I was trying, rather unscientifically but gastronomically the other day, in the Starbucks on Northern Boulevard (way too conveniently located on my way to the north side of town schools) to decide between a caramel whatever-you-call-it treat, or a simple house blend coffee, when I ran into a parent of one of our students. We took a minute to catch up on the summer and passed the inevitable "I can't believe it's almost over!" remark back and forth. Cheerleader for the schools that I am, I got all worked up about the "good stuff" going on, and some of our challenges, when she hit me with a simple question: "What, in your opinion, could ever happen in a school that would tell you that it's just about a perfect place for kids?" I thought a minute and replied, "It would be a school where, in the depths of February, if it snowed and I called a snow day, the kids all would be genuinely disappointed to have to stay home."
Superintendent of Schools Ronald Friedman
While admittedly a rather quippy remark, it does point to the essence of what we strive for: schools where learning is an active, enthusiastic way of living; where students who are valued and nurtured are engaged in activities that are so motivating and relevant that they are as much fun as they are challenging and stretching of the mind; and where all who are involved in the school community - parents, students, staff - work and grow together on a journey of wonder and insight and interdependence and satisfaction at every turn, with a destination whose value is every bit equaled by the worth of the trip.
I know what you're thinking. Idealism has its place, but nothing can replace a good snowy Friday snow day in the dead of winter! No doubt that's a reality. Yet each year we take the aphorism "if you're not going forward, you most assuredly will be slipping backward" to heart as we together evolve our schools to better meet the challenges that every year get more complex, and to strive for that fantasy "darn, a snow day!" reaction. In that context, so much is happening that I'm hard-pressed to describe all of our school district's moving-forward stuff in an article of readable size! Yet I will summarize some of what we're proud of, on behalf of our children and school community.
It's axiomatic that reading and writing are fundamental. Let's start there. I don't think you can have too much going on in these realms, and yet care must be taken to ensure that the activities are carefully planned to challenge, stretch, motivate creativity, and cultivate critical, discerning thinking. Two years ago we embarked on a partnership with Columbia University to introduce their Teachers College Writing Project into our schools. As you know, we have a very capable and dedicated teaching staff. This partnership brought to many of our teachers the resources they want and need to make our writing program grow and become the best it can be in the ways I mentioned above. Paired with this Teachers College program is a similar one in reading, again helping us to enhance what is called higher-order thinking and learning. We know a lot more about learning and thinking processes as we end the first decade of the 21st century than we did even 10 or 20 years ago, and it's incumbent on us to use this knowledge to help our youngsters.
Changes in what we anticipate students will learn, or in other words, the curriculum, are evolving, and yet changes in how we teach, collaborate, and specialize our educational processes for each unique and individual child are more profound. Our district educates 6,200 students every day, and they represent a diversity of abilities, interests, and special needs. More and more, our staff takes pride in how they individualize or customize what we do with each child to best help that child to grow academically, gain confidence, and become creative, thirsting lifelong learners. Of particular note is how our special education programs have changed, now becoming more integrated than ever into regular education, benefiting both students with special needs and those mainstream students with whom they interact.
I've only touched the surface in what we're doing about growth in teaching and learning. Elementary mathematics is evolving, with new books and consistency in instruction. Technology abounds in our schools! Computers, SmartBoards, and other enhancements are now so ubiquitous that they form a natural part of the landscape and have transformed learning. Teaming in our middle schools allows teachers to collaborate each day, ensuring consistency in what individual youngsters need as the day goes on. Last year, we had our first year of operation of our district's SEAL Academy, a program at our Clover Drive Learning Center for youngsters with very special needs, many of whom, heretofore, were sent out of our district to specialized schools at a significant cost. This June, nine of these students actually graduated and earned a diploma! And the savings in tuition and transportation costs more than paid for the program. I could go on and on. So much is happening in teaching and learning that a full treatise would take up all the pages in this newspaper, and the editor would cut it to shreds!
