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A Look at Stamford's School Governance Councils: Julia A. Stark

An occasional series looking at what Stamford's School Governance Councils developed last year are up to for the 2012-2013 school year.

On Wednesday evening, the Stamford Board of Education met to discuss Superintendent Winifred Hamilton's goals for the year as September gives way to October and school reaches full swing.

Stamford also has 11 schools in its district, however, that take a much more focused approach to developing goals for their individual populations with School Governance Councils.

"The state ID'd a number of schools required to form school governance councils," said Julia A. Stark Elementary Principal Mark Bonasera. "This was based on the CMT results from the 2008-2009 school year. It's been a blessing for us, we've really developed a great council."

The council is made up of seven parents, five teachers and two community members. The parents and teachers are voted to the council by the families that make up the population of the school. The community members are invited to join by the 12 other members.

Stark's council met Wednesday evening as well, and with a similar agenda to the Board of Ed. It was time to discuss their own vision for the coming year and how they can maintain the growth and improvement of the previous year.

They've already had two of their monthly meetings to far for the 2012-2013 school year, but October's meeting covered many important topics that really highlight the very essence of why the board is important.

As a school that was deemed in need of additional help, Stark looked to the signs that it was struggling and embraced the idea of the council. And it wasn't just about boosting test scores, but finding a way to approach school as a total experience for children and the adults that raise them so everyone gets the most out of the experience.

"My son's in fourth grade, so I'm going on my fifth year with Stark," said council member Stephanie O'Shea. "I care about this school. It's such a wonderful school with such a great community. Then this was formed and you just want to be involved to help shape the future. And everyone here is taking it very seriously and coming up with some really great ideas."

And that's what the council was doing Wednesday. They discussed a tipsheet they had helped develop for parents with students entering kindergarten. It passed along easy-to-read explanations and answered frequently-asked-questions for parents with children entering kindergarten for the first time, either with previous preschool experience or without.

The council decided they could reach out to local preschools to help foster relationships with potential and likely future students early so that the move at the beginning of kindergarten year is not completely foreign.And while it was one simple topic, it was the quintessential item to explain why the council was such an effective tool against sagging test scores.

The group was actively looking to engage the community and its members and help parents prepare their children for school better, in the hopes of producing more effective students. Bonasera thinks it's been working. 

"Seventy five more students were represented," Bonasera said during the meeting of the parents or guardians present at the Back to School night this year. "Our numbers have gone up, but that number is more than our increase. We're at about 45 to 50 more students than last year."

Another idea the council kicked around was using some surprise, last-minute funding to reestablish tutoring and homework-help sessions, either before or after school, utilizing high school and adult volunteers and possibly some sort of paid position.

The council, while enthusiastic, is still fairly new. Last year was the first year Stark was designated to organize one. No long term accomplishments have been established yet, but dedication to the cause will not be the boards problem.

Previously, schools had been judged based on the number of students at the level of proficiency or higher. While this is obviously a benchmark every school strives to achieve with all it's students, some need more help than others. A change in the way progress is evaluated is more promising for schools that had students with lower starting points.

"[A] difference between this formula versus the [Adequate Yearly Progress] measurement is that we only got credit, so to speak, for kids that passed that threshold of proficiency," said Assistant Principal Edith Presley. "Here, we are receiving credit for any movement. So if a child goes from 'Below Basic' to 'Basic,' there is an allotment in the formula for that. It is rewarding hard work in the right way. That's the goal. To move all children incrementally."

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