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Focus Groups Not Producing Support For Elementary School Reconfiguration

An April 30 Board of Education meeting moved to Vernon Center Middle School.

Superintendent of Schools Mary Conway conducted focus groups this week on potential plans to reconfigure the town's five elementary schools.

For the most part, Conway was met with resistance and less-than-supportive participants who said they do not see the need or the benefits of such a proposal.

Conway announced that a special meeting has been scheduled for Monday, April 30 from 6 to 7 p.m. for public comment regarding reconfiguration - before its regular meeting, set for 7. The meeting is slated for Vernon Center Middle School instead of the administration building.

At each of the four focus groups held to date, participants were not asked to provide their name or address before speaking.

Here is an overview of the meetings.

Lake Street Focus Group – Monday, April 16

Lake Street School’s focus group drew more than 150 participants who do not support the idea of changing neighborhood schools into grade-level schools at the five elementary schools in town. The tension was high in the crowded library.

 “This is a hot button,” Conway said. “It will be a difficult decision. We need to do what is best for all the children of Vernon.”

After explaining various pros and cons to reconfiguration, Conway opened the floor for participants to share their thoughts. Initially she asked people to share their hopes and fears. But a participant explained to Conway that focus group is where people can express their thoughts, opinions and beliefs to particular questions not just provide hopes and fears. Conway agreed and the conversation and questioning went from there.

Lake Street School parents expressed to Conway that they were not in favor of reconfiguration. They also wanted to know why Conway was not spending more time worrying about the education reform that is also on the district’s plate at this time after being identified as one of the state’s bottom 30 districts by Connecticut education officials.

Some parents questioned why Lake Street was doing so well compared to other schools in the district:

“Why can’t you duplicate this in other schools? What are the needs of those children? Putting them in a larger school doesn’t address those problems. It might make it worse”

“Lake Street should be a model you are using for the other schools.”

 “What are the needs of those children? In the meantime you could be destroying this (Lake Street) school.”

Several parents said they had concerns about safety, particularly if their child was districted to attend school in Rockville. They also said they were worried about behavior issues they believe to be part of other schools' struggles:

“What about children’s safety? You’d be taking our children and moving them away from their safety zone. How do I know my child is safe?”

Parents called the potential change a “numbers game” and questioned curriculum - or the lack thereof. Conway assured parents that curriculum is being worked on and that the district is working to align its curriculum with common core standards:

“Equality opportunity – have teachers and administrators step up their game. This plan will disrupt the whole town.”

Parents talked about how siblings were looking forward to going to school together and how they purchased their homes because of the neighborhood school model and because Lake Street School has a history of providing a quality education.

One parent interrupted the conversation and asked for a show of hands of who was considering putting their home on the market. More than half in attendance raised their hands. While another parent asked for a show of hands for those looking at other education options like charter schools or magnet schools. It appeared every hand in the library raised at that point.

Parents questioned Conway on what the plan was to increase parental involvement, responsibility and accountability for students who are not doing well in school.

Questions arose about research. What had been done? Does it prove reconfiguring will fix the struggles Vernon faces with poverty and low performing schools? One parent said Manchester has been through the process and it has not been working.

Conway admitted that Manchester was having a “tough time” with reconfiguration. She also stated “there is no research that shows any one configuration of grades is better than another.”

Parents said they want Conway to focus on school reform not reconfiguration. Many wondered why the district would take on so much when the school reform process is still a mystery of what it means and what low performing districts will be expected to do.

John Kopec, a member of the Vernon Town Council read from a statement first stating that the opinion was his and not that of the council.  

“I am against all these proposals," he said. "I am deeply offended by the letter sent out to parents. The letter should have been sent to all residents of Vernon not just current school-aged parents. How will we know what would have worked or not worked? You are taking the decision out of our hands. The entire school system will be an unknown for years to come. This is a recipe for mediocrity, not success.”

Transportation issues were questioned as well. Participants wanted to know how parents who struggle now with transportation will get to school at Lake Street if they live in downtown Rockville. A working parent questioned how she would be able to drop off and pick up her children at two separate schools.

Several in the crowded library questioned why the district was not figuring out a way to provide full-day kindergarten in town since the focus is shifting toward concentrating on the needs of lower primary grades to ensure that students are on grade level by the third grade, particularly in reading.

Many in the group wanted to know who was “driving” the query. Conway explained that the board had professional development itself and the topic came up. She further explained that the board is seeking information and that nothing had been decided.

Participants attending the Lake Street focus group said that the district is not dealing with the “critical issues,” and cited poverty, low performance and parent involvement. Some said they were not being addressed within the plans presented.

Northeast School Focus Group – Tuesday, April 17

Conway hosted another meeting at Northeast School on Tuesday and it drew a crowd of more than 75. Participants at the focus group expressed concerns with the timeline, number of transitions, and why teachers were not communicating better between schools.

