Algonquin parents seek answers from school board

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PROSPECT — Dozens of parents of Algonquin School children came before the Board of Education seeking answers following two recent incidents that have disrupted the atmosphere at the pre-kindergarten through third grade school in Prospect.

“At the moment the teachers have no idea what’s going, the kids know there’s no leadership there, and the parents are worried and concerned,” Tracey Scott, vice president of the parent teacher organization, told the board at its meeting Wednesday night.

Over the past month or so, the school has seen its principal leave under a shadow of controversy and third-grade teachers removed from their classrooms prior to their students taking portions of the Connecticut Mastery Test.

In late February, interim Superintendent of Schools Tim James initiated a personnel investigation into the actions of former Algonquin Principal Lynn Patterson and she was placed on paid administrative leave. School officials have not stated what the investigation was about, citing personnel reasons, but have said it was not an issue that affected the safety of the students.

The investigation concluded on March 8 when James met with Patterson at the school and she left her post. She requested and was granted a leave through June 30, when she will officially retire. Thus, her career at the school came to an end.

Andrea Einhorn, the district’s curriculum director and assistant director of special education, was named interim principal at Algonquin. Parents expressed concerns that Einhorn has too many other things going on with her positions in the district office to give her full attention to the school. They questioned the board as to what the plan is for hiring a permanent principal at the school and how the board planned to fill the principal position when the new elementary school opens in a couple of years.

“What is the plan to rebuild Algonquin School from the situation that just happened?” Jenn Andrews, a parent, asked the board.

The board laid out its plan for the parents.

The board appointed Kristin Bernier, assistant principal at Long River Middle School, as interim principal at Algonquin, effective April 2. Bernier was one of 17 candidates to apply for the position, explained school board Chair Priscilla Cretella. She felt Bernier was the best choice for the interim job.

“She’s familiar with Region 16 and what goes on,” Cretella said.

Bernier has the support of the entire board, school board member Robert Hiscox said.

“It was an unfortunate situation but we’ll all move forward,” he said. “We have the right person in place to do that right now.”

Bernier will serve as interim through June 30 and the board will seek to hire a permanent principal by Aug. 15 if not sooner.

“Right now we’re moving forward to have a permanent person in place by Aug. 15,” James said.

After a lengthy discussion, Cretella said, the board decided that whoever is hired as a permanent principal at Algonquin will also be the principal at the new school.

“We all want a smooth transition for these children,” Cretella said.

Right around the same time the Patterson situation was coming to a head, an issue arose that led school administrators to remove third-grade teachers from their classrooms prior to the reading subtests of the CMTs.

Many of the parents questioned the reasoning for pulling the teachers.

Cretella said the board couldn’t discuss the specific reason.

“Certain things we cannot discuss on this level,” she said.

Parents also said James had lied to them when they first called him seeking answers, telling them that it was a matter of training the teachers.

James didn’t directly address the matter at the meeting, but issued a letter to parents on Friday.

In the letter, James explained the reason stems from a spike in reading assessments of third-graders from 2011 and a stricter policy regarding CMT administration in the wake of the cheating scandal at Hopeville Elementary School in Waterbury.

James’ letter states the scores of “several” third graders on developmental reading assessments given in the spring of 2011 spiked significantly from the assessment issued to the same students in the winter of 2011. The scores “had spiked to levels that statistically could not have been achieved in that short period of time,” the letter states.

The scores of the same students as fourth graders showed more consistent achievement levels, the letter states.

“I attempted to find out what the spiked spring 2011 scores could be attributed to but no explanation has been offered to date,” James said in the letter.

After the cheating scandal at Hopeville School was uncovered last year, James explained in the letter, the state Department of Education placed an emphasis on ensuring the administration of standardized tests followed specific protocols. The state also put into place stricter consequences for anyone who does not follow the protocols. The state also encouraged districts to train teachers, who give the tests, in the proper procedures, the letter states.

James explained in the letter that as the CMTs were set to begin it become known that third grade teachers at the school had not been trained in the protocols for a number of years.

“That information and unanswered questions about the spring 2011 (assessment) scores caused me to make a decision that would assure that the reliability of the CMT scores of our students would be preserved and staff would be protected from unintentionally not following established protocols for administering the CMT,” James said in the letter. “The decision was in no way meant to be disrespectful of the teachers.”

The teachers were removed from their classes to receive training and other teachers, already trained, were brought into give the CMT reading subtests.

In an interview the day after the board meeting, James said he wasn’t sure why parents believe he lied to them.

“I’ve been a superintendent for 23 years, and I have never at any point in time been accused of being a liar,” James said.

Cretella and James both acknowledged the board could have communicated better with parents about the issues going on at the school. Cretella said the board plans sit down with teachers at Algonquin to discuss everything that’s going on.

Derek Muherem, a parent, told the board the parents have supported it in the past in regards to the school project referendum and will continue supporting the board if school officials are open with them.

“We’re here to support you,” Muherem said. “So just keep the communication open, be honest with us and forthright, and we’ll be OK.”