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Wakefield School Board talks technology and politics


September 10, 2009
WAKEFIELD — The Wakefield School Board tackled a busy agenda at its Sept. 2 meeting where board members discussed technology, academics, substitutes and politics.

During the first public comment period held at the onset of the meeting, resident David Lee spoke to the frequency and cost of substitute teachers.

"I think that having four substitute teachers every day of every school year is an awful lot of substitute teachers; its an additional $47,000 for substitute teachers last year that taxpayers really didn't need to pay for if the teachers were in the classroom teaching. We only have 45 teachers," said Lee. The number of substitutes needs to be reduced by at least one a day, he added.

School Board member Peter Kasprzyk said he's more concerned with the constituency of instruction. "That's one of the keys to learning, having the same person on the same schedule, said Kasprzyk. Lee agreed. "The way to learn the most is from the teacher in the classroom, not the substitute teacher. He or she comes in for one day and really doesn't pick up from when the teacher left off, said Lee. School Board Chair Janet Gagnon noted that the cost the $47,000 also includes coverage for the 29 paraprofessionals and not just the teachers' substitutes, and that the board has contractual obligations to the teachers union. "We have paid attention," said Gagnon.

School District Technology Coordinator Christopher Bergeron updated the board on the teacher training with the MSS computer grade book program. Teachers in grades six and eight were scheduled for training this week, but School Board Chair Janet Gagnon expressed frustration with the slow rollout of the program, which should have been implemented by now.

"I think there was a little frustration with this program because we took it on with the understanding that it would be rolled out, everyone would be on board. This has taken a number of years. We want to make sure this is an expensive program that it works. Everybody had to be on board and that was one of the stipulations for taking the program on. It seems to be taking quite some time," said Gagnon. The program was purchased in June of 2008, said Bergeron, and the original plan was to have it implemented by fall of last year. "Unfortunately that didn't happen. We ended up having significant issues," including data conversion, he added. They did resolve those issues mid-year. In response to Gagnon's query, Bergeron said it would not be cost effective for the school to have its own server to host the MSS program. The program will enable parents to keep up with their child's grading and assignments online, as well as provide teachers with a digital grade book. Another MSS issue was whether all the classes would sign on. Currently, the plan is only to have the upper grades six through eight on the program. Board member Peter Wons mentioned that he has experience with a similar system but has not seen it used much at the primary level.

Kasprzyk noted that parents should be trained also, that logging on and seeing a low grade may lead some parents to overreact. "I think parents need to be taught to deal with this kind of technology and the way to deal with the child as well," he said, suggesting a parent's information night at the gymnasium. Board member Bonnie Cyr said she for one appreciates such access to her child's grades and reaction depends upon ones parenting skills. Gagnon said the program would take the weight off a child bringing home grades to the parent. Now you are allowed to go on the program, and get an update on their progress and see any red flags, she added. Wons said in his academic experience, the parents who may check their child's progress with assignments on a Friday afternoon, and not used to replace more comprehensive progress or grade reports use the program. Cyr said the program could be used at the elementary level as well.

Parent Stephanie Bateman said to her, the ability to log into the MSS system "is a huge plus to me. I'm an involved parent." First grade teacher Lauree Royal said she thought the system could be used for the lower grades.

Board members also discussed enrollment to the SEEK program, a supplemental academic program in match and science for gifted children. Wons and Kasprzyk said they felt that parents and students should be allowed to opt out of the program, rather than be mandatory. Principal Patrick Troy said the board could request that option but that it was important to push the "best and brightest" students to their full potential. After additional discussion, the board passed the motion allowing parents and students to opt out of the program after consultation with the teacher.

In other business, the board discussed the time frame for a special district meeting should one be necessary for the public to vote on the Wakefield Paraprofessionals' Association labor contract, which has gone into the fact finding stage after each side failed to reach an agreement. A meeting was scheduled between the union and school district on Friday, Sept. 11 at 3:30 p.m. And a public hearing was tentatively scheduled for Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. at the Paul School. As a backup, the district filed for permission in Superior Court to hold a special town meeting where a contract could be accepted or rejected by voters.

Bateman, in a public period, also notified the board of President Barack Obama's public speech to schools nationwide on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Board members had not heard of the speech, but Bateman said if the school were participating, she'd pull her children out of school for that time period. Principal Troy said the school was not participating and could not spare the instructional time.

"My concern is that I don't think the school should be involved in something like that," she said, noting a fear that the President would seek to spread his political agenda during the speech to kids. A notice did go out to parents that the school would not participate.

In other topics, the board discussed the $9,500 set aside for architectural fees related to the school renovation project. Gagnon said she wants the public to understand the board does not plan a building project in the immediate future and one will not be presented at town meeting. Kasprzyk said the board should move forward for planning purposes however.

Royle added during the public comment period that some teachers do express political views during school and that she didn't think that is was appropriate. She said teachers have expressed political views with students in the past and that there were repercussions for students who did not agree with a certain teacher. She also asked several questions about supplies dealing with ordering and access.

The board also went into a non-public session to discuss personnel and student issues. During the session, the board tabled a parent request pending more information; rejected a parent request for her children to attend Paul School until they purchase a home in Wakefield, and adjusted the benefits for an employee.

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