McKersie says strategies in place for students to achieve

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie sat down with the Post to discuss priorities for the new year.

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie sat down with the Post to discuss priorities for the new year.

This is the second part of an interview with Greenwich Superintendent of Schools William McKersie. The first part was in the Aug. 29 edition of the Post.


New years often bring new challenges, but for the Greenwich public schools it’s old challenges like solutions to racial balance mandates and facility utilization as well as the ongoing question of improving student achievement that are immediately on the plate of Superintendent of Schools William McKersie.

In an interview with the Post as the new school year began, Dr. McKersie looked at those issues but also at the overall picture and the strategy he has developed for the district. He spoke not just about how students can do better, but how he can do better in making sure the best practices are implemented and teachers and administrators have the best opportunity to succeed with their students.

Achievement is on the mind of many in the community, especially with the results of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) and Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) showing an increasing achievement gap between lower income students and their higher income counterparts. Results on those tests were considered to be disappointing on a statewide level and the increased gap comes after several years of a narrowing one, but Dr. McKersie pledged that this is an ongoing focus for district leadership.

Dr. McKersie has stressed that one year of a growing gap does not mean it’s a trend, but that the data wasn’t being ignored either. Issues of academic performance in lower income students, especially ones with English as a second language, are not new.

“It’s easy to get lost that while we do have an achievement gap, our low performing students are still outperforming the state average for their peers in other locations,” Dr. McKersie said. “There are going to be individuals who pull out the results and say about one school in a particular city ‘That school is outperforming Greenwich.’ I applaud any one school that beats us. I’m an educator. I believe in excellence. But that’s one school. On average our low performing students outperform the low performing students in the state.”

However, Dr. McKersie made it clear he doesn’t feel that this is good enough.

“People in Greenwich might look at that and say, ‘Look, see, he doesn’t care,’” but that’s not the case at all,” Dr. McKersie said. “I want our kids to be as strong as they can be and I’m not satisfied with where we are. But too often the conversation becomes, ‘We’re the worst in the state at this.’ But it’s not true. We’re above the state averages.”

Dr. McKersie noted that in terms of academics, Greenwich’s underperforming students are “chasing some of the best performing students in the state, if not the Northeast, if not the nation.” Because of how high those Greenwich students score, he claimed “an achievement gap is always going to be an issue” and compared it to having Olympic swimmers in the same pool with people just learning to swim.

“That doesn’t mean our brand new swimmers can’t get better and better, and it also means we’re not going to hold our Olympic swimmers back, but we’ve got to be realistic about the mix of kids we have,” Dr. McKersie said. “We’ve got to push as hard as we can to have all our kids achieve. To me it’s exciting. To push the metaphor, I’d much rather have a pool with that mix of kids to worry about than just the Olympic swimmers or just the brand new swimmers. But we do have to focus more than we have on the best instructional approaches and help our teachers understand what the best instructional approaches are and how to get after them.”

This comes back to the strategy of “innovation and choice” that Dr. McKersie is pushing for, which he says will allow teachers working in network to find what works best for their students and being able to bring that into the classroom.

Achievement gaps throughout the district have long been a topic for the Board of Education, with several ideas being put forward to address it. One that has gained momentum in recent years is universal pre-K classes throughout Greenwich, allowing for all students to have access to it, not just limited numbers.

“Pre-K is really, really important,” Dr. McKersie said. “We do know that 95% of our students come in having had pre-K experience. Many communities like ours wouldn’t have that. We’re close to that here and we run a very high quality pre-K program. There’s a wait list to get into it.”

However, Dr. McKersie doesn’t see a universal program coming into next year’s proposed budget to the town. He said what needs to first be addressed is solidifying a location for the pre-schools instead of having those locations shift from place to place all over town. Dr. McKersie said once they’re placed where they will be “most responsive to communities and families that may not have access privately to pre-school” it will allow for continued progress.

