Mask mandates, alternative pathways to college and curriculum diversity are all up for debate as candidates for the Haddam-Killingworth Region 17 Board of Education make their cases for election in the fall.
The regional Board of Education has eleven seats — five from Killingworth and six from Haddam. In November, three of the six Haddam representatives are running for re-election: Democrat Brenda Buzzi and unaffiliated members Prem Aithal and Joanne Nesti. Two board members from Killingworth, Republican Eileen Blewett and Democrat Kathleen Zandi, are also running for another term.
The elections come at a critical time for local schools, with a change of administration, attempts to improve academic achievement and to budget for needed facility upgrades. At the same time national-level debates about COVID-19 and the teaching of race and U.S. History have become significant points of contention in the local races.
The incumbents say they are focused on moving forward with the district’s long-term strategic plans.
Democrats Buzzi and Zandi told CT Examiner that one of their goals was to ease the transition to a new district superintendent, Jeff Wihbey, who was formally hired on Tuesday evening.
Buzzi has worked as a substitute teacher in Region 17, and previously ran her own business, The Children’s Garden Preschool.
“I really try to be the voice for the teachers and especially the children on the board,” said Buzzi.
The incumbents also told CT Examiner that they were focused on moving forward with the district’s strategic plan to update the curriculum to reflect goals set last year in the board’s “Vision of the Graduate.” Those goals include improving students’ ability to think critically, communicate clearly, show empathy and kindness and engage in difficult conversations.
Blewett, a Republican, explained that part of the plan is to look toward the future, including technological changes and the use of ‘blended’ learning to include in-class and remote education.
“The only way you get to a senior leaving the district with the skills and dispositions that you want is when you literally start when they walk through our door as kindergarteners,” said Blewett.
The board is also planning improvements to the district’s five buildings. The district has contracted with an outside company to assess what improvements are needed, with the hope that the results will be ready in the fall to inform a long-term capital plan.
“We have several older schools, we really do need to know what lies ahead for all of them,” said Nesti, an unaffiliated member of the board.
Blewett, who is currently the treasurer and chair of the finance committee, said her focus would be on finding ways to save money through “efficiencies” on smaller items — purchasing items from one group rather than another, for example. This way, she said, the board would have the money to spend on the larger items
“You start saving your nickels and, before you know it, it’s a dollar,” she said. “We’ve been able to find some smaller things that truly add up.”
Zandi said that another focus of the coming term would be dealing with learning losses that resulted from the pandemic. She said that the data board members saw earlier this year demonstrated a drop of anywhere from 0 to 10 percent in student test scores.
“We were pleased to see that the gap wasn’t as great as we were afraid it would be,” she said.
Zandi said the district is using federal coronavirus relief funds to provide summer school opportunities, hiring interventionists to work with students who have fallen behind and investing in professional development for teachers.
Haddam Democrats are running two newcomers: Stephen Bayley, an instructional design specialist at UConn Health, and Hamish MacPhail, a former Teach for America fellow in New Haven who is now policy and research director at ConnCAN, a non-profit education advocacy group.
Haddam’s Republican candidates, also newcomers, are Christopher Page, who builds telecommunications systems for Frontier Communications, and Shannon Johnson, a paralegal.
Bayley, MacPhail and Page all said they wanted to broaden the curriculum to include programs for students who are not planning to attend college. Bayley, a Democrat, said he believed it was important to have a diverse curriculum that bolsters critical-thinking skills.
“Employers are looking for people that can problem solve,” said Bayley. “Having that critical thinking background … is critical for the 21st century economy.”
Page, a Republican, said there should be more options for non-college bound students.
“How many college graduates have taken on massive debt to obtain a degree that they have done nothing with?” Page wrote in an email. “If we could expose our students to other options through hands-on experiences (field trips/workshops) then maybe we could help them work towards a trade of their choosing by placing them in classes that teach associated skills.”
MacPhail, a Democrat, said that he would like to make it possible for high school students to apprentice and intern before graduation, and to learn “soft skills” like how to show up for work on time.
“What’s most important for me is to prepare our kids for the real world, the world ahead of them,” he said.
Johnson, a Republican, said she was driven to enter the race after watching her own children struggle last year during the pandemic. She said that she wanted to help make the school experience better for the children.
“Having two children that are in the school district has inspired me to want to quit watching from the sidelines and actually participate in the wellbeing of not just my children, but the community and the children in our community,” she said.
Johnson and Page’s candidacies have come under sharp criticism last month from State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, who published a letter raising a number of concerns, including both candidates’ presence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Both Johnson and Page published responses to Palm’s letter emphasizing the exercise of their First Amendment rights.
“The 1st Amendment of our Constitution debunks your allegation of whether it was illegal or not and stands on its own,” wrote Johnson.
Killingworth Republicans also endorsed newcomer Heather Scholfield. Scholfield will start teaching English as Second Language in Westbrook this fall. Previously, she taught third through fifth grade in Hartford Public Schools. She is also certified to teach special education.
First-time candidate Lisa Connelly, a Democrat, is currently collecting signatures to secure a place on the ballot.
Scholfield and Connelly both talked about the importance of improving communication between the board and teachers and students. Scholfield said she wanted to make sure that older students in the district felt they were having their voices heard.
“They can make a difference. They can speak up, they can engage and make change,” Scholfield said. She said she wanted to provide opportunities for the students to come to the board and share their concerns.
