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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.

Ken Gordon April 20, 2012 at 01:53 PM
Parents should seriously consider St. Joseph school, the only private elementary school option right here in Vernon. The foundation is Catholic, it is strong academically and the new principal from two years ago has turned the school around socially to be back where it was a decade ago. Our main problem is reduced enrollment in gr 1-8 with the current economy, and classes of 6-10 students are smaller than we want right now, but the full-day pre-K and kindergarten is an amazing deal relative to daycare. SJS Parent
Nancy Krupienski April 20, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Thank you for compiling this...it is nice to see the comments from all the schools. Ken...I am an alumni of SJS. My parents paid a lot of money for that education and I was behind in math by the time I hit RHS. We had merged seventh and eight grade because of only 4 kids in my eight grade class. The teacher had too much ground to cover between the two classes. I am glad to hear things are turning around for the school but I and I am sure in this economy many other families don't have the financial means to afford private school. Our tax dollars in Vernon pay for our kids to get a quality education and the teachers here are wonderful. Many of us won't just give up that easily on our school system. There is a great momentum and sense of community right now as parents from all the schools are working together to figure out what is the best answer for all of our kids.
Bert April 20, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Excellent article. Reading comments from Maple Street School vs. Lake Street School shockingly illustrates the seriousness of the underlying problem facing our educational system. There are much more than educational problems here. Reconfiguration "might" help somewhat but there needs to be much more thought given to ways to deal with the unacceptably wide inequities that apparently exist between elementary schools. Now that we know how some parents feel about education, it is time to take that information, and the input that the survey will provide and start a full scale study of where we go from here. You have to give Dr. Conway credit for at least getting the "ball rolling" and acknowledging what has been the "big elephant in the room" for too long. She has got us all thinking. Reconfiguration may be too drastic at this point but there must be other things that we can try. This is not going to be solved in one year or even two or three, but something has to be done.
Nancy Thomas April 20, 2012 at 06:16 PM
As a long time parent in Vernon with children who attended/ do attend St. Joseph, Center Road, VCMS and Rockville High I believe St. Joseph to be a choice that parents can look into. There are small class sizes, great discipline, bussing in town and they have begun a new fantastic curriculum under a great principal. My son also had a great experience at Center Road and VCMS. All my kids that are older did fine at Rockville, regardless if they came from VCMS or St. Joseph. The bottom line is that St. Joseph is another choice that can be considered.
Nancy Krupienski April 20, 2012 at 08:21 PM
I just saw a post on Facebook that said St. Joseph's will be closing next year per the Bishop. For the parents that do want to consider this option can someone please confirm if this is true or not?
Dani C April 20, 2012 at 09:16 PM
From my perspective Maple Street School is a great school. My first grader is reading at a third grade level and my preschooler is reading at a first grade level. I think if more parents actually get unvolved with their childrens education, the kids in the Vernon schools will be just fine.
David April 20, 2012 at 09:34 PM
Funding is always an issue at a Catholic school. We experienced this with St. Bernard School which closed at the end of 2009. Unlike publicly funded schools, Catholic schools rely heavily on tuition as well as diocesan support. In St. Bernard's case, steadily decreasing enrollment ultimately made operating the school fiscally unfeasible. Contrast this to 30 years ago when both parochial schools in town were thriving. Much was different back then. Tuition was also lower in relation to a family's income; in the face of decreasing enrollment, per-student tuition must be raised. Unlike public school funding, where it seems increases are often pushed down our throats by way of increased taxes, at private school we have a choice whether to pay the tuition or not. By doing what is necessary to secure necessary resources, the school ensures that the quality of education is preserved.
David April 20, 2012 at 09:36 PM
One other thing: Compare the salaries of public school teachers (already a sore subject) and Catholic school teachers. It's safe to say that nobody teaching in a Catholic school is going to get rich even after teaching there for 20 years. What you find are teachers who are there because they genuinely care about the children and believe in the importance of teaching faith-based values. And in our experience, you do not see the same intensity of behavioral issues as in a public school. Nancy K, with that being said, it is not definite that St. Joseph will be closing. Increased enrollment is an ambitious goal for the coming year, but in light of the concerns surrounding the public school restructuring, I believe parents should at least take a look at St. Joseph and what it has to offer, and consider it a valid option.
Cathy April 21, 2012 at 01:06 AM
Let me make sure that I have this straight. We don't like the idea of reconfiguration because it is "disruptive". The solution to this fear of disruption is to pack up our children, sell our home, and move to another town, disrupting not only our child's education but also their other ties to the community (Scouts, sports, friends, etc.) We are concerned about what reconfiguration will do to property values, so the solution is for parents to put their homes on the market en masse, which would cause there to be a glut of homes on the market and lead to even lower prices for those homes. That is, if the homes would sell in an already down housing market in the first place. We are concerned about the need to bus our child 2 or 3 miles across town and about our child having to attend school with "those" students. The solution is to look into sending our child to a magnet or charter school, most of which are located more than 10 miles from Vernon and whose purpose for existence stems from a lawsuit mandating that "those" students have more exposure to their peers from the suburbs (and vice versa). I hope that when these focus groups are over, people will have vented enough that they can stop reacting emotionally to the potential for change and begin to think a bit more logically.
