Kids and drugs – are we doing enough?


Yesterday the Windsor Board of Education (BoE) Curriculum Committee met.  During this meeting I once again raised the issue of whether or not we are addressing substance abuse prevention in 11th and 12th grade.  I asked this question in response to the finding that our curriculum review schedule was missing 11th and 12th grade health.

Unfortunately, the BoE President, Cristina Santos, attempted to block the conversation, stating, “we spent enough time on this issue last year.”  I would argue that last year there was not a public outcry for addressing the heroin epidemic.  Last year our state did not have hundreds overdosing within the first two months of the year, with many teens dying as a result of opioid misuse.  In our town alone, we have lost young people to opioid overdose death in the past 12 months.

Here is my position on the topic, you decide as to whether or not we should be having the conversation, or at least why someone would think it’s a bad idea:

Teen alcohol and other drug use is increasing at an alarming rate across Connecticut.  It seems like every day there is another obituary in my news feed for a young person who has lost their life to addiction. In my very own hometown I have lost 9 peers as a result of substance misuse in the past 11 years.

Despite the growing rate of drug abuse and dependence amongst young people, Connecticut school districts continue to provide inadequate instruction on substance abuse prevention – ignoring state laws (G.S. 10-19) that require students receive this life-saving information.

Roughly 1 out of 10 Connecticut high school students engage in illicit drug use on a regular basis, ranging from marijuana to crack cocaine and heroin (National Survey on Drug Use and Health).  While, 27.1% of high schools students were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property (Connecticut School Health Survey).  Substance use during adolescence has been strongly associated with the incidence of life-long chronic dependence.

As a person who survived addiction, I have asked my friends, “why did you leave me at a time in my life that I needed you the most?” Their response, “I was scared and I didn’t know how to help.”  It is unacceptable that our young people do not have the information that they need to offer guidance as someone they love risks incarceration, institutionalization, or death.

Over the past 5 years I have asked hundreds of young people who are in recovery across the state of Connecticut, “what can we do to improve outcomes in the area of behavioral health?” and the most frequent suggestion has been to teach about mental health and substance abuse in high school.

While looking into this recommendation I have found that the majority of school districts across Connecticut are out of compliance with Connecticut General Statute Sec. 10-19, which requires that every student be taught the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to understand and avoid the effects of alcohol and other drugs.  In addition, this statute mandates that every local and regional board of education attest annually to the Commissioner of Education that all students have received this instruction through a planned, ongoing, and systematic program.

To assist districts, the State of Connecticut Department of Education (SDE), not surprisingly, has developed a highly sophisticated set of standards for covering the topic of alcohol and drug use through district level health curriculum.  The SDE has outlined these standards in the Healthy and Balanced Living Curriculum Framework, which is aligned with the National Health Education Standards set by the Federal Government.

This means that Physical Education (P.E.) teachers are responsible for covering the topic in gym class or other health related courses such as weight training.  While we can see that there is multilevel alignment, an oversight has been made.

How so?  Well, students are only required to take 1.5 credits of P.E., meaning that during their senior year students often opt out of P.E. to take courses that are of greater interest to them.  This is where my concern heightens.

Adolescence is a critically important time for students as they prepare to take on adult responsibilities and consequences – yet our students are potentially not receiving the information that they need to make informed decisions about substance use.  All the while the opportunity to use drugs doubles and first time drug use quadruples between freshmen and senior year (Swedsen, J., et al., Archives of General Psychiatry).

I cannot even begin to imagine how many futures can be saved by providing the information they are entitled to receive while going through school.

Yesterday, I brought this specific this topic up for consideration during the curriculum committee meeting, and Mrs. Santos’ response was that “all districts” are out of compliance.  That is a false statement.  Our district was out of compliance with the law until last year when I raised the issue.  This year I was simply following up because there was a discrepancy in the curriculum review schedule that was presented yesterday.

I believe that it is completely without our prevue as a Board of Education to discuss matters that are impacting our student body, and it would be an appropriate conversation to begin within the curriculum committee given that there is a law that requires that we include substance use in our curriculum.  Specifically, G.S. 10-19 includes, “The content and scheduling of instruction [on substance use] shall be within the discretion of the local or regional board of education.”

