Parents and teacher united, and divided, on school climate

Parents and teachers shared diverse opinions on the public school district’s strengths and weaknesses in written comments on a school survey, offering a detailed glimpse into a district of historically excellent academics that has fallen under heavy scrutiny over the past year because of mismanagement and illegal activity, which has led to high turnover and questions of where the district is headed.

While teachers and parents differed between and among themselves in the surveys, a number of patterns emerged that seem to point out where the district needs improvement, according to a Darien Times analysis of the 700-plus page results obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Leadership and respect

Both teachers and parents pointed out that there has been a lack of district leadership over the last year. One staff member said leadership has been “deplorable,” while another said the district is “suffering a leadership crisis.”

“This district is going to hell in a hand bag,” a Middlesex Middle School employee wrote. “The kids and parents are great, but the leadership has forgotten what a great community this is.”

Another lamented the “noticeable lack of vision” from the Board of Education throughout the district. Parents often echoed this point.

“Someone needs to step forward and inspire our students,” a high school parent wrote. “It’s very disappointing.”

A lack of respect for teachers and a lack of teacher training opportunities were also often cited by staff and parents in the comments section. Some teachers stated that they felt parents often bullied them and that the administration was not supporting teachers, choosing instead to acquiesce to parents’ demands.

“I honestly feel that my principal has pretty much thrown her hands up when it comes to putting parents in their place and backing her teachers,” the teacher wrote. “I find myself questioning, ‘Who is running the building? The parents or the teachers?’ ”

“Stop trying to please parents and remember we’re supposed to teach children,” another teacher wrote. Still, some teachers expressed delight with parents and their level of involvement.

“Most of the families are involved with their child’s progress, support classroom activities, and appreciate all the efforts I make as a teacher,” the person wrote. Parents, on the other hand, sometimes berated their peers for being overly aggressive and asking the district to do too much.

“I wish we had a more relaxed parent body which was less stressed about adding additional levels of complexity and involvement to our children’s school experience,” a Tokeneke School parent wrote.

Many teachers noted that they feel overwhelmed by paperwork and data collection, and that there is not enough time for teaching.

“I think there is a global feeling at the school of stress,” a Middlesex teacher wrote. “The staff seems more concerned with meeting all of the ProTraxx requirements and not having time during the school day to get all of the necessary paperwork done on top of student/parent needs, than enjoying working with students.”

ProTraxx is a performance evaluation software that teachers use to input information. Darien began using it during the 2013-14 school year.

Several parents urged the district to find ways to improve teachers’ access to professional development opportunities.

“I feel frustrated by the lack of staff development in our district,” an Ox Ridge School parent wrote. “I think our teachers need more modern techniques in education.”

Special education

Problems with special education were also cited by staff and parents as contributing to low morale and constant concern over whether services were being delivered appropriately. State investigators found the district broke state and federal special education law during the 2012-13 school year, but during the 2013-14 school year, as the district was supposed to be implementing remedial measures, more problems emerged when it was reported that elementary-aged children in special education lost services because they were not on the same schedule as their non-disabled peers.

While at first the district administration made it seem as if no children lost services because of the schedule problem, teachers admitted this happened in a survey taken about the new schedule. Full survey results were not provided to the Board of Education, but The Darien Times obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request and reported the teachers’ comments.

The “current special education situation has had a deleterious effect on faculty morale,” one teacher wrote. Another commented that the “special ed climate has been awful this year which has been a huge problem.” Still another teacher stressed that special education has been getting too much attention.

“I feel special education has taken over,” the teacher wrote. “So much time is devoted to these students and their parents.”

That sentiment was shared by a few parents, including one who said that “demanding parents are endemic” and that it is nobody’s “right to be rewarded” with free private school education.

Behavior and morale

The top concerns that teachers pointed out, and not the parents, were behavior problems and the lack of firm disciplinary procedures and practices.

“There are more behavior problems now than ever before,” said one person who started teaching in Darien 14 years ago. “The respect toward teachers/aides and other school personnel from students and parents is at an all time low.”

At least six staff members pointed out the need for there to be better guidelines for dealing with behavior problems, and some mentioned the need for proactive measures, such as teaching basic manners and politeness.

“I believe there is a need to [develop] guidelines for behavior of students and a plan set in place for infractions,” one teacher wrote. Another noted the need for a disciplinary procedure for teachers as well as students.

“I feel the climate in the school could be greatly improved if there were a stronger sense of consequences for the actions of faculty, and more importantly, the students,” a Middlesex teacher wrote.

A high number of teachers also lamented that staff morale is the lowest they’ve seen in years.

“Morale is very low due to the constant changes in curriculum and policies,” a Hindley School teacher stated. Another noted that there is a “sense of confusion and morale is low,” because the special education changes have been “very disconcerting” and implemented with “little consistency or support from administrators.”

“Everything is very top-down, teachers do not feel like they have a voice,” another teacher wrote. “Everyone is spread too thin.”

Bullying and exclusion

The top problem pointed out by parents was a high prevalence of bullying and poor management of bullying incidents by the schools.

“Bullying is a huge problem,” one Tokeneke parent wrote. A Royle School parent noted that “bullies in kindergarten will be bullies in high school,” and that the district needs “to be more effective in handling issues as they arise.”

Last year, the state Office of Civil Rights found Darien did not have a bullying policy in place, despite the Board of Education formally adopting a policy in 2011.

Some parents also expressed concern about the exclusionary tendency of the parent community and how it prevented working parents from participating in school activities.

“I think the lack of parental access to classroom activities is quite extreme,” a Tokeneke parent wrote, adding that she is a “working mother” and feels “very disconnected” from the school community because she works and is not invited to functions, which mostly happen during the day.

An Ox Ridge parent lamented the “blatant bias against parents who work outside the home during the business day, and that the Ox Ridge PTO is “exclusionary, and the administration openly supports this despite repeated requests for years to address the situation…”

While the majority of written comments were critical, there were a considerable number of positive comments from parents and teachers.

“The culture of our school is one of support and collegiality,” a Hindley employee wrote. Another noted how the staff works hard to ensure “all people at our school are treated respectfully,” and that the “administration goes out of their way to help us in any way they can.”

An Ox Ridge parent praised that school’s administration, saying it does an “excellent job” and that parents “feel fortunate to have them leading our school, teachers and children.”

Teachers, parents and students completed these surveys earlier this year answering questions related to the school climate. They were asked to choose one of four choices indicating the frequency, or lack thereof, of certain incidents. The end of the survey offered respondents a chance to provide written comments, which The Times cites for this article. Results from the multiple choice questions were previously reported.

A total of 1,108 parents completed the survey, along with 592 staff members and 2,577 students. School employees were the highest responding, in terms of a percentage of the total number in the district, with more than 77% responding. Middlesex had the highest student turnout, with 82% of the student body responding. Darien High School had the lowest turnout at 38%. Among elementary school students, Hindley had the highest at 55% and Tokeneke had the lowest at 40%.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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