West Hartford Public Schools teachers begin the 2023-2024 academic year on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, and all students return to buildings on Aug. 30.
By Ronni Newton
The start of a new school year always brings an aura of eager anticipation, but Paul Vicinus, whose appointment was announced last spring, is starting off the 2023-2024 with the official title of superintendent of West Hartford Public Schools, says he is “beyond excited” to welcome teachers at convocation on Monday, and for the arrival of the students on Wednesday.
“I’m very eager to start the year,” Vicinus said in an interview in his office on Friday. “I’m excited by the new talent that we see, that we’ve gained through our hiring. I’m overjoyed to be in this position,” he said, with the support of the district’s talented staff. “I’m also really excited about the leadership team, and the partnerships that we have.”
Administration, staffing and enrollment
Vicinus had meetings last week with the leadership team and principals – and there are a number of new faces.
“I’m very excited to welcome Theresa Rangel to the administrative team,” he said of the newly-appointed executive director of Equity Advancement whose appointment was announced earlier this month.
New elementary school principals Ashley Callan (Smith STEM) and Suzy Sinatro (Braeburn) were also announced over the summer, and there are also some recent hires/reassignments.
There are two new assistant principals at Hall – Jillian Carnes and Tim Kessler. The appointment of Kessler, a former science department supervisor in the district, was just made in the past week and he will replace Kim Ambroise, who is leaving for a principal job in Hartford.
Kristina Wieckowski has been named Pupil Services supervisor, taking over for Ted Dillon who retired this year.
Meghan Zingle, who was an interim assistant principal at Bristow Middle School, has been officially named to that position, Vicinus said.
Eileen Eustis was named director of Secondary Education in June, taking over the role from Anne McKernan who is now the assistant superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. And Vicinus said that Michelle Graveline, who was formerly the math department supervisor but has taken on multiple leadership roles over the past few years, including serving as director of Secondary Education on an interim basis last year, will be on special assignment as an assistant principal at Sedgwick this year, to help “promote some positive growth and initiatives” at the school.
When asked about staffing of teachers, Vicinus knocked on wood. “As of the other day we were buttoning up the last two positions,” he said.
There are 61 new contracted teachers in West Hartford Public Schools. “We’ve been very, very fortunate,” Vicinus said. “It’s an aggressive market,” he said, but there has been a very strong applicant pool and lots of interest.
“We really have a strong freshman class,” he said – a mixture of veteran teachers from other districts, early career teachers looking for new opportunities, and novice teachers.
“It’s always important to have a blend,” Vicinus said, with great perspective to be gained from experienced teachers, energy and passion from early career teachers, and brand new teachers who can be shaped.
“We are very excited to welcome two teachers through the Teacher Residency Program,” he added. The state-led program, sponsored through CREC, is an alternate route to elementary school certification, intended to diversify the workforce. Both trained in the district, and there are several new candidates in the Teacher Residency Program this year.
One area where multiple openings remain is for para-educators, specifically for special education, Vicinus said. Candidates are “extremely valuable,” he said, and hard to find.
Overall enrollment is roughly as projected with 9,268 students currently enrolled in all grades and programs, including Pre-K and post-secondary. The 2023-2024 budget projected a total of 9,230 students.
At the elementary level (K-5) there are 3,934 students currently enrolled. One school had enrollment lower than anticipated and a section was eliminated, Vicinus said, but no change in staffing was required because another school had higher than anticipated enrollment.
At the middle school (2,008 students) and high school (2,809), enrollment is also very close to the projections.
Many parents had lobbied the Board of Education last spring to not eliminate a music teacher position at the elementary level, with a large group in particular supporting keeping Wolcott music teacher Dan Luongo just at that school rather than having him split his time with another school. While the Board did not amend the plan to reduce the overall number of FTE positions in the music program from 10.5 to 9.5, Luongo now has a new role, Vicinus said – as curriculum specialist at Charter Oak International Academy.
