STAMFORD – With mid-year data showing low performance in mathematics, high chronic absenteeism and changes in student discipline, Board of Education members questioned whether the district is doing enough to help the students with the greatest needs, at a meeting Tuesday night.
While the data showed some improvements since the beginning of the year, many students continue to test below grade level, leading some board members to raise concerns about the help available for struggling students and the level of coordination throughout the district.
According to mathematics data presented Tuesday, 61 percent of Kindergarten through fifth graders are performing below grade level in mathematics, down from 77 percent at the beginning of the year. In middle school, 76 percent of the students are also performing below grade level, down from 85 percent at the start of the year.
Associate Superintendent Amy Beldotti said that “proficiency” was measured as compared to where the students should be at the end of the year, so it made sense that students would not be completely proficient in the math of their grade level before they reached the end of the year.
But even students who are performing well below grade level mid-year have been known to catch up to where they should be, she said.
“Often we have students who through solid tier one [classroom] instruction and maybe intervention as well, do meet grade level standards by the end of the school year,” said Beldotti.
State data shows that last year, about a third of the 7,000 Stamford students who took the state level proficiency exam in math were performing at their grade level.
After hearing that 15 percent of Hispanic middle schoolers and 12 percent of Black students are doing math at grade level, compared to 43 percent of white students and nearly half of Asian students, Board of Education members asked what programs are available to help students who are struggling.
Beldotti said supports were available in classrooms for students, including small group work, tutoring after school and on Saturdays, and retired teachers tutoring small groups of students in math and reading. She said that the individual schools chose which interventions to use, and that the schools were allowed to “pilot” different programs.
Board of Education member Fritz Chery asked which programs were the most effective in catching students up – but Beldotti was unable to give a definitive answer.
“I don’t want to jump the gun in that,” said Beldotti, adding that her office planned to release recommendations later this spring about which intervention is most effective.
She said the district planned to use the ongoing work in curriculum development to standardize the mathematics programs that the districts use.
The curriculum development work was prompted by an audit published in October, which found that 80 percent of the district’s core classes had no written curriculum, the Stamford Advocate reported.
Beldotti noted that next year, grades 6-12 will have a new mathematics curriculum. For the elementary grades, she said, the district will wait a bit longer, so as not to “overwhelm” the teachers with a new math curriculum on top of the new literacy curriculum that the elementary grades are adopting next year.
Board of Education member Becky Hamman said she was particularly concerned about the middle school students.
“We’ve only got a few more months, April, May, and June, and if they don’t do summer school, we will not have kids algebra ready,” said Hamman.
“Are we doing enough?”
Board members also questioned what measures the district was taking to handle discipline and chronic absenteeism. According to administrators, the district has made an effort to decrease the number of out-of-school suspensions — and has been largely successful.
“The understanding [is] … that students don’t go home for three or four days and rehabilitate themselves, right? or think deeply about what’s happened,” said Associate Superintendent Lori Rhodes.
She said the district was focusing on restorative practices and social-emotional well-being. Rhodes highlighted Cloonan Middle School, which decreased the number of out-of-school suspensions from 149 last year to 15 so far this year.
Rhodes also said that, according to a recent school climate survey, 41 percent of Cloonan students said they felt a connection to an adult at the school, compared to 31 percent last year.
But not all board members were convinced.
“My concern is, are we doing enough?” said Hamman. “Because what happens [is] people do get frustrated, parents get frustrated, students get frustrated. What are we doing to help our community in Stamford — assure them that these students are not continually misbehaving? Because the climate question certainly didn’t show it — at 40 percent … I don’t see success there.”
Board of Education member Lisa Butler said she was worried about the infractions at the middle schools, particularly around fighting and physical aggression.
“Looking at these numbers, I have big concerns, because if the behaviors aren’t being addressed, they go to high school and carry those behaviors there,” said Butler.
Rhodes responded that the schools were not simply suspending the student, but they were following up afterward and working to understand why students were unable to self-regulate.
Board member Michael Hyman pointed out that at the same time as the number of out-of school suspensions decreased, the number of in-school suspensions at Cloonan had increased, from 25 to 81 — putting the school on track for the same total number of suspensions as last year.’’
“What impact did that have on the school? How did the school transform itself to be able to do that and to make it happen?” said Hyman. “I think that’s an important part of the story to tell, because it does not suggest that the number of incidents that students are involved with has gone away.”
Board member Versha Munshi-South also pointed out that the suspensions were disproportionately skewed toward Black students.
According to the data, Black students made up 26 percent of in-school suspensions despite being only 13 percent of the district’s population. White students, which are 26 percent of the district’s population, made up only 12 percent of in-school suspensions.
Chery said he wanted to see a more standardized practice across the district of how discipline is handled, rather than school-by-school.
Superintendent Tamu Lucero responded that while the district leaders shared practices that they felt might be helpful with the school principals, she also relied on the principals to be able to create strategies that work best for their schools.
“We should make it clear that in most of our buildings, we have experienced administrators who have been exposed to looking at data for years. And so our expectation, with the support of the associate superintendent, is that they are reviewing their data and they are working with their grade level teams to make decisions on how they can improve the school culture in their building,” said Lucero.
Chronic absenteeism has also been rising dramatically in Stamford — an increase that mirrors schools across the state. The percentage of Asian students in Stamford labeled chronically absent doubled from 2020-21 to 2021-22, from 10 percent to 20 percent, and nearly doubled for white students — from 8.3 percent to 15.4 percent.
Chronic absenteeism has also increased among Black and Hispanic students, although more gradually. Last year, just over a quarter of Hispanic students and nearly a third of Black students were chronically absent. Rhodes said the district did not have data available for this school year.
Hamman said the district needed to look at why the students who were missing were chronically absent.
Rhodes said she agreed, and pointed out that not every student was absent for the same reason.
“You can have a child who … if they miss the bus, there is no second chance for them, right? Their parents have already left for work. They cannot get to school if they miss the bus,” said Rhodes. “And then you can have an entirely different reason for another student — maybe they get sick a lot. That’s a different reason. So the same strategy is not gonna work for those two different kids if you’re targeting them as chronically absent.”
The next regular meeting of the board is on March 28.