STEM program for Hamilton Avenue School gets vote tonight

The Board of Education won’t officially vote until tonight about a new magnet program for Hamilton Avenue School, but the direction in which it’s going, with the community’s full support, is clear.

All board members indicated their strong support for beginning a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program at the school at a work session on Nov. 13. This enthusiasm was not just limited to the board. Hamilton Avenue School Principal Cynthia Womack gave a public endorsement of the proposal, as did longtime teacher Catherine Byrne and parent Lisa Smith. Additionally the meeting, which was moved to Hamilton Avenue School, was packed with parents and faculty members, and each set of remarks in favor of the new program received loud applause from the audience.

“STEM education has the ability to increase student engagement by transforming typical teacher-centered classrooms into a greater emphasis on student-centered curriculum that is driven by problem solving and inquiry-based and exploratory learning,” Ms.  Womack said, calling this an “exciting change for Hamilton Avenue School” that could engage students to be critical thinkers and create a real excitement for learning.

The designation will not become official until tonight’s board meeting at 7 at the International School at Dundee. But barring some unforeseen and dramatic reversal, the STEM magnet program will be made official and steps will begin to be put into place for the 2015-16 school year. This will be a multi-year implementation process, though, and all sides preached patience as teachers are trained and the attempt is made to give the magnet program a chance to succeed to not only raise achievement levels at Hamilton Avenue School but to attract students townwide to go there.

“It should probably come as no shock to anybody in the room that I am a huge supporter of this,” board member Peter Bernstein, a former Hamilton Avenue School PTA president, said at the Nov. 13 meeting. “I think it’s probably a couple of years too late, so I’m glad to see it here. You have my commitment as long as I’m on the board to continue to fight for this.”

Board member Debbie Appelbaum said she was initially skeptical of STEM working on an elementary school level but said that because of everything in the proposal and everything she had seen and heard about the program, she was “totally won over.”

Ms. Womack said STEM learning could better prepare students for the job market by providing the training employers are looking for. Board member Peter Sherr agreed.

“I work in technology, and we can’t hire enough American workers who are educated in the United States,” Mr. Sherr said. “It’s a huge problem and I’m thrilled we’re going to start this someplace.”

The program will not wipe clean everything already at Hamilton Avenue. Both parents and faculty have made the case to include the popular Suzuki program in the new magnet, which was a prominent feature of the last attempt to make Hamilton Avenue’s magnet program work. While other aspects of the “renaissance school” program were taken away, Suzuki has remained, and Dr. McKersie pledged it would stay.

“It’s my strong view that while STEM would be the theme, Suzuki and other arts and music programs that are central to the success of this school would continue,” Dr. McKersie said. While there have been discussions of calling the theme “STEAM” with the added “A” representing the arts, Dr. McKersie did not recommend that but did say the district was committed to those programs at the school.

The school community has expressed concern over whether the district would remain behind STEM, as Hamilton Avenue has had several magnet themes and none of them have stuck. Ms. Womack said she had spoken with school faculty and staff about the change and if the board and administration were to commit to training and support so a “quality STEM program” could be implemented over the next three to five years, “99% of their worries would disappear and the excitement stands alone.”

“We were here when after all the years of effort our magnet school theme was scrapped,” said Ms. Byrne, a 23-year teacher at Hamilton Avenue. “We have been here through all the various magnet themes that didn’t take hold because of a lack of commitment, a lack of time and a lack of training. Although our staff supports this plan, given the history of our magnet themes, many of us are understandably concerned that our vision will not be realized. Our staff has always been willing to do what it takes, and we have proven that time and time again. We believe in our school and we want the best for our kids. We believe that STEM, with an inquiry approach and digital learning, is the right fit for this community.”

Dr. McKersie acknowledged those concerns and said this was his “deep, deep commitment” to the school. There are plans for three years of “intensive professional learning and support” for teachers and staff starting this spring, not just for current Hamilton Avenue staff but for those who might be interested in working there in the future. Dr. McKersie also said the district would commit to ongoing professional development and support through the transition. He said he had already met with staff on this as well as with the Greenwich Education Association (GEA), which serves as the town’s teachers’ union.