“Going to universal pre-K provided by the district is not something I see getting recommended by the administration going into this next year,” Dr. McKersie said. “I think because we’re already at such level of pre-schooling, first you have to secure the location, secure the quality of what we do and secure the relations between the public pre-schools we run and the private pre-schools.”

While Dr. McKersie did not link reluctance to pursue universal pre-K to another potentially tight budget, potential spending conflicts could loom between the Board of Education and the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) as there were last year when disputes over funding of maintenance for schools and the construction of the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at Greenwich High School showed a public split.

Greenwich’s system of approving the budget through the Board of Education and then going to the BET and then the Representative Town Meeting was new to Dr. McKersie in his first year at the helm of Greenwich’s schools, but he said he believed the process overall went well.

“In Greenwich there are three sets of decision makers on any one budget and that’s different from a lot of other communities,” Dr. McKersie said. “Look at West Hartford. The superintendent puts forth a budget, the board votes on it and then it goes to the town’s selectmen. That’s basically two stops. There’s only a third stop if the community feels it wants a referendum. That’s not a dissimilar community in terms of size, mix of students and educational outcomes. Here it’s three stops and it’s a very extended process. There’s a level of scrutiny and a level of tension to budget issues that you don’t see in a lot of other communities. I embrace that and I work with that. I think the BET has been fair and good to work with.”

However, Dr. McKersie quickly added that the town “does have to think very, very hard” about what the necessary incremental investment will have to be to maintain an excellent school system.

“I’ve been able to have very good conversations with individual BET members and I’ve been able to have very good conversations with the BET in total,” Dr. McKersie said. “I’m a passionate guy so at times I’ll be passionate and strong but that’s all from a professional standpoint. It’s never, ever a personal thing.”

On the cut in maintenance from the BET, the district had to scale back plans throughout the district. Dr. McKersie said the summer saw $8 million in investments made, including renovated auditoriums at Central and Eastern Middle Schools and finishing improvements to bathrooms in the school buildings. But this could well become an issue again during budget discussions next year between the district and the BET.

“The guts of our buildings, the roofs and the things that you don’t necessarily see are in excellent shape, but we definitely have buildings that could use other improvements,” Dr. McKersie said. “That, then, raises the question of what can we afford to do. We will be talking about that this year. How that conversation will play out is not clear to me yet. Maintenance of buildings is a big priority for me. But we can also get things done within existing dollars.”

Dr. McKersie said an example of that is a project he worked on with First Selectman Peter Tesei called “curb appeal” where the district’s and the town’s staffs worked together to make sure school grounds looked neat and groomed as school started last week. Dr. McKersie said by making the buildings across the district look clean and neat, it was able to look good within the community and create a positive feeling in the schools to start the year without having to spend additional dollars.

Over the course of his first full year as Greenwich’s superintendent, Dr. McKersie has become famous for always having a positive development to highlight about the school system. Speaking to the Post, he even referred to himself as a “cheerleader” for the district, but one that has to hold people accountable and focus on best practices. There’s been a strategic goal behind that, he said.

“I think morale is a big problem in this district,” Dr. McKersie said. “Greenwich has a reputation for being a district that doesn’t hold onto superintendents, has board/superintendent conflict, has administration/board conflict and is known as a district where you’re going to get a lot of pressure and a lot of dissatisfaction from the town. For me, I was saying, what can I do to get the morale as high as I can. It can’t just be me. It has to be a team. I think cheerleading is very important but I’m taking a new approach this year to build on that. In talking about innovation and choice, I’m talking about the importance of what’s called affirmative judgment.”

That means being both affirmative in what happens but also applying judgment, which Dr. McKersie said can be used in areas like the achievement gap.

“I’ve got to start being critical, but critical in a way where people are going to say, ‘Ok, I’m going to start listening to that. I’m not just going to feel beat up or turned off,’” Dr. McKersie said. “In my bones, I’m confident that if the approach of a superintendent or a board or a principal was to come in and just say ‘You’re doing this wrong. You have to do it better’ it’s going to go nowhere. Cheerleading has to stop, but it has to be more of the affirmative judgment.”


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