School board, superintendent aim to better engage average students

Photo of Justin Papp
Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Flug, the Westport Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer at the board's "Brown Bag Lunch," Feb. 9, 2018, in Westport, Conn.
Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Flug, the Westport Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer at the board's "Brown Bag Lunch," Feb. 9, 2018, in Westport, Conn.Justin Papp / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — What is the definition of the middle?

This was the question asked by one parent, Youn Su Chao, at the Board of Education’s Brown Bag Lunch on Feb. 9 at Westport Town Hall to discuss the ways in which the district could better challenge “children in the middle.”

“It’s really those who aren’t at either end that are now currently receiving specialized services,” said Superintendent Colleen Palmer, referring to the students who fall between those in the highest level honors or Advanced Placement classes and those receiving Response to Intervention individualized attention.

According to Board of Education Chairman Michael Gordon, the hour-long meeting was to allow members of the public to ask questions of the board and superintendent about the district’s large percentage of “average” students and how their educational experience might be improved.

Palmer especially emphasized a personalized learning experience in which students could partially direct the course of their own education based on their own interests.

“It’s really emphasizing choice and voice in terms of our students adding more input into their own education and allowing our educators to flex and differentiate to a greater extent,” Palmer said.

In part, that could be accomplished by increased communication between students and teachers and parents and teachers, some on the board suggested.

“My suggestion, if you haven’t tried it, is reach out to the teachers and ask them. I think you’ll find them very receptive to working with you and providing information you need,” board member Mark Mathias said.

One parent, though, complained that communicating with one of his son’s teachers left him frustrated. Peter Hein said he was surprised when, in a meeting with one teacher, he was told that a class in which his 15-year-old son was enrolled was being taught at a college level.

“This is a high school and in a high school, we teach high school classes,” Hein said.

Hein said he’d like to see a shift in the school culture that prizes academic excellence over all else.

“I think taking care of the middle is also a question of the atmosphere, the environment, which is being produced in a school,” Hein said. “Do we want to teach a few elites, or do we want to teach a big middle?”

Palmer said the district is looking at potentially having fewer levels of courses, to promote diversity in the classroom and bring more students together.

One parent, Jill Dillon, objected to the use of the phrase, “the middle,” and said it suggested there was something inherently wrong in not being at the top of the class.

“I feel like it just has a negative connotation,” said Dillon, who suggested referring to midrange students as “typical.”

She also wondered whether it was even appropriate to label average- performing students in such a high-performing district as “the middle.”

“I, as a parent, need a little bit more guidance as to what is typical,” she said.

No decisions were made at the meeting. The discussion about better engaging students in the “middle” is ongoing as part of the district’s Strategic Plan.; @justinjpapp1