School board could look at pre-school

In looking at Greenwich results on state standardized testing, one result stood out when questioning why the town’s students are lagging behind their peers.

While Greenwich students improve at the same rate, if not better, than students in other districts, they are starting off behind, creating an immediate deficit. Essentially the longer a student is in the Greenwich Public Schools, the better they achieve, but that still leaves the starting gap, which has resulted in lower results on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) than is acceptable to parents and the district.

To try and combat this, the Board of Education created an ad hoc committee which is poised to deliver a series of recommendations at tonight’s final meeting of the school year at 7 p.m. at Cos Cob School. The recommendations, once approved, will be used to develop an action plan for further steps on student achievement with more of an emphasis on what causes the problems and addressing the solutions toward that. A “white paper” detailing these findings would be due in October.

Now Jennifer Dayton a member of the ad hoc committee is hoping to convince her fellow board members that one thing the white paper must include is an extensive look at pre-school. In an interview with the Post on Tuesday, Ms. Dayton said that an increased focus on pre-school could boost early education overall and not only improve kindergarten readiness but pay dividends down the line when it comes to state tests by erasing that starting gap and allowing Greenwich students to improve earlier.

What this paper is hoping to accomplish is lay the groundwork for the most effective actions. Instead of major upheaval that will take years to be fully installed and have a measurable impact, the goal is instead to evaluate what the causes to student achievement issues are and, once they’re identified, take action in the most effective way. Ms. Dayton said that pre school should be part of the conversation, especially since “kindergarten readiness” is something that will be focused on.

The first time students are tested on the CMT is in third grade and third grade reading has been one of the areas the board has most focused on in recent months. Through more attention on pre-school, Ms. Dayton said that it can help “set the trajectory” for future academic success.

“Kindergarten readiness will be one part of the study and it’s important that pre-school be part of our strategy,” Ms. Dayton said, adding that because of a lack of existing reliable assessments further study as part of the ad hoc committee’s work is needed.

The committee’s work will focus on several areas, like accountable solutions, strategies in three-year action plans, best practices, alignment with budgeting and the ability to make mid-course corrections if it’s determined changes need to be made. Ms. Dayton said these are all strategies she supports, but that pre-school should be part of the conversation.

“We need to be considering the role of high-qualty early education in academic achievement, especially with children at the risk of underachieving,” Ms. Dayton said, pointing to a 2010 National Association of Elementary Principals study that she says shows the “growing body” of research that the achievement gap is beginning before students even enter kindergarten and that the kind of high-quality early education she wants looked at can lead to reductions in students repeating grades, less of a need for special education and increased high school graduation rates.

Peter von Braun, chairman of the ad hoc committee, told the Post that he feels the methods being put forth will make for more effective responses now and in the future. Not only will it allow the board to more directly influence budgets to address specific areas of need as a response to student achievement, but it will take what is causing the problems into account.

“I think this is something that will work very well,” Mr. von Braun said, citing the support he’s gotten from district administration and his board colleagues for the committee’s work.

He said previously there has not been the kind of focus on causality that’s needed to truly address a problem. Mr. von Braun said this is something that will not only impact student achievement, but future board issues because it establishes a more fact-based methodology that can respond quicker and make changes as they need to be made while also exploring the roots of why things occur.

“If you don’t understand what’s causing something to happen, how can you have confidence in the solutions that are being suggested?” Mr. von Braun said.

Mr. von Braun said he would support using this methodology to examine pre-school and determine how much of an impact that has on early childhood learning. With so many indications that children are struggling their first three years in the Greenwich Public Schools, he said the board has to find out why to make the best response.

Ms. Dayton said she is unsure which way the board will vote on her efforts to include pre-school in the white paper. When this was first discussed at the board’s June 7 work session, there was a clear lack of a unified momentum to take immediate action on this and Ms. Dayton acknowledged the “diverse opinions.” She said she hopes to be able to convince her colleagues of the importance of taking this action because she feels it can be a key development toward student achievement.

“We keep focusing on the state test years three through eight and 10, but in order to move the needle we’re going to have to look at the ramp that gets students to a higher starting point,” Ms. Dayton said. “The task is to establish a diagnosis that improved pre-school experiences will achieve academic results. It’s a high level strategy for kindergarten readiness. Greenwich public school pre-school experiences are vital to success in grade level achievement. It’s not just having the actual pre-school. It’s the quality of the pre-school that counts. It can pay huge dividends later in an academic career.”


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