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by Colin Powell
The top two vote-getters in a race for two open three-year seats on the CSD school board will be picked from four candidates. Philip Glaser is a former college professor and Air Force consultant with experience in municipal governance. Incumbent Skip Greenlaw is a former state legislator looking for reelection to the board. Linda Nelson is the executive director of Opera House Arts and helped the school district develop its current strategic plan. Finally, Peggy Zembrusky is a mother of two Island students and was the last president of the Island’s parent-teacher association for three years.
In a recent phone interview, Glaser said that as a concerned community member, a contributor to school activities and a substitute teacher at the high school, he feels he has insights into some problems facing the school. He also noted that he was a selectman in another town further down the coast, and has familiarity with municipal governance.
Asked whether he felt the high school was on a path to improvement after being listed as one of the most under-performing schools in the state last year, Glaser said he does feel like the school is on its way. “That is not to say there aren’t other things that should be considered as part of the improvement,” added Glaser. He also explained that while he sees a need to improve the school, he finds himself at odds with the state’s standards and noted that the SAT is probably not the best way to measure the performance of a high school.
Glaser said he generally supports the direction the two principals are taking at the schools right now, but said he does have his doubts about 80-minute class periods at the high school. “I would like to see a different approach with more and different classes in each semester,” said Glaser.
On the budget, Glaser said he would not want to expose the community to serious cost increases, and noted that compromises will have to be made in order to keep the budget manageable for the taxpayers. However, he also expressed a desire to look for grants to fund various programs at the school, including grants requiring matching funds from the board.
On the subject of replacing Reach Performing Arts Director Nelson Monteith, Glaser joked, “Can Nelson be cloned?” He noted that Monteith will be a hard act to follow, and said he was unfamiliar with the difficulties Monteith’s predecessors had in the position. Regardless, Glaser said a new director should be very creative and work well with students. He pointed out that the center was created with community funds, but it is also very much a part of the school, and that relationship will likely lead to growing pains under a new director.
Glaser said he has mixed feelings about new graduation requirements at the high school. While the idea of senior projects allows students to “get involved in something pretty seriously,” said Glaser, he noted some rough edges in how projects are approved and reviewed at the end of the year.
Lawrence “Skip” Greenlaw
Running for the school board for another term, Greenlaw said in a recent interview that he is committed to trying to provide the best education for students. “Even though a lot of problems have come to surface in the past year, I feel we’re making progress,” said Greenlaw, referencing the high school’s position as one of the 10 most under-performing schools in the state last year.
He said the board needs to work to raise expectations of students, teachers, staff and administration. Greenlaw said the state’s ranking of the high school based on SAT results were “bogus in a sense,” but were also a wake up call. “The community is right to be charged up and demanding better results for our students,” said Greenlaw.
He said he has great confidence in the leadership of both principals. Generally, he said he believes high school principal Todd West is moving in the right direction and has really energized the faculty. “What concerns me is whether his expectations are high enough,” said Greenlaw. In the elementary school, he said he was very excited to see the work the youngest students are doing. After pressing for a number of years to improve the reading curriculum, Greenlaw said it was a joy to have the opportunity to listen to the kids in kindergarten and grade 1 reading and correcting grammar, and believes a good foundation is being set.
Fiscally, Greenlaw said he changed his point of view many years ago, that increasing the budget would lead directly to better schools. “Our school system continues to be the most expensive K-12 system in the state,” explained Greenlaw. While there may be a few more increases still on the horizon, he said, the board needs to be prudent with how it spends the money already in the budget. He added that a waiver on the consolidation penalty imposed last year for failure to consolidate would ease the budget burden considerably as well.
Looking toward hiring a new Reach director, Greenlaw noted that any candidate will have to be a good educator for the kids, as that is the director’s primary role. But he also said he continues to hope that the center could be used more frequently and potentially bring in revenue to offset its operational costs.
Asked about the new graduation requirements at the high school, Greenlaw commented that they “theoretically make sense, but I don’t know if their practical application makes sense.” He explained that people have commented to him that projects ought to be better connected with things students are actually doing.
