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New superintendent faces controversy

Bristol, Connecticut Board of Education central office on Church Street.

BRISTOL, Connecticut, U.S.A. — As each classroom welcomes in a new batch of students this coming 1997-98 school year, the school superintendent’s office will also welcome someone new: the smiling, happy, middle-aged face of Ann Clark.

But will the new superintendent still be smiling when she has to deal with controversial changes in city schools?

The Board of Education, which voted to appoint Clark last month, showed they believe she can pull it off.

The new superintendent also believes in herself. She said, “I really have a sense of what a good (school) system looks like.”

The question is, what can students and teachers expect from this new superintendent?

Considering the harsh criticism the Board has recently received for passing block scheduling for the 97-98 school session, this may not be most ideal time to enter the top position in the Bristol school system.

It may be especially hard for a person like Clark, who considers herself a supporter of the Education 2000 program, with block scheduling included.

Still, Clark said all she wants is for Bristol to have “the kind of school system where kids want to be in school.”

But there are many issues on the minds of students and teachers. Unfortunately, their views are often different from those of the school board.

The biggest and most debated issue of the past year has been the board’s seemingly sudden vote to approve block scheduling.

Many concerned students, teachers, and parents showed up at the December meeting to voice their opinions in a last-ditch effort to fight it.

Many came away from that meeting with the idea the school board didn’t care what they thought.

“They made us feel like we were in the way,” said Ben Leece, one of several Bristol Central High School sophomores who went to the meeting as a group.

Katie Welch, another sophomore, agreed.

“I felt we really didn’t matter,” Welch said.

Clark disagrees.

She said there are lots of people to take into consideration, including students, and that all sections are important.

Clark said teachers don’t have time to do their jobs in the 45-minute period that is in place now. With block schedules, Clark said, “I think you will get a lot more out of the time.”

Still, some are skeptical about the long period.

Sixteen-year-old Erica Fowler said, “I don’t know what teachers will do for that long in one class.”

On the brighter side, one teacher sees block scheduling as a way of bringing teachers together.

Richard Barlok, who teaches English to freshmen at Central, said that as teachers, “We all know we’re in the same boat.”

Clark denied that putting block scheduling into motion for next year was a sudden decision. It was, she said, part of a “10-year effort to improve the school system.”

But, she said, “We should have spent more time with the students beforehand.”

The Education 2000 program of teaming, or “restructuring the high schools,” as Clark describes it, began three years ago.

Teaming, which groups core teachers together to work with teams of students, was started with the goals of lowering failures, dropouts, and absenteeism. The system is meant to make teachers work together so that they can help each other on difficult students, and with integrated assignments.

Clark said, “Some teachers can really click with kids.”

The teachers that don’t click can feed off those who can, according to Clark.

Last year’s Education 2000 report says the program is closing in on its goals. But it has also created some troubles.

Put simply by Clark, “Education 2000 caused more scheduling problems.”

Erica Fowler, for instance, was in a freshman world history class that was mixed with about 15 middle-level academic students and eight accelerated students. She was in the class because of the structure of the team system.

Fowler said she thinks that in classes like that teachers teach to the lowest level. “I didn’t learn as much as I could have,” she said.

Welch had a similar problem.

She said, “I was accelerated in an academic class with an academic book. (The team) had to rearrange our whole schedule.”

Clark said teams have to work to be organized so these sorts of conflicts don’ occur.

“It is up to the team to set up classes at levels that will challenge kids,” Clark said.

“In principle,” said Barlok, his team “did not endorse that system.”

But for those other teams that do, he said, “I don’t think it’s fair for teachers and I don’t think it’s fair for students.”

Even if multi-level groups co-exist, Clark said, it is realistic to expect teachers to teach adequately for each student’s ability.

“I think good teaching is good teaching,” Clark said.

Block scheduling and Education 2000 are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to disagreements among the school board, its new superintendent, teachers and students.

Even so, Clark seems optimistic and excited about her new job, and about everyone she deals with.

She said, “You can always do a better job. Living is about trying to improve things. We have great kids and wonderful teachers.”

Barlok is happy with the change in superintendents.

He said Clark “has good vision. She’s a good listener and she has a kind heart, and I look forward to having her as our leader.”

Students, who mostly don’t know Clark, are indifferent — or so clueless that Clark’s name doesn’t even ring a bell.

“Who?” asked Fowler.

Amanda Lehmert is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

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