Superintendent of Schools Jeff Solan wants school to be fun — fun for the students and for the teachers.
When that happens, the veteran administrator insists, students are able to reach their full potential, both in and out of the classroom.
“Setting a very positive tone (inside our schools) is a priority for us and we remain deeply committed to the idea that school is an enjoyable place to be,” said Solan, approximately a week before classes began. “We are always trying to do better … for our children and for our community. We aren’t perfect and we probably won’t ever be, but we are working really hard to get to that place and to make sure that school is fun and ultimately rewarding (for students).”
As the 2019/2020 school year official begins, Solan is entering his third year at the helm of the District. He admits that the last two — last year in particular — have been difficult. First, controversy erupted in town over the School System’s use of the Summit Learning Platform, an online-based curriculum teaching tool that emphasized personal learning on the part of the student. Parents became increasingly hostile towards the platform, questioning whether too much time was being taken away from teacher instruction, and, eventually, use of the platform was discontinued after it was revealed that some students were able to access age-inappropriate materials through the system.
Last year, the District dealt with the tragic death of an 11-year-old Doolittle School student, Anjelita Estrada, who committed suicide shortly before Christmas in 2018. The incident led to questions about the way in which the School District handles bullying and other complaints.
A forum was held in mid-March of this year, attracting dozens of residents, some of whom shared emotional stories of how their children had been bullied while in the Cheshire School System.
Another community forum is planned for Sept. 16.
Solan admits that District leaders as a whole learned several valuable lessons from the difficulties over the last two years, including the need to better communicate with the public.
“Historically, we’ve relied on email communication, and while that was effective for a period of time, people also weren’t receiving the volume of emails they are today. All of us are being bombarded,” he said.
In order to correct that, Solan stated that the District will be overhauling its website to make it more user-friendly, while also creating a Facebook page to provide not just “text information, but (visual information) as well” about school happenings. The District is also looking into developing a downloadable app.
“Facebook can have a broader reach (to the community), as can an app,” said Solan. “What we are really trying to provide people are different access points to information about the schools.”
Yet, despite some of the negativity surrounding the school system, all the data points continue to indicate that Cheshire students remain among some of the highest achieving in the state. Recent numbers showed that Cheshire high schoolers bested state averages on SAT scores by significant margins, and school rankings provided by Niche, a website dedicated to rating schools in a variety of categories, ranked all Cheshire elementary schools in the top 100 in the state, with Chapman (38) and Highland (46) ranked in the top 50. Dodd Middle School was ranked as the 47th best middle school in the state, while CHS was rated the 26th best public high school in Connecticut.
“I think it is validation of the work of our staff and the things accomplished by our kids,” said Solan, of the accolades. “Nothing is changing on our part. We are still focused on supporting kids to be social and emotional learners as well as complex thinkers. What we have found is, the better we can do that, the more successful our kids become.”
One of the ways in which the District will be helping students tap into their full potential — “We don’t graduate transcripts, we graduate people,” Solan is fond of saying — will be to focus on ways to encourage creativity within the classroom. After the Summit Learning Platform was halted, the District formed a task force to study ways in which personalized learning could be better implemented. One of the results of the task force’s work, Solan explained, was a tweak to the performance standards of the District, with more importance placed on creative thinking.
“We asked ourselves, what do business leaders, what do contemporary organizations identify as successful (traits)?” said Solan. “It was a way for us to have a more robust vision for how our children interact with the world. The vision of the graduate isn’t one that just rocks the SAT or crushes the ACT. We want to know what is required (of a student) for contemporary success.”
As an example, Solan explained that, if a student is taught how to solve a complex mathematical problem one particular way, he or she will struggle when confronted with a similar but not identical problem. Making sure that students are thinking creatively will ensure that they have “skills to tackle uncommon problems … (which are) skills to tackle life in general.”
To learn how best to approach this type of instruction, the District will be continuing a program instituted a few years ago, whereby teachers both observe and receive feedback from their peers regarding in-class instruction. Two years ago, administrators from the different public schools sat in on classroom instruction to learn what tools are working at different grade levels.
“So you had (Dr. Mary) Gadd (CHS principal) in a preschool classroom, observing,” he said. “You can have very complex instruction going on in a preschool class. Just figuring out a game can be very (difficult).”
“What we were trying to do is identify what conditions are present in a complex learning classroom, where kids are being asked to think creatively,” he continued. Last year, groups of elementary school teachers served as observers, sitting in on classroom instruction and providing feedback. It helped not only the teacher being observed, but also the educators who volunteered to do the observing.
“The feedback we received was that it was the best professional development the teachers have ever had,” said Solan.
Of course, continuing the program will require funding, and Solan admits to being concerned that tight budgets will hamper his ability to offer it going forward. Though he and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Marlene Silano provide all the training, which cuts down on costs, substitute teachers are still required to cover for educators who serve as observers.
Solan also expressed continuing concern over the state of school facilities, calling them “functional” and safe, but outdated and getting worse.
“The (buildings) are decaying. They are not necessarily on par with our competitor (communities),” he said. “It is important to protect what I believe is the greatest attraction to this community, and that is our schools.”
Solan commented that he is “cautiously optimistic” that both the Board of Education and Town Council will work together to address the aging school facilities, even with an important municipal election on the horizon.
“The tone has been set and I hope we can continue, even after the election, on this very collaborative path,” said Solan. “I believe the groups, as they exist today, know that we have to go about this in a collaborative fashion, and I am very appreciative of that.”