Superintendent’s Monthly Updates

And the Budget Development Process Continues…

By: Dr. James P. Longo, Ashford Superintendent, March 2019

I have been using this monthly article to keep you up to date on the progress of the Ashford Board of Education’s 2019-2020 Ashford School budget proposal, and hope that these articles are helping to keep you informed. I have received several positive comments, and am appreciative of your interest in the process. The coming year’s Board of Education proposal will be submitted to the Board of Finance on Thursday night, March 7th.

The BOE is undergoing a very difficult process this year because we have been operating for several years with minimal budgets. We have been operating with budgets that have been through a number of reductions in appropriated funding, federal and state grants. We have done everything under our control to keep our requests low and our spending down, and it is apparent that we will have to ask for an increase this year.

The numbers below represent the past four fiscal year budgets requested by the Board of Education and appropriated by the Town of Ashford:

  • 2015-2016 – 1.8% increase
  • 2016-2017 – 0.4% decrease
  • 2017-2018 – 0%
  • 2018-2019 – 1.36% increase

As you can see by this example, we have been able to keep our budget requests low for several years. We have worked diligently to be good citizens. The effect of these funding levels is now catching up to us because costs have continued to rise, while our budgets have remained low.

Here are some of the most significant aspects of the Board of Education’s current proposal. The first thing we are hoping to do is fill our vacant math interventionist position. A staff member moved away from Connecticut, and resigned last year, and we were unable to fund filling her position in the subsequent budget. We have gone without this math tutor for a year, and feel strongly that we need to restore the service. We feel that we can do this most economically with a half-time teacher. So, our budget proposal has one instructional improvement in it, the restoration of a math tutor for the middle school on a half-time basis. Otherwise, the budget is essentially the same as last year. It reflects state mandated and mediated wage increases for certified and non-certified staff, and an increase in the BOE cost share for medical insurance coverage for its employees. The cost for medical coverage for our employees is slated to increase by 3.5 %.

Here are a few steps that have already been taken to keep our 2019-2020 budget request as low as possible:

  • Administrators and non-union BOE employees have waived wage increases;
  • We have eliminated all requests for purchases of new items;
  • Wherever possible, we’ve held each line steady from the current budget with the exception of areas that affect student safety or facility maintenance.

The amount requested may seem higher than usual, but after four years of low overall budget requests, this was due to happen. Costs increase each year at school, just as they do in our homes. We are requesting an approximate 4.5% increase over last year at the time this article was written. This increase is primarily based upon the addition of the half-time math tutor, certified and non-certified staff wage increases negotiated through state mandated mediation, and the earlier mentioned cost increase in health insurance, even after our healthcare package was sent out for competitive bidding.

Our proposal will be posted on the Ashford School website by the time this article appears in the Citizen. Please visit the website and examine the proposal. I cannot ask you to support the budget, but I can ask you to participate in the process by either writing to a Board of Finance (BOF) member, or attending the upcoming BOF meetings to voice your opinion on the BOE proposal. Both the Board of Education and the Board of Finance are doing the very best that they can to balance the need to maintain a quality school, and to minimize that cost’s impact upon the taxpayer. This is a difficult job with no clear right or wrong thing to do. Because of the difficulties the annual school budget presents, your opinion is really important. Whether you are supportive of the budget proposal, or against it, the Board of Finance needs to know. Having insight into what the taxpayers think helps them in their decision on what to put forward for a vote at the May referendum, just as the input that the Board of Education has received from the community over the past few months has guided them in the formation of their budget proposal.

Please become informed and participate. The end result impacts you, the taxpayer, and the students.

A Year to Remember, and Our Hopes for the Coming Year

By: Dr. James Longo, Ashford Superintendent, January 2019

I have a few year-end thoughts that I would like to share with you. It seems to me that during the month of December most of us are preoccupied with the hustle and hectic nature of the holiday season. Therefore, it is difficult to focus upon the year that has passed, and is about to end, let alone the year that is about to begin. New Year’s Eve and the first weeks of January seem to be the time we set aside for reflection and ambition. We set goals for ourselves, we look at the past as something to improve upon, and we often go about the business of “carrying on” in a way that we hope will produce a great year, and improve our lot. The New Year’s resolution has become a staple of early January, abandoning them has become a staple of early February. It is not that different at Ashford School. We look back at the past year with pride and a sense of accomplishment. We look ahead with hope, and a little anxiety. What does the future hold for the children of Ashford?

