Candidates for the Board of Education this week debated whether changes should be made to the process through which curriculum long has been developed and approved for New Canaan Public Schools.
As it is, a team of educators led by the superintendent—known as the Curriculum Leadership Council or “CLC”—draft, continuously review, update and approve curriculum so that New Canaan’s schools are meeting educational standards set by agencies such as the Connecticut Department of Education. The Board of Ed receives regular presentations on curriculum—a practice that has slowed amid the COVID-19 pandemic—and in cases of large-scale changes to those standards, the school board dedicates even more time at its meetings to corresponding decisions such as new classes or updates to the district’s goals and objectives.
While Republican candidates for the Board of Ed said they’re not advocating for public meetings of the CLC (such as through appointment of a school board member to it), they called during Tuesday night’s League of Women Voters debate for the ability to weigh in on its development earlier and with greater detail and frequency than the elected body currently does.
“I think that what we are pushing for is more oversight, more balanced thoughtful oversight at periodic stages,” GOP candidate Dan Bennett said during the debate, held at Town Hall.
“I think one of the concerns that parents have raised, and that I agree with, is when curriculum comes through for Board approval it is already baked. Now the Board may have some opportunity to adjust some words, ask a few questions here and there. But I think what parents and we [the Republican slate] are advocating for is a more robust oversight process more frequently that doesn’t derail all the excellent work that the CLC does, but that does give parents and community members more transparency, a better understanding, and the Board to do their oversight job.”
Bennett summarized part of a platform that he and fellow GOP candidates Hugo Alves, Phil Hogan and Julie Toal have promoted since earning the backing of Republicans at the party’s caucus in July, defeating three incumbent school board members.
There are six school board seats up for election—five four-year terms and one two-year term. Currently, Republicans hold three of the four-year seats as well as the two-year seat, while Democrats hold two of the four-year seats up for election.
The Democratic Town Committee nominated one candidate for each open Board of Ed seat, or six total.
Some of those Democratic candidates during the debate said something like a “Curriculum Committee,” if its true aims were to help with communication, might help keep the full Board—and through the full Board, parents and others in the community following the BOE’s public meetings—abreast of changes to curriculum. Such a committee also could serve as a way for the district to further spotlight its outstanding curriculum, the Democrats said.
Yet the GOP slate can’t justify its call for more “transparency” when full curriculum is itself made available online to all public school families and already gets regularly reviewed before the BOE, according to the Democratic candidates. New Canaan’s longstanding practice of curriculum development also has served the students extremely well and shouldn’t be tampered with, the district’s expert team is attuned to the wider community and the CLC itself has always and will continue to work with the full Board of Ed on how to brook new directives on standards, the Democrats said.
Further, they said, the GOP candidates are short on specific about just what parts of the curriculum are concerning.
“I think there is still a lot of smoke out here,” said Penny Rashin, the sole Board of Ed incumbent among the 10 candidates for the school board.
“People say ‘I hear concerns’ but nobody has ever presented a lesson plan to me that was a problem so that I could look at it as a Board member. And I get concerned when I hear about a ‘Curriculum Committee’ because I think that could still do mischief depending upon what your motives were. And when I hear people saying what Dan did, that he wants to ‘adjust words,’ I don’t think that Board of Ed members should get into adjusting words. And I don’t know what he’s afraid of or what words are being used at our school that he doesn’t agree with. But I think that we need to trust the professionals and then look at the results and be happy with them.”
Rashin said at another point in the debate, “Until this election, I can’t recall an email I have ever had from any parent over 14 years complaining about a lesson in a particular classroom in our school system, and I think that is telling as to how good our curriculum is.”
The exchange with Bennett occurred during the sole live debate among Board of Ed candidates prior to the Nov. 2 election. The only other contested race in this municipal election is for constable, where eight total candidates—four Republicans and four Democrats—are vying for seven open seats. Currently, there are four Republican and three Democratic constables.