A great deal of what we do supports our fundamental educational efforts. For one thing, we must operate our school district as a business. Our board of education supports this reality, as do I. I'm as much a CEO as an educator, that's certain. We are mindful of the weighty trust the community places in us when they approve our operating budget each year. By carefully marshaling our resources over the past several years, we were able to garner funds to make substantial and necessary improvements in our buildings and grounds this summer, and into the school year, without resorting to borrowing and the interest payments that would accrue. We're in the middle of an energy efficiency project that is replacing our aging boilers and related infrastructures with modern, energy-efficient systems. The cost of this entire project, and it's a big endeavor, will be fully funded by the more than 10 million dollars saved in energy costs over the amortization of this project. And we've added solar panels to our four large secondary schools. They are, as of this week, fully functional, and they allow us to produce electricity to use, as well as to sell back to LIPA when it's surplus! Continuing in the realm of finance, we are always striving to be able to do more and better either for the same cost, or for less. I mentioned the wonderful SEAL Academy that is saving kids and saving money. Add our Village School to that category of doing better with our resources. A small, loving and caring community, the school's student body has among it a number of students that attend from other school districts that pay tuition to us. That tuition alone last year brought in revenue amounting to nearly $1 million. Much more can be said about the business end of our operation; suffice it to say that we strive to be at least as good at fiscal prudence and management as are the best of the entities that exist in the private sector.
Safety and security are always at the fore. This year, we have made improvements in a number of areas. We now have a fiber-optic network in place that connects all of our schools. Using that network, we are placing video cameras outside our schools to monitor exits and entrances. Staff members all now have ID cards that identify them as members of the staff. Emergency drills of all kinds are now in place as well, going way beyond the fire drills of past years to provide practice in sheltering in place, lockouts, lockdowns, and so on. We have a new communication system called ParentLink. With it, I can communicate with every household in the school community via telephone, cell phone, and/or email or text message, within about 10 minutes. We'll be using that system for snow days, and other urgent situations or exigent circumstances, if they occur. Last June, I used the system to advise parents and staff of how we were handling schools during the heat wave, and it called 7,500 households with my message in a total of eight minutes.
Last year, we dealt with the sensitive issue of enrollment imbalances between North High School and South High School. After a series of community meetings, the board adopted an optional attendance zone in which students zoned for South High or South Middle could opt to attend North High or North Middle schools. We also approved a number of building projects at South High designed to create additional classroom, science laboratory and guidance office space. I'm happy to report that most of the construction has been completed, and the remaining work will be finished by early fall. The enrollments in the optional zone so far number about 50 students who are zoned for south secondary schools and will instead attend north secondary schools. The high numbers of students enrolling in South High last summer have not, at least as of August 28, materialized again. As of that date, South High is within the capacity we hoped we would not exceed as schools open, and that doesn't even take into consideration the new classrooms we've built. Part of the problem we've had has been alleviated by a new, enhanced registration office that has professional staffing who are able to be exceptionally vigilant in monitoring who is allowed to register, ensuring only those with adequate and accurate proof of residence are allowed to register students in our schools. I'm also happy to report that, after an extensive search to replace retiring South High principal Randy Ross, we were very fortunate to secure the services of Mrs. Susan Elliott as South High's new principal. We are as enthusiastic about her as she is about being here in Great Neck!
So much more - and yet, space is limited. Our new, true Universal Prekindergarten Program at the Parkville Early Childhood Center is under way. The Cumberland Adult Program is thriving. Libraries thrive despite the digital age, with new and wondrous books to excite youngsters. Oh, don't forget sports and field improvements. We have renovated ten (yes, 10!) tennis courts this summer, and are building four completely new ones over at North High. We are adding teams in girls cross country, boys volleyball, and ninth grade boys basketball this fall.
All of what we do, however - and a full treatise, which I'd love to write, would as I said fill this paper - would not be possible without three elements: a superb Board of Education to provide guidance, policy, and example; an extraordinarily supportive community that demands and yet very much appreciates excellence in our schools; and a staff second to none in carrying out our mission each day. People have said to me, "Ron, don't you have the hardest job in the school district, being superintendent?" and I answer "I don't know that for sure, but I sure know I have the best job!" On that note, thank you for all you as a community do, and let's all wish for and help make for a wonderful school year - even if the kids really do, alas, love a snow day!