One issue Mr. Sherr raised was how the program would work in terms of achieving state-mandated racial balance, which Hamilton Avenue has not had for many years. Revising the magnet program is part of the board’s plan to deal with the racial imbalance by trying to attract more white students to the school, and Mr. Sherr, who stressed his continued opposition to having that balance mandated by state law, said he was worried that focusing on balance to please the state Board of Education would take everyone’s eyes off improving student achievement as the top priority.

Board member Adriana Ospina said that wasn’t going to happen.

“Achievement was the key thing for us,” Ms. Ospina said. “Achievement is what we told the state. We told the state that if we improved the achievement of every student, that in and of itself would make the school attractive. There is the law for racial balance, and we have to comply with that law. We will be looking at racial balance, but I personally am not looking at racial balance next year or for year two. … We don’t want people to worry that if we don’t get enough kids who are not minorities in a year that this board is not going to continue with this program.”

In terms of getting students from outside the Hamilton Avenue neighborhood to go to the school, leaving their own neighborhood schools in the process, Dr. McKersie admitted the district had not done a good enough job in the past marketing its magnet schools, and he pledged that would change.

“We’re going to say, ‘Come be a part of this school now as we’re building it out,’” Dr. McKersie said.

Kim Eves, the district’s director of communications, added, “Parents would be smart to secure their seat now, because the more years we go in and the more the program is developed, the harder it will be to get in.”

Dr. McKersie said the district would be able to learn from other municipalities that had instituted STEM programs for magnet schools, citing West Hartford as an example. Like Greenwich, West Hartford had to come into compliance with racial balance, and several district and school officials, as well as parents, visited the school to observe and had a delegation from the school come to Greenwich, too. Dr. McKersie said that school had gone from having no community buy-in for the magnet to a current waiting list of 80 students.

As part of the magnet program, the school will enter into a partnership with the Connecticut Science Center, as other STEM schools have.

The decision to move in this direction has, in Dr. McKersie’s words, been “fast paced,” but he said that once the vote is official, the time will be taken to make sure the implementation is done correctly.

“Once we have approval from the board so we can move forward, we will then go into a more judicious pace as to the planning and development,” Dr. McKersie said. The planning and development work will take place over the next five to six months and into the next school year and will include picking a curriculum and content focus that will involve the district’s ongoing digital learning initiative. This must be tied into inquiry-based learning, similar to the international baccalaureate (IB) approach already being used at other district magnet schools as well as Western Middle School, where Hamilton Avenue kids would be slated to go after fifth grade.

That was mentioned again during the meeting when board member Peter von Braun asked how quickly the STEM education could be tied to a middle school so the lessons would be furthered.

“If we cut this off after the fifth grade, kids aren’t going to get the full value of the experience,” Dr. von Braun said. “And they’re going to need to be able to convert this into a professional opportunity.”

Dr. McKersie said work was already under way and it would be part of the program’s development and implementation to involve Western Middle School. He predicted the STEM work would fit nicely with the IB program at Western as well as ongoing work throughout the district to improve science performance among students. Dr. McKersie said the inquiry-based learning used in both magnet programs would also work through all academic subjects, not just math and science.

There was also discussion around the hiring of a full-time academic coach dedicated to STEM at Hamilton Avenue to help with the implementation and teacher training. That coach, who would be in Greenwich for a multi-year commitment, is part of Dr. McKersie’s budget proposal for 2015-16. While the Board of Education would approve such an item next month, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) would not officially consider it until March and the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) would not consider it until May as part of the town’s budget process. That time frame does not necessarily put the district administration in a position to hire the best possible coach for the position, and Dr. McKersie admitted he would have to work around that.

“If we’re serious about this working well, we have to get that facilitator and coach in as fast as possible,” Dr. McKersie said. “Looking at other schools, we know that matters. The roll of the dice here is that, if the board has approved the budget, we may have to get a little bit ahead of where we are the BET and RTM and make the argument that we know we’re taking a bit of a risk here because they haven’t approved the 15-16 budget but we’re recruiting for a position here that would be the person to stay if they do a good job.”

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