The Woodbridge Board of Education, at its June meeting, created an ad-hoc enrichment committee to look for ways to broaden and deepen the learning experience for students at all levels.
This move to a school-wide enrichment model is an outgrowth of the district’s strategic plan adopted in January of 2017. It calls for establishment of a “school-wide enrichment model that focuses on enrichment for all students and curriculum compacting for early mastery students” as one district priority. It also constitutes a move toward Project Based Learning and in conjunction with that, a sixth-grade capstone project that “provides a K-6 culminating learning experience.”
In May, a group of parents approached the board during public comment, saying that their sons and daughters, though identified as gifted students in one area or another, are not challenged enough in school. The parents’ complaints made it clear that “we need to do something with children at the high end,” said board chairman Margaret Hamilton in a phone conversation. She said the ad-hoc committee will look into where gaps occur, what makes sense to do and how to reach students at all levels. The committee will then make a recommendation to the board, hopefully in time before the next budget cycle starts in October. “These things take time to roll out,” Hamilton said. “We want to make sure to challenge students at all levels.”
Joyce Shavers, one of the parents asking for a more challenging education for those who are willing to put in the work and the effort, juxtaposed the district’s “Three Es – enjoyment, enthusiasm and engagement,” with the “Three Rs – rigor, relevance and relationships.” Shavers is a parent volunteer for the school’s Lego League robotics club and Math Olympiad.
“Enrichment is fine,” she said. “But what we are looking for is the systematic identification of student ability levels and instruction that is targeted to the student’s level.” She said advanced instruction should be available to students every day during the school year, not just in after-school programs or once a week. She presented a petition that was signed by 82 parents representing 80 families to the board. The petition was for the district to “hire a dedicated full time employee to design and implement a transparent and formal enrichment program, including a robust program for talented and gifted students.”
Another parent, Jeffrey Townsend, spoke about his own experience growing up in a small New Hampshire town. His mother was a volunteer teaching assistant and he was with her as a kindergarten student while she taught first grade math. That put him on a trajectory of advanced math learning until he entered high school and influenced his career choices after that. “Curricular advancement got me there,” he said, adding that it was the flexibility and thoughtfulness of his teachers — not money spent on a special program — that propelled him forward.
Under the existing Talented and Gifted program model, teachers pinpoint students who may benefit from more advanced activities, and who then go through a screening process. About 5 percent of third to sixth graders are identified every year, which typically involves about 40 students. When identified, they are then pulled out of the classroom for TAG time, be it in math, language arts or the visual arts.
State statute requires the district to identify TAG students, but not to provide programming for them. In fact, TAG programs are run under the auspices of the special education program, which typically provides learning opportunities for those who need extra help.
Under the new model, the district will screen the whole third grade using a standard testing vehicle. They are then part of a school-wide enrichment curriculum, which, depending on the student’s interest, may be somewhat self-directed. The ad hoc committee will explore ways to enhance learning experiences for identified students as part of a school-wide enrichment model.
Superintendent Robert Gilbert said the district was already well on its way in developing pieces of this enrichment program. On the fifth-grade level, for instance, they have introduced the “Genius Hour” – a unit where students get to pick a topic they want to research and then do their own research, with as much guidance from teachers as needed. For the teachers it may mean exposure to subjects they know very little about, said Principal Gina Prisco.
The ad-hoc committee will consist of representatives of parents and Board of Education members, administrators, teachers and other staff members. It will be chaired by Board of Education member Steve Fleischman. In case there are more people interested to serve than spots available a lottery system will be used.
Former Beecher parent Patricia Krawczyk said her son, now 27, in looking back mostly valued the time he spent with like-minded people, not to be at the top of his class. “Collaborative work is the best way to go,” she said.
Earl Richards, the parent of a third grader and superior court judge in Bridgeport, offered a larger perspective. Every day he gets to send young people to jail, he said, many of whom simply lacked the external guidance to become intellectually excellent. “Today our popular culture worships at the altar of celebrity status,” he said. “We reward athletes, yet there is little societal emphasis on learning for learning’s sake — even less emphasis on high-level intellectual achievement. I ask that we form a ‘partnership of purpose,’ working to reverse this trend,” he said.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent