STAMFORD — The more students learn, the safer the schools. That’s according to Nancy Mould, a special education teacher who has worked in the Stamford Public Schools for 20 years.
“Good instruction leads to engagement with children. And you know how you make a child feel safe in school? You have them succeeding academically,” said Mould. “And when that doesn’t happen, they lash out. Because it’s easier to be bad than not know the answer.”
Mould was part of a panel discussion on Sunday between Board of Education members, teachers and local parents about school safety and academic success.
Members of the panel brought up a recent survey in which students in the middle and high schools gave the district low scores on school climate and “sense of belonging.” They also discussed a recent audit that found an overall lack of written curriculum across the district, the district’s declining graduation rates and the decision to bring 15 new security guards onto the district payroll.
“If you don’t feel like school is focused on learning … and kids are all caught up in a lot of social things around you, then you’re going to feel less safe,” said Stephanie Edmonds, a local parent who homeschools her 6-year-old son. “So I actually ultimately think it comes back to making sure that we have rigorous academics in place.”
Versha Munshi-South, who was elected to the Board of Education on Tuesday, pointed out some of the data from a school climate survey conducted last spring. According to the survey, about half of high schoolers said that there were frequent physical fights in their schools, and another quarter said that there were fights at least sometimes.
Munshi-South said it was critical for students to have relationships with adults in the schools.
“We know that if kids have a trusted adult at school, they are going to feel more connected, they are not going to be isolated as much, they have someone to talk to,” said Munshi-South. “Unfortunately what we know about kids who engage in violent acts in school … These are kids who tend to be isolated.”
In a meeting on Nov. 9 of the Board of Education’s Teaching and Learning Committee, Director of Family and Community Engagement Mike Meyer and Associate Superintendent for School Development Lori Rhodes presented the survey data to the committee. According to the data, elementary school students were far more likely to rate the climate and sense of belonging in their schools favorably compared to their older peers.
“What’s come out of this work is that there’s two real areas of focus,” said Rhodes. “The first is fostering a sense of belonging for all students across all grades … the second main area of focus is building a positive school climate for staff, students and families.”
Meyer said that he’d met with the school climate specialists and principals about the data, and that climate specialists were working on ways to address some of the concerns. The district plans to release a mini-survey for teachers and students in the district later this month. Meyer said that they wanted to see if responses had changed since last year, which he described as “probably the most horrible year I’ve ever had.”
J.D. Ospina, a high school math teacher in the district, said during the Sunday panel discussion that the schools needed to focus on having positive extracurricular activities that would keep students busy and involved.
“If we can increase the student engagement in the community … then we have something that the students can do after school instead of getting into trouble,” said Ospina.
Ingrid Smalls, a parent of a 2nd grader in Stamford, agreed that more activities — and even more homework — would increase their desire to participate more in school, keeping them safe.
“I see that right now there aren’t as many after school activities that could probably be so much more affordable to many other students,” said Smalls.
The panel also talked about safety from outside threats. In July, the district voted to add 15 new security guards to the payroll, meaning that every elementary school will have at least one security guard.
Munshi-South said that she wanted to see data showing what kind of effect the security guards were having in the schools.
“How will we know whether security guards are beneficial or not? What is the problem we’re trying to solve?” said Munshi-South.
Edmonds added that security guards did more than just protect the school from outside threats.
“I remember the security guards when I was at West Hill,” said Edmonds. “We were cool with them. They were somebody who we might be able to go see if you were having a tough time in class …I don’t like to just think about them in a punitive sense, but somebody who can really be a part of the community, who can be additional support for teachers, for staff, for events.”
“More than disturbing”
Mould pointed to the lack of curriculum across schools as one of the district’s largest problems. She said the recent curriculum audit found that only 20% of high school subjects, 21% of the elementary school and 15% of the middle school have written curriculum.
“I find that more than disturbing,” said Mould.