The two-hour debate was opened by League of Women Voters of New Canaan President Miki Porta and moderated by Laura Smits, president of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut. In addition to the candidates, five more League members and five others—journalists as well as people from a local access TV channel—were present.
Questions had been solicited in advance from the public, screened by the League and in some cases rewritten to ensure accuracy and fairness, Porta said.
Bennett and Rashin spoke in response to a question regarding the Board of Ed’s involvement with the CLC.
In response to Rashin, Bennett said that he was referring to “a healthy discussion around ‘cultural humility’ at a recent BOE meeting.”
“Some Board members didn’t like the language,” Bennett said. “They talked it back and forth and they changed it to ‘cultural understanding.’ I think that that, on a more robust discussion, is something that Board members and community members want to have those discussions because lot of community members don’t understand a lot of the euphemisms that are used and they want to delve deeper and understand exactly what is being taught to their children.”
He referred to one piece (starting here) of a longer discussion prior to unanimous approval of updated district goals and objectives at Board of Ed’s Sept. 8 meeting. At one point the Board made a word change as to how the district would achieve the wider goal of seeking to “promote a healthy environment that fosters respect, ethical behavior and responsible global citizenship.” The change came under one of three ways listed to achieve an objective to “understand and communicate efforts to expand and increase educational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout the district, with a long-term focus on identifying and remedying gaps and strengthening ongoing efforts.” Specifically, the Board of Ed discussed the phrase “cultural humility,” and updated it to “cultural understanding” (at former Board of Ed member Carl Gardiner’s suggestion) in this sentence: “Continue to provide professional development for faculty and staff focused on increasing awareness of issues of equity, improving cultural understanding, and increasing culturally proficient and responsive educational practices.”
Democrat Karen Willett, who is running against Alves for the two-year seat, noted that the word-smithing discussion to which Bennett referred “is not curriculum” but rather had to do with district goals.
“And that goal was really written a year ago, and went through a process then and was approved and now is being revisited again for three straight meetings,” Willett said. “And yes, they do have a discussion in the BOE meeting, the entire BOE where they can wordsmith, disagree about things and fix them. So I think that is sort of an example of how this process does work.”
The candidates introduced themselves during opening statements and gave closing statements at the end of the debate. In between, they addressed major topics in addition to curriculum, such as school start times, the budget and masks in school—the last an emotionally charged issue rendered moot on a local level with the governor’s recent extension of an executive order requiring masks in school buildings through at least mid-February.
At different points in the debate, candidates used their time in rebuttal to clarify some positions—for example, Toal said that the Republican slate is not in favor of a “two-tiered” system for school start times that would allow for all-around later start times, including at the elementary level, while requiring more funding for additional buses.
The candidates also largely agreed on several major points, such as that the CLC should not undergo any change to its makeup such that it would be legally required to meet publicly, that changes to school start times should move forward as planned—discussions are underway to push implementation back to next fall—and that communication between the school board and parents could be improved.
Yet most of the clear policy differences between the two slates emerged in responses and follow-up rebuttals to two questions that centered on curriculum. (The Board of Ed in September 2020 voted 7-2 to codify the CLC’s responsibilities with respect to curriculum development, with four Republicans joining three Democrats in that vote.)
Democratic candidate Jenn Hladick said she didn’t understand the Republicans’ position with respect to changing the Board of Ed’s role.
“There’s sort of a lot of non specifics thrown out there— anonymous parents complaining about things, but we don’t know what any of those things are they’re complaining about, and we need to be more ‘transparent’ but we don’t have any ideas or ways that we’re telling you we’re actually going to be more transparent,” Hladick said. “Again, I don’t think there’s a lot of substance there.”
Toal said that some parents don’t want to communicate their concerns directly to the BOE for fear of retribution.
