The reported highest-in-the-state pay-to-participate program, which includes both sports and clubs, currently in effect at Tolland schools is getting a lot of attention lately, and it should. The fact that the Superintendent and BOE say that it will only get worse under the Town Manager’s proposed budget should also be thoroughly and thoughtfully debated before we are asked to vote on May 1st. I would argue, however, that this policy is but one symptom of the narrowing of opportunities available to public school students. This narrowing of opportunity should be alarming to anyone who cares about this generation of future leaders.
Lack of sufficient financial resources is clearly one major cause of this narrowing. When available resources are less than what it costs to offer programs, something has to give. While our academic programs have certainly seen their share of hits, co-curriculars and “specials” tend to get the worst of it. Why? Simply put, there’s no standardized test for art.
And that leads me to the second reason our students’ worlds are shrinking: policy and law have elevated the standardized test to an entirely outsized role in the task of helping young people develop into educated, well-rounded adults. When was the last time your Tolland student went on a field trip? This isn’t a budget question. Families have always paid for these trips. Field trips are not happening for the most part because teachers are preparing students for the almighty test. Conversely, you can probably recall when they last had a “benchmark” --- it was probably yesterday! We know from both research and experience that human beings learn by DOING. The current educational paradigm does not account for that basic fact.
Public school should, at its core, be about OPPORTUNITY. It should be about being able to try things that you might not otherwise be exposed to. So, YES, the curriculum and budget should include band and string instruments and sports and art in all its forms and chorus and student journalism and graphics and architecture and civics and other cultures… it should be about exposure to as wide a world as possible. It should also be about talented, well-trained teachers guiding students to logical conclusions, not about adhering to a pacing guide that has you hurtling through material and dreading another snow day.
Last fall, a friend of mine, a second grade teacher in another district, was preparing for parent conferences. She observed that, with all of the assessment she was required to do, she felt she barely knew her students as people. She could convey information about their reading levels and math prowess, but not as much about the type of learners her students were. This clearly troubled her and it has stuck with me. The magic in learning happens within the connection between teacher and student. It’s when the ah-ha moment can be crafted for a child because the teacher knows how that kid ticks and can make that connection. It feels like the system has conspired to minimize the opportunity for these connections.
No child ever determined who they wanted to be in the world by taking a test. It’s involved parents and talented educators that play the primary role in shaping a student’s world. Those educators come in the form of teacher, coach, principal, school secretary, school nurse --- all of the adults our children interact with. The genesis of these lost opportunities is both local and external. I hope this community will do all it can to maximize our children’s access to learning on all levels – on the playing field, in the classroom and in the world beyond Tolland.