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Zukowski Reflects On ‘Key Themes’ For The BOE Since Taking Office



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With the Board of Education now past its tenth regular meeting since the most recent elections seated several new members, Chair Deborra Zukowksi took an opportunity to interview with The Newtown Bee and reflect upon what she believes has been accomplished so far.

Zukowski shared that there are topics she feels that have been “key themes” for the school board since December 8, when three then-newly elected board members began their tenure on the board, and Zukowski was voted in as chair. Those themes are: academic achievement; social and emotional health and wellness; and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“On April 19, the new Board of Education conducted its tenth official business meeting,” Zukowski said, later adding that she was not counting budget meetings or special meetings, of which there have been more. “It seems a fitting time to review its work so far, especially since this board includes three new members — Janet Kuzma, Jennifer Larkin, and Don Ramsey — as well as new leadership.”

Looking back, Zukowski said the board’s first two regular meetings set a “framework needed for success.”

“The board unanimously approved the creation of two new standing committees: the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and the Social Emotional Health and Wellness Committee,” Zukowski said. “In addition, membership on all committees was expanded to three, and care was given to ensure that there were different perspectives represented within each committee.”

In terms of academic achievement, Zukowski said, “Personally speaking, I strongly believe that all students should have a learning environment in which they can be challenged and thrive. Several other members of the Board have also expressed this opinion. A curriculum process has been developed over the last few years and a review and update of all curriculum is underway.”

In Zukowski’s review, she said the board since December has assessed and approved ten courses, including English language, world religions, and economics courses at the high school, along with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses at Newtown Middle School and Reed Intermediate School. The school board also heard presentations on the high school’s Capstone project, the district’s Supportive Alternative Individualized Learning (SAIL) program, and co-taught classes.

“To me, the SAIL and co-taught classes are also DEI accomplishments. They ensure that students who have historically been marginalized have access to classes and teachers that they would normally not have access to,” Zukowski said. “Unfortunately, this part of DEI, along with several others, seems to be lost in the conversations. Another personal hope is that we can all come to a common understanding on what DEI truly means and how we can move forward in unity. Culturally Responsive Education/Classrooms, again personally speaking, would be a significant step in the right direction.”

The school board is also “keeping a close eye on addressing learning loss resulting from the pandemic,” according to Zukowski.

“The Board is reviewing data from iReady periodically, and has ensured that the 2022-23 proposed budget includes the needed academic interventionists and programming to assist struggling students,” said Zukowski.

The purpose of i-Ready is to provide personalized instruction and support the needs of all learners — i-Ready supports teachers as they plan instruction, set goals with students, and assess learner progress.

Social, Emotional Wellness

In terms of social and emotional health and wellness, Zukowski said the school board formed a standing committee “to ensure that attention is focused in this area.” Following Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue requesting to re-instate a coordinator of health and wellness position in the district, the position was filled.

According to Zukowksi, the newly appointed coordinator of health and wellness and the school board are working together on the following goals:

*Understand and support the coordinator’s efforts including district-level services as well as partnerships with town and community service providers.

*Understand the current status of the social-emotional health of students and staff within the context of school programming and how that status is ascertained.

*Better define what “social-emotional” entails and how it is symbiotic with the district’s Social Emotional Learning efforts.

*Assess current programming related to social-emotional health and wellness.

*Listen, support, and communicate related programming, resources, and impact.

“The committee is currently supporting the coordinator in her efforts to document and communicate the social emotional health services available within the schools and throughout the Newtown community,” Zukowski shared.

A worksheet with a list of social and emotional supports available for the local school district was recently made available on the district’s health and wellness website, newtown.k12.ct.us/healthandwellness, by clicking “Social Emotional Health Supports.”

And for the school board’s DEI theme, Zukowski shared, “the Board formed a new standing committee to ensure attention is focused in this area. Though the DEI coordinator joined at the end of October, he gave an introductory presentation to the board in mid-December to help its members better understand the scope of his efforts. Also, many of the courses unanimously approved by the board include some level of DEI.

“For example,” she continued, “the English II curriculum introduces students to works of literature that provide diverse perspectives of common universal themes. The World Religions course, a long-standing offering at the high school, provides Newtown students an opportunity to learn about diverse perspectives and experiences across the globe. The board also unanimously passed two policies directly related to DEI, ie, Equal Opportunity, and Minority Recruitment and Selection. In addition, the board unanimously approved an Academic Freedom policy that included added language to ensure instruction is based on district practices and that diverse perspectives are part of class discussions.”

Along with the school board efforts, Zukowski said that she participated in the “Race: More Than A Conversation” community conversation held in February that was hosted by both C.H. Booth Library and Newtown Public Schools.

Zukowski also pointed out that the school board’s scheduled May meetings are expected to include the second read and action on the state-required African American/Black and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies course and a status report from the district’s DEI coordinator.

Other areas Zukowski said the school board has made efforts in include the Superintendent Search to replace Rodrigue, who is retiring at the end of the school year; other needs related to the pandemic; supporting efforts to the Hawley Elementary School HVAC project; and regularly expected school board work, like assisting district staff and preparing the 2022-23 school budget, which passed town referendum on April 26.

The chair hopes the school board can “get to the point where we can show success through work.”

“I believe that there has been a productive — albeit hectic — start for the new board, one that all can take pride in,” Zukowksi reflected.

Education Editor Eliza Hallabeck can be reached at eliza@thebee.com.

Newtown Board of Education Chair Deborra Zukowksi—Bee file photo
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