School board discusses social workers, opportunity block
GREENWICH — Board of Education members and Greenwich Public School administrators agreed the district needs more social workers and assistant deans, but diverged over where the money to pay more staff would come from during a meeting Thursday night.
Members and parents also disagreed over the roll out of the “opportunity block,” an initiative former Superintendent Jill Gildea introduced this May to reduce problems caused by moving to a later start time at Greenwich High School.
While budgetary concerns dominated, the board did approve a measure allowing all nonresident Greenwich Public School employees to send their children to Greenwich schools for 15 percent of what it costs the town on average to educate a child in the school system.
Currently, only certified employees, mostly teachers and administrators, enjoy the 15 percent rate, while other employees pay 25 percent. Now, everyone will pay the same rate.
“The tuition program for town employees is so important,” Greenwich Education Association President Carol Sutton said. “It allows employees to fully participate in the life of their schools and in their work community.”
GHS Interim Headmaster Richard Piotrzkowski asked for three more assistant deans so one could be assigned to each high school house.
And Mary Forde, head of Pupil Personnel Services, presented the board with a budget for three additional social workers and for an external review of her department, which oversees special education services.
Board members generally approved of the ideas, but reminded administrators they had to consider budget constraints.
Forde estimated three more social workers would cost $350,000 a year for salaries and benefits.
School board Secretary Barbara O’Neill, a former teacher, said the proposal “delighted” her. The additional staff would solve a problem that has been on the board’s radar for a while, said board Chairman Peter Bernstein said.
Currently, all elementary schools have a psychologist, but their primary focus is on testing children, while social workers also help students and families get community services they need, Forde said.
Currently two elementary schools, Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, share a social worker, paid for with federal Title 1 money. There is one district-level social worker available to all schools, but no other elementary school has one stationed in-house. The middle schools and high school have social workers.
School board member Jennifer Dayton said she would support the change only if staff numbers remained the same, since schools already have psychologists.
Board members said it could be difficult to get Board of Estimate and Taxation approval for the requests.
“I’m going to implore you to look to put these positions in without increasing head count,” Bernstein said.
The board was also split on Forde’s proposed review, which she estimated would cost $500,000.
The study would determine if the department operates efficiently, if its procedures are up to current standards, if it helps students reach benchmarks and whether parent requests for mediation and due process hearings to determine their children’s special education services indicate department-level problems that need to be solved.
Board member Peter Sherr said a compliance review, which could be done internally and cheaply, does not interest him.
“I’m interested in a review where there’s a robust dialogue particularly with the special education parents, particularly represented through their community in the PTA,” Sherr said. “I don’t think an expert would cost $500,000. I think this is a red herring, I’ll be blunt.”
O’Neill said she cannot support a review when the state has not singled out Greenwich for bad practices and since Forde could not supply a major change that came out of previous reviews.
“If we were looking at a change of staffing, maybe that would be the time to do a review,” she said.
The school board in May approved Gildea’s proposal to reallocate how days at the high school are scheduled so each would end with a 30-minute unstructured period, an “opportunity block” that would allow students to work with teachers on class assignments or leave if they needed to get to games or other school-approved obligations without missing class.
The change was instituted to mitigate problems cause by the shift last year to a later school day.
Since the start of the current school year, Greenwich High students have simply stayed in their last class of the day for an additional 30 minutes, or attended drills or assemblies, while administrators have fine-tuned the opportunity block concept.
Thursday, Piotrzkowski approved 109 courses students and teachers proposed for the period. By next week, the offerings will be cataloged online and students can register for them just as they would for academic classes.
The headmaster said he also will also test out an “unplugged” period, when students cannot use their smart devices. Some students have opposed that idea, arguing it would impact the time they have to complete electronically assigned homework.
The opportunity block model has not been without controversy. It shortens the school day, by a cumulative of about 13 days over the course of the school year, and was adopted with little public discussion.
Two mothers on Thursday offered their children’s contrasting experiences. Alison Fox told board members her daughter can now meet with teachers, which her bus schedule did not allow last semester. Neither her daughter nor her teachers have felt the impact of shorter class periods, she said.
“I would support keeping it, even though everyone agrees there needs to be adjustments,” Fox said.
Meanwhile, Ann Vrano said teachers turned away her sophomore son from meetings, and she called the loss of teaching time over the year “unforgiving.”
“The way it happened was offensive, I felt, and the opportunity block doesn’t solve any of the problems the later start time created,” she said.
Both Dayton and Sherr said athletes should be allowed to leave at 2:45 p.m. not just for games, but practice, too.
“What happens with the inevitable fall of darkness with transitions from daylight savings?” Dayton asked.
Some fall sports had a difficult time last year finding adequate practice time after the days grew shorter, due to the later school day.
When administrators and school board members first discussed allowing students to leave during the opportunity block, they included a range of acceptable reasons, including sports and after-school jobs.
But Piotrzkowski Thursday said early dismissal will be limited this semester to school-related purposes such as athletic or academic competitions.
Board member Lauren Rabin said early dismissal should be extended to students with jobs or after-school family obligations, who should not be treated differently from students involved in extra-curriculars.
Piotrzkowski countered that too many exceptions, such as dismissing students with jobs, would make opportunity block unmanageable.