To be clear, I asked yesterday for a conversation – I asked for us to take a look at how substance use education is embedded into the curriculum from kindergarten through grade 12.  I asked for assurance that this information was being delivered in a developmentally appropriate way through scaffolding.  This is not to micromanage the teachers, this is to ensure that our children are receiving the lifesaving information that we are required, by law, to teach.  Why am I being blocked?


1 out of 10 high school students have used an illicit drug ranging from marijuana to crack cocaine and heroin (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). National Surveys on Drug Use and Health: Model-Based Estimated Totals, NSDUH Series H-43, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4703. Table C.8, C.21, C.22. Rockville, MD).

The opportunity to use drugs doubles and first time drug use quadruples between freshman year of high school and senior year (Swedsen, J., et al., Archives of General Psychiatry).

There is an upward trend in the non-medical use of prescription opioids, including Oxytocin and Percocet, between 8th and 12th Grade (Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2016). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2015: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan).

27.1% of high schools students were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property (Connecticut Department of Public Health. (2013) Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – Connecticut: Components of the Connecticut School Health Survey).

5% of 12-17 year olds in Connecticut reported recreational use of prescription pain relievers (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). National Surveys on Drug Use and Health: Model-Based Estimated Totals, NSDUH Series H-43, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4703. Table C.8, C.21, C.22. Rockville, MD).

By the age of 25, two out of three have used an illicit drug ranging from marijuana to crack cocaine and heroin (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). National Surveys on Drug Use and Health: Model-Based Estimated Totals, NSDUH Series H-43, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4703. Table C.8, C.21, C.22. Rockville, MD).

Despite Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) being deemed a failed prevention program through a 20 year longitudinal study and independent two meta-analysis, DARE continues to be implemented throughout districts (Join Together (2007). Prevention Education in America’s Schools: Findings and recommendations from a survey of educators)

It has been found that school districts should not be the principal providers of general prevention education, but should partner with other social institutions and parents to develop and implement comprehensive community prevention strategies (Ashlery, R. S. et. al. (1998). Drug Abuse Prevention Through Family Interventions. IDA Research Monograph 177.)

Suggested topics for a harm reduction approach to drug abuse prevention:

  • History of human drug consumption
  • Commonly taken drugs and their effects
  • Purposes for which drugs are consumed
    • Drugs as a response to adolescent angst
    • Alternatives to drug consumption
  • Hazards of any drug consumption and means of risk-reduction, including
    • Self-assessment of risk
    • Personal rules related to drug taking behavior
  • Drug dependence
    • Its extent, nature, impact, and treatment.

(Nickolson, T. et. al. (2013). Focusing on abuse, not use, in drug education)


With Humility and Gratitude


Dear Mrs. Santos,

It is with the utmost gratitude for the educators and families of Windsor that I would encourage us to re-watch the full board meeting and reflect with openness on the statements shared, and undertones taken. (Watch board meeting here:, budget discussion begins at 00:40:00)

For the record, the Republican Caucus of the  Windsor Board of Education does not support homogenous grouping.

We have moved beyond the interpersonal conflict that was so pervasive in past terms and have come to the current term with humility and gratitude – with a solution focused perspective that is centered in possibilities.

Furthermore, no one on the Board is here for any other reason than to promote an educational system within our district that  fosters an equitable opportunity for achieving the genius and full potential of every student.

As we requested during the budget process, we ask that whole-class leveled instruction strictly for Grades 3-5 in the subjects of ELA and Math, along with grades 6-8 ELA, Math, Science, and Social Studies be considered.

We can have a discussion on research based  models for leveled instruction at a later during a full board meeting, with possible action to refer to curriculum committee for further consider, as I am fully aware that models are in existence, such as the

Although, the 3 student per level model is clearly not an efficient approach and so that is why we have asked for whole class leveled instruction.  It would be anticipated that differentiation would still occur through this model because of the unique developmental, instructional, and social-emotional needs that every student possess as human beings.

