NEW LONDON — Balls of socks and colorful balloons fly through the air at the B.P. Learned Center in New London on Wednesday evening, where about thirty families have gathered for one of the center’s tri-weekly community events centered on early childhood education.
The night’s focus is on gross motor skills, and the activities are designed to reflect the theme. In one corner, children are batting balloons back and forth with cut-off pool noodles. In another, they throw balled-up socks at towers of red solo-cups. The third station — bowling — has water bottles filled with liquids in different colors, set up like “pins” for children to knock down.
Parents sit at tables nearby, chatting and digging into plates of chicken teriyaki, fried rice and broccoli. Along the wall is a table offering stacks of free children’s books in English and Spanish, next to another table manned by a Yale-New Haven Health asthma self-management coach offering information in English and Spanish about child asthma and showing sample inhalers.
Ana Canales, who has three children ages six, nine and 11, said the event gave her the opportunity to meet other parents. That night, she said, she’d met another parent who had come for the first time and said they had made future plans to get together for coffee.
“It’s a big help for us,” she said of the event.
Another parent, Jacqueline Wilson, sits at a table coaxing her curly-haired, two-and-a-half year old son to eat.
“It’s a night when we don’t have to worry about making dinner,” said Wilson. “It’s a fun place, and it’s nice that it brings the community together.”
The community gatherings are part of what Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie sees as a larger opportunity to rethink the way that the district approaches education, with an emphasis on providing the district’s youngest members with the support and skills that they need.
“Ultimately, we want to become a state model for how to help build capacity for early childhood education, because birth to age eight is so critical. It sets the foundation for lifelong learning,” said Ritchie.
At the start of the 2021-22 school year, the city of New London and the New London School District combined $1.525 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase the B.P. Learned Mission building, which serves as a school for the district’s 70 Pre-K students during the day and a hub for community services in the evenings.
New London Public Schools did use some of the district’s federal funds toward summer school, staffing, before- and after-school costs and materials. But Ritchie told CT Examiner that she wanted to go beyond purchasing materials and bringing on staff that would then have to be dismissed after the grant money ran out.
“We were like, what can we do besides buying more stuff and [hiring] more people that we might not be able to sustain?” she said.
The idea was to create a center focused on children from birth through age 8 that would provide not only education, but human services — everything from providing free diapers and clothes to offering community meals to having an available mental health consultant. During the day, the building houses the classrooms for its 70 pre-K students. In the evenings, it becomes a place for the community to get services and gather together.
Jennifer Hills-Papetti, the district’s assistant superintendent of academics and student achievement, said the gatherings had started small – the first one drew only about five people — but had grown to reach as many as 60 families in an evening. Previous community gatherings had themes like mental health, expanding language using everyday objects and addressing adverse childhood experiences and the challenges of COVID.
Ritchie said that having services that span from prenatal to elementary school all in one spot will let them bridge the gaps that can occur at different stages of a child’s development.
“This is prevention in its truest form,” said Hills-Papetti.
“A game changer”
Board Chair Elaine Maynard-Adams said that achievement gaps that exist in cities like New London often begin at birth.
“There are families in New London that can provide those kinds of early learning opportunities for their children. They can take them to story hour at the library. They can read to them. Their children are exposed to language-rich experiences,” she said. “And then there are children whose families are just struggling to pay rent and simply don’t have the bandwidth to be able to do that. And those are the children that are … coming from families that are housing insecure, food insecure.”
The discrepancies — and the challenges — are reflected in student performance. In a March 10 Board of Education meeting, Ritchie presented the results of the most recent in-district assessments, which showed that reading and math performance fell below state standards.
According to data from an assessment called iReady, which the district first started to use this year, the percentages of children reading at or above their grade level range from 13 percent (9th grade) to 39 percent (kindergarten). The percentage of children with math skills at or above their grade level ranges from five percent (6th grade) to 26 percent (kindergarten). The state standard is 65 percent or above in both.
Ritchie said that the achievement results were about what they had expected given the disruptions that the pandemic created. Forty percent of the district’s students learned remotely for nearly two years — Hills-Papetti said the little ones in particular were kept home because of parent’s concerns about the ability for the children to keep their masks on and the general uncertainty around the pandemic.
Valerie Kelsey, the district’s executive director of special services, said that homelessness this year has tripled now that evictions are possible, and families are doubling and tripling up. They have some students who come to school after working all night.
“Families have been disrupted. Students have lost loved ones,” said Ritchie.
The district is also experiencing an enormous teacher shortage. Robert Stacy, the district’s executive director for talent and human resources, said at the board meeting that New London isn’t able to offer salaries that are competitive with its neighboring districts.
Current union contracts show that in the 2022-23 school year, teachers with a bachelor’s degree in New London will earn $44,300 their first year of teaching, compared to $47,400 for a teacher in Waterford. A teacher with five years of experience would earn $48,300 in New London compared with $55,700 in Waterford.
Stacy said 70 percent of the district’s current staff have been in the New London schools five years or less. He said that the district has had school psychologists who have taken jobs in other districts for $10,000 to $12,000 more than what New London could pay.
