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Coleytown mold Education board gives nod to K-6 school plan

January 4, 2019

WESTPORT — The Board of Education voted 5-2 in favor of a plan to keep sixth-graders in the town’s five elementary schools next year in light of the continued closure of Coleytown Middle School, due to mold concerns.

“There are a lot of people making very good reasons why we should perhaps wait a little longer to find out more information, and the problem is we will run out of time if we wait,” BOE Chair Mark Mathias said.

A quick decision is needed to give the administration enough time to prepare for the coming school year, Mathias said. Out of the nine options the BOE originally considered after Coleytown’s shut-down in September, the board was left with two at its meeting on Dec. 20.

The final two options — keep all of the town’s sixth-graders in the elementary schools or house the entire sixth- through eighth-grade population at Bedford Middle School — came about after the BOE’s favored plan to have a sixth-grade academy fell through after real estate agents were unable to find a rental facility.

“I don’t want to hold that out in false hopes, but we haven’t closed out the opportunity for the Realtor to continue to explore behind the scenes,” Superintendent Colleen Palmer said. While she supports the board’s decision to move forward with a decision, she said the administration will continue to look into the possibility of a sixth-grade academy.

The majority of parents said both the K-6 and so-called “mega middle school” options are bad, but the K-6 plan is the lesser of two evils and less overwhelming for the sixth graders. Palmer also endorsed the K-6 plan, saying the plan is better for the social and emotional health of the sixth graders than the Bedford option.

The larger concern of the night, however, was not the two plans, but the template schedule for the sixth grade presented at the BOE’s last meeting on Dec. 10.

The proposed sixth-grade schedule for the K-6 plan outlined cuts to sixth grade “encore” classes like theater, arts, and physical education, and more time for language arts and mathematics, which Palmer said is needed to boost performance in these two areas.

“We fear by cutting sixth-grade drama we’re permanently lessening the chances that students will go on to pursue theater in high school and the rest of their lives,” Daisy Brackett, a member of the Staples High School’s theater program, Staples Players, told the board.

Five Players and many parents spoke out in favor of maintaining the same amount of time for theater at the sixth-grade level, saying theater is an important part of Westport’s arts community and benefits students confidence and public speaking skills.

The board did not vote on the schedule, and several members said they did not want to conflate a facilities challenge with educational strategy. Still, BOE members Karen Kleine and Vik Muktavaram both cited fear the K-6 plan will result in loss of encore activities in their vote against the K-6 plan.

“Because I see this as a fundamental change in our approach to education, at this time, I favor keeping all of sixth through eighth at Bedford,” Kleine said.

Many teachers, especially those who teach sixth grade, spoke out against the K-6 plan, saying it represents a complete change in the town’s educational philosophy for sixth grade.

“The options we have in front of us have been born out of losing instructional space, and the possible solutions leave our teaching staff with more questions often than answers, as well as angst and uncertainty,” said Karen DeFelice, a Staples High teacher and co-president of the Westport Education Association, the town’s teachers union.

Teachers have not been adequately consulted and fear for their jobs given likely cuts due to the continued closure of Coleytown, DeFelice said.

After the board approved the K-6 plan, it also voted to create a task force to explore options for fixing Coleytown Middle School.

svaughan@hearst mediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1

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