Gubernatorial candidates Lamont, Bysiewicz learn how small schools succeed in Middletown

MIDDLETOWN — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont, who visited Macdonough Elementary School Tuesday, heard how such neighborhood schools have an opportunity to make great strides in education through the power of community.

Principal Damian Reardon, who will mark a year at Macdonough in July, stressed the importance of families engaging in their children’s extracurricular activities at the North End institution, through events such as bingo and movie nights, as well as ice cream socials.

“The small-school model allows you to know everybody, and if you don’t have the relationships, you’re not going to get anything done. You’re just not,” Reardon told a contingent, which included city native and Lamont’s pick for lieutenant governor, Susan Bysiewicz; and Superintendent of Schools Michael T. Conner.

During an hour-long tour, Lamont heard about Macdonough’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics program for students in fourth and fifth grades, as well as how the school is working to close the achievement gap.

Macdonough is a STEM/TAG magnet school for students throughout the district, Reardon said. It’s also an Alliance District, part of the state’s program which bolsters Connecticut’s 30 lowest-performing districts by allocating more Education Cost Sharing funding.

Introduction to technology starts at the earliest age, Reardon said, when students in grades two to five are issued Chromebooks, and those in kindergarten through first grade receive iPads. These devices are not only geared toward the children’s hand sizes and dexterity.

“What it does is get them on a platform that’s more conducive to what they need at grade level,” Reardon said.

The school also recently secured a maker space grant, which will allow students to engineer and design STEM concepts through hands-on projects. The technology-based area offers 3D printers, laser printers, smartboards, computers and more.

School administrators are using part of that grant to design the best way to configure seating areas to make them more conducive to the learning process. Classroom sizes at Macdonough range from 11 to 25 students.

“We’re trying to move away from traditional rows: We have flexible seating, we have flexible groupings and things like that,” said Reardon, elements that encourage children to discuss topics and come up with real-world scenarios in order to solve problems .

“You have to apply the skills to something that’s meaningful to them,” Lamont said. “Not just skills for skills’ sake.”

There are many things that make Macdonough unique, Reardon said.

Every August, during the week before school begins, staff volunteer their time walking throughout the neighborhood, introduce themselves to families, dropping off books for children, and answering questions about the upcoming year.

The years-long initiative is intended not only to allay students’ fears about moving up a grade, but also plant the seeds of how to be a part of a tight-knit community engaged in their young people’s learning.

“The teachers here have been here for a while. What I appreciate about that is the teachers choose to be here. This can be a challenging school — 84, 85 percent of our students are on reduced lunch, kids coming in with a fair amount of trauma — so we’re trying to work on social/emotional relations: how to deal with the unexpected,” said Reardon, who came to the district from Oregon last July.

Some of the older students then sat in a circle, where Bysiewicz, Lamont and Reardon encouraged them to explain what they like about Macdonough. While most of the fifth-graders are moving on to city middle schools, several are entering others, such as the Academy of Science and Innovation magnet school in New Britain, and private institutions such as Watkinson School in Hartford and the Independent Day School in Middlefield.

Superintendent Michael T. Conner said he prides himself on the education children receive at Middletown’s primary schools.

“We don’t want our students to leave, but we want to be able to create those types of rigorous conditions where they can excel, where they have a voice and there’s a high level of agency. We want students to be in control of their learning, pace and timing. It’s all about agency, interest and choice. I think we have a great foundation here to be able to establish that,” Conner said.

The school’s STEM and Talented and Gifted programs are a magnet-type component in the district, said Reardon, something that allows students who thrive on challenges to go beyond traditional classroom instruction.

“We don’t want kids who come in performing at a high level that are just going to stagnate along the way. We want to keep pushing them as best as we can,” he said, pointing to small-group guided reading and math hours.

Connecticut can be well-served by a mix of community schools and magnet public schools, Bysiewicz said. “Some of those young people are excited about going to magnet schools. Yeah, you’ve got to get on a bus to get there, but the experience is why they’re going.”

Lamont spoke about the state’s formula for Education Cost Sharing with reporters afterward.

“You’ve got to fund the cost sharing. If we’ve got to find a fairer way to distribute that going forward, let’s do it. Right now, it’s been sort of hit and miss. I hear a lot of complaints from communities all over the state that ‘our town was short-changed,’” he said. “We’ve got to fully fund education. It’s the best investment we can make in this state.”

When asked if it would be necessary to increase taxes to achieve that goal, Lamont replied, “We will see.”

“If you eliminate the carried interest loophole, that would be an additional $520 million, and that would get you fairly close to fully funding Educational Cost Sharing because it was underfunded by about $600 million,” Bysiewicz said.

Lamont praised Malloy for distributing money for education based on need and distress. “I think he’s focused on schools like this - places where you can make a difference. What we really need is each and every young person equipped, ready to be good citizens and active in our economy,” he said.

Lamont then turned to the subject of state budget negotiations.

“I think everybody’s going to have to be at the table if we’re going to get to an honest budget. I don’t think you can get to an honest budget if you say, ‘I’m going to eliminate the income tax, eliminate the corporate income tax, eliminate the estate tax and fill in the holes later.’ That’s what I hear from the other team, he said.

Crafting a budget that invests in the future is something Connecticut residents deserve, Lamont added.

“The other guys are starting with another $9 billion in the hole as they phase out the income taxes. I’ve talked about how we can restructure the ways we raise revenue, I’ve talked about restructuring how we deliver services in this state, and we’ll be a lot more specific.

“I think the voters have the right to know what you’re doing to do with the pressing issue of the day.”