“The people that have reached out to us have asked to be anonymous, the reason been that there is a cancel culture,” Toal said. “And we saw this again at our [Republican] headquarters [downtown]. There were some teens that came in that wanted to make sure they weren’t in any pictures, because they were worried that they would be ‘canceled’ by their friends, which is really sad, but that’s why some parens feel the need to remain anonymous and that’s why we want more transparency.”
Democrat Erica Schwedel said she takes seriously the idea that some parents “could feel that there are situations where something has happened in school that they did not agree with.”
“And if that’s the case I would want also want to—in addition to bringing that to light—I would also want to understand if this is systematic, meaning this is the curriculum going down to the teachers, saying it should be done this way, versus maybe we need a little bit more professional development with that teacher.”
Hogan during the discussion circled back to Bennett’s original reference to the term “cultural humility” that had been introduced last year to the district’s goals and objectives.
“I mean, think about that term,” Hogan said. “We are celebrating. We are talking about how great the process is. We are celebrating that that term was taken out as a goal. Let me ask everyone another question: What on earth was that term doing anywhere near the New Canaan Public Schools? ‘Cultural humility’? It’s my job as a parent to teach humility to my kids, it is not the school’s job. That is my job as a father.”
Some of the Democratic candidates could be heard saying “wow” repeatedly in response.
Hogan at another point in the meeting said New Canaan Public Schools’ results back when it had a Curriculum Committee “were terrific.”
“A few years ago, they decided to cede that authority to the CLC, I believe it was because Board members didn’t feel like they had expertise on certain curriculum-related matters, which is totally fine,” he said. “I don’t have expertise on it either. The question is: Do you need to have that expertise to have an opinion on curriculum? And in my view the answer is probably ‘No.’ I have said before that I have no interest in writing curriculum. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that process and I am grateful to [Superintendent of Schools] Dr. [Bryan] Luizzi and all of our current CLC members for their years of curriculum-related service to our schools. But I do have expertise when it comes to my own children, and I think we will get the best results when their is effective collaboration between parents, the BOE and the administration. This is about working together to achieve the best outcomes for our kids. And I think it’s hard to to be against that type of change.”
Toal said that the GOP is seeking “more curriculum oversight.”
“We want transparency and communications in the way of public meetings that will help parents and the community better understand what is being approved,” she said. “We want parents to be able to ask questions and get answers. Darien just unanimously passed approval for a curriculum committee. We used to have a Curriculum Committee here in New Canaan. This is nothing groundbreaking. We just want transparency and communication so parents have a seat at the table to see what their children are learning.” (Darien created a curriculum subcommittee and still maintains a “curriculum leadership team” of professional educators that report to the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.)
In the League’s other curriculum-related question, Smits asked, “To what degree should parents and/or their representatives on the Board of Ed get involved in specific curriculum decisions, such as what books are available in the library or classroom, and what kinds of discussions are held in class, or what descriptive words are used in class discussion?”
In response, Alves said that while the CLC is an “impressive” group of experts, yet “we are all in this together in raising and educating our kids, because we give our kids to the school for six to eight hours a day, and then there’s after school.”
“Sometimes there’s before school,” Alves continued. “So I think it’s important for parents to feel like they are engaged and are a part of the process. To use an immigrant analogy here, my wife and I and our family make sausage every year and then we hang it up and we cure it and we serve it. I think that, using the ‘secret sauce’ analogy, some of the people just might want to know some of the recipes. So maybe before we cure the sausage, we can take a look at it with the parents and some of our elected officials, because I feel like that’s ultimately why the Board is here, is to be able to make decisions based upon how the community feels.”
Alves added that he is fearful of “what is coming down from Hartford at some point.”
“It doesn’t feel like it’s here yet in New Canaan,” he said. “We have done a really nice job in developing our own curriculum, but who knows what now is a suggestion or an option suddenly becomes a mandate? And how do we become clear in what the objective is how do we then put that forth towards education in community and again, make sure parents have a seat at the table. It isn’t about curriculum. It’s just really knowing, understanding and having a voice.”
