School changes too fast?

MILFORD – Two Milford school principals said they are concerned that changes that are part of a proposed budget for next year are happening too quickly.

Answering questions from the Advisory Budget Committee at a four-hour meeting Nov. 17, Milford High School Principal Brad Craven said proposed staff cuts have had a negative impact.

“There is a fair amount of unease,” he said, because eliminating so many people “creates a lot of moving pieces” and it’s hard for the staff to know what the future will be.

The principal said he understands the need to face declining enrollments but wished he had another year, when attrition could be used.

“I have seen these numbers coming for a long time, and I have talked with the staff about not ducking” the problem, he said.

The proposed budget’s staff reductions at the high school include moving from full to part time a science teacher, an English teacher, a math teacher and a world language teacher.

The principal also expressed concerns about changes to the oversight of special education that he said would put a big case load on guidance counselors.

Craven did agree with the addition of another assistant principal and the cutting of an art teacher. That teacher is retiring, he said, and the opening offers the school the ability to hire the video production teacher full-time.

Chantal Alcox, principal of Heron Pond Elementary School, said she is excited about proposed class size reductions and the addition of a reading specialist, but she said changes may be coming too fast.

“My approach would be a little more deliberate,” she said. “Teachers can only absorb so much.”

Superintendent of Schools Jessica Huizenga cited the need for the district to not only adjust to enrollment declines but also to bring more resources to the younger grades. Third grade reading scores, she said, are well below state average.

The budget would mean smaller class sizes for kindergarten and for the middle school and improve access to education, she said, especially for special education students.

The budget cuts 12.5 out of 93 special education aid positions and adds reading specialists, social workers, math coaches, an IT specialist and a part-time speech pathologist to the Jacques School, where, the superintendent said, the goal is a 15-1 class size in kindergarten and 20-1 for first grade.

Despite a 1-3 staff-student ratio, Huizenga said, the outcomes for special education students “don’t reflect that level of support,” and there is a 40 percent achievement gap between regular education and special education students she attributed to insufficient oversight and manpower.

“That shouldn’t be in Milford. We need to do something different,” she said.

On the whole, she said, the district is increasing, not reducing, professional staff – “focusing human capital where it needs to be,” with a priority being class size reduction in the early grades, where it has the biggest impact.

The budget also returns a reading program to the middle school and adds more technical education. It also returns foreign languages to grades 7 and 8 with the goal of creating a feeder program for the high school, where foreign language studies are dwindling and adds art and wellness classes.

There needs to be more focus on wellness, because the results of a risk survey of Milford students show many more are engaging in risky behaviors,” said the superintendent.

The budget also aims to increase the number of students, especially students with Individual Education Plans, in advanced placement classes.

Budget committee members questioned the $100,000 in the budget for professional development.

Michael Tenters, the high school’s director of curriculum, said it includes social-emotional training that will eventually be embedded into the schools, sustained through in-house resources.

“Professional development has been cut and cut and cut and cut” in recent years, said the superintendent, and teachers say they need more training.

After another long budget discussion at the Nov. 19 School Board meeting, Chairman Ron Carvell proposed re-instating a social worker at Heron Pond and other changes that would increase the proposed $41.9 million budget for 2019-20 by $56,000. The board will continue reviewing it through December, and hold a public hearing in January.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.