costs for the transportation of students both in and out of our school district, nor have we saved any money at all in the area of professional development.
I would urge this Committee to take forceful action and to recommend to the entire Legislature that the valuable time of our elected representatives be focused instead on far more relevant issues than financially penalizing any school district that refuses to adapt such a calendar, an issue that is most irrelevant when compared to other really pressing issues.
For example, our elected representatives would be performing a much more vital service by focusing on such issues as closing the achievement gap between rich students and students of poverty; ensuring that every student graduates from Connecticut high schools with all the schools necessary to be successful in the complex world they will be inheriting; to fund all school systems appropriately; to fully address the full implementation of the State’s obligation for Educational Cost Sharing; to fix a bilingual education program that limits the ability of the educational community to better address the needs of English language learners throughout the state; and, finally, to place the burden of proof in special education cases where it properly belongs.
Nonetheless, if the Legislature continues to support this unnecessary unfunded mandate, I urge the Legislature to exempt from punishment or financial penalty, any school district that follows a traditional three full week recess calendar in any school year.
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