Democrat Janet Fonss said that the CLC as currently composed has “academic integrity” and that she was “confused” about “the fear factor” that the Republicans referred to, “and what is ‘coming from Hartford.’ ”
“What is it that you think that is going to come into our classroom that the parents and the kids should be afraid of?” Fonss said. “One thing that the CLC is very good at is crafting the curriculum according to New Canaan needs. Our administrators know our community extremely well, and I don’t think there’s any chance they would craft anything that’s not appropriate for our community.”
Democrat Fatou Niang said New Canaan is “very fortunate” to have an “extremely experienced and competent CLC” whose members not only create curriculum but also “tailor it to our town, based on the standards set by the state.”
“And there is nothing wrong with the state setting the standard as long as you apply it to the way it benefits the kids in town,” Niang said. “The standards have always been here and have always been very high.”
Referring to comments from Toal and Hogan regarding the existence in the past of a Curriculum Committee of the Board of Ed, Niang said, “We have not had a Curriculum Committee in many years, and we are number-one in the state. We are number 26 in the country. So I think that’s just telling us the redundancy of that Committee and why—I cannot project into the past—but that may be why at some point it was not needed. Also the word had been ‘proactive’ in how we respond to challenges that are actually existing. We cannot anticipate every single thing. We cannot start worrying about ‘what if’? What if Hartford does this, what if Hartford does that. Because if we do that, we are functioning from a place of fear, and we cannot let that be part of the Board of Ed.”
Schwedel also responded directly Alves, saying she had “a lot of faith in New Canaan and New Canaan’s process” and that she hasn’t seen evidence that the current system isn’t working such that the proposed changes are warranted.
“I think it has served us very well and there are always going to be things coming and I would say let’s wait and let’s watch what happens at the legislative sessions and if something is coming to New Canaan, we can respond to it,” she said. “But I wouldn’t proactively change our process that we know is working and serving us well, because of something that might happen.”
Willett said the technical question of whether a “Curriculum Committee” should be created or a Board of Ed member assigned to the CLC should be separated from the question of why the Republican slate is calling for a change.
“I absolutely agree that the BOE does represent parents and should know the curriculum and ask how it works, not with a separate Committee,” she said. “The whole board is sort of a committee. But really, ‘Why ‘is the question—why does this Republican slate feel at this time that this is important? And I would say that based on their caucus speeches as a guide, it’s to be sure that no one is sort of sneaking in indoctrinating curriculum or teaching anyone to hate America. So I just want to take it back to the reason that this discussion began in the first place. And are there risks really worth disrupting this 20-year process that has given us this kind of amazing curriculum that we have right now. So really we can argue about whether there should be a separate committee or not and I don’t disagree with that. I think having Board of Ed members on the Council would probably change it a little bit, but it wouldn’t reveal anything nefarious. If anything it would make people even more impressed with how we do things here. But I think the bigger picture is what message does this sort of distrust and this talk of ‘more oversight’— is it warranted here? Is there some reason that we are talking about this? And what message does this kind of thing send to the leadership of our schools?”
Toal said in response that there’s no “distrust” in seeking more oversight over the CLC.
“What we have heard from the community is that they want a Curriculum Committee like Wilton has, like New Haven has, like Westport has and now like Darien has,” she said.
Hladick said the Republicans launched their campaigns with one message with respect to areas such as curriculum and over the weeks since “all of the sudden it’s totally different.”
“So I’m sure to some people watching we look a little bit crazy when we say that there have been signals and a lot of suspicion,” Hladick said. “But those are words that have been used about Hartford ‘coming for us’ and ‘coming for our kids’ and about ‘American values being erased day by day.’ Those are the types of words that make people who are working in our schools feel like people are suspicious of them and coming after them. And we see that in Darien. They’re in that exact situation.”
Toal responded that the GOP slate’s language does not amount to “a signal we are watching”
“People just want be involved with our kids education,” she said.
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