Cathy April 21, 2012 at 01:08 AM
I have not yet formed an opinion about whether or not we should reconfigure our schools, but I do know one thing: It is NOT ok for us to continue as a district that has one school that is perceived to be the "good" school while others are heartbreakingly seen as being "ghetto" schools. (I can confirm that that attitude exists in town because I, too, have been made to feel that I am somehow a 'lesser' parent because we chose to live in the Maple Street district when we first moved to town, exposing our children to "those" children.) "Those" children--and their families--are our neighbors, and we sink or swim as an entire district, not as individual schools. I do not know what the answer is; I am quite sure that there is no 'right' answer. But we cannot continue on as we have been, and I applaud Dr. Conway and the Board of Education for leading this town in having this difficult conversation. But as we talk, let's remember that parents from ALL of the schools want the same thing: a solid, quality education for our children.
GDP April 21, 2012 at 01:47 AM
Cathy - well stated! I haven't formed an opinion on reconfiguration, either. However, I have already looked into St. Joseph's for my younger children. I do believe that parents should have the option to send their kids to full-day Kindergarten, and as the parent of a child who will enter K in the fall, I currently don't have that option. The fact that I am considering parochial school does not mean I think the teachers in town are doing a bad job. My oldest child (who is currently at VCMS) had wonderful teachers at CRS. I am sad that my younger children may not have the chance to go to that school. However, my family cannot afford the additional daycare expense that comes with a 1/2 day Kindergarten. In addition, with the changes in state standards, the ability to stuff into a 3 hour day all of the things the state expects these children to learn in K is not realistic. The town preschool (for those lucky enough to get in) has a longer day than Kindergarten!
GDP April 21, 2012 at 01:58 AM
What frustrates me - and I have heard other parents and board members at the meetings say similar things - is that there is a difference in the experience that the children enter school with. Lake Street children probably have a quality preschool education, and have adults at home who are willing and able to help them with school work. They enter school PREPARED to learn things based on the standards. They don’t have to worry where their food is coming from, whether or not there is violence occurring in their neighborhood, or if their housing payments can be made. Something as simple as students knowing their shapes and colors when entering school is a given in some areas, but not all. Sending your child to school with the ability to sing the “ABC’s” does NOT mean that they know their alphabet and can start writing from day 1. Those are all skills that families often take care of – either at home, by sending their child to preschool, or both. Not all families are fortunate enough to have the resources (time, money, etc.). Families in the other schools may not be able to send their children to preschool, so K becomes a place where they need to "catch up" before they can learn to read and write. I think we would be better off focusing on figuring out how to get students at different schools on a level field before first or second grade. Social promotion doesn’t seem to be working, but it’s certainly common.
L. Z April 21, 2012 at 12:37 PM
"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?” As a parent of a Maple Street student I have no doubt in my mind she is safe during the day. The principal at Maple Street along with the teachers do an excellent job working with these children and keep them safe. What we need to be focusing on is EDUCATION REFORM and getting all the schools in the district on the right track. Parents need to get involved in their child's education who aren't. Give parents and children the appropriate resources to succeed no matter what school they attend.
Dave April 21, 2012 at 09:06 PM
Lake St. School is in a neighborhood of larger, more expensive homes on larger wooded private lots. These are considerably more expensive than ones in the center of Rockville. A typical family living there enjoys a household income several times that of the typical family living in downtown Rockville. Up above, you want to talk about St. Joseph, well your typical St. Joseph student comes from one of these more financially stable, 2-parent, upper middle-income households. Lower income families simply cannot afford to send their kids there. And those who can, unfortunately, are moving away. I've had friends move to Ellington, Tolland & South Windsor because of what they considered a "decline" in Vernon's neighborhoods. These are families who used to send their kids to St. Bernard or St. Joseph. There are fewer families in town that can afford a private school; many of the students at St. Joseph do not even live in Vernon, but in Ellington, Mansfield, etc. There is simply not enough support here in town for what is essentially the last of a dying breed of school. Once gone, we may never get it back. With our taxes increasing every year, we should not be forced to choose between paying tuition for a decent private school, or settling for mediocrity. We need to bring all of our public schools up to a higher standard and ensure the quality of education matches or exceeds that of surrounding towns which are considered "better." Is restructuring really the best way to achieve this?
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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