Thursday, September 21, 2023


Tears for Future of Staples Child Development Program

By James Lomuscio

Even though it was not on tonight’s school board agenda, parents and students one after the other came forward to protest. A couple of them cried. Others were in disbelief. Image
Staples senior Kate Backman burst into tears as she pleaded with the Board of Education to retain teacher Linda McClary.  (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Photo from Staples Television

They had just learned that the Staples High School child development program as it exists now would be discontinued next year.

Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer’s decision to reshuffle the program to the social studies department was stealthily done without seeking parent and student input, they argued.

They also expressed concern about the future of Linda McClary, the long time, well-loved program teacher.

“Mrs. McClary and the program are synonymous,” said Julie Hood, whose daughter graduated Staples in June. “Is she going to be part of the new school?”

There was no answer from Palmer nor Staples Principal James D’Amico.

Palmer reiterated what she had said in an email letter to parents on Sunday — the changes were not predicated by budgetary concerns but to comply with state requirements.

“It caught us off guard,” she said about the state Department of Education feedback received Nov. 30. “We cannot have a teacher in the class who is not certified.”

She had said in her letter that for the course to comply with certification requirements for current staff, “we would need to have our child development classroom courses integrated within either the health or social studies departments.”

Palmer also said that the administration was trying to be transparent, working since the end of November to find out a way to make the program meet state requirements.

“It has to be legal; this really caught us off guard,” she said.

According to Palmer, about 18 high school students work with about 10 preschool children at Staples’ play school program for six hours a week under McClary’s direction.

In her letter she said that following a review by district professionals, “It became readily apparent that with the changing and more complex needs of these young learners, one dedicated teacher and a class of enthusiastic high school students, no matter how committed, could simply not meet all of the needs of the preschoolers in terms of expertise to identify any developmental delays in the realms of communication, movement, and/or cognition, which is a state requirement, even for Play Schools.”

To comply with state requirements, Palmer said that for the 2017-18 school year child development classes will move to the social studies department “where the element of child psychology will also be integrated to this curriculum.”

She also said that the high school students will have regular face-to-face time with preschoolers and young children, “but the program will leverage existing full-scale preschools and elementary schools in operation.”

“Utilizing existing preschools and educational environments fully staffed with a team of professionals to deal with the complexities of these young learners will provide exceptional and realistic, learning environments,” said Palmer.

She told the board tonight, “If I could wave a magic wand I would move Stepping Stones (the preschool program at Coleytown Elementary School) here to Staples.” But, she added, there was not enough room at the high school.

Palmer said consideration had been given to busing Staples students to Coleytown for the program.

Since learning of the state regulations in November, she said she had repeatedly sought some relief from the state Department of Education to no avail.

Her explanation, however, did not sway program supporters. As of tonight, 640 of them had signed an online petition to maintain the program as is.

One parent who spoke tonight said that at other schools the students would not be formulating child development lessons, but merely observing them.

Patricia Freeman, who said she moved to Westport last year, said busing students to alternative sites was not acceptable, She added:, “It only adds scheduling and logistical pressures to our already time challenged students.”

Gregory Ethier, whose daughter Julia is a Staples senior enrolled in McClary’s class, condemned the “stealth-like decision-making process” to cancel the class. “And frankly, it should alarm every parent and taxpayer in the town of Westport,” he said.

Parent Jason Wilson, who said he moved from Atlanta last year to Westport because of the schools where three daughters are enrolled, said he learned about the cancellation during a parent teacher conference with McClary.

“Linda was crying when she told us the program was not going to be there next year,” he said. “So if the decision was made in late November, why are we finding out from the teacher at the end of January?”

One student, senior Kate Backman, who is enrolled in McClary’s program, burst into tears, begging the administration to keep her.

“I really think it important that she be part of this school because she has really changed my life and been there for me than any other teacher has,” she said, pausing to regain her composure.

“And I think she makes this community, like, just so much better. She’s made me feel comfortable at this school. And she’s made me feel like I have a place to feel safe in her classroom. So if her place is under any discussion, please consider keeping her.”

Lily Bloomingdale said she was:“disappointed and shocked to see changes with very little public sharing of information.”

She called for a “little more transparency …. not a unilateral decision without public comment. That’s not what Westport does.”

Amee Borys, director of the preschool at Earthplace and a Staples parent, also came to McClary’s defense, saying that because of the current program’s quality, “I hire students from Mrs. McClary’s class.”

Angela Ethier, who said she was a nurse Ph.D., also fought back tears as she told the board: “I just want to know why — why wasn’t there any transparency? Why didn’t anybody say that there was an issue and seek any input?”

While the Board of Education listened to the nonagenda item, no action was taken.

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