Restructured Ansonia Schools Open

Problem: You’re a principal at a restructured school, and half your staff is new to the building.

Solution: Host a back-to-school pep rally with a raucous roll call of all the teachers to introduce them to the students and calm some first day nerves.

Oh yeah, and bring on the bubbles.

That was the formula John C. Mead School Principal Terri Goldson used for the first day of school Wednesday.

Teachers and staff donned sports jerseys and danced to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” to highlight teamwork and, well, respect. Then Casey Carle, a “bubble expert” dazzled the students with dancing bubbles.

“We are a team here at Mead School,” Goldson told the crowded gymnasium early Wednesday.

The students chanted back: “We are a team!”

Big Changes

It was a lively event on what could have been a panic-filled day. The entire Ansonia district was restructured for the 2009-10 school year, and each of the district’s four schools saw some change.

That’s because Ansonia schools haven’t improved at the rate federal guidelines mandate under the No Child Left Behind Act. The law says schools identified as “In need of improvement” for more three consecutive years must be restructured.

Ansonia has been on the needs improvement list for three years, according to the most recent No Child Left Behind report for district, which looked at the 2007-08 school year.

That year was the fourth year Ansonia Middle School and the fifth year Mead School failed to meet federal improvement standards. The state measures those standards with the Connecticut Mastery Tests for elementary students and the CAPT test for high school students.

The goal of the restructure is to improve the schools to help students learn and perform better.

The state Department of Education has been working with the district to make changes required. As part of the process, Cambridge Education, an education consulting company, reviewed each of the schools and the entire district and offered suggestions. (Click on “Cambridge Says” to read the full report for each school.)

Here’s a run-down of what’s different this year:

Ansonia High School

Main Difference: The big change at Ansonia High School this year will be the addition of the alternative education students at the high school building. Starting today, those students will take courses in temporary buildings in the back of the school, as opposed to at the Pine High School facility on Howard Avenue. (Read a New Haven Register article about that change here.)

Cambridge Says: The principal has raised standards and created “a professional climate of increased rigor,” but the school still needs improvement, especially in raising math test scores. There is a good school climate and good interaction with the community.

Ansonia Middle School

Main Difference: The sixth graders were removed from the building and the city’s two pre-school programs have been moved there instead. About 90 pre-school students will now attend a singular program, which must be re-accredited as a result.

Cambridge Says: Ansonia Middle School needed to improve its curriculum, especially in terms of assigning work to students with disabilities, English language learners and higher achieving students. There’s good school climate, but the middle school needs “substantial improvement” communicating with parents and the community.

John G. Prendergast School
Main Difference: The school used to house preschool to second grades. This year it will be one of two elementary schools to have kindergarten to sixth grade. Lawrence P. DiPalma, the former assistant principal at Mead School, joins the staff as the new principal.

Cambridge Says: Prendergast is “emerging from a turbulent period of constantly changing leadership at school and district levels,” but a “renewed drive” from the administration and staff is present. Student achievement needs to improve, as does communication with parents about the school’s work.

John C. Mead School
Main Difference: Mead School used to have the older elementary students – grades 3 to 5 – but will now also be a kindergarten through sixth grade school. The students at Mead failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (a federal standard under No Child Left Behind) for the past few years, and as a result must now be offered the opportunity to transfer to Prendergast School if they want.

Cambridge Says: Math and writing scores have greatly improved at Mead, but reading levels need a boost to keep up with state standards. School climate is good, and the school is “rapidly improving due to focused, purposeful and determined leadership.”

Preparations

Superintendent Carol Merlone said the staff has be preparing for the changes all summer, and said they expected a safe and structured first day.

A lot of work went into bus schedules, Merlone said, because Mead and Prendergast schools will both be dealing with young students this year, instead of just Prendergast.

As part of the changes, staff members have been mixed up among the two schools. Some older students will go back to the school they associated with the younger grades, and some younger students will be at the “big kids” school. Merlone said efforts were made to keep siblings together.

“There’s new staff to both buildings because we’ve moved 50 percent of all staff,” said Merlone. “There’s a positive to that because when the students are entering the buildings, there will be familiar faces.”

The district also has to allow school choice to parents at Mead School, under the No Child Left Behind law. There are five slots alloted at each grade level for Mead students to apply to Prendergast, Merlone said.

District officials are still tallying the number of applications they received for transfers, but Merlone said “there wasn’t an alarming amount.”

Merlone said the district also has a new reading curriculum, written by staff members this past year. The curriculum puts all students in the district on the same page, Merlone said, and aims to improve reading scores on CMTs.

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