It is not likely that we could have another National Teacher of the Year, a Connecticut Elementary Principal of the Year or a runner-up for Connecticut Assistant-Principal of the Year as we did this past year. I wonder if we will be able to talk to the astronauts of the International Space Station as we did last year? Not likely, since only ten schools in the world earned that opportunity. I can’t imagine that we could have several teachers chosen as National Geographic Fellows again, and sent to explore places all over the world like the Galapagos Islands, Italy or the Artic Circle. But, we are going to follow-up on our student trip to Germany, and our pending trip to Costa Rica. We will be participating in a teacher exchange with Germany and bringing some incredible experiences to our faculty and our students.

We have enjoyed the kind of success few schools can claim. Our faculty and our students have had incredible experiences that will be difficult to match in the coming years. I look back at this with great pride. We have built a wonderful team at Ashford School. The faculty is amazing, the administration is exceptional, and the students are accomplishing great things in every aspect of their education. Whether it is in the sciences or the arts, we can look at our students, and the accolades they have earned with pride.

The amazing aspect of all of this is that it was accomplished under the pressure of a state that was going through a financial and political crisis. Perhaps it should be noted that none of this happens within the confines of one year. Most every accomplishment spans parts of a few years, and has taken a good deal of time and effort to plan and accomplish. Dedication and teamwork have overcome the obstacles and resulted in success. Our little school, in our small town, has accomplished things well beyond even the most aggressive of our expectations. One might wonder why and how? The why is easy to articulate. Quite simply, we have assembled a great staff, and they have the support of a caring community. The how, is even more basic. It is about making the most of what we have, and working as a team.

This article is more than a reflection of what has been accomplished; it is a thank you to those who worked so hard to accomplish it, and to those in the community who gave us the resources to get it done. Thank You! The students at Ashford School have had a year to remember, and the staff has had the joy of success to reinforce their hard work. How in the world are we going to follow these incredible few years up?

So here it is, early January. The holidays, and our last few wonderful years of accomplishment are over, and the reality of the coming year looms before us. We will always continue to strive for excellence, and to offer our students the education that they need to succeed. We also have more creative ideas and hopes for the coming year. All we need is the continued support of the community and the sky (or maybe beyond) is the limit. It is important to remember, and an integral aspect of our school’s goals to remind ourselves that a year in the life of a child cannot be done over. So, we do not intend to waste any time. It is on to next year, it is what else can we accomplish and it is the beginning of what is next in the lives of our students.

In closing, I say thank you to everyone, and look forward to the coming year.

An Incredible Celebration of Ashford Veterans is Held on Veteran’ Day at Ashford School!

By: Dr. James P. Longo, Ashford Superintendent, December 2018

On Nov. 12, 2018 Ashford students and staff gathered together to honor 53 Ashford veterans and active duty members as part of the school’s Veterans Day activities.  The Veterans gathered at 9am for breakfast in the cafeteria and were hosted by several students in grades 5-8. Students respectfully greeted the honored our guests, hung up coats, made sure the veterans were signed in and provided with a nametag, and even helped serve them beverages.

The most exciting moment came at 9:45 when the entire group of veterans walked into a gymnasium full of Ashford School staff and students, and were greeted with resounding applause and a standing ovation.   It was a very emotional moment for all, more powerful because it came during such a time of political division in our country. The obvious respect, gratitude, and expression of appreciation brought tears to many eyes.