Mould said that the elementary schools spend a lot of time assessing students, which takes time away from teaching. She said the testing results were supposed to guide teachers in their teaching, but without curriculum, the teachers are left to figure things out on their own.
“If you want the teachers to pitch a good game, you’ve got to give us the ball,” said Mould. She added it wasn’t necessary for the teachers to write their own curriculum, as long as the curriculum they were using was well-prepared and met their needs.
“The teachers shouldn’t have to be thinking about what to teach. They should be thinking of how to deliver the instruction,” said Mould.
J.D. Ospina, a high school math teacher in Stamford, said he agreed that it would be better for the schools to have a uniform curriculum, but said it was “virtually impossible right now” because of the enormous learning differences between the students.
“I have 70 percent of my students who can’t do basic algebra skills. They’re struggling with arithmetic. They don’t even know how to do exponents, so how are we going to solve trigonometric functions?” he said, adding that the district needed to address the variations in student abilities before fixing the curriculum.
“We have already a literacy gap, which is a big, big issue,” said Jenny Canepa, a family advocate in the district. She added that if children don’t learn to read until 3rd grade, it will have negative effects when they reach higher education levels.
Munshi-South said that she felt the number of staff in the district was “very lean” and that there needed to be more subject-matter experts to help develop the curriculum. Esses added that the assessments needed to test students on all the curriculum that was supposed to be taught in a given grade level, as a way of holding teachers accountable.
“There has to be accountability both at the teacher level and at the building level to make sure that we’re all getting through the material — in any given class, in any given year,” said Esses.
The panel also discussed the declining high school graduation rates in Stamford, particularly among Black and Latino students. Even before the pandemic, graduation rates for Black students dropped from 92% in 2017 to 87% in 2019, and in 2021 the rate was 80%. For Hispanic students, graduation rates went from 86% in 2017 to 80% in 2019, and in 2021 the rate was 79%.
“I think we need to better understand what is the reason why kids are not graduating. Is it because they’re absent and not showing up to class? Are they not passing their classes and there’s a credit issue?” said Diane Melchionne, a parent in the district and former candidate for Board of Education.
Munshi-South suggested that the district needed to do more assessments that would show how students are performing throughout their time in school, rather than waiting until it was time for them to graduate.
But Edmonds said that the data they did have was clear.
“We know in 3rd grade that kids can’t read. We know in 8th grade kids can’t do math,” said Edmonds. “We know early that these kids can’t do these things, and then we just socially promote them.”
Both Edmonds and Jenny Canepa, a family advocate in the district, said the district needed to make sure not only that high school graduate, but that they were leaving with the necessary skills for college.
“Our college preparedness is dismal,” said Edmonds. “Okay, cool, they’re graduating, but so what if they can’t go out and read?”
Canepa said that the district needed quick results from assessments, so they could step in with interventions for students. With the state assessments, she said, it takes almost a year to get the results.
Canepa and Bianca Shinn, director of family advocacy at the non-profit Domus Kids, said that there needed to be more work to engage parents, and particularly parents of color and those whose children don’t speak English well. Canepa said the district needed to work more closely with the Office of Family and Community Engagement.
Shinn said that there needed to be an environment in which parents’ voices are being included, and parents are viewed as “an ally.”
“We shouldn’t engage parents as supporters only, or as side-audience observers. They should be integrated and implemented throughout their child’s education,”said Shinn.
Ospina and other panelists stressed the importance of early intervention, as young as at the elementary and middle school levels.
“As soon as we see them lagging behind math and literacy skills, let’s find a more targeted approach,” said Ospina. “If they’re just pushing students … to the next grade, we’re not really preparing them, we’re not doing them a service to the next year or to college.”
Shinn said the district needed to look at its policies and who the district hires, as well as consider doing an equity assessment.
“We have to do some soul-searching … as to what we want to do in this district to help eliminate both the achievement gap and the opportunity gap,” said Shinn.