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High Academics with a Budget Surplus ... Hold the Fried Crickets

The Board of Education honored an exemplary student, listened to a presentation on challenging high achieving students, discussed Masuk's attendance policy and full day kindergarten.

Here's a roundup of news from Monday night's Board of Education meeting held at the Masuk High School Media Center.

Mmm! Fried Crickets

Masuk High School senior, Kerry Condon, was introduced by Assistant Principal Mark Schwarz as an Exemplary Student for her missionary work with orphans in Uganda.

Condon held up a ball made of banana leaves that the children use to play soccer there. "I played soccer since I was five and never without a soccer ball," she said. "That struck me."

Condon told Board of Education members about the importance Ugandans place on education and about the dangers posed by witch doctors, who capture children for sacrifices.

While in Uganda, Condon and other volunteers worked to improve a village's water system and engaged in recreational activities with the children.

Condon told stories of the relationships forged with the children, pet monkeys, a boat ride on the Nile River and of fried crickets that are sold on the street like hot dogs.

"The main thing I took out of this is how privileged I am to live here and go to this school and for my family," Condon said. "It's just a huge blessing."

A $33,000 Surplus

Gabriella DiBlasi, finance director for the school district, gave an update to the school board. She said a budget surplus of "a little over $33,000" should be given back to the town at the end of the fiscal year, but added it is not a final number. The total operating budget is $51.4 million.

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DiBlasi said there is about $2.5 million in the health care reserve.

She also said that the district was hit with a couple of unexpected expenses, including $26,000 to replace the septic system outside Monroe Elementary School and about $10,000 to fill in and re-seed a sinkhole in an athletic field at Masuk High School.

Board of Education Secretary Mark Hughes, who was acting chairman Monday night, asked if the failing septic system was the cause of past problems in the boys bathroom at Monroe Elementary School.

A smiling Monroe Elementary School Principal Debra Kovachi replied, "If they flush properly, it isn't a problem."

The room filled with laughter.

"I don't think it was ever a problem," Kovachi said.

Challenging Exceptional Students

Assistant Supt. John Battista and Stepney Elementary School Principal Susan Austin gave a presentation on how the town's schools challenge gifted students to reach their full potential.

Exceptional students are identified by scoring in the top five on the Connecticut Mastery Test in reading and math, by their grades, evidence of creativity and teacher observation, according to Battista.

All students are welcome to participate in NOMAD, an advanced math program. Arts & Imagination was brought back in the summer. And there are classes like sculpture, acting, Spanish, a Mad Scientist class, and outdoor learning at Webb Mountain Discovery Zone.

"The Common Core will do a great deal for these students and for all of our students," Battista said.

The middle school level has the Science Technology Engineering & Math Academy with inquiry based learning. Masuk has AP courses and students are encouraged to pursue their interests in clubs like robotics, which later became a credited course. There is a virtual high school with about 200 courses to choose from, the Capstone Project, Pi Day and Career Day to name just a few options for students.

"Masuk celebrates academic achievement, as well as sports achievement," Battista said.

Hartford Rules on Attendance

Masuk High School revised its attendance policy to cut down on student absences seven years ago, but changes adopted by state legislators will send school administrators back to the drawing board.

Assistant Principal Mark Schwarz told the Board of Education that changes will be made to be in compliance with state guidelines.

According to Masuk's current policy, a student that accumulates seven attendance points in one quarter receives I/A on their report card, meaning incomplete due to attendance. A letter explaining the appeals process and an appeal form is attached to report cards with an I/A.

Schwarz said most I/As are resolved with documentation explaining the absences. In cases where it isn't, he said a student can come before an appeals board.

If a student "naturally fails a course", Schwarz said s/he just gets an F, not an I/A.

A student gets one point for an excused absence, two points for an unexcused absence and a half a point for a tardy. In cases where there is a doctor's note showing verification, there is a class trip or an administrator gives permission, Schwarz said no points are charged for that quarter.

When questioned about the points system, Schwarz stressed that there are only "attendance points" and no points are taken away from a student's grades.

Section 10-198a of the Connecticut General Statutes says 1-9 excused absences require a parent's note, that 10 or more require documentation and all other absences are unexcused.

Supt. James Agostine said Monroe has a liberal policy meant to improve student behavior, rather than more rigid policies he has seen in other districts.

At the end of the discussion, Board of Education member Lee Crouch said, "The policy of seven years ago has worked and I think it has been fair to the kids."

During a public comment session, Doug Strickland, the father of a Masuk freshman, took exception to the current policy calling it "demeaning to parents". He believes parents' decisions to keep their child home should not result in any attendance points.

Strickland said there could be unintended consequences including needless visits to a doctor's office just to get a note (where a student can catch something worse); parents having to use their insurance co-pay to take their child to the doctor; or parents sending their child to school sick to avoid being hit with attendance points only to make other students sick.

Full Day Kindergarten

Supt. of Schools James Agostine said children who do not enroll in full day kindergarten fall behind those who do. And of the more than 20 schools in Fairfield County, Monroe, Newtown and Shelton are the only three districts that do not offer full day kindergarten.

Board of Education member Mark Antinozzi asked Agostine, "As part of your analysis, I wonder if you can determine the costs of hiring more teachers and class space because, like Newtown, we have a hard time passing budgets. I don't want to get shot down." 

Agostine said there can also be some savings. For instance, he said elimination of the mid-day bus run could save $50,000.

Board of Education Secretary Mark Hughes, acting as chairman Monday, said it cannot be a budget concern and, if the board determines full day kindergarten is the best thing for the district, "Then that's what we should do."

QWERTY October 16, 2012 at 03:42 PM
"Board of Education Secretary Mark Hughes, acting as chairman Monday, said it cannot be a budget concern..." Nothing's ever a budget concern in this town unless it has to do with the referendum. Apparently $51.4 million is chump change.
Sarah October 16, 2012 at 08:26 PM
Let's go Full Day Kindergarten!
Bullmastiff October 17, 2012 at 12:35 AM
Full Day Kindergarten first and foremost is the right investment in our children. Secondly, it's good for our community and real estate values.
Big Boy October 17, 2012 at 12:27 PM
Only three school districts, out of the total 23 in Fairfield County, don't have full day kindergarten and Monroe is one of them? And we are largely surrounded by the two other districts that do not offer full day kindergarten? That would play a major role in a family's decision to live here in Monroe, shop here in Monroe and pay taxes here in Monroe. And so goes our property values and home sales, sinking like the Titanic. It's like sitting in one of the life boats with your vest on watching the Titanic (Property Values) go down.
QWERTY October 17, 2012 at 02:44 PM
I'm not against full-day-K but be realistic, there isn't a normal and stable family in existence willing to move to a town exclusively for 10 month's worth of full-day-K. Property values won't change one bit.

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