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Newtown Homes Get A Steady Stream Of Information On School Issues



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Newtown Homes Get A Steady Stream Of Information On School Issues

By Nancy K. Crevier

As sure as rivers run high each spring, budget season means the ever-increasing flow of information from town offices, private organizations, and schools until it reaches flood stage. Children’s backpacks bulge with fliers, e-mails are peppered with pleas to support one project or another, cellphones are abuzz, and glossy brochures and hastily printed missives arrive in the mail. Go to a meeting and prepare to come home with a handful of printed pages. Schools provide fliers and posters exhorting the school system’s position. This spring, visitors to the high school are greeted in the lobby by an enormous full-color display of the proposed new high school addition, and the student produced video Jam-packed, viewable on the school’s website newtown.k12.ct.us (link High School Expansion), provides one look at the overcrowding of that school.

People desire as much information as possible to make a wise decision when it comes to supporting the expenditure of millions of dollars, and every subset of town government that requires funding is putting forth an effort to make sure residents know what is at risk.

This year, in particular, the Newtown school system has a lot at stake with nearly a million dollars already cut from the proposed school budget and the multimillion-dollar high school expansion on the table. During this budget season, especially, schools have geared up to inform parents and residents about the upcoming referendum. But budget season is not the only time of the year or the budget the only reason schools utilize every means available to keep families on top of issues.

Every day school administrators are faced with unanticipated emergencies and time-sensitive changes that need to be conveyed to students and parents and community members. Week to week and month to month Parent/Teacher Associations strive to keep families informed about budgets, programs, fundraisers, and other activities. It is a lot of information to disseminate and distribute in a timely manner.


While once the passage of information relied on memos sent home in a child’s backpack or a phone chain, today’s schools and parents rely increasingly on new technology. E-mail, websites, text messages, messages to PDAs, and electronic newsletters are among the most popular means of conveying information, according to several school administrators and PTA leaders. The newest is the Connect-ED system recently put into effect in Newtown schools. It has been used to relay information about suspicious activity, but a subset of Connect-ED is the community outreach plan, through which families receive nonemergency but potentially critical information.

Connect-ED allows school officials to notify every parent in the district of urgent information within minutes through the use of a recorded message. Connect-ED uses a simple three-part process to relay information. The authorized administrator records the message; the recipients are selected; and the message is sent to home or work phones, cellphones, text telephone devices, e-mail, voice mail, PDAs, or as a text message.

“Connect-ED is to be used by the principals of the schools or my office, that’s all,” said Superintendent of Newtown Schools Janet Robinson of the system that was installed just six weeks ago. “Parents today are asking for more information. They want to know what is going on,” she said. Principals at each school can determine if they should use Connect-ED to communicate with families about schedule changes and other timely issues, said Ms Robinson, but only the office of the superintendent authorizes emergency information.

“If it is an issue of urgency or last-minute changes, we would utilize Connect-Ed,” said the superintendent, who said the schools have received very little response from parents about the few notifications sent out since Connect-ED was put in use. “Most of the feedback has been concerning the incident of a student being approached by a suspicious car. Parents were very happy to know about that,” said Dr Robinson.

The district office noted that parents could opt to receive only the Connect-ED emergency notifications, and waive any community outreach calls on the system by calling the individual schools at which they have children enrolled.

“Personally, I like Connect-ED,” said parent and NHS PTSA co-president Janis Solheim. She was aware that a few parents were less than thrilled to have received the notifications on more than one family phone number concerning last week’s Board of Finance meeting, but did not count herself among them. “I ended up going to that meeting because of the phone call. It doesn’t bother me [to receive an automated call] and I’m happy that the school district is taking a proactive approach to getting information out,” said Ms Solheim.

 School board member Kathy Fetchick is part of a team spearheaded by the local PTAs to provide information to parents and to advocate for both the high school expansion and the school budget. The team is aided by the superintendent and school board members. In what could be a difficult budget year, said Ms Fetchick, the team has “tried to put together consistent and accurate messages for all of the schools” without being alarmist. This year’s newsletters have contained progressive reports on the budget and high school expansion, as well as providing reminders of town meeting dates that affect these projects, voting information, links to town offices for those residents with questions, and other updates.

It is up to each school PTA president and school principal as to how much of that input, gathered in conjunction with board member Lillian Bittman and the superintendent, goes into each newsletter, said Ms Fetchick. “As of yet, we have not had any complaints about any of the newsletters that we put together,” she said.

The high school addition is important to elementary school parents, said Sandy Hook PTA president MaryAnn Jacob, as is the town budget. Because of this, more information is going out to townspeople and parents this spring than other years, she said. Along with the school’s newsletter, the PTA is trying to be more creative in terms of motivating people. “Our goal, of course, is to be as truthful as possible. But no matter what we’ve done over the years, it hasn’t impacted the number of people who get out and vote, and that’s frustrating,” said Ms Jacob.

So this year, the Sandy Hook PTA has supported the community visit to the school held March 31 and held preschool events introducing families not only to the elementary school, but the school system as a bigger picture. “We are writing to The Bee, we are speaking at public meetings,” said Ms Jacob, in hopes that the voter turnout at the referendum will be greater this spring.

Sandy Hook School Principal Donna Pagé said that the weekly newsletter or sending information home with children remain the preferred methods of getting out information to their school families. The main office does not do direct mailings. Connect-ED is an efficient way to notify parents, said Ms Pagé, although the system has not been around long enough to really judge. “Opinions vary on automated phone calls,” she said, “but we have no complaints, so far.”

