Pull up a comfy chair to learn about Monroe’s elementary school budgets

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Monroe's three elementary school principals, from left, Ashley Furnari of Stepney. Kelly Svendsen of Monroe, and Leigh Ances of Fawn Hollow, present their budget requests to the Board of Education Tuesday.

MONROE, CT — Children traditionally learn while seated in wooden chairs, but it can be easier to relax and focus on a good book in a comfy one. Students who need to move around a lot may follow a lesson easier on a wobble stool, and some are more comfortable working at a stand up desk.

Flexible seating is among the new things principals of Monroe, Stepney and Fawn Hollow elementary schools are asking for in the 2023-24 Board of Education budget.

The principals, Kelly Svendsen of Monroe, Ashley Furnari of Stepney, and Leigh Ances of Fawn Hollow, presented their requests to the school board during a workshop on Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza’s budget proposal Tuesday night.

“Everything that we asked for in the elementary school budget, the biggest driver is authentic and meaningful instruction for our students,” Svendsen said, while seated with Ances and Furnari in the Masuk High School media center.

Kobza is asking for a $68.1 million budget for Monroe’s public schools, which represents a 5.77 percent increase over the current $64.4 million budget. On Tuesday, principals for all five of the town’s schools spoke about their requests.

Before the presentations, Chairman David Ferris said he wanted board members to keep in mind that 5.02 percent of the requested increase is for contractual obligations like salaries, insurance, transportation and utilities, leaving 0.75 percent for them to scrutinize.

Aside from flexible seating and replenishing instructional supplies, the elementary school principals are asking for a new teacher at Stepney, where fifth grade sections will increase from three to four. This can ensure class sizes will not be too large.

A new high impact math specialist would be added to each school, bringing the total to two specialists at each school.

Curriculum coordinator positions would be eliminated and the coordinators would become instructional leaders who can perform administrative functions to assist the principals with responsibilities such as teacher evaluations.

Currently, Svendsen said she, Furnari and Ances must do nearly all of those functions themselves, so this would take something off their plates.

The district’s elementary school coordinators are Rosanne Haughton for math and science and Kimberly Nelly for English language arts. Svendsen said the administrative functions will be added to their responsibilities.

“I would say they are a reason all three of our schools were Schools of Distinction last year, because we have them in these positions,” Svendsen said, “so they’re going to continue that really good work.”

Jerry Stevens, a board member, asked for clarification that this move would only cost the district around $10,000. Kobza confirmed that, and Ances said it gives the district bang for its buck.

High impact math specialists

Dr. Alan Vaglivelo, a board member, asked what the qualifications of the new math specialists would be.

“Ideally, we’re looking for someone certified, but it’s not a requirement of the position,” Ances said.

Vaglivelo asked how the district could get a specialist who is certified in math, when those educators can get jobs so easily.

“We’ve been really fortunate,” Ances said. “Some of the math tutors we have now actually do have a certification, but they may be coming back after raising children at home, so they are specifically looking for something part-time. And it would be absolutely awesome to have somebody who’s certified, but it’s not a requirement.”

She said the next best thing is hiring someone with a math background, such as an account or a former math teacher who is looking for part-time work.

“I think the theme here is we’re looking for things that would have a positive impact on student outcomes, while still being fiscally responsible,” Svendsen said, adding the specialists would work under certified teachers.

Vaglivelo asked if it would make more sense to hire one certified math instructor for the district, instead of three specialists, who may not be certified.

Ances said that was discussed, but they are trying to get direct work with more students — one-on-one and in small groups.

“We worry that with just having one person, while you gain some things, you miss out on the opportunity for direct time with students,” she said. “It’s tough, but we felt like this was a good way to go.”

Currently, the district’s k-5 math specialists work 25 hours a week, according to Kobza, who said this doesn’t give them time to get to every section. He said they thought of hiring one person, but the trade off would be not having another specialist in each building every day.

“I’m just concerned with the certification,” Vaglivelo said, adding someone who is an accountant may not be able to do everything that is needed.

Chrissy Martinez, a board member who served as a liaison to the elementary school principals, said Haughton will train the new specialists. She said there is not enough time is a day for one person to offer the small group and one-on-one instruction that is needed.

Having only one specialist would also mean driving from one school to the other throughout the year, she added.

Flexible seating

Flexible seating goes beyond traditional chairs to promote learning.

Svendsen said she, Furnari and Ances are looking for a minimal amount of flexible seating for each school in the new budget. Flexible seating is something other than chairs at tables and desks.

Among the reasons, she said, “it supports students’ social and emotional learning. If we ask a student to get lost in a good book, a lot of them like to get comfy in a corner and it gives sensory input different students might need.”

Svendsen said there is research showing flexible seating is important for students, from elementary to high school.

Jeff Fulchino, a board member, asked how flexible seating looks in the classroom.

Instead of only traditional chairs, desks and a table, Svendsen said classrooms have stools students can bring to a carpet.

“There’s wobble stools,” Svendsen said. “A student can sit at a table working while wobbling, and that’s totally appropriate for them to do so. There’s stand up tables, so you can learn standing up.”

Svendsen said she has seen tires with comfy seats inside and bean bag chairs. “A lot of them are sensory input driven,” she said. “A lot of kids need different things. Some need to move throughout the day and can move and wobble while learning.”

“Is it geared toward a particular student, what suits them?” Fulchino asked.

“Sometimes you’ll hear a teacher say pick a smart spot and students can rotate and decide what works for them,” Svendsen said. “Students can decide, ‘what do I need for me and my body to be a good learner?’ It ranges from comfort to function.”

Of the variety, Ances said you may see stools of different heights around a table instead of five chairs.

“And you may see students in a prone position without even flexible seating,” Furnari said. “It depends on what they need.”

Other requests

Vaglivelo asked the principals if there were any positions they wanted and did not get. Furnari said yes, but they ultimately supported a budget request they believe is thoughtful.

“The first round of budget requests was 19 new positions districtwide, so I give the administrators, Joe and [Assistant Superintendent] Sheila [Casinelli] a lot of credit for getting it down to the handful in the budget,” Ferris said.

Vaglivelo said he was not saying to add them all back in, he was just curious what those positions were. Among the initial requests were three certified math teachers, according to Kobza.

“It’s not a huge budget at the elementary schools,” Kobza said of his proposal, “but it’s equitable across the board.”

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