School officials preparing for the finish line in ‘race to the top’

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Legislation passed by the state as part of their bid for federal Race to the Top monies is now coming down to schools as unfunded mandates.

Connecticut didn’t win any of the coveted billions handed out to states with the best plans to adopt education standards and turn around the lowest-achieving schools, but schools still have to implement a new set of regulations passed to put teeth behind Connecticut’s proposal.

Naugatuck High School Associate Principal Janice Saam made a presentation on what those reforms will mean for Naugatuck during the Board of Education’s Jan 13 meeting.

The new regulations are based on two things: Public Act 10-111, passed by the state legislature in July as part of the Race to the Top reform, and the state Department of Education Connecticut Plan, Saam said.

Under the new legislation, the state will come up with model curricula in key subjects, which teachers must follow. At the end of the semester, students will take a state-mandated test. They must earn a score of at least 70 percent to pass the course.

Saam said she wasn’t sure if that means students will have to re-take the class if they don’t pass the final exam, or if the credit will count towards graduation.

Another state-mandated reform is a student success plan, which will be a document for each student starting in grade seven to track the academic, career, and social progress of the kid.

Saam said it is a good idea to get students to focus on their future plans from a younger age.

“I think the student success plan is a great thing,” she said.

She said the school will probably have to recruit a team of teachers trained in advising to assist students as part of their regular schedule.

“Naugatuck’s mission is for all students to leave the high school, career or college ready,” Saam said.

Currently, many students have to take remedial courses in college because they were not prepared, she said.

Eighth-grade students will have to complete a portfolio project and high school seniors will have to complete a capstone project to showcase their skills before graduation.

The school is already piloting a capstone program with 13 students this year, Saam said.

The new regulations require students to earn 25 credits to graduate. Currently, they must only earn 22.

Saam said the middle and high schools do not currently have the staff to support the new credit requirements. She said they would consider offering high school credit for middle school language and algebra classes to help meet new requirements in certain subjects.

“My fear is we’re raising the bar, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but we need to support the students who are struggling,” Saam said.

All these new mandates go into effect in 2018, which gives schools little time to start implementing changes, Saam said.

The schools will have to start thinking outside the box to address these mandates, she said. They may have to add more periods, have longer days, summer school, or weekend sessions to make sure all the students can keep up, she said.

“We have to envision high school looking differently,” Saam said.

To meet all the requirements, Saam calculated the district will need to hire about 11 additional teachers plus a part-time capstone coordinator.

She suggested hiring someone to write grants to help pay for the new teachers, which the school does not currently have the budget for.

Board member Rocky Vitale said he was concerned that some students wouldn’t be able to keep up with the new curricula.

Right now, about one-third of the high school students would not be able to meet the new requirements, according to Saam.

The school will have to start implementing changes at the primary level to make sure kids are ready for the new curriculum, Saam said.

“I’m worried. It’s going to be tough,” she said.

Board member James Scully asked whether all the changes were worth the effort, or whether they should start lobbying for their repeal.

Saam said she thought most of the changes were good, but they had to ask the legislature to fund them.

“I’m very much for raising the bar, but we have to get legislators to support us financially,” Saam said.

It’s important to push students to do better, she said.

“We need to say to students, ‘failure is not an option.’ We can’t afford to have failures,” Saam said.