Parents sound off at public schools community forum

Greenwich parents were given an opportunity to let their voices be heard last week as the school district began its yearlong strategic planning process, and an online survey is now open through Dec. 19.

Parents met with facilitators from the Public Consulting Group (PCG), the independent firm working alongside Greenwich Public Schools to produce the plan, at Central Middle School last week for a focus group-style discussion on the district’s future.

Though Board of Education Chairman Barbara O’Neill was on hand to introduce the facilitators, the community forum was intentionally void of BOE members and school district staff. The goal was to provide an environment in which parents could feel comfortable criticizing and commending the district without worrying about the response from staff in attendance.

Steve Kutno of PCG led the forum with the help of Anna d’Entremont. In addition to the forum, PCG plans to host a dozen focus groups and has provided an online survey for those unable to attend the meetings to provide their own feedback. The combined responses from the focus groups and online survey will be compiled and analyzed to identify the standout issues and necessary areas of improvement within the district.

“We’re applying what is called appreciative inquiry, where we ask a group of people, who are usually with like people, what their thoughts are on the current conditions of school, what they imagine excellence is, what they think the attributes should be for students graduating from the system, and we try to get at the perceptive data — what is the perception of the Greenwich Public Schools?” Dr. Kutno said.

The online survey is now being hosted by the district and will be active through Dec. 19 at Surveymonkey.com/s/Greenwich_PS or through the link at Greenwichschools.org.

From the voices present at the CMS forum, parents were satisfied overall with academic performance, but concerned that student welfare was under-addressed at multiple levels.

“What I’m most concerned about is the student experience and student well-being. Obviously we’ve had a lot of tragedies in Greenwich and Stamford lately, and it’s been part and parcel for the United States. You have problems of school shootings, suicides, cyberbullying, and other problems with kids in school,” parent Chris Schoenfield said. “I really want to see that as the primary bedrock of what is addressed, and everything else coming on top of that. Because without a stable, quality student experience, it will be hard for them to achieve anything else.”

That sentiment was echoed by a number of the parents present, whose concerns ranged from bullying between students to the amount of homework being scheduled. They also expressed fears that the focus on academic performance and competitive achievement placed an undue amount of stress on the district’s children.

“I have two sons who are in college, and they have lots of tales to tell about how difficult [GPS] is academically. The pressure of the academics, the pressure of the teachers, the pressure of the social situations, and the pressure of their own parents’ success,” Theresa Stanton said. “They said, ‘Mom, you have no idea what it’s like to grow up in this town where you can never outdo your parents.’ … We need to focus more on our children’s emotional well-being.”

Ms. Stanton suggested that Greenwich High School should have a later start time, citing a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics identifying lack of sleep among teens as a public health issue. Under its current block scheduling, Greenwich High School classes begin at 7:30 a.m., and as one parent explained, that means that students must be ready to leave home as early as 6:30 to ensure they make it to school on time.

Insufficient sleep has been tied to depression, obesity and traffic accidents in adolescents, but the average start time for high schools is 7:59 a.m., and just 15% start after 8:30, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.

Parents also commented on the achievement gap, as the district continues to face disparities between the elementary schools on the west end of town and the other schools in the district. Strategies were offered up, including an expanded public preschool program and an examination of the district’s kindergarten age requirement. Attendees acknowledged the gap as a districtwide problem that wasn’t restricted to underperforming areas.

“I live in Old Greenwich and I have lots of friends who don’t know about the schools and the situation of the schools in the western part of town,” one parent said. “And I would like to see more community within the Greenwich Public School system, celebrating our individual schools, but celebrating our entire community and the socioeconomic diversity within our town.”

Along with a desire for balance between the schools, parents expressed a desire for balance within the curriculum, criticizing the lack of focus on the arts in favor of STEM programs. Additionally, some parents felt that teachers were being overworked due to frequent shifts in curriculum and the need to adhere to standardized tests and state standards.

While the evening was primarily dedicated to criticism and examination, attendees recognized and appreciated the efforts of the district staff. New GPS parent Betsy Wells has a son enrolled in second grade at the Cos Cob school, and said she appreciated the set of behavioral norms promoted by the school. Beginning at the elementary levels, students are taught to be here, be safe, be honest, care for self and others, and let go and move on.

“I feel like it’s so important for us to foster that social and emotional growth, that social and emotional learning” Ms. Wells said. “So that they can be good citizens of the world and get along with others.”

The strategic planning process will continue through the end of the school year, with the initiative being laid out in stages. The next stage, data analysis, will begin in January as PCG works to analyze the information put forth during this month’s forum and focus groups.

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