Tag Archives: Westport Public Schools

After The Storm: Westport Schools Delayed By 3 Hours

In the aftermath of last night’s storm — which, on the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, brought nearly 5 inches of rain and near-50 mph winds to Westport — Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer says:

Due to many downed trees and wires, we are delaying school by 3 hours today.

Currently 25% of Westport is without power as well. Please be careful of any downed lines that you could encounter today in your travels to work. I expect all of the damage has not yet been reported to officials. We will continue to assess the situation as the morning light reveals storm damage. Please be safe, wherever you are.

Superintendent Reveals Cut List

With the state budget in tatters — and towns now on the hook for things like teacher pensions — superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer presented a $977,000 cut list to the Board of Education last night.

Board members listened to and considered each of the “mitigation strategies” offered. No action was taken.

The Board of Education determines the exact list of reductions. The next step after that is the Board of Finance.

The biggest suggested change ($170,000) comes from health insurance, as a result of reduced staff.

In addition, $100,000 comes from the cafeteria fund reimbursement for operating expenses, and $98,141 from deferring the hiring of the director of secondary education for one year. Other large cuts include a middle school literacy coach and curriculum resources ($66,000) each; not funding an “innovation fund” ($50,000).

Palmer has identified 39 items overall for deferral or elimination. They include personnel like a part-time psychologist, paraprofessionals, 2 Staples grade level assistants, and secretarial help in the district. Also listed: the Staples athletic budget, maintenance, and supply items like Long Lots bathroom renovation, Kings Highway art stools, and Staples library and computer chairs.

To view all the recommended changes to the proposed education budget, click here.

Colleen Palmer: A Chat With Westport’s New School Superintendent

Not much gets by Colleen Palmer.

“I noticed the Westport Public Schools website has very few photos of students,” the town’s new superintendent of schools said last week, at the end of her 1st week on the job.

She knows there are privacy issues involved. But, she said, if students are the primary focus of the district — and she is emphatic that they are — they should be a visible focus online too.

It was a whirlwind week for the incoming education leader. She’d just finished 5 successful years in Weston; before that, she was superintendent in Monroe. Palmer also served as a high school prinicipal at Nonnewaug, Hamden and Simsbury.

Dr. Colleen Palmer.

Dr. Colleen Palmer.

She was not looking to leave Weston. She’d invested a lot of time and energy there; the schools are excellent, and she was deeply rooted in the community.

Yet when Westport’s search firm tapped her on the shoulder, she turned around.

Palmer knew this town, from working many years with then-superintendent Elliott Landon. The closer she looked at Westport — learning about initiatives like the 2025 Lens and collaboration with Teachers College — the more excited she became.

The opportunities and challenges here — in a district larger and more diverse than Weston — offered “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Palmer says. “I realized if I didn’t apply, I would always regret it.”

Westport Public SchoolsAfter her appointment this winter — she was the only finalist — Palmer did her homework. She read documents and reports. She made phone calls. As the budget process unfolded, she watched every Board of Education, Board of Finance and RTM meeting she could.

Now, she’s got a nice Town Hall office. But she’s not spending too much time there.

“I’m visiting every school, and meeting every person I can,” she says. “I’m getting to know the facilities, and what goes on behind the scenes. I’m trying to listen and learn.”

Her initial impressions?

“Westport is a very authentic place. Everyone is focused on what’s right for students. They’re passionate, dedicated and inspiring.”

Educators “want to share what they’re doing,” she adds. “There’s a can-do attitude, and a lot of collaborative problem-solving.” One immediate example: addressing space issues at Kings Highway Elementary School.

That’s wonderful. But, I wonder, don’t all teachers and administrators focus on kids?

“There are great educators everywhere,” Palmer counters. “What I see here is such a high level of performance, throughout the entire district.”

In that context, she says, “I tell people: ‘dream big.’ My job is to remove barriers. We’re all looking for better ideas, and better ways to do things.”

Colleen Palmer's Town Hall office has a great view. But she is getting out and around, meeting as many Westporters administrators, teachers and residents as she can.

Colleen Palmer’s Town Hall office has a great view. But she is getting out and around, meeting as many Westporters administrators, teachers and residents as she can.

Palmer looks forward to building on the strong foundation that already exists. She is particularly excited by the “Guiding Principles” initiative, fostering emotional intelligence.

“We have to look at the whole child,” Palmer says. “Success is not bound by academics alone. There’s also the quality of life as they go through the school system, and the tools they have for life.”

She hopes that Guiding Principles values like “kindness with sincerity” will be part of the entire district culture, for adults as well as students.

Using 2 of her favorite phrases — “Failure is not an option” and “Hope is not a strategy” — Palmer calls herself “tenacious and realistic.” She cites a major achievement in Weston — getting a waiver from the state, in order to do holistic rather than formulaic scoring for teacher evaluations — as an example of her ability to do what’s right for students and staff, unencumbered by rigid thinking.

She is not anti-data. But, Palmer says, “we have to be smart. My job as superintendent is to be effective, efficient and coherent. Any goals we set need realistic timelines. And then we have to all hold ourselves accountable.”

Though she calls a superintendent’s job “24/7,” Westport’s new leader has a life beyond school. Three years ago, driving across the Saugatuck River, she saw scullers on the water.

She took lessons at the Saugatuck Rowing Club, and fell in love with the sport. Now, at dawn, she rows a single.

“There is nothing more beautiful than the flat Saugatuck River, as the sun comes up,” Palmer says. “It’s so peaceful and serene. It’s where I do great thinking.”

Palmer — a swimmer — recently joined the Westport Weston Family YMCA too.

She loves cultural events, travel, and her 3 sons and 5 grandchildren. She just built a lakeside house in Vermont. It’s her “grandchild trap.”

The new superintendent — who prefers “Colleen” to “Dr. Palmer” — replaces a man who served a mind-boggling 17 years, in a very difficult public position.

How long will she be here?

“I love my work. I thrive on it,” she says. “I have a healthy balance in my life. This job has long hours, but I take care of myself.

“I have no exit plan in mind. I look forward to a long tenure here.”

Westport Vs. Weston: Which Schools To Choose?

A woman emailed me yesterday. She and her husband grew up in Fairfield County; they now live in Westchester. They want to “come home” to Connecticut — but are torn between Westport and Weston. She says:

I understand the difference between the towns and properties themselves – what I am really interested in (obsessed with?) is the differences between the schools.

My impression is that Weston is more traditional, maybe has fewer course course offerings, but a smaller, more personal experience?

I know both systems are “excellent.” I’m looking, if possible, specifically where there is less pressure (if anywhere) on the kids, and where there is less teaching to the test and true creativity allowed on the parts of the teachers. Any other thoughts are welcome too.

So there you have it, “06880” (and 06883). Click “Comments” to respond. Please address the questions asked — no tangents this time. Please cite specific examples, if possible. And play fair — no ad hominem attacks.

Weston's Hurlbutt Elementary School (left); Westport's Green's Farms El.

Weston’s Hurlbutt Elementary School (left); Westport’s Green’s Farms El.

Kindergarteners Do Answer Questions

Recently, “06880” posed a question the Board of Education needed answering:  When was kindergarten first offered in the Westport public schools?

Plenty of readers posted answers online, with recollections dating back to 1941.

But that’s not the half of it.

According to Jennifer Robson, administrative assistant to the superintendent, additional sleuthing in the Town Hall vaults showed records of 4- and 5-year-olds being educated as far back as the late 1800s.

In 1916 — the 1st year that record books actually describe children by grade (not just age) — the Bridge Street School (predecessor to the original Saugatuck Elementary School, on [duh] Bridge Street) had a “sub-primary grade,” filled with 4- and 5- year-olds.

By 1918, there were 26 students in what the Bridge Street School actually called “kindergarten.”

Student rosters read like a hit parade of old time Westport names: DeMatttio, Gilbertie, Saponare, Valiante, Tedesco, Cribari, DeFeo, Fiore and Zeoli, among others.

Youngsters at the Bridge Street School, around 1915. Recognize any relatives?

Jennifer says that the other schools in town did not appear to have kindergarten at that point.  They also enrolled far fewer students than the Bridge Street School.

