Commissioner talks education in Naugatuck

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Dianna Wentzell, commissioner of the state Department of Education, talks with kindergarten students Brian Fanning, left, and Raelah Harris, right, as they work on an assignment during her visit to the Andrew Avenue School in Naugatuck on Thursday. Wentzell also met with school officials, teachers and local officials. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
Dianna Wentzell, commissioner of the state Department of Education, talks with kindergarten students Brian Fanning, left, and Raelah Harris, right, as they work on an assignment during her visit to the Andrew Avenue School in Naugatuck on Thursday. Wentzell also met with school officials, teachers and local officials. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — Andrew Avenue School Principal Taran Gruber wishes he had more time in the school day to implement enrichment programs, such as a robotics club or even guitar lessons, to help mold more well-rounded students.

Providing some flexibility in the school schedule to allow for those programs is one way the state Department of Education could help public school districts, Gruber said.

“This is the type of enrichment that I think would level the playing field for some of the kids who I think don’t have that chance” outside of school, he said.

Gruber shared his views Thursday with new state Department of Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell, whom Gov. Dannel Malloy nominated to the post three weeks ago. Wentzell is touring schools across the state to discuss their hopes for the next few years. She interacted with students in class and took questions during a roundtable discussion that included parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials, students and Superintendent of Schools Sharon Locke.

Wentzell, who said Naugatuck schools are “doing great things for students,” asked what the Department of Education could do to help school districts.

Gruber was quick to discuss the need for more non-traditional learning opportunities that go beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. Other educators, parents and Mayor Robert Mezzo agreed.

Gruber said the school tries to apply classroom learning to the real world, which is why the school has a greenhouse that it uses following science lessons.

“We try to do as much as we can, but we just run out of time,” said Gruber, whose school is a federally designated Title 1 school. It has 254 students, 65 percent of whom receive free or reduced lunch because of low household incomes.

Teacher Karen Kudzma said that in recent years, the school has become an “extension of the family, more so than ever.”

“If we can’t extend the learning or enrich the learning, we can’t give background to the kids, and then they are missing a big piece of the puzzle,” she said. “In many cases, we need to be the family and give the kids what they are not getting” at home.

On top of enrichment programs, teacher Susan Yammine said she would like to see as much emphasis put on math as is put on reading, especially in the lower grades.

Locke discussed the benefits of state grants that are used to pay for outside reading consultants (or interventionists), of which Andrew Avenue has two. The program fully funds reading consultants, who work for the University of Connecticut. Since their involvement, student reading levels at Andrew Avenue have improved greatly, school officials said.

The consultants help teachers implement new reading programs incrementally and provide continuous support so teachers have a firm understanding before they teach it on their own, Locke said.

“We are modeling those techniques in our implementation of a new math program,” she said.

Locke said she was pleased with the visit.

“Any time we can foster a relationship with our state partners, that’s wonderful,” she said. “I wanted (Wentzell) to see all the wonderful things that are happening in Naugatuck and also let her experience firsthand what the needs of the district are so that we can continue to partner with and gain support from the state as we continue to improve.”