Most of the projects scheduled for the summer construction season were done on time, including adding the final layer to the tennis courts at Conard and Hall high schools.
“In addition to our usual roofing, flooring and painting, the second half of Sedgwick’s bathroom renovation was completed and we completed Duffy’s office renovation, creating a more secure entrance for visitors,” said Assistant Superintendent for Administration Andy Morrow.
Some minor work is still going on, including the final updates to Braeburn Elementary School’s parking lot.
While the program that provided free lunches to all West Hartford Public Schools students through the end of 2022 expired, the state will spend $16 million of its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding on meals for Connecticut students this school year.
All students – regardless of need – will be able to receive free breakfast this academic year through the federal School Breakfast Program (SBP).
In addition, students who are eligible for reduced-price meals will be able to receive lunch at no cost.
“All West Hartford Public Schools students, regardless of status or ability to pay, will now receive free breakfast for the upcoming school year,” Morrow previously told We-Ha.com. “Any student who was qualifying for a reduced lunch meal will now receive free lunch.”
According to Morrow, during the 2022-2023 school year, there were 1,836 students (21% of the population) who qualified for free lunch, while 451 students (5% of the population) qualified to receive lunch at a reduced price. The latter will now receive lunch at no cost, and he said that all students in the district will be eligible for breakfast at no cost.
The district has continued to focus on updating the buildings to increase security, as well as enhancing protocols.
“We are very thankful for our relationship with the West Hartford Police Department,” Vicinus said regarding response plans, and he said he is excited about some of the new faces on the School Resource Officer (SRO) team.
The renovations to the Duffy office complete security enhancements at that school.
“We do have upgrades at two buildings for school lockdowns – providing visual cues, flashing lights …” Vicinus said. The system was under development for several years, prompted by a concern that a call for a lockdown may not be heard in noisy environments like the gym or cafeteria, or by students who are hard of hearing.
The district invested in a system that includes non-verbal signals through the use of different light notifications, and it was piloted at Conard last year.
“We were very happy with it, very positive,” Vicinus said of the reception to the new system, which is now permanently installed at Conard as well as Webster Hill Elementary School, and will be implemented in other schools through a phased approach.
Vicinus said he was very pleased with the news he received from the district’s transportation coordinator, Damaris Torres. “The bus company told her that they are fully staffed with drivers,” he said.
“We are ready to go,” said Vicinus, with routes communicated to families of the 5,300 students who are transported daily.
The community should be aware that school is resuming this week. Drivers need to be alert for walkers, as well as for bikes, and buses, and the return of crossing guards at their posts throughout town.
“We will follow [the protocols] we were operating under last year,” said Vicinus, with a major emphasis on hand washing and other guidelines provided by the state and the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District.
Those who test positive for COVID-19 should self-quarantine through the end of day 5, and can return to school on day 6 following the onset of symptoms but should wear a mask through day 10.
By the end of the 2022-2023 school year, the impact of COVID-19 on the operation of schools was minimal, Vicinus said.
A guest speaker has been invited to address teachers at Monday’s convocation, which will be held at Conard High School.
“I am very excited to have him present to our teachers,” said Vicinus of speaker Ken Williams, the author of “Ruthless Equity: Disrupt the Status Quo and Ensure Learning for ALL Students.”
Bristow Middle School will host the program, which will include a greeting from the Board of Education, remarks from Teacher of the Year Emily McMurray, a student speaker from Bristow, and musical performances.
Vicinus said he heard one of the student soloists at a rehearsal last week, and the performance was amazing and full of passion and excitement.
As he officially begins his tenure as superintendent, Vicinus will be introducing a new tagline/motto for the district at Monday’s convocation, and will discuss what it means to the district’s goal of providing a “welcoming environment for our diverse community,” balancing the needs that can be seen with all of the needs of the district.
“I am beyond excited,” Vicinus said.
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