I have attached the language submitted for consideration during the budget process that speaks to what we, as a caucus, requested.  I would note that we could have included our intention to promote ongoing systematic assessment and data driven movement between levels within the document, and for that we opened ourselves to criticism.

We recognize that, as it was agreed upon across multiple board members at the last meeting, consistent movement between levels coupled with strong oversight of multiple demographic indicators will be of critical importance.

As it is described, leveled instruction allows for the scaffolding of knowledge and the movement of students along a continuum that is tailored as the best fit for their instructional needs – true individualized learning.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read through, and consider, the content of this email.

With Respect,

Michaela I. Fissel

Member, Windsor Board of Education


On Feb 19, 2016, at 12:37 AM, Santos, Cristina <> wrote:

Mrs. Rizzo-Holmes,

I am writing this evening to share my concern about your insinuation, on camera conveniently, that I share any affiliation to the concept Homogeneous Grouping of our elementary children. Additionally, I am writing to caution you and your caucus, that you not attempt to spin any comments, sentiments and/or convictions that I hold. I will not allow you, or your caucus, to put words in my mouth ever again. Furthermore, I have a right to my opinion and should I desire to share it, I will speak for myself. Hence, this public email, given FOIA, is to set the record straight on your statement of 2/17/16 during the Regular Meeting of the Board inferring that I have ‘changed my position’.

For the record, I have never, nor will I ever, support Homogeneous Grouping as has been championed by Minority Leader Paul Panos during his entire time as a member of the Windsor Board of Education. At no time ever as an elected official, since November 2007, have I agreed, publicly or privately, with this archaic and discriminatory practice. Let me remind you the last time you and members of your caucus were in my home, 3/16/14, the ferocious, heated argument at my dining room table where I adamantly, unequivocally, stated I would have nothing to do with, ever, the concept of Homogeneous Grouping. I have not “changed my position”. Last night you attempted to spin I previously supported Homogeneous Grouping. Not a chance!

I have shared and spoken in support before, by example, my children’s time at OE and their reading program called SFA. It was, from a parent perspective, a reading model that my children did well under. Perhaps other parents did not feel the same way. But, that was a small portion of their time during the school day. And let’s be clear, all classrooms were heterogeneously grouped to ensure balance by gender, race, ethnicity while still accounting for Special Education inclusion. That SFA model worked well during the late 90’s, early 2000’s for the student population at the time. Those are not the children we have today, and that model has long since passed its’ prime. Luckily, for today’s children Education is not stagnant. And, our children are lucky to have a comprehensive Multi-Tiered Support System developed by our district leadership that will ensure their needs are met both in academic and social/emotional areas.

Your model, as described and explained throughout this budget process by Mr. Panos, is taking an entire grade level (example given was 6 classes), and leveling children into three groups (audio 2/2/16) putting these children together as a classroom. In my opinion, that is not acceptable.

It has become abundantly clear that you like to “attack me” for any/all comments I make. Last month, you jumped all over me when I made a statement that during the Finance Committee Meeting of January 11, which lasted 1:30:23, no objection was put forth regarding Budget Assumption #12, line #2. The fact is that not a single comment was made by yourself, or any Republican, on Budget Assumption #12, line #2 at the January 11 Finance Committee Meeting, which was specifically added to review the budget assumption document. Your comeback at me was again playing spin for the cameras. Next time, do committee work in committee, that is why we are a committee of nine!

I don’t “flip-flop” on my convictions, but I do wear flip-flops to the beach. The next time you attempt to put words in my mouth, or speak for me, I will immediately call you to task, on camera or otherwise. STOP playing political games!

Instead, use your energy toward helping all of Windsor’s children.

Mrs. Santos

Cristina Santos

President- Windsor Board of Education

An Honest Look at Literacy

It is no secret that I have publically criticized the educational system of Windsor for continuing to allow at least 20% of our students to remain underperforming in reading across assessments year after year. Whether we are looking at the DRA, DRP, MAP, STAR, CAPT, CMT, SBAC or any other number of educational alphabet soup acronyms that are used to measure student achievement, it is more than clear that there is a systemic gap in our approach to addressing the literacy needs of 1 out of 5 students.

