Could machines be replacing humans in the hallways of Ridgefield schools?

Proposed teacher layoffs — two full-time English teachers at the high school, five at East Ridge Middle School, and one at the elementary level — caught the attention of Ridgefield students after Superintendent Karen Baldwin presented her $97.1-million budget for 2018-19 last week.

“Included in the proposed budget are plans to purchase iPads for the elementary schoolers and security cameras for the school buses,” said RHS senior Callie McQuilkin in an email to The Press. “I understand the district would like to modernize its equipment, but sacrificing writing conferences — the heart of the RHS English program — for luxury technologies seems like a horribly unbalanced trade-off.”

Baldwin said the RHS English department would have to re-examine how writing conferences are staffed if the proposed reductions go through a town vote later this year. She added that if each teacher taught four classes, there was an opportunity to reduce as many as four teachers.

Speechwriter

RHS students believe the proposed English department cuts would unfairly impact their high school careers, and those of their peers.

Senior Max Cumming gave the example of Ridgefield High alumnus Cody Keenan, a member of the Class of 1998, who went on to be one of the principal speech writers in President Barack Obama’s White House.

Keenan only excelled, Cumming argued, because he had had particularly tough teachers at Ridgefield High who made him give his work another look.

“In his junior year, Keenan received a ‘C’ on a paper for the first time in his life,” Cumming said. “As Keenan thought he was a skilled writer, he approached his teacher, Kathy Wassall, wondering why his paper was not well received. Ms. Wassall carefully explained the flaws in his paper, and according to Keenan himself, that experience developed him as a writer more than any other did.”

Years later, Cumming said, while Keenan was writing the president’s speech on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham, Ala., Keenan “spent hours in conference with the president, collaboratively writing and reviewing, just as he had done years ago with Ms. Wassall.”

‘Great loss’

The cuts weren’t all about making room for new technology.

Baldwin’s budget proposes the hiring of several new staff members in the special education department, which she said had been strained over the last few years by rising numbers of students with special education needs.

But McQuilkin said she believes that cutting staff from the English department would hinder the students who take advantage of the school’s conference program.

“If there is any place in RHS I can call home, it is the English wing, a Mecca of interesting conversations and healthy literary debate. The teachers, heads of this intellectual household, are some of the wisest, most dedicated individuals I know,” said McQuilkin. A former Press intern, she credits the English department at the high school with influencing her decision to pursue a career in journalism.

“Early before school starts and late after the final bell has rung, they are actively holding writing conferences and meeting with pupils. To lay off a single English teacher would be a great loss to the RHS community,” she added.