At this moment we stood together as a community to celebrate our veterans.  During their classroom preparation for the event and by speakers at the assembly, students were reminded of the purpose of Veterans Day, and the history of why Veterans Day is celebrated on November 11 each year.   The 8th grade class representatives led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Ashford School band and select chorus sang, and played patriotic songs.   Retired USAF Capt. Mitch Sibley-Jett spoke to the students about service and purpose. He challenged the students to find their purpose, and never to forget to include serving others.   The crowd viewed a video featuring students answering the question, “What does freedom mean to you?” The Veterans were invited to view artwork created by students from every grade at Ashford School. The morning ended with a sing-a-long of “This Land is Your Land” and “It’s a Grand Old Flag.”

What an amazing event! Thank you to everyone who participated in making this one of the proudest moments of the year. Ashford School plans to honor veterans for many years to come.

Ashford Students Display Their Talent and win at a Statewide Competitive Photography Exhibit

On November 4, 2018 aSAp, a Connecticut creative arts organization, held their 8th Annual Celebration of Young Photographers, culminating with a juried photography competition and exhibit by students from middle and high school. aSAp has a mission of fostering creative hands-on learning through the arts. You can visit their website at https://asapct.org/. This juried photography competition was open to 6th-12th graders from throughout the state. This year students from over 40 school districts submitted photographs. Sixty photographs were chosen from hundreds of submissions by the aSAp judges. These selections were made in a double blind process. The students and the towns they are from is revealed only after the final selections are made. These 60 photos were then presented in a large exhibition at an art gallery in Washington Depot, CT. Once the photos were chosen, they were divided into 2 age groups for final judging, grades 6th-8th and grades 9th-12th. This year, Ashford students participated in the competition by submitting photographs through their new Ashford School photography class. Out of the 60 chosen finalists, only 10 were from the grades 6-8 group. Out of these 10 finalists, 4 were chosen from Ashford School! These talented young photographers are Alyssa Chrisholm, Tayla Quirk, Xavier Smith, and Sierra York. These photographs can be seen at Ashford School, in a bound book of all finalist submissions for this year’s contest provided to Ms. Boulanger by the Smith family.

As one of the new specials offerings, Art Teacher Danielle Boulanger and Media/Writing Teacher Kate Craven have been teaching a combined photography/photojournalism course. Ms. Boulanger taught students a variety of photography techniques, including Rule of Thirds and photo editing, while Mrs. Craven focused on the journalism angle of using photographs to tell a story. It has been a rewarding trimester for everyone, and one thing is for sure, for Ashford’s students, the possibilities are boundless!

Congratulations to the talented students and their art teachers. It is amazing that four of the ten winners in a statewide creative photography competition were students from Ashford School. We are very proud of these students, and grateful to Ms. Boulanger and Mrs. Craven for their hard work and exemplary teaching.

It’s Complicated!

By: Dr. James P. Longo, Ashford Superintendent, November 2018

I write several articles around this time each year regarding the Ashford School budget. I do so because I am seeking to inform and engage community members. I am also interested in community input during the budget development process. Essentially it is my hope that the more information that everyone has regarding our school budget, the better our budget requests will be understood. Sometimes what is lost in these short articles is how complicated budget development actually is, and how our requests are rooted in the needs and best interests of our students. I am going to take this opportunity to present a few of our concerns, their importance to our students as well as how they might impact the school budget.

First, there are national concerns about several health issues that the school administration believes to be important enough for inclusion in the curriculum. Matters related to opioid addiction, vaping, health and nutrition, exercise and fitness, and several other issues related to personal growth and development must be taught at an early age. Currently, health education can only be taught by our physical education staff beginning in grade five. I believe that these topics are serious, and must be taught beginning in grade three by a certified staff specialist. Therefore, I am going to ask that a health teacher be added to our staff next year. We must arm our students with the information they need in order to help them make healthy choices. Health education does that.

Second, mathematics has experienced significant changes in standards and approaches to instruction and many students are having difficulty adjusting. A few years ago, our middle school math interventionist relocated, and due to budgetary concerns, the position was not filled. Changes in state and national standards, along with the new way mathematics is taught in the middle school, seem to demand that we fill that vacant math interventionist position in the next budget. Mathematics is important in many careers, college admission, and in daily life.   All of our students should receive a solid foundation in mathematics before they head off to high school.