Since beginning my tenure on the Board of Education, I have repeatedly asked what we can do to provide targeted interventions that are appropriately tailored to the unique instructional and developmental needs of our students so that they can move forward to achieve their full potential.

As I stated during the special meeting of October 14, 2014, “of those 30% of [high school] students [who enter the high school significantly behind in reading], how many of those students were potentially identified below level before 3rd grade?”

Over the past three years it has become blatantly apparent that when I ask direct questions about the significant number of students who are below standard in reading, I am met with a cautionary statement against relying on the tests used to assess achievement. This is attributed to the fact that every few years the assessment tools used to measure achievement are changed. For example, Windsor no longer uses MAP testing. However, just two years ago, the Windsor Board of Education received a comprehensive presentation on the use of MAP as the new and upcoming assessment for accurately measuring student achievement.

In addition, factors such as free and reduced lunch, the transient nature of our families, and even special education status have been used by fellow board members as limitations when we discuss student achievement. I am the first to state that these factors need to be considered when tailoring interventions because students are complex people who exists between multiple contexts.

However, looking back it really just felt like a ploy to distract from the facts, given that we don’t actually have meaningful conversations about how these factors are impacting our students. What we are left with, is a significant body of students who are not being afforded the opportunity to access the curriculum in a way that would enable them to perform at the expected level.

Take for example the fact that during the 13/14 school year 28.8% of students in 3rd grade were below standard on their MAP – Reading assessment, while this same 3rd grade class, just a year prior, had 29.8% of their students below standard. How much longer are we going to allow such a significant number of our students to begin their lives with such a deficit?

Consider that if just 20% of our most recent graduates from the class of 2015 left our school below grade level, we are sending just about 57 people into our community without a proper education. That is scary to me, and it should provide a catalyst for us to come together and have a honest conversations about what is happening in our district.

Given what I have shared with you in this post, you can only imagine what I must have felt like as I read through the Literacy Improvement Plan that was presented to us during the Curriculum Committee meeting yesterday evening. The Literacy Improvement Plan is a detailed document that described the history of literacy within our district over the past half-decade, an overview of where literacy stands today, the current delivery of instruction and personnel, a set of goals and an action plan, and even a series of recommendations. The document itself is clearly academically focused and research driven.

As I stated to Bonnie Fineman, the Director of Arts and Humanities for the Windsor Public School System, I nearly cried as I read through the document because I am so incredibly grateful to finally have someone understand that I’m not calling to question individuals’ commitment to addressing this issue, I’m simply attempting to begin an honest and open dialogue about the fact that we have a significant number of students who remain underperforming year after year in the area of reading.

I look forward to hearing more about the Literacy Improvement Plan at the upcoming February 17th Full Board Meeting. I am confident that the team that Ms. Fineman has put together will bring a level of openness on the issue of literacy that I personally have been waiting for since my election.

It’s That Time Again

Here is a quick snapshot of the Superintendent’s proposed budget:

2.39%, or $1,582,381 increase
Total proposed budget amount $67,608,323

Staffing Increases:
2 Elementary Remedial Math Teachers
1 Elementary Science Teacher Grades 3-5
.6 Strings Teacher
1 Teacher and 1 Paraprofessional for an additional Pre-K Classroom
Funding to continue 1:1 chromebooks for students in grades 2-12
Addition of a Kindergarten early start program
Increase of $25,000 to major maintenance

1 Seminar Teacher at WHS
.6 teacher Sage Park
$50,000 reduction in summer school costs
$20,000 reduction in textbooks

The format of the budget, as well as our budget adoption process, is essentially identical to prior years. The Superintendent has stated that we have made changes and are more “transparent” this year, but if you compare this year’s budget book to last year’s they look essentially the same. While our finance committee this year is a committee of the entire Board, our process has been exactly as it was in prior years. This is disappointing to me, as many Board members gave suggestions as to changes we’d like to see, and they just didn’t happen. In terms of the additions and reductions, I have a hard time moving passed the elimination of the seminar teacher at the High School. Seminar was once a truly great gifted and talented program, and with this cut we are completely eliminating our gifted and talented program at the high school. The reaction to this cut from the Board has been mixed, with the exception of President Santos, who appears to be on a mission to demonstrate how unnecessary the seminar program is. Unfortunately I fear this is motivated by her desire to stand in opposition to anything a Republican member supports, as she knows how important this program is to myself and other Republican members, and not out of any real concern for the well-being or enrichment of our students.

