MIDDLETOWN — With debates over a new math curriculum, concerns about fighting and lockdowns in schools, and complaints from teachers about a difficult work environment, Board of Education candidates recently told CT Examiner what they would do to improve climate and academics in the district.
Five seats on the nine-member board are open this year, as Democrats Deborah Cain, Justin Taylor, Anita Dempsey White and DeLita Rose-Daniels, and Republican Dina Ford are not seeking reelection.
This year’s Democratic candidates are Sheila Daniels, Susan Owens, Rakim Grant, Elizabeth Crooks and Harold Panciera. The Republican candidates are Nigel Macon-Wilson, Morgan Monarca, Deborah Kleckowski and Bill Wilson.
Student Discipline and Safety
Macon-Wilson, an eight-year Marine Corps veteran and machinist at Pratt and Whitney, said discipline was a key piece of his agenda, if elected. Both parents and teachers need to take responsibility, he said.
“It’s on everyone’s part. Holding themselves to the standard that, ‘Yes, I’m a teacher, I’m responsible for these children while the parents are gone. I need to make sure that they know their reading, their writing, arithmetic, geography, math.’ The basic stuff to get through life,” he said. “Now, as far as attitude and stuff, that starts at home. The reason why a lot of these students are disrespectful at schools [is] because their parents allow it one way or another — either they allow the disrespect of their house or the parents or the guardians are telling them that it’s OK to do it there.”
Macon-Wilson said there needed to be proportional consequences for students’ actions, and that the students committing the worst offenses must be penalized with actions like suspensions and, in the case of life-threatening behaviors, expulsions.
“They need the boundaries. They actually want the boundaries. Kids are going out of control nowadays because there’s no boundaries,” he said.
Daniels, a Democrat who served on the school board from 2005 to 2017 and was the School Readiness Grant assistant for 25 years, said she felt that social media was a big driver of the fighting in the schools, since students were videotaping the fights and posting the videos online.
“I think the effort to try to reduce usage of phones or phones being available during the school day is something that we should work hard at,” said Daniels.
She also suggested implementing social-emotional programs to teach students how to make good choices and surround them with positivity.
Owens and Monarca said they wanted increased security in the district, particularly at Middletown High. Monarca added that he decided to run for Board of Education because of the fighting in the high school.
“I think these kids have way too much freedom in public schools. They have free reign. They walk the halls. I’ve seen it myself. I think the fighting is out of control,” he said.
Monarca said he wanted to hire more school resource officers or retired officers who could act as security.
Owens agreed, saying that six security guards for the 1,200 students at Middletown High wasn’t adequate to keep children safe.
But Democratic candidate Grant disagreed. He said the board should instead invest more in counselors and adults who can work with children on their emotional needs, rather than turning to student resource officers.
“I think it’s important to actually get at the causes of these school fights, which I think, when it comes down to it, it’s people who can’t control their emotions because they haven’t been taught that. So they fight. But I don’t think the answer is to bring in more SROs and make it a criminal issue. I think it’s to actually get at the source of the problem,” Grant said.
The Math Curriculum
Nearly all the candidates expressed concerns about proposed changes to how math is taught at the middle and high schools, which aims in part to replace the current calculus track with a more equitable sequence of courses.
Republican candidate Kleckowski, who worked as the director of the Upward Bound Program at Wesleyan University in the 1980s and 1990s and later as the College Career Pathways coordinator for Middlesex Community College, said she was concerned the curriculum changes would make students less competitive when applying for college.
Grant also opposed changes to the math curriculum. While the intention of reducing disparities between students was good, he said, the approach of removing the eighth-grade Algebra I track could actually increase gaps in student achievement.
“If you’re not offering that class in middle school … and by the time we get to high school, we’re not offering calculus, the students who want to be competitive on college applications and who have the money to be competitive [are] still going find a way to get that calculus credit. They’re going to be able to pay for whatever it may be – the special classes, the AP test or CLEP test – the same way that people are able to pay for SAT tutors,” Grant said.
Grant, who graduated from Middletown High in 2019, said students were often divided based on their academic abilities early on, and that “gifted” students were given opportunities not offered to other students. For example, he said, when recruiters from colleges visited the high school, the higher-achieving students were selected to listen to their talks.