It seems to me that these two additional teaching positions are very important and serve the needs and best interests of our students, therefore should be included in our budget request. The cost of these additional staff members, the annual increases in the cost of health coverage for our employees, and salary increases required by state contract mediation, ultimately result in an initial budget request upward of a 5% increase over last year. This is clearly an increase that surpasses any we have requested for several years. In the past few years we have reassigned staff, left positions unfilled, cut supplies and technology budgets and done everything that we could to keep costs down without harming the education of our students. We have reached the point where that is no longer possible.

One might wonder why we cannot just move staff, or reduce staff in other positions if we need to add health and math positions. That brings up problems associated with increasing class size. Moving or cutting existing positions would mean having two classes in a grade rather than three. If three classes of fourteen to eighteen students (a total of 45 to 54 students depending upon the grade) become two classes of twenty-two to twenty-seven students, which parents do not find acceptable. Their children do not receive the personal attention in a class of over twenty that they would in a class of fifteen or fewer.

At this point you are seeing the difficulty of building a school budget that deals with the complexities of modern society while also trying to keeping the cost down to taxpayers. There are no simple answers. We have kept costs down for the past four years, but this is becoming increasingly difficult as our needs evolve in response to societal changes and the demands of growing up in today’s complex and competitive environment.

Lastly, the expense of maintaining our school’s technology is a key part of our budget. We must have computer labs, desktop computers in the classrooms and laptops available for student use. SmartBoards, iPads, and all sorts of technology are essential for our students to have sufficient skill to move forward and compete with classmates from other school districts. We are currently well equipped, but our computers are beginning to age out. They are machines and only last so long before they must be replaced. This adds to the annual increases in our budget requests. Technology hardware and software is expensive, but no school can function without them, as students cannot compete without access to computers or computer skills.

I hope that you found this explanation of some of the major contributors to our budget request was helpful. There is a lot that goes in to the development of a budget. If you are interested in more information you are invited to attend a board of education meeting where you can voice your opinion, ask questions or just listen. We welcome your ideas and I am always available by email or telephone if you would like to let me know what you think. Ashford School is not only the community’s largest expense, but also its greatest asset.

“Some More Things to be Proud of at Ashford School….”

By: Dr. James P. Longo, Ashford Superintendent, October 2018

I have been writing about the exceptional work being done at Ashford School for several years now. Anyone following these articles can see the emergence of excellence and understand why we believe that our school is one of the best in the area. This month I want to highlight two examples of excellence at Ashford School that are clearly a cut above most others.

First, our school nurse, Martha Sibley-Jett has been leading a drive to support Anajali School in Kenya. She began by donating a lot of our outdated supplies and curriculum materials to Anajali Ministries. This included equipment that we no longer used and have replaced such as our older hearing screening equipment.  Other staff members joined her efforts, and our students have even sponsored fundraising efforts as a community service.

Anajali School in Kenya is located in the Kibera Slum.  2.5 million people live there in the outskirts of Nairobi. This is the biggest slum in Africa, and one of the largest in the world.  The slum has a 50% unemployment rate, and only 20% of people have electricity.  Most homes do not have running water.  the average house is a 12’x 12′ shack with a tin corrugated roof and a dirt floor.  These typically house 8 or more people.

The school is the best route out of the slum.  Anajali has around 650 students and is a PK to grade 8 school.  Class sizes are 60 to 70 in a very small room.  The children start arriving at 6 am and classes start at 6:30 am. Classes end at 3:30 pm but many students stay until 6 pm.   Teachers make approximately $100.00 per month. The biggest challenge currently facing students is that the government has changed the curriculum, and is now requiring that each student has a set of 8 books that costs $48.00.  Parents only make $1.00 per day, so meeting this expense is impossible without the students having sponsors. Despite these challenges, this school has placed first out of the district’s 120 schools.

The founder of Anajali Ministries is a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher from Scotland, Connecticut.  She visited Anajali School on a trip to Africa in 2007, and is now working full time to gain U.S. support for the school.   She has come to Ashford School several times to give presentations to our students about life in an African school.  Several years ago, our students were so moved by what they heard that they accepted a “Dimes for Dinner” challenge and under classroom teacher Mike Young’s guidance they raised $1000.00 for food for the school.

