Westport schools seek input on equity, student behaviors

Several former and current Staples High School students organize a group of close to 1,000 protestors June 5 in downtown Westport. The group marched from the Post Road bridge to the police station in a peaceful protest against police brutality. Westport officials will issue surveys this spring as part of their effort to examine the district’s equity, as well as get an idea of the issues facing students.

Several former and current Staples High School students organize a group of close to 1,000 protestors June 5 in downtown Westport. The group marched from the Post Road bridge to the police station in a peaceful protest against police brutality. Westport officials will issue surveys this spring as part of their effort to examine the district’s equity, as well as get an idea of the issues facing students.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — School officials will administer two surveys over the coming months as part of their effort to examine the district’s equity, as well as get an idea of the issues facing students.

The equity survey is being done in partnership with New York University as part of a larger effort to examine any disparities within the district, including by race, gender, sexual orientation, language and religion.

Superintendent Thomas Scarice said they launched this study because it’s important to have an inclusive school.

“It’s always a priority to be equitable,” he said.

The other survey is conducted by the Search Institute, which the district has worked with for more than 20 years, and builds on its previous behaviors survey. It will look at relationships, as well as substance use and the impact of COVID and recent racial justice movements.

Equity study

Anthony Buono, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said the district has already done a lot on diversity, equity and inclusivity, but this study was important because it would create a multi-year action plan that takes a systemic approach.

“This study really provides us with a foundation to launch this work,” he said.

The study will look at benchmark assessments, enrollment in AP and honors courses, disciplinary referrals and outcomes, as well as special education and gifted identifications. It also uses surveys, student and family focus groups and school visits if COVID allows.

This mix of qualitative and quantitative data will then be used to create a root cause analysis report, which will ultimately be used by the district and NYU to co-create the action plan.

The plan will be led by a team made up of teachers, board members, administrators, parents and staff that will be able to oversee the work over multiple years.

Some board members worried about the timing of this study because they didn’t want to pull teachers from the classroom when in-person instruction has already been so impacted by COVID.

NYU was selected from 10 applicants and awarded the contract this month. The university will be paid using $50,000 that was allocated for professional development last year, but was unable to be used do to COVID.

Officials plan to gather data now through March. The surveys will be administered in April. The school visits are expected to happen in late April or early May. The focus groups will happen either virtually or in person in May with the analysis expected to be completed in June.

The action plan should be done this summer and officials hope to start implementing parts of it next school year.

Karen Kleine, the board’s vice chairwoman, questioned the need for this action plan. She said it seemed like a negative approach and she wasn’t sure there was a problem in the district, let alone a multi-year one.

Other members and officials said students have shared instances of micro-aggressions. Buono also said there have been anti-Semitic symbols in schools and data showed inequities.

Board member Youn Su Chao applauded the effort. She came to the U.S. as an immigrant child 40 years ago and said she never could have imagined a school taking her own experience so seriously then.

“It’s so impressive to me the degree of intentionality and just desire to affect change,” Chao said.

Search Institute survey

The district has used the Search Institute’s attitudes and behaviors survey, which looks at substance use and perceptions around it, for years, but this will be the first time using the developmental relationships one.

This survey will also look at substance use and perceptions, allowing the district to compare trends over the years, but it adds a few new categories to create a baseline on some areas for issues students are facing.

In addition to substances, it will examine relationship framework, social and emotional learning, equitable practices and the impact of COVID and racial injustice based off current events. Only the high school students will be asked about the last two.

The survey looks more at the relationships students have with their peers and adults.

“It feels more relevant than ever in the time of COVID when people’s relationships in many cases are fractured or fraught,” said Margaret Watt, the prevention director for Positive Directions.

The survey is funded by a state grant.

It will be given to 150 students in each grade from seventh through 12th grade. The plan is to administer it in March so results would be available in April and could already be used to address identified issues this school year.

Valerie Babich, the district’s psychological services coordinator, said more districts are starting to use this newer survey, including Fairfield and Norwalk.

The current plan is to give it to students online with parents having the choice to opt-out but several board members worried having the survey online would take away the anonymity of the students’ answers and could be used against them by tech companies, such as Google.

They instead suggested students complete the survey with paper and pencil or explain everything to families and let them opt-in, which those presenting the survey said wasn’t feasible.

While how the survey is given is still being debated, officials and board members seemed receptive to the content, though some members also questioned the timing of it and whether it made sense to establish baselines during such abnormal circumstances.

There will also be a chance for focus groups following the results and the final report will be shared with the public and officials.

“There are really a lot of ways we can use this data,” Watt said.

Previous survey results have helped shape health curriculum, community programs, trainings and even the creation of the teen center. Officials expect to use these results in a similar fashion.

kkoerting@newstimes.com