WESTPORT — Parents and teachers pleaded with the Board of Education, and the administration, to keep Linda McClary on as the instructor for the child development program at Staples High School.

Michael Aitkenhead, a science teacher at Staples, expressed how influential McClary’s child development instruction was for his two children who went through the program.

“It was perhaps one of the most formative and positive developmental aspects of my children’s’ early development,” Aitkenhead said at the Feb. 6 Board of Education meeting.

“As a teacher, it concerns me that if we have a program and a teacher that defines what apparently is what we are trying to elicit in our students and our community, how is it that we would allow that program to end and to dissolve?” he added.

Last fall, Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer received parent concerns about the Play School, a preschool McClary oversees at Staples, which is set to be eliminated. Palmer found that McClary, an experienced educator who also teaches Child Development I and Child Development II — classes set to be discontinued in their current forms — did not possess the necessary certification (family and consumer science) to continue teaching those classes, although she does have a health certification.

Despite finding out that McClary did not have the proper certification on Nov. 30, Palmer did not send out a formal notification until Jan. 29. The reason for not alerting the public, Palmer said, was to protect McClary’s retirement. Lawyers for the school district informed Palmer that an educator teaching out of their certification, might not be able to count those years taught toward retirement. The last week of January, Palmer received confirmation that the years McClary taught out of certification would not be taken away.

“So I think to the public it looks like there was a huge gap and there probably is, but we were trying very hard to protect a fine educator who has served our district,” Palmer said, adding that the district will continue to look for other options concerning child development and McClary.

In fact, Palmer looked at moving the child development classroom courses to the health department, but said “that wasn’t really an avenue that (McClary) wanted to pursue.”

According to Abbe Smith, communications director for the state Department of Education, the home economics pre-k through grade 12 endorsement is becoming less common in the field. Also referred to as a family and consumer science certification, the endorsement is required to teach courses that fall under consumer science and life skills—like Child Development.

Currently, there are 529 teachers in the state with such an endorsement and 193 actively teaching a consumer science or life skills class, Smith explained. Only 83 school districts in Connecticut offer such a course.

The waning prevalence of the endorsement has made it difficult for Palmer to find someone to continue the program.

“The certification of family and consumer science is the only certification, I’m aware of, that allows a teacher to deal with preschoolers, plus high school students, at the same time. It’s very unique and I believe there’s only one college or university in Connecticut that even graduates students in family and consumer science,” Palmer said. “It’s a certification that’s going away and schools are having a difficult time finding these individuals.”

The Fairfield Teachers Agency, a placement agency for teachers, told Palmer that they have not been able to find an instructor with a family and consumer sciences certification and Palmer said that when she was a superintendent in Weston, she had no luck finding one.

The Play School program, with eight students, will run through the end of the school year and the administration is working on a new course to replace those taught by McClary—a combination of child development and child psychology in the social studies department.

@chrismmarquette; cmarquette@bcnnew.com