“[They] cry when they are leaving because they don’t want to leave New London,” he said.
Ritchie said the district has been using substitutes to fill the gap, and that this has “definitely” had an effect on student performance. Maynard-Adams said she thought this was particularly true in the middle school, which has a dozen positions that are still not filled.
“We had over 100 positions not filled for a good chunk of the year,” said Ritchie.
Despite the challenges, the data does show improvement, particularly in the lower grades. The number of kindergarteners in New London reading at grade level increased by 23 percentage points and doing math at grade level increased by 20 percentage points since the start of the year.
In the higher grades, where children tend to start out further behind, that growth stagnates — the number of 8th graders reading at grade level increased two percentage points since the start of the year and the number doing math at grade level increased one percent.
Additionally, Hills-Papetti said that 68 percent of the district’s students were meeting their personal growth targets as measured by assessment, meaning that they were improving their skills by at least one grade level from where they started over the course of a year. She referred to the percentage of students meeting personal growth targets as “huge.”
Maynard-Adams said that what is more important for her is exactly that — not the scores themselves, but how the children progress.
“I know a lot of people … look at the data and they say, you’re just not achieving. I don’t find that to be the case at all. For me, what’s more important, rather than the percentage of students who reached a milestone is – what’s the growth look like? Are we moving in the right direction? And for the most part, with a few exceptions, I was pleased that the data shows that we’re headed in the right direction,” she said.
Ritchie said the district has used some of the federal coronavirus relief funds to hire guidance counselors, social workers, wellness staff and interventionists to address some of the challenges that the older students are facing. She said these staff members will remain in the district for at least three years, and that the district will continue to try and find additional grant funding if these positions need to be sustained. The district is also conducting home visits to check in with students that are chronically absent, and they have a mentoring program in partnership with
But Maynard-Adams said that B.P. Learned is one of the most important initiatives that the district can take to support its student body — a group in which 85 percent are students of color, 86 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch and just over a quarter of students are non-native English speakers.
“Providing quality preschool programming to children who need it the most, and the wraparound services for their family and our partnership with the city and the programming they’re doing and … all of the work they’re doing. I mean, that to me is a real game changer,” she said. “When we opened B.P. I said, ‘This is a game changer for us.’”
About forty-five minutes into the evening, the first raffle drawing is called, and parents David and Stephanie find out that they are the proud winners of a hot pink child’s bike. Their eight-year-old daughter is too busy playing to notice.
David and Stephanie, both employees for Electric Boat in Groton, live in North Stonington. They decided to send their child to Winthrop Magnet School in New London, David said, to give her an experience that was different from traditional schooling. He said his daughter was excited to go to school every day.
Both parents said they enjoyed the event. David said he felt it was a good opportunity for the children to get together without the pressure of school.
“I think it’s cute. I think it’s a good way to have the kids socialize and have a good time,” said Stephanie.
Also in attendance were several researchers from the Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership, who earlier in the day were interviewing the pre-K teachers. Ritchie said she is working with them to create a vision for what children will be able to accomplish by the time they reach third grade. She wants to have the research ready by next year and use it as a model for the state.
Ritchie said she also wants to introduce a new type of assessment next year — the Early Development Inventory, which evaluates young children in five main categories. Ritchie said the results could be used to inform actions within the community. For example, she said, if the assessment showed that children who live in a certain part of the city are struggling with gross motor skills, the city might then be able to develop a park in that area.
The district is also piloting an alternative school year schedule that combines two grades – kindergarten and first – into one classroom. The schedule is year-round, with children in school for six weeks and then having a two week break. Ritchie said that sometimes families travel out of the country, and that this schedule would minimize the impact of absences.
“School doesn’t have to be the traditional K-12 model. It can be something different,” said Ritchie.
As the evening winds down, Jersa Valencia, the district’s coordinator of family empowerment and engagement, is shooting inflated beach balls into a basketball hoop with a few of the kids. He pauses to ask a woman holding a four-month-old baby whether she’s gotten something to eat. He tells her to make sure she gets diapers on the way out.
Other parents carry out the free books that they’ve picked up, or the gift baskets they won through the raffle. And each family receives a dark green bag stamped with the New London seal and filled with toys — a hula hoop, an inflatable beach ball, a smaller ball and a jump rope — all meant to help with gross motor skills. Kelsey explained that each parent received a bag so that they could continue the work at home.
“We … try to send home not only information, but the things to actually do it,” said Kelsey.
Cost for operating the center is split between the school district and the city, along with partnerships with outside groups that will donate certain things — like diapers and books — for free. Jeanne Milstein, New London’s director of human services, said that she felt confident that the city would be able to find funding to continue operating the center. Ritchie also said that, given the nationwide and statewide focus on early childcare, she anticipated that grants would be available to continue supporting the Pre-K program.
Milstein said this type of program saves money in the long run on things like mental health services, healthcare services, criminal justice and special education — as well as helping children and their parents.
“You intervene early with a child, you’re helping the whole family,” she said.