New School Year, New Challenges

File photoTwo weeks into the new school year, the Eagle sat down with Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez and Assistant Superintendent Rachel Sexton to check on the transition from summer vacation to the challenges of the Walsh construction project and school performance scores.

Enrollment as of the beginning of the school year is down by 60 students over the end of last year, but Hernandez says that number varies due to the mobility of the school population. He said about 400 students, 13 percent of the population, enter at the beginning of the school year or leave between the first day and the end of the school year.

The breakdown is as follows: Branford High School, 869; Walsh, 870; Murphy, 398; Tisko, 365; Sliney, 304, and Early Years Center, 26. In addition, the district is responsible for students who attend programs outside the district.

Although enrollment has been declining, the number of students combined at the elementary level could point to increased numbers in the future at higher levels, depending on the ebb and flow of student into the district.

Walsh Students Settle In

At Walsh Intermediate School, which is undergoing an $88.2 million renovation, demolition of Industrial Arts wing was completed before occupation, slightly ahead of schedule, said Hernandez. Abatement and testing were also completed.

In preparation for the new traffic pattern at the school, practice of drop-offs and pick-ups for both buses and parents around the revised entrance/exit route were done prior to the start of classes. Fifth graders, as part of their orientation, rode the bus to test the process.

“I can’t say enough about the staff, [Principal] Raeann [Reynolds], and staff,” said Hernandez, adding that the process went “rather seamlessly.” He said that the buses are getting into better routines and that dismissals are slowed down for safety.

Given the ongoing construction process, Hernandez said that noise has not been a factor. “We don’t hear the activity… it’s not been disruptive,” Hernandez said.

Footings have been dug and poured, and steel is expected to be erected by Christmas or sooner, he said.

In terms of challenges for the new school year – “opportunity to build on work from last year” with an emphasis on social and emotional issues, as defined in the Safe School Climate Plan. 

He sees Branford’s diversity as an opportunity – there are “emerging needs,” he said. Hernandez said that 34 percent of students take part in the free or reduced lunch program. Many of them attend Murphy, but overall, he said approximately 23 languages are spoken in the district. He added that just under 30,000 meals were served during the summer meals program.

Test Scores Static or Declining

Both SATs, administered to high school students, and SBAs, given to elementary school students, have either declined or remained flat over the past few years. In addition, according to the CT Mirror, fewer students are applying for Advanced Placement courses. In 2015, 16 percent (154) of Branford students took AP tests, while only 14 percent (122) took the test in 2018. Statewide, 17 percent took the test in 2015, with 20 percent in 2018.

Hernandez said that students have the opportunity to take the SATs multiple times; however, they are the ones who are higher on the socio-economic ladder. For consistency, he said, the test results of a consistent group of students are tracked across their academic history, from one year to the next, checking programs and instruction. However, various subgroups are also examined – English Language Learners, special education students, and those in lower socio-economic groups.

He said there are “multiple measures” for evaluating performance: What else do we need to know apart from test scores, including involvement in extracurricular activities and volunteerism? Internships, he said, provide an authentic experience and are good for those who are not college bound.

Hernandez said there’s also the Early College Experience (ECE) offered to students in conjunction with UConn, which is available in lieu of AP courses. These courses are taught by high school teachers who are trained for college-level teaching.

In terms of challenges, Hernandez said that the increased use of “vaping” via electronic cigarettes is being addressed as a health problem rather than a discipline problem. Hernandez did not provide details on vaping in the high school; he did say the district is “not immune” to the problems associated with opioid use and that many students obtain them through prescriptions that are not secured. Support is being offered to those students. The School Based Health Center is extending its reach within the district through various screenings with an emphasis on screening for depression.

The Tobacco Research Institute in Youth from Yale University will host a presentation titled “Vaping 101” for high school and Walsh students at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11, at the high school auditorium.

September BOE Meeting

ScreenshotThe Sept. 26 Board of Education meeting, chaired by Assistant Superintendent Rachel Sexton, included the introduction of eight new certified teachers: Stephanie Araujo, school psychologist at Walsh; Kerry Begin, special education at Walsh; Kayla Evans, special education at Branford High School; Melanie Marks, pre-school at Indian Neck (Early Learning); Antonio Monreal, World Languages at Walsh; Monica Pustari, Kindergarten at Sliney; Kiley Rayher, speech pathology at Tisko; and Bridgett Smith, special education at BHS.

“They’re a wonderful addition to our staff,” said Sexton.

Chartwells, the company that provides the district’s cafeteria services, has a new head of dining services, Executive Chef John Turrene. The company came under fire earlier this year when its contract was terminated due to excess expenditures, and the jobs of cafeteria workers were threatened under the possibility of a new provider. Chartwells rebid and won the new contract and the cafeteria workers’ jobs were secured.

Turrene was introduced by Chief Operating Officer Don Neel. Turrene has a background in sustainable/organic foods and has worked at Wesleyan and Yale. He is a member of the Northeast Organic Farm Association.

ScreenshotThe board recognized the efforts of Courtney Rosenberg and Judy Barron of the Community Dining Room, who provided more than 140 backpacks with supplies to Branford students, who signed up for them. A number of emergency backpacks will also be available for those who unexpectedly need them.

Peter Cimino of Branford Counseling Center describe the efforts of the Local Prevention Committee in looking at issues that have a negative impact on the community and develop strategies to address them. 

The committee, which consists of various town representatives, will be applying for grants for its OPEN (Opioids-Prescription Drugs-Education-Network) program. On Oct. 17, the committee, via a grant from the Archdiocese of Hartford, will host Tony Hoffman, who is a former pro BMXer, and now a substance abuse and motivational speaker. The event takes place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the high school and will include food and prizes.


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