Can Waterbury Schools Be The Best?

                            Column By Danielle Hargrove Albert

   As a parent and community advocate, I spend a significant amount of my “free” time attending meetings and community forums. With three children in the school system, I choose to recognize the potential for success that exists in so many school programs here in Waterbury. I have found ways to volunteer and educate myself regarding the goings-on in the city's education system. Like many others, I choose to spend time participating in an effort to be part of creating solutions. Over the years I have encouraged other parents and families to do the same. As parents, we want the best for our children and the “Best” comes with high expectations. If we teach our children that expectations are part of life, then there will always be goals toward which to strive.

   Expectations for the "Best" and achieving measurable successes must be consistently articulated when it comes to our children’s schooling. Waterbury Public Schools needs clearly defined direction. Our children deserve a plan which strives for nothing less than the absolute best educational experience. As a Mother I feel I am relentless - relentless in pursuit of doing my best to prepare my daughters to be productive members of society. There are so many skills related to preparing students to become active members of a workforce, characterized by rapid change and creative outlets. Accordingly, the long-term goal is not to promote one approach to improve practices, but to promote ongoing learning and adaptability.

   Simply, the present “one-size-fits-all” or cookie cutter approach that I have spoken of will not work in contemporary settings anymore. It does not fit Waterbury students. Presently, I believe there are certain ideas that have the potential to elevate our Waterbury to "Best” status, along with individuals who can raise the standard and expectations.

   It is extremely disheartening to hear the disparaging comments; “Well, Waterbury kids can’t handle that” or "Do you really think we are capable of doing this? …this is Waterbury". Once and for all, those people who are truly invested in educating our children need to work together; otherwise, there will never be any sustainable success related to anything which Waterbury Public Schools promotes. That most certainly means that what presently exists, repackaged with a pretty bow in so many ways and so many times, needs to change.

   Over the years, as I have sat in the audience at weekly BOE meetings; I have found there is a significant amount of time focusing on negatives: test scores, discipline, administrative salaries, and the untimeliness of contracts. These problems do exist. I have publically spoken out about many of these system flaws and how no concrete solutions are happening. Simply, we are applying the wrong metrics to what we want accomplished.

   How many meetings are held where the actual discussion is centered on learning? How many practical solutions are being delivered with a sincere attempt to get to the heart of what matters most – student achievement? I have seen so much met with resistance, and remain the same. When will we take a sincere look at what we want to achieve and actually work to achieve it? However, with that said; there are programs and committees that, with the right support, could catapult us and raise the bar to challenge Waterbury Public School students to be the best.
 
    We have multiple family engagement committees, each operating in their own pods. DPAC (District Parent Advisory Council), PTAs, SGCs (School Governance Councils) and the Family Engagement ad-hoc committee. Several weeks ago, while sitting in the first Family Engagement ad-hoc committee meeting, I recognized the same ideas I proposed at a BOE meeting at Tinker School several weeks prior. Ideas and solutions to streamline family engagement. If it is followed through after all of the false starts, it could be a massive step forward and yes, family engagement could set us apart.

   The reasonable next step comes within the vision of the District Technology Committee. This committee is developing the Technology Program and planning ways to implement it into classroom learning. Director of Teaching and Learning, Steve Strand, initiated concepts such as “21st Century Learning” and brought long over-due tools such as Google classroom into our district. This has been a game-changer in my household. GoogleDocs is“one stop shopping”. Everything is at our children and parents fingertips. This can only be the start of exciting new learning opportunities. The days of pencil and paper are on their way out. The ways I learned are not how my daughters and their classmates are learning. The ideas are present but it takes commitment and the will to support them. Administration, teachers and parents must accept and support new portals of instruction and implementation without the excuses.

   Excuses hold our children back when compared to their peers in other districts. And we should compare ourselves to other districts. Making strides forward through the technology program could set us apart. Or will we accept the same planning process for no other reason other than it’s easy ?

   The Talented and Gifted Programming has been refocused and refined in recent years. ILD Michelle Baker and Dr. Nancy Eastlake have brought the UCONN RENZULLI model to Waterbury. Our children are being identified, and families are being engaged. If this is added to the award-winning Robotics program and after-school opportunities to introduce our students to 3-D STEM concepts, then Talented and Gifted could set us apart.

   Our Science Council teams are developing Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) curriculum at all levels to bring inquiry and engineering together in collaborative learning. This NGSS Curriculum when implemented with support could set us apart.

   We have students being recognized by the CT Association of Schools for ART and MUSIC achievement. I recently celebrated my daughter’s achievement in art at the Aqua Turf Club. To my own disappointment only 5 of 19 Waterbury Public schools put forth the effort to send 2 fifth grade children. Every school had the opportunity to send students. Why didn’t we have every school represented? In a recent BOE meeting, Waterbury Arts Magnet School students were overheard as they performed. They were some of the most beautiful and amazing voices. Voices that could be Broadway bound.

   Music doesn’t need to be a focus at WAMS only. Music like I heard that night needs to be heard everywhere. At Gilmartin School we have the amazing teacher, Cathy Dwyer, who has also consistently raised the bar for many hundreds of her music, chorus and instrumental students. Every school needs to have a music program like Cathy offers. With more attention and acknowledgement from the BOE to central office and city leadership, acheivement in arts and music talent could set us apart.

   Progress and leadership starts at the top. We need a Central office that operates effectively; with leadership that will provide individual classroom and special program support. Administration that knows how to effectively implement and lead when it comes to curriculum and learning. We all need to face it; the test scores matter- effective testing, teaching, learning and curriculum will lead our children to success. And that could set us apart.

   We are searching for a new Superintendent. This is a pivotal time of transition for our school district. As a community we must ensure that our next leader will support and help facilitate real progress in all of these areas. There must be utmost transparency with the process, as parents, teachers, administrators we must do everything possible to ensure we get the most qualified individual in this city to meet the needs of all of our children. The days of the blueprint for change are gone. We need to get out from the “turnaround” facade- and real turnaround can set us apart.

   Time, energy and financial resources need to be spent on these programs and projects that could potentially raise the bar for Waterbury and our children. These projects and individuals noted above (amongst many others) need to be backed by the Board of Education. Progress and change is difficult, but not to the detriment of our students.

   As a mother I would like to answer the question- Can Waterbury be the best? Yes, we can and we have all the cards in our hand. Failure is not an option for my daughters, their classmates and the students of this city. Imagine what Waterbury could be if we come together as a unified team to join and support educational leaders as best we can toward this vision.