“They seemed to run more like country schoolhouses,” Jennifer notes, “with perhaps 30 students total, spread through grades 1-5.”

What are your recollections of your early school days in Westport?  Click “Comments” to respond.  Let’s limit this one to elementary schools, with no tangents into No Child Left Behind, Obama’s education policy, or anything else please!

A Question Even A Kindergartener Can Answer

For some reason, NESDEC — the organization that does yearly enrollment projections for the Westport Public Schools — recently contacted the Town School Office looking for background info.

One question was:  What year was kindergarten first offered in our schools?

The answer is:  No one is sure.

Records trace Westport kindergarten back to 1953 — but they’re incomplete before that.

So, “06880” readers:  If you attended kindergarten here any year before Dwight Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II took over, click “Comments” and tell us when.

Inquiring minds — and NESDEC — want to know.

Was there kindergarten in Westport in 1952? "06880" readers must know.

We’re #5!

There’s been a bit lot of back-and-forth on “06880” lately regarding the value of the Westport school system.

Everyone’s got a different rating method.  They range from standardized test score comparisons with similar towns in our “District Reference Group,” which seems fairly reasonable, to the dip-shitty Newsweek method, which takes the number of AP (and AP-type) exams administered, and divides by the number of graduating seniors.  (Theoretically, the top school could be one where every student takes every AP test offered, and no one passes any of them.)

Into the fray roars Forbes — sort of.  In a story befitting “The Capitalist Tool,” they’ve created “The Best Schools For Your Real Estate Buck.”

Using their methodology — combining the 17,589 towns and cities in the 49 states that administer standardized tests (see ya, Nebraska!) with results from the standardized National Assessment for Educational Progress federal tests of randomly selected 4th, 8th and 12th graders — they calibrated results of “individual cities in a single state with national standards to come up with an absolute score for each city.  It then graded them on a curve.”

I am not bright enough to figure out what all that means.  (Hey, I took math at Staples in the ’70s.  I must have been absent the day we studied this stuff.)

I am, however, bright enough to know that standardized tests — particularly when each state sets different standards — are not the brightest way to assess schools, teachers, administrators, learning, learning outcomes, creativity, blah blah blah, even bang for one’s real estate buck.

Whatever.

Forbes ran the data, crunched the numbers, threw salt over their shoulder, and came up with the highest-ranking city.  The one that got the “100” that the rest of the 17,588 towns and cities get curve-graded against.

The best-bang-buckiest town — the one we should all immediately move to, to maximize our investments in our kids and our homes and the future — is, of course…

…Falmouth, Maine.

Duh.

Using Forbes’ quasi-scientific methodology, Westport does not even make the top 10.

No Connecticut school systems do, though.  In fact, only 2 in the entire Northeast:  Barrington, RI (#4) and Bedford, NH (#5).  The rest of the top 10 includes Mercer Island, WA (#2), Pella, IA (#3), and from 6th to 10th, Manhattan Beach, CA; Moraga, CA; Parkland, FL; St. Johns, FL, and Southlake, TX.

But wait!

If you’re scoring at home using the “District Reference Group” method, Forbes has better news for Westport.  Sort of.

They’ve sliced and diced their list according to median housing prices.  We’re in the highest group — “$800,000 and Upand here the list is a bit more Northeast- and California-centric.

Westport — with a median home price of $931,690 (when?  2007?) and an “Ed Quality Index” of 87.81 — is the 5th best bang-bucking school district in the entire wealthiest Forbes quarter.

We trail the winner (Manhattan Beach, CA) and runners-up New Canaan, Lafayette (CA) and Palo Alto, but lead Darien, Orinda (CA), Weston (MA, not CT), Rye (NY) and Cupertino (CA).

This is described as "the women of the Manhattan Beach 6-man volleyball tournament." Yes, I understand these are not men, and there are more than 6 of them. But who am I to argue with the top school district in the category of wealthiest median home prices? Whatever they teach there must be right.

So there you have it.  Sort of.

But feel free to devise your own ranking system.