The way that Martha, Mike, and our students have responded to these children in need and developed opportunities to reach out to help are amazing, and make the rest of us proud. They represent the best of Ashford School.

Our next amazing indicator are students and teachers at Ashford School and their involvement with NASA. I have written about it a few times, but this month they have taken it to the next level.

Students in Ashford School will be participating in a once in a lifetime opportunity. When the International Space Station is directly over Ashford School we will have ten minutes to talk to the ISS (International Space Station) via Amateur Radio. This activity is part of the ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) Program, a joint venture by NASA to facilitate communication via Amateur Radio between astronauts aboard the International Space Station and communities around the world. Ashford was one of only a handful of communities nationally chosen to participate this year.

And the best part is that our students get to ask questions to an astronaut in SPACE! Since we only have 10 minutes to communicate with them, not every student will be able to ask a question. In addition, all questions need to be submitted through NASA in advance. We will prioritize having at least one question asked per grade level. Students can submit a question as a class or as individual students. If a question is submitted by a class, they should have a student in mind that can ask the question on behalf of your class. Preference will be given to questions that are not commonly asked.

Carly Imhoff is the staff member responsible for organizing and leading this incredible opportunity. An opportunity that few other schools and students will ever enjoy. This exceptional experience will certainly have a lasting impact on our young science students.

Ashford School has a culture of excellence, and as a result, students and staff alike aspire to do things that are far beyond the average elementary school. We believe that this culture of excellence will serve our students well for the rest of their lives. It took years to build this culture, we are proud of it, and we hope that you are as well.

Ashford Students Embark On An Out Of This World Learning Adventure! 

By: Dr. James P. Longo, Ashford Superintendent, September 2018

Each month I prepare an article for “The Citizen” that addresses the overall excellence of the school, and how it provides a “Best Practices” based education for the students of Ashford. This month I want to combine two thoughts; first, a back to school welcome, and second, a look at a wonderful and truly exemplary experience that some of our students participated in this summer.

By the time this article is published students will have started school, hopefully full of energy and enthusiasm for a new year of learning and spending time with friends. The entire staff has been working to prepare for the opening of school, and the arrival of our students for the past few weeks. The staff is as excited as we imagine the students are. Remember our school website is available to you for most of the information that you could need (ashfordct.org). If you need anything that you can’t find, or need help, call the school at 860-429-1927, ext. 355, or my office, ext. 365. Welcome Back!

For those of you who have not heard about this, a group of Ashford School students got the chance to end their school year with an out of this world adventure! This summer, they journeyed to “NASA Wallops” in Virginia to watch an experiment they designed fly on a NASA Sounding Rocket as part of the Cubes in Space program.

For the past year, students have been working to develop a satellite cube experiment. A cube experiment is a small box that holds experiments and sensors. The cube satellite is then launched to the edge of space or farther. Ashford students met after school into the evening creating the cube satellites and experiments. There are two experiments that are flying on the NASA SR-5 Rocket. The first compares a radiation blocking bandage that students designed to a normal bandage to see which is better at blocking radiation from astronaut’s wounds in space. The other cube satellite contains a nutmeg seed that will be tested to see if space travel damages the mace coating of the nutmeg affecting seed viability.

The SR-5 rocket launched from NASA Wallops on Thursday, June 21 at 5:30 AM as scheduled. Students were able to see two test flights before watching the rocket travel on its suborbital trajectory.

Before the launch, students had an opportunity to present both of their experiments to the many NASA scientists in attendance- including the Director of NASA Wallops! They also shared experiments with, and learned, from groups of students from all around the world. They met groups from Canada, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, and the United States! Ashford students were also one of 16 groups who presented their experiments on NASA Wallops TV to an audience of 1.77 million viewers. All of the student groups did an unbelievably fantastic job explaining their experiments and sharing what they learned with the world.

This past year has been the learning opportunity of a lifetime for our students, and we are looking forward to a whole new generation of scientists, engineers, and astronauts headed out into the world! Look out NASA: here comes the Mars Generation!