By Lorraine Connelly
Unlike electoral results in Wallingford, Nov. 7th was a celebratory evening for its full slate of Democratic candidates in the Town of Chester (pop. 4,400). My husband and I were both on the ballot. Last November, I was appointed to the Chester Board of Education to fill a vacancy. This November, I ran as a candidate and won a four-year term to the board. My husband, in his first foray into elected office, ran for a five-year term as a Board of Finance alternate. In our little hamlet, Dems have the majority of registered voters at 1,145, with 1,111 unaffiliated voters the next largest cohort. Victory was swift and sweet, but I began to reminisce about my earlier unsuccessful run for the Wallingford Board of Education in 2013.
I had the same set of credentials and experience and wondered why these were embraced by Chester voters but not by the Wallingford electorate. What had changed in the last 10 years?
When I lost my bid for the Wallingford Board of Education, I was told that I did not have sufficient name recognition. While I could not claim multi-generational roots in Wallingford, I had worked and resided in town for 26 years and raised two daughters, both of whom attended Wallingford schools (Moses Y. Beach Elementary School and Dag Hammarskjold Middle School).
A major educational issue facing Wallingford in 2013 was the absence of an all-day kindergarten program. When I moved to Wallingford in 1988, as a working mother of two preschoolers, this was not an option; 26 years later when I ran for Board of Ed, it still wasn’t an option, even though U.S. Census statistics showed that two-working-parent families were in the majority. I supported the efforts of the 13-member Early Childhood Exploratory Committee that reviewed the adoption of all-day kindergarten. The program was both economically viable and, most importantly, developmentally beneficial for preschoolers. In 2015, the Board of Ed voted unanimously to move forward with this program.
School security measures in Wallingford was another topic that loomed large in 2013. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting a year earlier, school districts nationwide were reviewing security procedures. Wallingford was a leader among Connecticut’s towns in adopting stronger perimeter security measures. Superintendent Salvatore Menzo had been instrumental in instituting several security upgrades including updating surveillance and internal communication systems.
The education budget with its steady annual increases was also of concern. Many of the big-ticket items were state and federal mandates, such as the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Where there were competing priorities, I strongly supported High School Reform initiatives, including resources for Capstone projects and college and career readiness.
The Connecticut Core Standards, adopted by the State Board of Education in 2010, were under intense scrutiny. The standards stipulated clear and consistent learning goals to prepare students for college and a career, while nurturing life-skills and encouraging higher-order thinking skills necessary in the 21st century workplace. More than a decade later, the jury’s still out on the effectiveness of this one-size-fits-all educational model.
More recently, concerns about the pandemic’s impact on teaching and learning have dominated the educational narrative. A McKinsey & Company report notes, “The impact of years of COVID-19 pandemic learning disruptions is coming into focus, and the picture is grim.” According to The Nation’s Report Card, “some two decades of progress have been wiped out. Average math scores for fourth and eighth graders in 2022 fell by five and eight points, respectively, compared with 2019 levels, while average scores fell by three points.”
In Wallingford, the needle hasn’t moved dramatically in terms of educational advancement these last 10 years. All-day kindergarten and half-day and full-day programs for 3- and 4-year-olds are now in place, but Niche’s school rankings give Wallingford schools an overall grade of B, and a B- grade for teachers. Recent state test scores indicate that 34% of Wallingford students are at least proficient in math and 49% in reading. Of course, the more immediate and pressing issue facing town residents is whether to consolidate its two high schools into one campus.
Wallingford is at a crossroads: we must not let another decade pass without some significant changes. During a 40-year Dickinsonian mayoral reign, midwived during a Ronald Reagan presidency, we have missed some important opportunities to secure a brighter future where infrastructure, businesses, and schools can move forward, instead of lagging behind. Ronald Reagan called his presidency “the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.” With a new administration at the helm, Wallingford is long overdue for such rediscovery. It is a requisite first step for our town’s success in a dynamic, competitive 21st century.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.