In the end, however, Greenlaw said his plan is to continue to raise the expectations for everyone in the schools: push students harder, encourage teachers to push students, and raise the expectation for principals to make teachers better. Ultimately, he said, the community needs to get involved, and the board needs to support the “wonderful volunteers” already in the schools.
Nelson said she is running for the school board because she feels a “fair and excellent” public education system is the most important thing for creating a strong community. In a recent phone interview, she noted that one of the high marks of the high school’s recent accreditation process was its strategic plan, the development of which Nelson facilitated in 2007. She has also taught in the schools, mentored senior projects, and worked with students as interns at the Stonington Opera House. Nelson added that keeping in touch with many of those students via Facebook has provided her with insights into what additional preparation would have helped as they transitioned to the world beyond DISHS.
Asked about a board member’s role, Nelson said a school board member’s role is actually fairly limited, and that she feels that the board would be more effective if it focused on it’s core responsibilities: the evaluation, hiring and firing of the superintendent and the development of policies to support the work of the principals.
Nelson said she believes principal Todd West is making great efforts to improve the school following the news that the high school was one of the lowest performing schools in the state. “It was an unnecessary shame that the school did not qualify for improvement funds,” she stated, but added, “I don’t know why, as a committee, we shouldn’t expect small steady improvement in the school.” She said it is a sad fact that the school has gone 20 years without those small, steady improvements.
On the budget, Nelson said the community is doing its part financially, now the board needs to address the conundrum of making the financial investment but not seeing the results, she explained. “How do we use the budget as a tool to get results?” she asked. She argued that teacher salaries make up the largest part of the budget, and the board must support hiring and maintaining high quality teachers, while also setting “clear lines of accountability for results.”
On the hiring of a new Reach director, Nelson said a committee will likely be formed to handle the process, though she noted that whoever is found will report to principal Mike Benjamin at the elementary school. She said policies need to be in place to support his effective management of the position, and to make sure students clearly benefit from whoever takes over the position.
With regard to the new graduation standards, Nelson said the board’s job is, “to continually increase the expectation of our kids.” Having mentored students and kept in touch with them, Nelson said she has questions about the preparation. But she said the school, the board and the community need to set high expectations for the students to achieve. “They’ll rise to it,” said Nelson.
Zembrusky is running for the school board to represent her friends and fellow citizens, and because she feels its a civic responsibility.
Asked about a board member’s role, Zembrusky said she feels the board must lead the superintendent and administrators with clear policies. “I don’t see that right now,” she added. “What I see is the superintendent leading the school board, and I find that very wrong.”
Asked about the budget, Zembrusky said she feels there is plenty of money spent per student in the district, and the board should maintain a zero-increase budget until the region’s economy reflects better- and higher-paying jobs. “I do not think taxes should be raised in this environment,” said Zembrusky.
Zembrusky also said she feels that the high school, after being listed as one of the lowest performing schools in the state last year, is not currently on a path to improvement, “but the Island is ripe for change,” she added. “When the community approaches the board with creative ideas, they need to be listened to,” said Zembrusky. “I’ve attended all the [school improvement grant] meetings. The community had brilliant ideas, and none of them were implemented,” she explained.
Asked about the direction in which the principals are leading the schools, Zembrusky said she was disappointed with the implementation of professional learning communities, “No cost analysis was done on working parents of an early-dismissal Friday,” she noted. “I would like to know where kids are going, how it impacted the Island’s daycare centers and the extended families of students,” she added. She said the board ought to do a six-month review, not just of the PLCs, but of the impact on Island families of releasing students early.
On the subject of the Reach director, Zembrusky said she would like to see the center utilized for more community events that bring revenue back to the center. She also believes the center is underutilized, and wants to see a strong drama program in all grades K-12, and would like to see a theater department in the high school.
Zembrusky is highly critical of the high school’s new graduation standards. “There are many ways for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned, but I’m not sure how important or how beneficial senior projects are going to be,” she said. She recounted her experience as a mentor for a student when half of the student’s review panel did not show up at the end of the project. “It’s a nice idea,” she added, “but needs to be tweaked.”