“Reconfiguration doesn’t change academic achievement. Consistency delivering the curriculum and collaborating will, research shows. These plans allow for more opportunity to take care of collaboration,” Conway said. “On-going professional development, job embedded professional development, even on a daily basis – that is really essential for our craft and profession.”

Some in the audience questioned how teachers are being helped to raise the bar and some participants expressed disappointment in how they said the district provides education for the student who is not struggling.

Northeast participations had questions about what these plans will do to parental involvement, particularly parents with transportation struggles or multiple jobs.

“How can they get involved when the school is not in their neighborhood? You are not going to see those parents if their school is across town.”

One parent questioned what the district was doing to deal with respect issues:

“Teaching can’t happen when there is no respect, to me that needs to be addressed.”

Another parent said, “Teachers need to be able to put their foot down. Maybe more behavior intervention strategies need to be provided.”

Conway agreed by saying, “Climate is an essential.”

Several in the audience expressed concern that the district is not equitably dispersed, with some schools caring the burden of socioeconomic issues as well as low-performing students. Some said that some schools have far more smart boards than others.

“You need to ensure every school gets the same opportunity. How are we spreading the wealth?”

Questions about transitions and how they impact children were also raised. One participant pointed out that one of those transitions occurs at an important point when students start taking the Connecticut Mastery Tests in third grade. The participant said that research shows that there are also achievement gaps with transitions.

There was concern expressed over how the Parent Teacher Organizations in the schools will work. There is fear that participation will decrease. One participant pointed out that if the board decides to move forward with reconfiguration then the district should also plan to incorporate funding for assemblies and other school related needs PTOs provide because that will probably decrease too.

Many in the audience feared a sense of community currently in neighborhood schools would be lost. Some said the ability to walk to school or school events would be lost and the relationships built would not be the same if students were only in a school for a few years.

“Despite your assurance that this is not a done deal, the community has the impression it is," one participanbt said. "Our children will not have the same experiences throughout their lives if there is no neighborhood school. When you are here for six years you have a life to come back to here. You will lose that.”

People wanted to know what would happen if the board did not approve either plan. Conway said nothing. she did say, “School reform is going forward. We are changing how we are teaching – getting rid of leveling, improving math and language arts curriculum, teaching to standards, standards based report cards. It is already happening. We are already moving forward. We are changing our conversations. Teacher’s doors are open.”

It was clear at both focus groups that anxiety is high.

Participants encouraged each other to get the word out that the decision has not been made and that the community needs to speak their thoughts so

“After a while people feel defeated, but people need to speak loud and clear,” one attendee said.

Maple Street School Focus Group – Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The cafeteria at Maple Street School had more than 75 participants at Conway’s third focus group on reconfiguration to Vernon elementary schools.

Concerns were not much different from the first two focus groups.

Transportation, relationships built at the school, and school reform were topics parents expressed concern about.

Parents questioned Conway about why school reform was not the district’s focus at this time.

“The pro side is a little weighted. I would like to see us go through some reform before we do something that can’t be changed,” one participant said. “We have barely even gotten off the ground. We all want the same thing, children who are happy, healthy, and well-educated. Let’s not operate out of fear. We are doing a lot of things right.”

Parents questioned how long school officials thought was acceptable for children to sit on a bus and asked why the district would "waste money and instructional time" by having to bus students farther from their neighborhood school under the proposals.

Conway spent more time at this focus group describing school reform because of questions asked by audience members. Participants wanted more details about reform and how it was going to directly impact children in the district.

“Vernon has a broad spectrum of demographics. We have parents with multiple degrees where their children just know you go to college. At the other end of the spectrum we have parents who didn’t make it through high school or had poor experiences who keep their fingers crossed that their children will make it. Then we have every family in between,” Conway said. “Teachers have classrooms full of children where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and teachers don’t always set high expectations either as the teacher. We need to have the same expectations for every child and have viable resources.”

Conway explained that the curriculum is being written to follow "common core standards." Over the summer common assessments will be created so teachers are using the same tools to assess and deliver curriculum, she said.

“We have a lot of work to do in those areas. Teachers need the tools to so their jobs,” Conway said. “We need to look at our learning in far different ways. We need to do things differently. We need to move our kids in the 21st Century.”

Changing the town’s mindset and attitude about Maple Street School was another suggestion. Numerous participants praised the efforts of the principal and teachers at Maple Street. They expressed they were not the problem.

“I hear from people you are going to send your kids to Maple Street. That’s the ghetto school,” one parent said. “There is nothing wrong with this school. You have to get that out of people’s heads.”

Discipline was another component parents wanted to see addressed.

“Discipline problems are the issue. Take care of that and let the teaching begin.”

