Ridgefield schools balk at CT's new mandate for 'one-size-fits-all' reading programs

Scotland Elementary School at 111 Barlow Mountain Rd in Ridgefield.

Scotland Elementary School at 111 Barlow Mountain Rd in Ridgefield.

Carol Kaliff / Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD  — Local school officials are upset over new legislation that will require the K-3 reading program to be mandated by the state, saying Ridgefield schools spent time and money in developing its own, customized program to meet the needs of its students.

The concern pertains to the state's release on Sept. 29 of the approved list of K-3 core comprehensive reading curricula/programs in response to a state law that went into effect recently. 

According to a memo from the education commissioner that was included in a recent board packet,  the law requires the state Department of Education to "review and approve at least five reading curricula/programs that must be implemented by all public-school districts effective in the 2023–24 school year.”

In a recent education board meeting, Ridgefield Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Cory Gillette referenced six state-mandated programs, which can be viewed on the state website, under the state approved reading/curricula programs. Ridgefield's program, which uses a combination of resources including Heggerty and Wilson phonics, is not on the list.

"If as a district we follow that (one of the mandated programs), we would have to throw away all the work that we've done, all of the expertise of our teachers, and really, in our opinion, provide a one-size-fits-all type of approach to reading that might have the elements of the science of reading, though we've had no opportunity to really study and learn about those resources," she said. "The state has said, 'Here is a box basically, and this is what you need to teach from.'"

The state Department of Education did not return a request for comment by deadline. 

The Ridgefield Board of Education has approved $250,000 for professional learning costs over the last 2 1/2 years.
 
"We know that the work that we're doing with our teachers, we know we're providing really high quality professional learning for our teachers," Gillette said. "We know that these are best practices and we know that the resources that we have implemented recently are known in the fields to be the best at providing that part of the science and reading that we provide in Ridgefield schools."

Schools Superintendent Susie Da Silva said the state is unfairly "dictating" its program to all school districts in the state of Connecticut.

It would cost the state about $7 million to fund its reading programs across Connecticut, according to state policy that was presented during the school board meeting. 

The state based its decision on data from Mississippi that showed an underachieving school district achieved better results due to the required programs, Da Silva said.

Da Silva said she has asked the state some questions, including: Who will implement the new curriculum? Who's reimbursing the district for its current program? Who's paying for the new program? What happens if the new program fails? What if Ridgefield's performance goes down? What happens if we implement this program and students require more intervention? Who's going to pay for that?

Waiver

The state is giving school districts the opportunity to request a waiver to implement a reading curriculum model or program that isn't one of the six options.

The requirements for the waiver include demonstrating the district's program meets certain criteria, including being "evidenced-based and scientifically-based, and focused on competency in ... oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, rapid automatic name or letter name fluency and reading comprehension," the state's website says.  

Da Silva said the waiver is "about 22 pages long," Da Silva said. "But we'll do whatever we are required to do so that we can move forward in our school district with what's best for our students, for our faculty, and for the approach that is the most meaningful."

She added Ridgefield's model is "authentic, meaningful, it's supported by teachers. It comes with a significant amount of staff development. " 

Next steps

At the Nov. 14 education board meeting, board members will discuss a letter they plan to submit to the state in regard to the mandate. 

Gillette said the implementation of a program, no matter whose program it is, is much more critical than the actual program itself.

"Implementation is key to all programs," she said. "Implementation is where the rubber hits the road ... Having teachers being able to have a voice from the beginning of the process — it's invaluable. That is something that we feel contributes so much to the culture and climate in this district because we value that process and value that role of our teachers. That makes all this feel even more disconcerting."