School board candidates discuss issues as election nears

School board candidates discussed a number of topics, from enrollment to parental involvement, during a forum at Jonathan Law High School last week.

Several candidates said this is an exciting time for education, as Common Core Standards are being implemented. Connecticut, along with 46 states, has adopted the Common Core State Standards, which are intended to raise the standards of curriculum, increase rigor in classroom teaching, and lead to deeper learning by students.

Only 12 of the 20 candidates on the ballot Nov. 5 took part in the forum, which was sponsored by the Milford PTA Council. They included Mark Ahrens, Laura Fetter, John DeRosa, Tracy Casey, Susan Glennon, Doreen Fontana, Chris Saley, George Gensure, Tom Jagodzinski, Dr. Heidi Gold-Dworkin, Laura Fucci, and Sarah Ferrante. Earl Whiskeyman had a last-minute family medical matter, and Joyce Charney sent in a statement about her qualifications, apologizing that she had another commitment.

Responding to a question read by the moderator for the forum, radio personality Brian Smith, candidates Sarah Ferrante and John DeRosa commented on what they think needs to be done to keep more students in the public school system rather than attending private or magnet schools.

Ferrante said a recent school survey indicates parents of children in younger grades seem happy with the education system here, but that as students get older, parents indicate dissatisfaction with the level of parental involvement.

“I think this is an area for improvement,” Ferrante said.

DeRosa said that when he walked down one street in Milford, seven of the 14 households had children in out-of-district schools because, he said, they did not feel they were getting a good enough return on their education dollars in Milford. He criticized the K-2/3-5 grade configuration now in place, and said the setup is difficult for parents who have to go to multiple bus stops to get their children to school.

“We can do things better, absolutely,” DeRosa said.

Tracy Casey and Chris Saley were asked to talk about how to increase parental engagement in their district. Casey said the issue isn’t a district one but rather a schoolwide issue, and that efforts to involve parents in the schools should be consistent throughout Milford.

Casey said it is important that administrators share information with parents, not just when there is a tragedy or emergency but on day-to-day matters, such as the new Common Core Standards. She said School Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Feser has begun this kind of communication.

Saley looked around the auditorium at the forum and said the relatively small number of parents — 100 at most — was indicative of a lack of parental input.

“With 6,000 kids in the schools, we should be able to pack this room,” he said, adding that he understands that people are busy.

Saley said he thinks involvement dropped when the elementary school configuration changed. “The more parents are involved, the better off our school system is going to be,” he said.

Tom Jagodzinski and Laura Fucci drew a question about how to develop a culture of education in Milford.

Jagodzinski, noting recently released standardized test scores, said the board needs to get more serious, stop doing “busy work” and focus more on academics. He also said the board should consider scrapping its committee of the whole and policy governance organization for an organization that is more effective.

Fucci took a different route and talked about the need to involve more children in education by having teachers teach to the different ways children learn. She said there needs to be a culture of accepting differences.

“The advisory program is good, but its implementation needs to be developed,” Fucci said, referring to a high school program that connects students to a teacher during the week for goal setting and similar guidance.

“Returning to a K-5 organization doesn’t fix all the problems, but it may be part of it,” she added.

Laura Fetter and Doreen Fontana were asked to talk about class size. Both agreed that class sizes should be kept within limits.

Fetter said that children in class sizes larger than 24 find it difficult to learn because of distractions, and teachers have a hard time focusing their teaching toward children of all abilities.

She said class size should be between 19 and 24 students.

Fontana, who is a special education teacher in another town, agreed on a cap at 24 students per classroom, and said that when sizes are toward the higher end, administrators can add a paraprofessional to the classroom and “think about extra supports.”

She said that when determining class size, educators need to take into account the number of children in the class who have special needs.

Susan Glennon and George Gensure drew a question about their personal stake in the local school system, and both explained that they don’t need to have children in the school system right now to feel connected to it.

Glennon explained that she has been very involved in the school system since her three children, now grown, went through the Milford schools. She led a school and citywide PTA and started a parent group to represent Jonathan Law and Foran high school together. She said she doesn’t have children in the system now, but her devotion to the local schools has not waned. A licensed day care provider, Glennon added that many of the children she cares for and has cared for over the years are Milford students.

Glennon said education should be important to all residents, and said that as a taxpayer, homeowner and local business owner, “it is still important to me that we have excellent schools.”

Gensure and his wife are having a baby, but he said even without a future Milford student on the way, he feels connected to the school system.

He pointed out that the whole community benefits when its children are well-educated because they may end up becoming the people who work in the community and keep it running.

“Services would be impossible to manage without educated people,” he said, noting that he has long been passionate about education.

Heidi Gold-Dworkin and Mark Ahrens were asked to discuss their strengths and weaknesses.

Gold-Dworkin drew a laugh when she said her weakness is public speaking. She said her strength lies in the fact that she is a scientist. “So I look at things differently, outside of the box,” she said, adding, “I think that will help because I’d like to see some things change in Milford.”

For one, she said, she’d like to see all Milford students performing at a higher level.

Ahrens started with his strength, saying he has a sharp and analytical mind, and he wants to create a culture of excellence among teachers, students, administrators, sports teams — the whole gamut.

His weakness, he said, may be that he will expect things to happen quickly, as change is often evident quickly in the real world. He is a business owner and now runs a company called Mathnasium, a math tutoring center.

“My weakness,” he said, “may be my sense of urgency.”

Where fixes are needed in special education, for example, he would have preferred to see a 30-day improvement plan rather than a more lengthy one.