League of Women voters hold public forum on education
Updated 12:25 pm, Saturday, May 21, 2011
Even in town like New Canaan, where the public school system is one of the best in the country, education can still be a touchy subject. GreatSchools and Forbes recently dubbed New Canaan as having the second best public school system in the country in its real estate group. Nearly 98 percent of all New Canaan graduates go on to higher education and many of them even attend Ivy League universities. Students in New Canaan consistently score very well on all standardized exams including the SAT, CAPT and CMT.
Still, even with all this evidence, how exactly does one define success in schools? The League of Women Voters attempted to shed light on that question Tuesday night with a public forum for residents along with the Board of Education. Residents were invited to the Wagner room to write down questions they wanted to pose towards the board members who included Chairman Nick Williams, Hazel Hobbs, Amy Rochlin, Penny Rashin, Mary Freiburg and James Kucharczyk.
"By ever metric that we have with respect to academic performance we are ahead of everybody else," Williams said when asked to comment on some issues that make New Canaan successful. "Not just in Connecticut but indeed in the United States."
Williams said a large reason for that type of success has to do with a huge amount of support from the community.
"Not every town has that," Williams added. "There are towns around us in Fairfield County, I won't mention names but they're next door that I don't think share the same level of support for their school district that we enjoy."
A point of interest among the audience had to do with stress and how much pressure these students may have to sustain.
"Is there stress within the New Canaan school system? I think the answer is clearly yes," Kucharczyk said. "Is there stress in Connecticut, in the United States and the world today? I think the answer is yes. The concept that we can provide our kids with a stress-free childhood and adolescence is one that simply doesn't resonate with me. Stress comes in various shapes and sizes. I've seen kids face academic pressure in this town. I've seen kids face pressure for athletic performance and performing art performance. It covers a wide spectrum of issues. I think it's the schools job to provide our kids with opportunities to experiment and explore and see where their interests are."
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Kucharczyk and the rest of board agreed that the school's job is to provide options and room for growth while it becomes the parents' jobs to identify when the stress may in fact be overwhelming for their child.
"If there is something happening in your family, be alert to it," Hobbs advised. "If the school is notifying you that something is happening, be alert to it. Be sensitive to it. I think that is a message that parents need to hear."
Hobbs also identified the difficult job parents have when it comes to balancing work, time with their children and how much guidance they may or may not be able to impart. In those cases, Hobbs stressed the need to go to counselors, teachers and advisors within the school system who are ready and able to help in these scenarios.
"I wish I could say that this competitive atmosphere will get better," Williams added. "In my day, I was competing against someone from Birmingham, Ala. Today our kids our competing against someone from Birmingham, England."
Williams agreed with Hobbs about the network of advisors, teachers and others that is in place within the system that can help students identify their problems and perhaps find ways around that through the multitude of opportunities available in the district.
The idea of seeking help, not necessarily for those who have special needs but those who are having trouble managing their workload and time, was something Amy Rochlin stressed during the forum. She explained that while there is not necessarily a program in place to help students manage their time and workload, they can very easily seek out the help of any number of teachers and counselors.
"So is it something where you sit in a classroom and do it? No," Rochlin said. "But it is advocating for yourself, it is learning from your mistakes and it is seeking advice from people who can help you."
Rochlin also said seeking out that help can certainly foster independence and confidence within some students as well.
Another strong point of discussion had to do with technology in the district. Board members discussed a future in which textbooks and other conventional aspects of education may not longer be the norm. There could be a time when every student has all of their textbooks downloaded on an iPad as opposed to lugging around 50-pound backpacks. The issue the Board of Education faces is how to be ahead of the curve and how to pay for such initiatives.
"What's a reasonable expectation that we as a board can have of parents and the community?" Kucharczyk questioned about new technology. "Is it reasonable to expect kids to show up with a $200 iPhone so that we could transmit their schedules to them electronically? If that is reasonable to expect then should they show up with an $800 iPad so that we can deliver electronic courses to them. Or is that an investment that should be funded by the board? So there is really some interesting stuff that we are discussing. We would love to have parental feedback on stuff like this actually."
Williams then revealed that an earlier version of the budget this year had a provision for a pilot class, which had the students using iPads. He explained that it unfortunately had to be cut as it was not a need and more of a want but hopes that sometime in the future these initiatives can be put in place so that New Canaan can continue to be ahead of the curve.
At the end of the meeting, some of the board members commented on what they hope students take away after graduating from the district. Mary Freiburg's wish is that, above all else, students leave New Canaan with a strong sense of poise and optimism.
"One thing I want them to be is confident," Freiburg concluded. "I interview several New Canaan High School students annually through my college. The one thing that comes across overwhelmingly each year is they are confident. They do have a good feeling when they exit here. They are ready to take on the challenge that lies ahead."