“The great thing about Connect-ED is that it sorts by family,” said Jen Madej, president of the Head O’ Meadow PTA. Other automated phone systems can be problematic in that parents with children in multiple schools can end up with a call from every school.

As schools become more environmentally sensitive, they are working to cut back on the amount of paper that is sent home. This year Head O’ Meadow (HOM) has made a conscious effort to limit the amount of information that goes home via backpack, said Ms Madej, and the majority of HOM families opt to read the biweekly newsletter online. “Our number one vehicle for communicating is the newsletter,” she said. PTA parents at HOM count on In The Know, as well, a mass e-mailing to member families that communicates news expediently.

What information is sent out and the best method for conveying the information is a collaboration between the PTA executive board, the principal, and the team leader at HOM for whichever program is affected, Ms Madej said. “We use multiple methods to inform and use every medium available when we need to,” she said. The HOM website was completely revamped for the 2007-2008 school year, thanks to the skills of Alan Pollard, said Ms Madej, and is kept current by computer technology instructor Amy Nosal. The HOM master calendar is also posted on the web page for the first time this year, she said, all of which means more information is getting out to families in a more efficient manner.

Joining Forces

With the high school expansion and the operating budget on everyone’s mind the past several weeks, Newtown PTAs have opted at least three times to join forces to put out information, said Ms Madej. Joint notifications are driven by Board of Education members, PTA presidents and advocacy leaders, and the superintendent, according to Ms Madej. A full-color brochure on the Newtown High School expansion project was put together by Fletcher Thompson, the architectural firm responsible for the expansion design plan, and was prepared, distributed, and paid for by Newtown’s PTAs. The joint PTAs also distributed information encouraging residents to vote on the tentative budget referendum date of April 22 and to remind of the March 31 Community Visit to schools, as well as fliers that advocate a Yes vote on the upcoming budget vote.

Ms Madej noted that once the Board of Selectmen sets the referendum date and the question for the vote, the PTA can no longer use school funds or means to reproduce or distribute information concerning the budget vote, but that it can be printed privately. Budget information must be mailed at this point, she said, and cannot be sent home with children.

Superintendent Robinson confirmed what Ms Madej said, and clarified it further, saying that the PTAs and schools can send out information telling parents when and where the vote will be held once a date and question is set by the Board of Selectmen, but may not advocate in either a Yes or No direction after that date is set.

“I have only heard words of praise that the Board of Education has increased their communication with people,” said Middle Gate PTA president Desiree Galassi. “There has been no negative feedback that I am aware of with respect to the automated Connect-ED calls.”

As with the other elementary schools, Middle Gate PTA does publish a newsletter as a means of passing on all kinds of information. “People are grateful to receive all our communications,” said Ms Galassi.

“The general perception on advocacy is that it is on people’s radar more so this year given the multiple failed referenda last year with the fear of rising class sizes and the issues surrounding the high school expansion,” Ms Galassi said. She sees the Middle Gate community engaged in discussion of the issues this year, and added, “This healthy discourse can only serve to help our community make the right decisions for the future, whatever their opinion of the issue may be.” The present advocacy campaign by the Middle Gate PTA will conclude hopefully with the successful passage of the referendum, said Ms Galassi.

Newtown Middle School does not shy away from any method to get news out to families. “We use e-mail, the phone, newsletters, cluster meetings, the Friday folder, and parent conferences,” said Diane Sherlock, principal of NMS. “My favorite [way to provide information] though, is face to face,” she said. At PTA meetings and at parent round tables, Ms Sherlock feels that information is not only communicated well, but that communication is then not a one-way street.

This Year Is Different

This year, if parents are feeling inundated with information around budget time, Ms Sherlock is not surprised. “There are two things going on this year,” she said. “First, we have the operating budget, which happens every year. Then we have the high school expansion going on, too, which is a rare occurrence. It makes sense to me that there might be more [information going out] this year, although in terms of the budget, we have a lot of restrictions. Our hands are tied in terms of advocacy once the date [for the referendum] is set by the town,” said Ms Sherlock.

Reed Intermediate School Principal Donna Denniston agreed with Ms Sherlock that it is not unlikely that the quantity of information about the budget has increased this year. “There are two issues on the table now, the budget cuts and the high school expansion, and these two things are culminating at the same time, so there is probably more [information] going out,” she said. Nearly everything that is of budget nature is handled by the school PTA, though, said Ms Denniston, and the school is aware of the circumstances when it can and cannot put out budget-related information.

Parents appreciate being in the know, said Ms Denniston, and on most matters, RIS prefers to use the Internet to keep parents informed. “Most people get our newsletter electronically now, and we post information on our web page. E-mail addresses give us the capacity to get messages out quickly,” she added.

Ms Denniston is pleased with the school district’s decision to purchase Connect-ED as a means of communicating. Although RIS has not needed to use Connect-ED extensively yet, the school got great feedback from parents when the community outreach was used during the primary voting. “We had primary voting [at RIS] and it impacted so many things — parking, pick-up and drop-off, what to do about children with nut allergies who generally use a special section of the cafeteria, that sort of thing. As we started working through the day, we had to send out information periodically. Connect-ED is really good,” said Ms Denniston.

She acknowledged that some parents might feel annoyed by the automated alerts. “If you overuse the system, we might hear [that parents are not happy],” she said. Community outreach messages come only through the principal, however, said Ms Denniston, and added, “I would be aware we had activated and authorized the system. We want to make sure that it is worth someone’s time to listen to the message.”

It will not be long before the river of information ceases to overflow its banks and returns to a steady and pleasant flow, though. When the budget referendum date and question is set, contributory streams will dry up. School administrators hope residents will have gathered what they need from the storm of information by then.

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