I have added together all the grades achieved by students in grades K-12 in every course taken (except physical education); divided by the number of parking spots in each parking lot; multiplied by the square root of parent or guardian’s IQ and cholesterol scores, and done something or other with the hypotenuse of the hotness factor of superintendents, boards of education and building principals.

I am happy to report that, by this perfectly logical method, the Westport school district is the 2nd best in the country.

Number one is — damn! — Falmouth, Maine.

Racing Toward — Where?

Race To Nowhere” — the much-heralded documentary — arrived in Westport last night.  It is not a feel-good film.

The audience of 600 at Bedford Middle School — mostly mothers, with a few dads and students sprinkled in — saw a depressing litany of all that ails education today.  Teaching to the test; too much homework; too many extracurriculars; too much pressure to get into the best college; cheating — it was all there.  Plus the heart-wrenching, math grade-induced suicide of a 13-year-old girl.

It’s not a perfect film.  In trying to cover everything — from high-performing suburban schools to those in inner cities; from kindergarten through high school; from the perspectives of students, parents, administrators and mental health professionals — it felt at times like rocketing from math class to Spanish to social studies.

And, paradoxically, at 85 minutes it was about 20 minutes too long.  If I were in class, I’d have been staring at the clock.

But “Road to Nowhere” is definitely worth seeing.  You may not like the parade of sad, tired, pressured kids — and they may be no more representative of their generation than the images of their demandingly conflicted parents — but all those voices, and messages, are important.

Among the main points:

  • “Everyone expects us to be super-heroes.” — A student
  • “We’re all caught up in this.  We’re all afraid our kids won’t be as successful as we were.” — A parent
  • Students today are told they have to succeed in the classroom, on the playing field, in the community.  “And among all that,” a teenager says, “we have to be unique.  And find ourselves.”
  • “Kids look great on the outside.  But underneath, they’re bleeding.” — A mental health professional
  • Recognizing the rigors of homework, an AP Biology teacher cut his homework assignments in half.  Those students did better on the all-important AP test than his previous classes.
  • “Cheating has become another course.  And the more we do it, the better we get.” — A student
  • “My AP course has become a runaway train.” — A teacher
  • “I’ll never have to speak French again!” — A student, following her AP French test
  • “We’re raising a generation of training wheel kids.  They never learn how to fall.” — A mental health professional
  • “If all you get are A’s, there’s only one way to go:  down.” — A parent
  • “It’s a lot harder being a teenager than it ever was before.”  — A parent
  • “I’m worried about my pre-teenage daughters getting into good schools.  And I write books on this stuff!” — An educator

Half the audience stayed for a discussion afterward.  Topics ranged from poor teachers to peer pressure exerted by parents.

But — as gloomy as the film is — an upbeat note was sounded by Brian Fagan.  The assistant superintendent for curriculum (“and homework,” he joked) said:

“None of these issues are unfamiliar to me as an administrator, or to Westport public schools.  Are we vulnerable to some of the criticisms in the film?  Yes — but in constructive ways.

“We do have conversations about these issues, and we’re actively working to mitigate them.  Our discussions are lengthy, and complex.  None of these problems are easily addressed, or conveniently repackaged.  But we’re definitely talking about them, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.”

(A follow-up discussion to “Race to Nowhere” is set for Monday, March 14 [7 p.m.] in the Staples cafeteria.  Like last night’s film, it is sponsored by the PTA Council.  Another showing of the film — sponsored by the Teen Awareness Group — will be held Tuesday, March 8 [7 p.m.], in the Staples auditorium.)

99% Chance Of A Snow Day Tomorrow!

No, that’s not Elliott Landon speaking.

Or me.

It’s the “Snow Day Calculator” — and that website is as scientific as it gets.

First you enter your school’s zip code.

Then some very important information:

  • Type of school (public, urban public, rural public, private/prep, boarding)
  • The number of snow days already this year
  • “Leniency of administration” (easy, okay, harsh)
  • Is there a special event or activity scheduled?
  • Is your school in a mountainous area?
  • Hype for a snow day (0 = no one talking about it; 1 = many kids talking about it; 2 = kids, teachers and media talking about it; 3 = administrators are talking about it too!)