We continue to hold public forums and finance committee meetings as we work our way through the budget. Please come and share your questions and concerns on the budget with us.

Increasing Teacher Involvement at the Board Level

During the last few weeks I have gotten a number of questions regarding my priorities for changes I’d like to see if I am re-elected to the Board of Education. The first thing that comes to mind for me is increasing our access to teachers and staff. At the Board level we get very few opportunities to engage with teachers and staff as a full board. Much of the information we get from teachers is anecdotal. I have family, friends and acquaintances that work in our school district, and that is where I get so much of my information about the day to day operations of our schools. It can be difficult when you hear one thing during a presentation to the full Board, and it seems to directly contradict something that a teacher told you earlier in the day. I thought of this while attending convocation at the beginning of this school year. We heard many speakers that focused on all the great things going on in the district, and how this year would be a great year. But I was struck by the comments from one of the WEA co-presidents. He gave a very short address, but he listed focus areas where he and the union felt there needed to be actual improvement this year. This was extremely powerful for me to hear as a Board member. It gave me a window into the concerns that teachers are sharing amongst themselves, and where they feel they need support. To hear things listed off like teacher morale, or a need for support in discipline, especially at the elementary level, gave me a glimpse into what our teachers are really facing as educators day to day.

I would like to develop a way for the Board to get this type of feedback on a regular basis. Obviously, the Board can’t hear every teacher concern – some issues are legitimate personnel issues that should not or cannot be shared publicly. But general comments and concerns by teachers should be shared with Board members. How can we be expected to develop the best policies for our district if we don’t get input from the educators that those policies will directly affect? The next question becomes, what is the best way to go about getting this information? Earlier in this term I was a big proponent of finding a way to get teacher input. I suggested that we hold a teacher forum at one of our committee meetings, and invite teachers to come and talk to the four board members that sat on the district improvement committee. This idea was rejected because, I was told, no teacher would be willing to come forward to talk about their ideas or concerns. The end result was that Board president Santos and one other Board member held a closed door meeting with teachers and union representation. Unfortunately, the Board was told that we were not allowed to hear anything that happened at this meeting, because all of the teacher comments amounted to personnel issues that the Board had no right to be involved in. This was extremely frustrating to those of us who felt that we had let teachers down by implying we were going to hear them and address their concerns, and then doing nothing about what they shared. So, what about a different approach? My thought is that we should have a teacher representative at our Board of Education meetings, much like we have a student representative. Our student rep has provided us with meaningful feedback on a number of issues – why not give the same opportunity to our teachers? I believe that many teachers and staff members do want an outlet to express their concerns. We heard from many district employees during our budget meetings who were unhappy with the Superintendent’s proposal to eliminate kindergarten paraprofessionals and reduce the number of special education paraprofessionals. They were happy to provide the Board insight into why they felt these positions were important and to talk about how this decision would affect their jobs and their students. It would make much more sense for the Board to consistently get this level of information, instead of only getting negative feedback once an unpopular decision is already made. Of course, we would need to work alongside the union to ensure that only topics that are appropriate for the Board to hear are raised, but I believe this would be a great first step in empowering our teachers and making them feel as though they are a vital part of the policy development process, and that we take their concerns seriously.

