Back to school: District, students gears up for new year

A new college and career counselor, Mandarin Chinese courses offered after school, and a refocused approach to tapping into students’ emotional needs — those are some of the highlights as the Trumbull Public School District begins the 2015-2016 school year.

Superintendent Gary Cialfi said that students who went back to the classroom Tuesday, Sept. 1, were in for an exciting school year with plenty of fresh initiatives and different approaches to learning.

Most specifically, the district’s oldest population — the senior class at Trumbull High School — will benefit from the addition of the new counselor who will provide students with shadowing and internship opportunities.

“We’ve embraced the idea of creating individual student success plans and now we’re taking it to the next level,” Cialfi told The Times last week. “This is something that starts in the sixth grade and goes through the 12th grade, and it includes us taking inventory in three areas — academic experience, career interests, and social experiences — as they get older.”

The idea is to give students as much hands-on learning exposure as possible to see what careers they might want to pursue after college.

The district’s biggest addition this summer was Lisa Bevacqua, who will help handle the college and career transitions for high school seniors by expanding capstone projects at THS and creating additional internships in town for students.

“She’ll be facilitating with middle school and high school guidance counselors and handling a lot of those student success plans, but it’s not your average guidance position,” Cialfi explained. “This is something new for us; new for the town, and it’s something I think everybody should looking forward to seeing and be really excited about doing — giving our students the best possible opportunities for success, not just academically, but in the working world.

“We want them to be thinking academically, obviously,” he added. “But we also want them to be thinking about possible careers and developing good social skills — it’s not any of those three components individually, but all three of them combined that paints the whole picture and will help us get to where we want to go.”

Bevacqua’s unique role will be working with nonprofits in town, like the Trumbull Academic Challenge for Excellence Foundation (ACE) and the Trumbull Business Education Initiative (TBI), to “extend the classroom into the community.”

“The skills and content have been learned,” Cialfi said of high school seniors. “Now it’s just a matter of finding the appropriate methods of how to apply it.

“We really want to go beyond the classroom and develop real, strong applications in the community.”

He added that the district decided to go ahead with the new full-time hire because it wanted to build on the success the guidance department has established in past years.

“We’ve provided the evidence that there’s value in what this position can do, and we want to build on the success we’ve already had by carving out an individual position in the guidance department that can focus fully on our students’ needs in this very important area,” Cialfi said.

“It’s a tremendous asset to the district, and to this town,” he added.

Pilot program

The district is beginning to push towards implementing foreign languages at all levels of learning, and that focus will start during the 2015-2016 school year with a pilot Mandarin program available to the full range of students.

“It’s starting at a modest level — after school,” Cialfi said. “But the key is giving them the access and having it available to even our youngest learners at the elementary level.”

With hopes to roll out a similar Spanish program next year for elementary learners, the schools are banking on this trial run to be a success.

Cialfi said the program will launch sometime in October and more information will be made available to parents and students when the time comes.

At the elementary level, fourth and fifth graders will learn together after school with a part-time certified teacher. All middle school students — sixth through eighth grade — will take part in the same advanced level of the program. And finally, high schoolers — freshmen through seniors — will also be taking the course together.

“It’s one of the most valuable languages in the world, and it needs to be offered here in Trumbull,” Cialfi explained. “One thing we’ve heard from both public school educators and the private sector is that this is the key language to helping us create a global civilization of young learners.”

Mental health

Public school teachers and administrators kicked off the school year last Thursday, Aug. 27, with a pep talk from Marc Brackett, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

The event, which took place at Trumbull High School, helped lay out a game plan for the district to evaluate student’s emotional needs. Brackett unveiled a similar strategy to Bridgeport public school teachers last year called RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating), and Cialfi said Trumbull would be incorporating something similar this year and in the future.

“As we push for rigor and reach to achieve the highest academic standards, it’s our responsibility — at the same time — to explore mental, social, and emotional development,” the superintendent said. “Students need to be available; they need to be able to express themselves. And so, one of our biggest focuses this year is reinforcing our Safe School Climate and Positive Behavior Initiatives, and building on what we already have established to create a different, more comprehensive approach to mental health needs.”

Cialfi said that the district began pushing the two mental health programs six years ago.

“We’re in a very good place with it, but there’s always room to improve and we hope Marc enlightens us with some possible, additional strategies and methods to resolve these key issues,” he said.

“We haven’t had any increases in bullying over the last six years; we’re trying to extinguish that entirely from our hallways and classrooms,” he added. “Our motto is, ‘if it’s mean, intervene.’”

Digital age

It’s almost impossible to talk about education — and the beginning of a new school year — without mentioning technology.

Wireless Internet is available at all of the district’s schools and the bring your own device (BYOD) program is back at the high school.

In addition, classrooms will continue to work with Google Docs and libraries will be equipped with Google Chromebooks.

“It’s all about having access to digital learning at the youngest possible age, even in kindergarten and first grade,” Cialfi said. “SMARTBoards have become as fundamental as paper and pencil.

“The whole process of learning has entered into a different arena,” he added.

New staff

Besides the high school’s newest guidance counselor, there aren’t a ton of additions to the district’s staff size.

Cialfi said there would be an additional part-time elementary school literacy specialist, who will work with the two-full time reading teachers the district already employs.

In addition, there’s another part-time elementary math specialist.

“We’re adding to what we already have and making sure we’re running at an optimum level and that everybody has what they need,” he said.

At the middle schools and the high school, there will also be new literacy and math intervention specialists for students who aren’t progressing fast enough year-to-year.

“None of these are brand new positions,” Cialfi explained. “We’re expanding on what we have, and that’s so students who need the extra help get it so they don’t fall too behind.”