Connelly, a former teacher in Guilford Public Schools, said she wanted to make sure that teachers were getting the support they needed in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
Scholfield said she thought there needed to be more focus on social-emotional care for students, whether through mental health services, sports or other after-school activities.
“Just being able to allow them to be kids as much as possible is a big thing to me,” she said.
Diversity, history, equity
In an effort to promote “equity and social justice,” the current board has worked to increase the diversity of materials used in the classroom from a broad range of cultures.
The effort has largely been focused on Language Arts. Zandi and Connelly, both Democrats, said that it was important to include a greater variety of perspectives also when teaching history.
“In my experience, history has been written by the eye of the writer. And historically, the writers have looked at history in a certain way,” Zandi said. “I think our public education has focused on that type of writer when there are many other writers that we haven’t focused on, and need to.”
Connelly agreed. “You hear the quote, ‘History is told by the victor,’” she said. “I wholeheartedly believe that as hard as it is … that we really do need to teach about what actually happened.”
Bayley and MacPhail, both Democrats, said that preparing students for success in the world requires exposure to a curriculum that includes a diverse set of viewpoints.
“Yes, it’s about teaching the facts and the dates and when things happen and who did them, but more importantly I think it’s about how to understand the world from the perspectives of others,” said MacPhail.
“The world is bigger than Haddam and Killingworth,” said Bayley, adding that students need “a dynamic and well-rounded education.”
Scholfield, a Republican, said that working in Hartford, a district that predominantly serves students of color, taught her things about history that she had never learned in school.
“There are many things that I, at 28 years old, have just learned, and I feel it puts us at a huge disadvantage not knowing these things at a younger age,” she said.
But Page, also a Republican, said he believed that teaching with a focus on difference creates division.
“Teaching through the lens of race, gender, or sexuality has no place in our schools as all it does is teach the kids to once again separate themselves into groups, which is the opposite of what we have been teaching for 50 years,” Page explained in an email to CT Examiner.
He also disagreed that schools should try to achieve equity among students.
“To try to promote ‘equity’ and equal outcomes does a disservice to all involved as it does not push the lower achievers ahead to perform better, and it retards higher achievers by never getting them to a level that challenges them,” wrote Page.
Aithal, who is unaffiliated, said that schools should work on improving the outcomes for disadvantaged students. He said that teaching practices needed to take into account that certain students come from backgrounds that make it more difficult to achieve the same levels of growth as some of their peers. He also disagreed with the idea that helping disadvantaged students would hinder others.
“There are students that are disadvantaged, and it’s a matter of bringing them to a level playing field,” he said. “It’s basically a mechanism so that every single student that goes through our school system gets an adequate, above average level of education.”
Page wrote he believed U.S. history should be taught from the perspective that America “has always tried to be a force for good and positive change in the world.”
“If we don’t teach our kids that America is still the greatest hope for Freedom in the world, then how will we maintain that position? It is suicidal as a nation to teach anything different,” he wrote.
Asked about teaching U.S. History, Johnson said she didn’t have a strong opinion about how it is taught, but that she believed it would need to be a collective decision of the board.
In recent months, dozens of Haddam and Killingworth residents have spoken at board meetings and sent emails in opposition to students wearing masks in the schools this fall.
The majority of the candidates said they felt the board would need to follow CDC guidance and guidance from the State on the question of whether or not students should wear masks.
Democratic candidates voiced support for following advice from the medical community, while Republican candidates said they would defer to the wishes of the community.
“I’ve never really had the hostility to mask wearing personally, but that’s because I’m not nine years old and don’t have to wear it all day,” said Nesti, who is unaffiliated. “So I understood that, but I think that the larger picture is one of public health.”
Bayley, a Democrat, said he was a proponent of masks in the schools. He said there was no evidence that masks have negative effects on children.
“I trust the scientists. I trust the data. I think it’s important to have all the children be safe in the school system.” Bayley said. “It’s kind of a selfish agenda to not have masks. I think we need to make sure the students in the school district understand that it’s not just about them, that life’s not just about them.”
Zandi said that the concerns of parents and the safety of children all needed to be taken into consideration. But the fact that the American Association of Pediatrics has advised that children wear masks in schools, she said, “carries a fair amount of weight.”
Connelly, a Democrat, added that masking protected not only the students, but also the educators.
“People say, ‘The students are young and they won’t get that sick,’” Connelly said. “Even if that’s true, the teachers are not in that age group. So it’s very, very important to me to protect everybody and have everybody feel that they are in a space where they are physically and emotionally safe.”
Johnson and Page, both Republican, said they believed parents should have the choice of whether or not their children wear masks.
“It is not for me to tell you how to parent your child, and when the government has stepped in and made it a mandate and taken away the parental choice, that’s a problem,” said Johnson.
Scholfield and Blewett, both Republicans, said that, absent a mandate from the state government, they would be inclined to follow the opinion of the general public when deciding whether or not to require masks.
Scholfield said she understood that student safety needed to come first, but she also saw the challenges that masks presented. For students who are learning English, she said, not being able to read someone’s lips presents a real obstacle. She said that it’s also hard on younger students to not see smiles or read empathy in someone’s face when they are upset.
“It’s a bigger toll than a lot of people realize,” she said.
Blewett said she felt empathy for the family members who were opposed to having their children wear masks next year.
“On a personal level, and as a parent myself, I completely understand what these parents are going through, and what these children are going through,” she said. “I would love for these kids to enter our building on the first day of school, without their mask and just be kids.”