BOE Budget Process Changes

At Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting there was a considerable amount of discussion around the Board’s budget adoption process. I requested that the Board consider changes to our budget process, and specifically wanted to engage in a discussion of zero based budgeting. At the outset I’d like to point out that our caucus got very little support for adding this agenda item. I am still confused as to why, after a summer with five referendums, we would not engage in a dialogue around the way we adopt our budget or interact with the public about the budget. In fact, my request to add this agenda item was prompted by a conversation I had with a citizen who, while completely in favor of our initial budget, was still frustrated by the process. Why were so many issues coming up during the referendums? Why couldn’t both the Board and the Council have worked these issues out before we asked the town to vote? I believe the answer to this lies in a fundamental change in the way we adopt our budget, and the way our finance committee functions.

We heard over and over again that the referendums failed because numbers were being misrepresented, most notably our per pupil spending number. Saying that the failure of the budget is based solely on “misinformation” is, to me, completely missing the point, and demonstrates how little some of those in power actually listen to the voters. During the referendum process I spoke to many no voters, and what I heard was not just about cost, it was about achievement. Five referendum votes reflected, at least for some voters that I spoke with, the frustration with being told year after year that more spending means more achievement, but not seeing those results. We heard repeatedly that the per pupil spending number used by no voters was wrong, despite the fact that the Hartford Courant published an article on education spending in Connecticut and gave a per pupil spending number for Windsor that was in line with the numbers published by no voters. It can be found here. The point here is that our budgets involve not only a very large sum of money generated by tax revenue, but also grants, grant funded positions, funding from the state and federal government, and mandates that we have no choice but to fund. Given all of this, it’s no wonder that there is discussion around these numbers, and at times different figures arrived at. But, Windsor also has an educated populace. We are a town of people who get involved. We are not a citizenry that will sit back and accept whatever is told to us by the town government. We will do our own research and fact checking, make suggestions for how the process can be improved, and voice our opinions and dissatisfaction when necessary. And I believe that the heart of the issue this summer was not just a price tag, but a price tag that voters felt did not reflect adequate results coming from our schools.

This is why zero based budgeting is so important. It’s an opportunity for the Board and the school district to rebuild, from the bottom up. It’s our chance to go through everything we offer as a school district, make sure that all of our funding requests are actually aligned with our district goals, prioritize our offerings, and come up with a budget that isn’t based on what things looked like in the prior year. It could also be structured in a way to increase the number of participants involved in creating the budget, including our teachers. We can show the public that we are capable of taking a realistic look at our financial requests, and that what we’re asking for isn’t just necessary, but that it’s also linked directly to achievement. And in the process, I would suspect that we may be able to eliminate some unsuccessful programs and find efficiencies. In conjunction with zero based budgeting, the finance committee should operate as a committee of the whole Board, hear each department’s budget requests as they have prioritized them, and then engage in developing the budget along with the administration, rather than simply being handed a completed Superintendent’s budget that we have had no hand in creating, and often have very little understanding of what went into its development. This past year the Finance committee, at the insistence of the Board president, was not even allowed to suggest changes to the Superintendent’s budget. If we are going to work together as a Board to develop an efficient budget that reflects our priorities then shutting Board members out of the process cannot continue.

I got very little support for my attempt to implement zero based budgeting on Tuesday. My fellow Republican board members voted along with me to implement a modified version of zero based for this year. I understand why the Democrats on the Board did not – it was a difficult position for them to be in just before the election. However, some expressed the fear that they would be portrayed as being against any change to the budget if they voted against my proposal. While many Democratic board members expressed an interest in continuing to look at ways to change our budget process (and I believe some were completely sincere) I also heard spirited defenses of our current system. The board president engaged in what I can only call a lengthy cross examination style questioning of our business director and director of pupil services apparently with the objective of pointing out that any criticism of the current budget process is just wrong. Along the way she brought up many of the same arguments we heard during the referendum. We can continue to engage in this behavior, dig our heels in and yell that one side is right and the other is wrong – but I don’t think that will get us very far. Why not adopt a different approach, which will give the district an opportunity to show that they are willing to justify all of their spending requests? Windsor is a town of involved voters, and that isn’t going to change. If our leadership won’t work with them to accommodate their need for information and desire to truly understand our budgets, then perhaps it’s time for new leadership.