Poking the Bear (Stamford Board of Education Style)

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To the Editor:

Officially the bear has been poked and many Stamford educators will be preparing their resumes over the holidays.  Not all will move on, but trust has been deeply broken—central office and the Board of Education have gone too far.  When state and federal level leaders pass unfunded mandates or offer little financial support; initiatives not properly vetted; transparency vague; and policies given lip service, not reviewed, or regulations changed without a BOE vote, the system fails. Most alarming, when teachers become repeated targets, they look elsewhere to be treated as professionals. 

High School Initiatives (2017-Present)

Take any Stamford public high school initiative over the last six years and go to the root of the decision-making by our district leaders.  No matter how qualified these individuals may be (even with 092 & 093 administrator certifications), discernment is needed more than ever.  Not only does central office leadership need deft supervision and instructional turn-key skills (outside consultants have been hired), they also lack solid experience as secondary, Connecticut certified, core-subject teachers.  Even more alarming, these leaders do not seem to have deep empathy for those doing the day-in, day-out hard work in high school classrooms. 

2017 Block Scheduling Committee

Due to statewide achievement score decreases, Connecticut legislators passed a new graduation law, PA No. 17-42, requiring twenty-five credits (two more than the required 23) to graduate starting 2023. Recognizing that this policy change would be difficult, SPS central office started a Block Scheduling Committee to research options for a new schedule.  Although twenty-five credits could still be accomplished on a 7-period schedule, secondary research pointed to adopting an eight-period block—longer periods of time (88-minutes) provide for more rigor, engagement, personalization, and ‘equitable’ opportunities.  The committee decided to use the A/B Block, but concluded more teachers would need to be hired to teach an 8-period schedule. 

2021-22 4×4 Hybrid Block Uproar

Fast forward four years with Covid-19 happening in the middle of this process, central office leaders suddenly changed their tune (without teacher input and stepping around BOE policy) strongly recommending high schools implement a 4×4 Hybrid Block schedule—courses would be blocked by semester (4 per term).   This created a citywide uproar amongst students, parents, stakeholders, and Stamford & Westhill High School principals.  Central office administrators finally relented and agreed to implement the A/B Block schedule in 2022-23, but emphasized it would be “cost neutral” and not require additional teachers.  Teachers were not fooled.

2023 Six-Block Teaching Proposal

It was clear additional teachers were needed (33 the first year of implementation, 2022-23, and 19 the second year, 2023-24).  Many of the teachers even stepped up to help fill the positions, although this created more stress for them and less time to focus on their students and collaborate with colleagues (department, special education, tier support, data review, etc.).  Equity was also used to pit elementary, middle and high school teachers against each other, emphasizing that the high school teachers needed to do more in less time.  Meanwhile this change was never expected of AITE HS, A/B blocked since 1999 and ranked the Top 20th CT High School (Niche.com).

Knowing it costs the district an additional 1.9-3.3 million dollars annually to run the A/B Block, central office leaders are now proposing that teachers teach six blocks over two days, rather than five.  With BOE support, central office leaders are starting negotiations with the Stamford Education Association, which in turn may lead to arbitration.  Since all surrounding school districts only require a 5-period schedule, it is no wonder teachers’ trust and morale are at an all-time low and they are preparing their resumes.

2023 Attendance/Tardy Regulation Change

Although the original state attendance policy was never changed, it is believed that central office leaders revised regulations to make it easier for students to graduate and help Stamford look good regionally.  The district data used to make this change was suspicious—it showed that 70% of the SPS students would not pass if the regulations were not changed.  Since this new policy regulation lowers standards and accountability for all students, parents should request to see actual data via quartiles—elective & core-course failure rates as well as excused & unexcused absences.  Other surrounding district policy regulations that align with this new central office dictate, should also be shared with Stamford families (especially Norwalk, Darien, Greenwich & New Canaan).  SPS teachers and families have very high expectations for students so they were very surprised central office would make this sudden change without large stakeholder support.

Middle School Seven-Period Initiative

To raise the bar so all middle schoolers have a uniform experience across the city, a 7-period day with an advisory, is being discussed amongst faculties.  This may require several more ELA teachers and a larger budget (approximately 1-1.5 million dollars more).

SPS Budget Woes

There seems to be three major contributing factors when dealing with district budget woes, which in part, is not entirely central office leaders’ fault.  First, the national teacher shortage has created serious issues for cities across the United States.  Rural and suburban districts have fared much better.  Amazingly, Stamford did very well to fill as many positions as it did between all three high schools, but it was not enough to fill the financial gap.  Second, the ESSR (Elementary Secondary School Emergency Relief) fund—part of the Covid-19 support package—is now gone and staff positions that were once funded through that resource, must be paid through other department budgets, or eliminated.  The fiscal cliff has now become an 8.9-million-dollar deficit (120 positions).  Third, and most concerning, migrant immersion—which is over 70% taxpayer funded—is drawing tremendous funds from the district budget.  All extra seats at schools are being filled by English Language Learners (ELLs), even if they do not speak English or understand the content.  Where are our politicians and the funding for this state/federal endeavor—Connecticut is a sanctuary state & Stamford a sanctuary city, correct?  Sadly, when there is a lack of money, it is perceived that central office leaders and BOE is allowing teachers to become the next level of taxpayer fodder when there are certainly other viable options.

Efficiency over instruction also seems to be the new motto for SPS and BOE.  New initiatives do cost money, but when teachers are targeted for lack of projections made by central office or the BOE, they get tired of constantly having to defend their positions.  They should not be the first targets when SPS has an abundance of administrators.  Where is the breaking point?  When will the BOE be realistic and look at their own decision making, or lack thereof?

Teachers are the Backbone of Stamford

The bear has been poked and the teachers have had enough.  When decisions like this are made, the quality of instruction and fidelity of programming will become fractured and ultimately, students and families will suffer.  This, too, shall pass, but it will take years to undo.  Teachers are the backbone of Stamford and when they are told they do not matter, they grow weary and leave.  How can this be solved?  Start singing Kumbaya and hope that the BOE brainstorms other options.  We can do better.


Dr. Rebecca Hamman currently serves as the AdHoc Policy Chair for the Stamford Board of Education. Her comments are her own, and do not represent the official views of the Board of Education or its committees.