Parents worried about multiple transitions for special education students who already find school challenging.

Parents said they did not see how sending children all over town and "losing" the neighborhood schools would be a benefit to students or to increase scores at low performing schools.

“Sending kids all over the place is not your solution. Lake Street School needs very different things than Maple Street School,” one participant said. “Keep the schools the way they are. Give us what we need. Don’t mess up what we already have.”

One participant who attended all three focus groups so far admitted she was upset about what was happening and that she was not in favor of reconfiguration, but she also realized there was more to what was happening. Her message - the community needs to be more involved.

“Where is the parent involvement to get what the board needs?” the parent said. “This is Vernon. We need to fight for all the children here. We had full-day kindergarten. We lost it because people did not go out to vote. You want the money, we have to get out and vote. We have to get involved.”

Center Road School Focus Group – Thursday, April 19

The meeting at the gym at Center Road School drew approximately 160 people to the fourth focus group regarding reconfiguration. Participants brought similar concerns to the table that has been raised at the previous focus groups.

One participant questioned school choice options as well as day care issues for parents because they have to use providers within their districted school.

Conway explained the policy committee and the board need to discuss the day care policy because it is a hindrance for some, particularly when major day care centers are located in certain areas of town.

With the waiver for No Child Left Behind, Vernon is no longer required to offer school choice or supplemental services to students like outside tutoring, according to Conway. Title I funds that were being used for those measures will be put back into other things schools do.

One father questioned how organizations like Scouting would now operate since troops are usually created at specific schools.

Transportation was again raised at the Center Road focus group. Parents do not want their children bused across town or to have children spend more time than necessary on the bus.

A parent who will be sending a child to school for the first time in the fall said he was not notified about the focus groups. He also questioned the use of statistics.

“I am a little annoyed that I found out about this meeting through hearsay," the parent said. "Statistically we are not in compliance. You can address the problems or monkey with the statistics. We want to shuffle our students around to change the demographics.”

Parents questioned why the conversations were not being had about issues like standardized curriculum, training teachers and dealing with socioeconomic concerns.

One participant stated, “No Child Let Behind really ties the hands of our teachers to teach.”

Conway explained that teachers should not be teaching to the test. Solid instruction is what gives students what they need to be successful, Conway said.

Another participant encouraged full day kindergarten by saying, “You have some of the best teachers in this town. We have to support our teachers.”

One of the final comments came from a man who explained that the town has been “reactive” to issues which breeds “apathy.” He suggested that some long-term positive goals be put out to the community that can be supported.

The resident said townsfolk have to stop the “here’s a band aid and here’s another band aid. We have to have something for parents to look forward to.”

Conway said letters regarding potential reconfiguration are welcome and will be given to board members before the April 30 meeting.

An online survey will close on April 26. It is also in a link on the www.vernonschools.com Web site.

The final focus group meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at Skinner Road from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thge annual budgetary Town Meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 that night at Rockville High School.

Diana April 22, 2012 at 01:08 AM
So, I am just wondering...since reconfiguring is being considered, there must be a number of successful cases where this has worked for other communities. Can someone provide links to case studies or data? I would certainly be interested to read more about how it has helped (or not) in other communities.
Ronald Burke April 22, 2012 at 03:31 AM
Amen Diana
Christina Cipriani April 24, 2012 at 10:52 AM
There is no data that reconfiguring improves education, and this is even noted at the meetings. The research I have found is that transitioning children actually decreased their learning skills and creates other negative factors.
michael wendus April 24, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Mike This is funny.vernon or rockville we are all the same.I live and owne a 2 family house in rockville.I work for the state of ct.my wife has a degree and I would love to compare my tax bill to yours.my 230.00 water bill 140.00 sewer bill every 3 months.I can tell you the problem with rockville and our schools.my cousin was a teacher at vcms for 20 years.problem is people don't want the truth it hurts.keep saying your better than me we have the same zip code.rockville is a big problem I live there.my neighbors house not selling for 80 grand is the result.
Cathy April 25, 2012 at 01:42 AM
There is no data that indicates that one configuration is better than another or that any particular configuration improves acheivement. What improves achievement (along with other factors that are outside the control of the schools) is what goes on in the classroom. What affects what goes on in the classroom is the ability for grade-level teachers to collaborate, have building- and districtrict-wide grade-level meetings in order to increase the the consistancy of what is being taught in the classroom...all of which would be enhanced by reconfiguration. It is much easier to plan and carry out these types of meetings and professional development that targets specific needs if it only has to be coordinated between two or three buildings instead of five, and it is easier for teachers to share resources and ideas with colleagues if those colleagues are in the same building instead of across town. All of that can and does affect student achievement. It may also put to rest some of the Rockville vs. Vernon nonsense that exists in this town.

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