By Linda Conner Lambeck
WESTPORT — The school district’s multi-faceted strategic plan focusing on well-being and problem-solving has so many parts to it, some members of the Board of Education now wonder if it can be pulled off.
“There is so much stuff here,” board Vice Chairwoman Liz Heyer said at the panel’s Monday meeting. “Too much.”
Other members say bring it on.
“I am still very excited,” board member Robert Harrington said. “I see risks with it … and real opportunity.”
Extensive discussion of elaborate plans
The comments came near the tail end of a four-hour meeting at Staples High School, during which an hour was devoted to explaining a study that school staffers did on how to better motivate students.
Another hour was consumed discussing details of the district’s still-evolving, long-term effort to make social emotional well-being and collaborative problem-solving the bedrock of the school district’s focus.
The strategic plan was somewhat controversial when Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice unveiled it last February, but the board warmed to the idea by June.
Over the summer, a team of district educators worked to flesh it out.
Scarice said the two overarching goals will have seven objectives, and 30 individual initiatives under each objective. The 210 initiatives each would have a charter explaining its importance, what is to be done and how.
Finally, there is a scorecard for each initiative to keep track of completion.
It is anticipated the objectives will take three to five years to accomplish, while the initiatives may take 12 to 14 months.
A new center for student “leadership development”
As an example, one objective to create a Westport Public Schools Center for Leadership Development would strive to help all students be “the leader of their own life,” provide training opportunities and age-appropriate programs.
The plan is to develop an advisory council, secure a physical location, develop programs and expand K-12 student leadership opportunities.
Other objectives include:
- Stimulating growth mindset belief systems for students.
- Excel in explicit instruction of social/emotional capacities.
- Elevate student voices and engagement.
- Anchor the curriculum with collaborative problem-solving tasks.
- Integrate problem-solving processes into the curriculum.
- Revitalize learning spaces.
“It seems like a lot, but a lot is overlap,” Scarice said. Some of the work, he added, is already underway.
At the board’s last meeting, the panel heard about efforts to start the school year by rebuilding a culture and climate tarnished by the COVID pandemic by making sure students feel safe, connected and excited about coming to school.
“The goal is to institutionalize that at the start of the school year,” Scarice said.
Questions were asked by board members about the leadership center and how students who may not see themselves as leaders might become involved.
Others suggested there are already a multitude of opportunities for students to become leaders in clubs and sports.
Heyer said that while the idea of intrinsic learning resonates with her, she sees the leadership objective belonging in the academic, problem-solving bucket more than the well-being category.
Are officials trying to do too much at once?
She also worried that the district is trying to tackle too much at once.
“I would rather not see us do all seven [objectives],” she said. “Pick two to four.” Among them, Heyer doesn’t want to lose the problem-solving component.
As for social-emotional learning — a lightning rod for some in the community who worry it could lead to indoctrination — Heyer said she does not doubt its value.
She is concerned, however, that it could go too far and lack parent engagement.
“That is a big concern of mine,” she said.
Board member Dorie Hordon agreed, saying the district’s RULER program, which teaches students to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate their emotions is great.
But not everyone is comfortable with adding ideas from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, to the mix, Hordon said.
Some see the CASEL program as political because it promotes educational equity.
Valerie Babich, coordinator of psychological services, said the district is adopting important competencies based on RULER, not the CASEL program.
Board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein said many parents in the district do want explicit instruction on social emotional learning.
Harrington said he supports the social emotional learning objective, but is concerned that in its current form it could lessen enthusiasm for the overall plan.
Plus, new studies on time management and motivation
He also worried about other district initiatives that sit outside the strategic plan, like a time-management study and the new motivation study presented to the board earlier that evening by Jame’el Lawrence, a teacher at Coleytown Elementary School, and Michelle Walker, an instructional coach at both middle schools.
The pair led a committee that focused on ways to maximize student achievement through motivation. The idea is to motivate students by providing them with more choices, collaboration opportunities, a variety of feedback forms and several routes to mastery.
Scarice said motivation is woven into many of the strategic plan objectives.
Heyer asked how the district will measure the impact of all the initiatives on academic performance.
Scarice said the systemic changes are not meant to be done right away or all or once, which is why a strategic map was developed.
“It is doable,” he said.
Board Secretary Neil Phillips said the plan hasn’t gotten more complex. but rather granular. It makes more sense to him now, he said.
Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.