Click “Calculate” — and it’s 99% certain Westport kids can sleep in on Friday!

But you should still call 203-341-1SNO tomorrow morning.

Just in case.

Even Westport's crack snow plow drivers will be unable to help Westport schools open tomorrow -- or so says the Snow Day Calculator. (Photo by Luke Hammerman/Inklings)

The Education Budget — Remember That?

In 2009, Westport was engulfed in a battle over the education budget.

This year:  not a peep.

There have been a couple of articles in the local press, and 1 or 2 letters to the editor.  Beyond that:  nada.

If you missed it, here’s what’s happening:

The Board of Education has requested a 2.13% increase for 2010-11.  Word on the street is that the Board of Finance — which votes next Wednesday (March 24) — intends to keep the Board of Ed budget flat to this year.

Earlier this month, the Board of Ed made its case to the Finance men and women.

The main points:

  • Recent district awards include “Best High School in Connecticut” (Connecticut Magazine and Business Week); national honors for Science Research; a nationally recognized theater program; a Gold Medal for Inklings; a national “Blue Ribbon School” honor for Bedford.
  • 54% of graduates attend Barron’s “Top Rated” colleges; graduation rate is near 100%
  • An extensive World Language program includes Mandarin; AP test participation has increased 130% over 8 years, with strong results.
  • The middle school has a successful “team teaching” concept, and elementary school class sizes work well
  • Staples’ “Spectacular Student Challenge” and Moody’s Math Challenge illustrate the success of collaborative learning and real-life analytical, problem-solving skills.

Turning to actual figures, the Board of Ed cites:

  • An increase of $2,011,002 over the 2009-10 budget
  • Projected staffing is flat compared to the current budget
  • The new Westport Education Association contract — with a net 2% annual increase — is included in the proposed budget
  • Ongoing negotiations with 4 other unions will impact the 2010-11 budget
  • During the budget review process, $374,000 was removed from the initial recommendation; this includes bus savings of $225,000, heating savings of $148,000, and lowered supplies and equipment costs of $112,000
  • Salaries and benefits account for 82% of the proposed budget; supplies and equipment count for just 3.6%
  • Of the 15 full-time equivalent school positions eliminated last year, none were added back this year, and none will be added back next year — despite protests from parents who have seen services reduced
  • In Westport’s District Reference Group of 10 similar districts, the 2-year budget increase of 2.67% (0.54% in 2009, 2.13% in 2010) is the 9th smallest.  Redding’s is 8.10%; Darien’s is 8%; 3 others are more than 5%, and Wilton, Ridgefield and New Canaan are all at least 1% more than Westport.  Weston, at 1.64%, is less than Westport.
  • In that  District Reference Group, Westport’s cost per student of $16,325 is squarely in the middle.  Region 9 leads at $17,895; Greenwich, Weston and New Canaan all have higher costs per student.  Redding, Wilton, Darien, Easton and Ridgefield all have lower costs per student
  • The 2.67% increase over 2 years has been accomplished by adjusting school start times; eliminating 4th-grade paraprofessionals; reducing library paraprofessionals; consolidating department chairs; reducing individual music lessons at Staples; reducing the gifted program staff levels; lowering school building utility costs via aggressive contract management; negotiating a new bus contract; negotiating a new WEA (teachers union) contract, and implementing a townwide telephone system

The Board of Ed’s final points addressed key reasons to approve the budget as submitted:

  • With 82% of the budget related to personnel, any reduction will impact employees, students, and programs that define the schools
  • Benchmark data show Westport to be District Reference Group leaders in cost containment
  • The Board of Ed works with the town to seize opportunities to lower costs without impacting services
  • Westport’s schools are the town’s most significant attraction; property values reflect the strength of the schools
  • “A move from Great Schools to Good Schools is in no one’s interest.”

The Board of Ed has presented its case.  The Board of Finance votes Wednesday.

Speaking out after that point — about class size increases, program eliminations or anything else — is less effective than making opinions known now.

It’s been a silent budget process so far.  Feedback is welcome; click the “Comments” link at the top or bottom of this post.  To contact Board of Finance members directly, click here.