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BOE Addresses Contract, 2018-19 Calendar; Hears SEL Report

Published: June 9, 2018

The Board of Education at its meeting on June 5 approved a contract renewal with Whitsons Culinary Group to oversee the district’s food service program. Also at the meeting, the board heard an update about social emotional learning practices in the district and discussed the 2018-19 school calendar.

School district Director of Business Ron Bienkowski explained that the district complies with the National School Lunch Act regulations, and the regulations require the school food service program to be put out for bid every five years. Roughly two years ago, the district approved the contract for Whitsons, but federal requirements do not allow entering into an agreement longer than one year, according to Mr Bienkowski. To meet the federal requirements, the contract is amended annually.

“This is amendment number two, which would be the third year of their service,” said Mr Bienkowski.

As reported by The Newtown Bee at the time, Whitsons’s bid proposal was reported to the school board in May of 2016, for both management fees and corporate expenses, as $125,000 for the school year then. According to the district, the 2018-19 contract price with Whitsons Culinary Group is $130,944.

Before the school board unanimously approved the contract amendment on June 5, it heard a report from Whitsons Culinary Group District Manager John Prunier, Interim Food Service Director Joe Strango, and Resident Dietician Beck O’Brien. The report outlined the food service provider’s budget for next year and some of its current practices and ideas for next year, including potentially partnering with an app, Choosi, to allow high school students to order deli meals in advance.

Later in the meeting, the school board heard an update from the district’s Safe School Climate Committee co-chairs, Reed Intermediate School Principal Anne Uberti and Newtown Middle School counselor Leanne Fuccillo. Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue said the district “reinvented” its Safe School Climate Committee earlier in the year by tasking it to evaluate the district’s approaches to social emotional learning, sometimes referred to as SEL.

“The work around in our schools emanates from our district’s Safe School Climate Committee,” said Ms Uberti, adding the committee includes representatives from each public school in town.

The committee has spent the 2017-18 school year identifying and defining practices to analyze programming. With that work, the committee created a vision for the district’s social emotional learning. It reads, in part, “Newtown Public Schools are committed to the academic achievement of all students, as well as the development of effective social and emotional skills. We believe it is necessary to prepare students with essential social emotional learning competencies requisite to be successful students in our schools and contributing citizens in our local and global communities.”

Overall, the vision explains the “central belief” is that students will continually progress in their “ability to effectively manage their emotions, resolve conflict, meet challenges, and make responsible decisions.”

The committee is continuing to inventory social emotional practices in the district; evaluate areas of strengths, needs, and gaps; work between school buildings to develop its social emotional model; determine professional development needs; and utilize data, according to the presentation.

The committee has also developed a communications proposal that includes plans for outreach to community groups and exploring professional development opportunities for next school year.

A “blind” or anonymous social emotional component to an annual Safe School Climate Survey was piloted this year, and Ms Uberti said the responses allow the committee to monitor students’ competencies in different areas.

“We wanted to see what the results would yield,” said Ms Uberti.

While Ms Uberti later told the board it is too early to draw many conclusions from the survey results, the presentation shared that third to fifth grade students generally scored within the 80 to 99 percentile on the topics of self-management, learning strategies, social awareness, and growth mindset. Students in sixth to ninth grade scored in the 60 to 79 percentile for self-management, in the 20 to 39 percentile for social awareness and learning strategies, and in the 40 to 59 percentile for growth mindset.

The results will be further looked at, according to later a discussion at the meeting. Assessing the district’s social emotional learning practices will take time, according to Ms Uberti.

“This is not a fast process, but we are making progress,” she added.

The 2018-19 School Calendar

Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku pointed out at the meeting that the school district’s 2018-19 school calendar has already been approved, but the board discussed potential changes at its June 5 meeting. According to discussion, Dr Rodrigue plans to meet with school district administration later in the week to further consider possible changes to the calendar. The board’s discussion, Ms Ku said, would help give Dr Rodrigue direction when speaking with the administrators.

The 2017-18 school year, Dr Rodrigue reflected, was a year that forced the district to look at the calendar in a different way. The 2018-19 calendar was originally approved in February of 2017. The first day of school is slated to be August 27 for students, and the last day of school is projected to be June 7 or June 14, assuming five school days are canceled.

One thing Dr Rodrigue said she has heard people request for the calendar is “clarity.” As an example, Dr Rodrigue said there was misinformation spreading this year regarding the end of the school year.

“We really need to flag the school calendar to say we can go to the end of June per the state of Connecticut,” said Dr Rodrigue. “I think that really needs to be out there and flagged, so that people understand that.”

School board members took turns speaking about different topics concerning the calendar. Board members were torn over the idea of using days in a scheduled April break as makeup days for school cancellations.

Board member Dan Delia pointed out that conversations have focused on how hot it is at the end of June, but the end of August, when the school year begins, is hotter. Mr Delia also suggested having a full week of break in February that could be used for makeup days, but the calendar’s April break could be treated like it was “set in stone.”

Dr Rodrigue also brought up the option of potentially selecting graduation dates earlier in the school year. Later, she said she plans to bring one or two calendar options before the board at its next meeting.

During the meeting’s public participation, Newtown Federation of Teachers (NFT) President Tom Kuroski shared a timeline of struggles for teachers this school year, before thanking the school board. Teachers, he explained, started the school year not knowing about how changes to the school start times would affect them. Teachers later felt stunned and concerned the school board did not accept Transportation Task Force proposals. In reaction, Mr Kuroski said the NFT filed a class-action grievance.

As shared at the board’s meeting on May 22, district and union leaders worked together to create a memorandum of understanding that will be followed next school year. That work brought the pending grievance to resolution, Mr Kuroski said this week, and it solved most of the scheduling problems the district faced.

Mr Kuroski thanked all kindergarten to sixth grade teachers for their patience, dedication, professionalism, and for “always putting the safety and welfare of their students first.”

“They are truly an amazing group of educators, and Newtown is gifted to have them,” he said.

While he said the climate and culture in the district was affected this school year, he also thanked the school board for accepting the memorandum of understanding “which has helped the [kindergarten to sixth] grade teachers feel respected and appreciated for all the work they have done this year.”

The NFT, he concluded, will continue to work with the district to strengthen its climate and culture.

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