“I think it’s important to try to still push even the kids who aren’t immediately excelling in school toward those opportunities that are important, and that can really open doors for you later down the line,” he said. “When you don’t do that … it creates a cycle where [lower-achieving students] continue to go down one path and the kids who are good at school continue to go down a different path.”
Owens said the district should have conversations with the university professors who spoke at a board meeting in opposition to the new curriculum. If the district decided to move forward with it, she said, they should do a pilot program rather than rolling it out all at once.
“I guess a lot of other professors around the country are saying it doesn’t work, so why not go to the professors? They’re [at] the college. They probably can help,” she said.
Crooks, who worked for 31 years as an administrator in New Britain Public Schools, said when it came to academics in general, the school needed to support struggling students and ensure more advanced students were able to thrive.
“It’s very important that we support all of our struggling students and get them back on board … but I also think it’s a priority to challenge our most gifted students and have them attain the best that they can,” she said. “Realizing that education needs to be diverse and take each student from where they are and move them forward to the best they can be. And I think if we don’t do that, that’s when we start losing kids to magnet schools and to the parochial schools in town.”
Daniels said students should not have to choose between advanced math and non-academic courses like music and art.
“When I was on the board years ago, my stance was no child should miss those opportunities. We know how much math a child can improve their math skills by being in band, by learning how to read music, by learning the timing of the music, in art class, in their gym classes,” she said. “We have students that perhaps that’s what’s getting them up in the morning, going to school to do art, or going to school to play an instrument. And if that’s what’s driving a student and we’re taking that away, shame on us.”
Panciera, a retired former social studies teacher in the district, said the current board had been “less than effective” in supervising top school administrators, and criticized the group’s handling of the investigation into harassment complaints made against former Superintendent Michael Conner by 15 female employees.
“It has cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and also salaries for administrators who stayed home for many months,” said Panciera, a Democrat. “It just left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Panciera added that teachers in the district needed better support.
“In some of the schools, there’s a serious morale problem. I have colleagues that are still teaching and they just shake their heads,” he said.
Republican candidate Wilson said the district should be spending more money on teachers and less on administrators and “middle management.”
“We’ve lost a ton of teachers. Why have they left? I think we need the answers, and I don’t think we’re getting any of them. And that really bothers me. It should bother any parent, grandparent, or person thinking about moving here,” Wilson said.
He criticized the previous school board for being too involved in “protecting” Conner rather than paying attention to the needs of teachers and students.
“I think the board … was too wrapped up in protecting the last superintendent, and I think they should be doing more about helping the kids, helping teachers. Who do I want on the front lines? I want teachers, paras, teachers aides. I want more of them and less administrators,” he said.
Crooks suggested the district create more forums for teachers to troubleshoot and solve problems.
“I think having more of the types of meetings where teachers can get together and they can voice their concerns with someone that could be more like a mentor, who is not evaluating them, and also structure those meetings, in a way that it just doesn’t become a complaining session,” said Crooks. “Let’s look at the student work and what can we do to help these students get better, or let’s look at the student behavior and how can we improve this, or let’s look at the hallways and what can we do to get those better, rather than just sitting in a room complaining.”
And Kleckowski said teachers should have more freedom in their classrooms and less reporting requirements.
“Teachers want to teach. Right? That’s why the majority became teachers. They want to teach. They want creativity in their classroom. Not all this reporting,” she said. “So I would really like to see the classroom be a priority and teachers having autonomy be a priority. I think that that would really go a long way.”
Republican candidates said they wanted the Board of Education to be more transparent about what its budget is funding.
Kleckowski, who also served 10 years on the Common Council, said her top priority was looking at what positions the budget was funding, how many there were, and what each person was responsible for. She said no teacher should be asking for outside donations for classroom supplies.
“Not one teacher should be going to DonorChoose. And that’s one of my biggest pet peeves,” she said.
Kleckowski said the schools budget had increased by about $14 million over the last few years, but it wasn’t clear to her where that money had gone.
“I do not think the budget should be increased a dime for the Board of Education,” she said.
