Letter: 'Schools are failing our children'

Hearst Connecticut Media Letter to the Editor graphic 

Hearst Connecticut Media Letter to the Editor graphic 

Contributed photo

(Note: Please see Ridgefield Public Schools' note below.)

To the Editor:

In this time of mental health crisis, elementary art instruction is at an all-time low. Ridgefield Public Schools art instruction was slashed by our Superintendent three years ago, promising a more robust program would take its place. Nothing has happened, so 2,000 of our youngest, most vulnerable students have gone without proper art instruction for three years.

Our “top performing” district has 4 art teachers traveling between 6 elementary schools to deliver art instruction once every 6 days to almost 500 children each, making it simply impossible to provide appropriate instruction and connection with students. Our administration admits that critical student-teacher contact suffers without an art teacher in each building. RPS provides less than the minimum art time recommended by the state, the least time compared to other “essentials” like PE, music and library, and RPS is at the very bottom compared to our counterparts like Wilton, Westport, Darien and Redding.

This year’s budget can accommodate adding back the two missing elementary teachers for a modest sum representing just 0.18% of the proposed almost 111 million dollar budget. Our BOE, elected advocates for our children, must enact policies and programs that match our community’s values. Years of numerous petitions, emails and public comments in favor of restoring one full-time art teacher per elementary school have made it clear that Ridgefield-- the state’s first “Cultural District”-- values art education.

If administration needs more time to "fix" what wasn’t broken in the first place, it should not make our elementary students suffer another year with inadequate attention. If you agree that our children deserve to benefit from Ridgefield’s previously highly-regarded elementary art program, please join me in supporting the restoration of 6 art teachers for 6 elementary schools by writing to boardofed@ridgefieldps.net and sdasilva@ridgefield.org.

Dawn-Marie Callahan

Response from Ridgefield Public Schools:

The Ridgefield Public School Elementary Art Program

Despite what you might be hearing, the Ridgefield Public School Art Program is vitally important to our elementary curriculum and strong. Four talented educators teach classes to all our students for 45 minutes on a six-day cycle with enrichment opportunities in grades four and five, as well as an adapted art experience for children with learning differences. There are no cuts to the art programs in the 2023-24 proposed budget.  In fact, professional learning is being increased for Art educators K-8.

Let’s take a look back at the evolution of the elementary art program, as it's been a topic at RPS for many, many years.

Past principals and administrations carefully considered art teachers’ daily schedules over the past decade. In fact, Deborah Low, who was RPS superintendent from 2007-14, staffed based on enrollment, thus reducing the FTE of the art teachers at the smaller elementary schools (Farmingville, Barlow Mountain, and Veterans Park). The next RPS superintendent, Dr. Karen Baldwin suggested even a further reduction in art teachers based on the elementary principals’ recommendations. The Board of Education at the time didn’t choose to adopt Dr. Baldwin’s recommended reductions. 

Dr. JeanAnn Paddyfoote who twice served as RPS interim superintendent also supported the recommendations of the principals by proposing a similar reduction during her tenure (2018-19 and 2019-20) just as the current superintendent (and the covid pandemic) started (April 2020). 
The current superintendent, Dr. Susie Da Silva actually increased the number of art teachers from three to four in her first proposed 2021-22 budget to ensure teachers had additional time for materials preparation, as well as enrichment and extra support for students with intensive special needs.  Director of Elementary Education Linda Johnson credits these four art teachers for their collaborative professional development and their thoughtful reimagination of the Art LEAP program this year to extend to both fourth and fifth-graders who want to stretch their creativity but cannot afford to miss instructional time. This makes the Art LEAP program more inclusive to all our learners. Furthermore, our art teachers bring creative synergy to the schools, which share similar all-school murals, projects, and an active Instagram page. RPS art teachers are professionals that connect with their students and colleagues, and they are valued. 

Does the change in staffing of art teachers mean reducing the minutes of art instruction? No, in fact, our elementary principals have collaboratively reviewed the daily instructional minutes and allocated time for core academic areas, essentials, and support. What it means is that all RPS elementary students receive the same amount of art, across all six schools, so instead of reducing the hours art teachers were at the smaller schools (effectively making them part-time employees), the art teachers now share their talents at two schools and work full-time schedules.  Is there room for more art within the current staffing model? Possibly, but we love that our students can choose to study through Art Leap without missing out on other much-needed parts of their day.

How do we compare with other school districts at the elementary level? Do other school districts have more minutes of art instruction? World languages? Computer or Science teachers? The answer to all these questions is yes and no, some districts do, some districts don’t. A recent review (February 2023) of DRG A’s instructional minutes shows many changes since the last DRG comparison chart.  Is there any district better than RPS? The answer is a resounding, no! Our dedicated administrative team of professionals, excellent educators, exceptional students, and supportive families make us a district to be proud of with incremental improvements, sound leadership, and fiduciary responsibility. Like our Vision of the Graduate, Ridgefield Public Schools aims to be Collaborative, Innovative, Mindful, Communicative, Knowledgeable, and Resilient.