Macon-Wilson, who described the district’s budget as a “black hole” and a “money pit,” said he also wanted to understand how the district was spending its funds. He complained that student achievement continued to decrease while the budget continued to rise.
“Parents are pulling their kids out of these schools. I’ve been hearing that the student population has been dwindling, but the amount of money they’re asking for is increasing,” he said. “There’s a disconnect. So where’s this money going? Why are people leaving? Why are they demanding more money?”
Several Republican candidates, including Kleckowski and Wilson, criticized the use of funding to pay for the salary of a communications director for the district. The director’s salary is currently funded using federal coronavirus relief funds.
Regarding the coronavirus relief funds, which must be allocated by next September and spent by January 2025, all the candidates said they wanted to better understand how the district was using those funds before deciding whether any programs or positions would need to be cut, or whether the school budget would need to be increased.
“There should be a special accounting when money’s come in. I know that was an unusual happenstance, but still, where is that money? How much actually came in? Where did it go? Who decided where it went? And what projects are still able to be done?” Kleckowski said.
Democrat Owens said she was “blown away” by the summer programming the district has offered over the past few years, and said those programs should be continued.
“You’re taking kids off the street and they’re learning something and they’re having fun,” Owens said.
She also said the district should continue offering a wide range of activities, such as courses in aerospace and robotics.
Panciera said he didn’t want to see cuts to programming or social-emotional support for students. He also noted the district had some facilities needs.
The district might be able to ask the state delegation for funding, he said, but noted that bad press around the past administration would make taxpayers less likely to want to pay more.
“When the taxpayer reads about all these extraneous or legal fees … it takes away from what and how the money should be spent,” he said.
The district did not respond to a request from CT Examiner for a breakdown of what items are currently being funded with coronavirus relief funds in the district.
Chronic Absenteeism and Engaging Students
Several candidates, including Daniels, said they wanted to find ways to bring the community into the schools.
Daniels noted that, since social-emotional issues and mental health challenges were a nationwide problem, the whole community needs to come together to find a solution.
“I think we’re at a juncture where … society needs to address it,” she said. “I think it’s important to bring the community leaders together with the board and with teachers and administrators of the school district and see what [we can] do as the community.”
Daniels suggested the Jesse Lewis Choose Love program, a social-emotional learning program that has been widely adopted in New Hampshire public schools. She also recalled Pride Patrol, an anti-bullying program where middle school students were chosen as leaders, taught to report bullying, and spread the message against bullying to elementary school students.
“Middletown is unique in the sense that there’s so many caring people, there’s so many organizations and agencies to support our community. And bringing them all together, and trying to get ourselves on a relatively same page, and collaborate with our efforts to support children and families – I think you could make a world of difference,” she said.
Panciera suggested asking retired teachers to return and work with small groups of students to help improve academic scores. He also said retired police officers might be able to work with students having behavioral challenges. Crooks suggested a peer mediation program.
Owens, who has been running a mentorship program for girls in the district since 2009, said she’s seen how these programs can help students grow. For example, she said some girls in the program who started out as enemies ended up becoming friends and giving each other Christmas gifts.
“They end up learning how to talk to people,” Owens said. “We let them say whatever they want to. They can talk about what they want to talk about, and we don’t judge them.”
Most candidates also said that, when it came to chronic absenteeism, the district needed to better understand why students weren’t attending school.
Wilson said bullying could cause children not to attend school. He also said there should be other options for older high schoolers who didn’t want to go to school, like a more hands-on alternative learning environment.
“You find out why this is a problem. Maybe it’s their home life,” he said. “Now we’ve hired more mental health workers and more social workers. … I would rather hire those than hire people to sit in the central office and make six figures.”
Kleckowski said she, too, felt the fighting was keeping some children from coming to school. She also wanted to move back the start time for the high school.
“It is archaic that these kids start so early, and I think that’s a big reason for the absenteeism,” she said.
Editor’s note: Additional comments from candidate Sheila Daniels were added on Oct. 3. Also, Republican board member John Pulino will continue to serve for two more years and is not stepping down as previously written. Republican Dina Ford is not running for reelection. This story has been updated.