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Back to School for GNPS 198th Year

At the end of last school year I received a provocative e-mail from a parent expressing regret that some of the excitement associated with end-of-the-year report cards had been lost because of the district’s new reliance on electronic delivery of these documents. She very poignantly and accurately described the excitement, anticipation and drama associated with the opening of that envelope, emotions that I recalled fondly as a parent (and recalled in not so fond a fashion from my time as a student.) Her communication was a reminder to me of the considerations that we need to make when advancing any new technology or program, and on the nature of change in this particular organization. I advised the parent with whom I was communicating that electronic report cards are here to stay; however, the incident will serve as a paradigm for the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead of us this school year. The conversation will reverberate as the year goes on.

The Great Neck School District will begin its 198th year on Sept. 6, 2011 amid great change in public education. Our challenge will be to preserve the many aspects of service to children that have been the hallmark of the Great Neck Schools, while at the same time adapting to some very daunting challenges. In the past I’ve relied upon a metaphor that warned that there were icebergs in the water ahead of us and that our challenge would be to navigate a course that would be safe and yet still allow us to reach port. We have managed to do that thus far by way of remarkable community support and strong leadership by the Board of Education along with careful budget development and management. Were I to continue that nautical metaphor now, I would have to warn that we are entering uncharted waters.

As I’m sure the readers of this message know, New York State has now imposed a tax cap on all municipalities and school districts. It would be foolish to think that this will not have an impact on all school districts including Great Neck. While we enter the year in excellent fiscal condition, this entire year will still be spent with an eye on the development of a budget that will take into account this 2 percent cap. I wish I were in a position to predict at this juncture what that will mean; however, this is a new challenge. Every effort will be made to preserve all program opportunities for students as that is our primary mission. But, the costs imposed upon us by way of health insurance and pension costs alone account for most of that allowable increase, hence the challenge that we confront. I am certain that the manner in which we meet this test will be a topic that will be our focus for the entire school year, and despite any uncertainty about how we will do it, I am confident that we will do it.

As always, the summer has been spent in preparation of the arrival of our students and staff. This year we will greet almost 6300 students and I join with the Board and the staff in extending a warm welcome, or welcome back, to them. Many new teachers join the ranks this year and we are very pleased with the quality of the staff that we have been able to attract to Great Neck. In my conversations with these new colleagues, I have learned that they are equally excited about joining us. We also welcome several individuals in key administrative roles. Ron Gimondo has assumed the principal-ship of the John F. Kennedy School and the excitement with which he approaches this year is palpable. His new assistant principal is Peg Katz, a native New Yorker who has spent the last few years as a principal in California. Two new assistant principals at North Middle School have already begun to form a strong team with Principal Denise Nolan and they are Samantha Tarantola (a familiar face, who has been with the district in teaching and administrative roles for the last several years) and Mr. Jason Mach, who joins us after serving as an administrator in the Sewanhaka Central High School District. Finally, Ron Levine moves from his office at North Middle School to a new one at North High School, where he will serve as assistant principal.

We also welcome many new teachers. In fact there will be over 50 teachers present at our new teacher orientation to be held on Aug. 30 and 31. That two day workshop will introduce our many new staff members to numerous individuals who share the common goal of assisting these new professionals in acclimating to our district. There is an excitement about this teacher orientation that is reminiscent of a student’s first day of school. In some cases these are young teachers who have achieved either their first position or first full-time position as a teacher. In other cases they are experienced professionals who come to Great Neck to continue their career. When I meet with them prior to this date, I remind them of the incredible opportunity and challenge that their arrival here represents. They always agree with me on that point. Please join me in welcoming them to the Great Neck community.

Summer is also a time that teachers take advantage of a more relaxed schedule in order to develop skills, complete coursework and otherwise hone their craft. This summer that effort took on a different face as the district hosted a workshop on a program that many of our teachers have found both useful and interesting. Responsive Classroom is a way of teaching that emphasizes “social, emotional, and academic growth in a strong and safe school community.” This is a research-based program that relies on guiding principles and classroom practices that combine to create an elementary classroom that is both challenging and joyful. This summer almost 30 of our staff members were trained at the Baker School by a Responsive Classroom representative who took this group through their paces and gave them practical and immediately useful tools that they will be able to use in their classrooms. The training was so rigorous that one of the participants told me it was like “Responsive Classroom Boot Camp.” Such an effort is particularly appropriate at this time as New York State has mandated a bullying prevention program to be in place by the start of next school year. Responsive Classroom may well be the foundation for such efforts because it has been proven to have utility beyond the classroom and onto playgrounds and into lunchrooms. Additionally, there is evidence that this approach has an academic impact as well. Clearly this is a program worth exploring, and I am extremely happy that our staff took part in this training over the summer. You will certainly hear more about Responsive Classroom as the year goes on.

A unique opportunity offered to us in July and August is the chance to do some facilities work without students and staff being present. We’ve taken full advantage of that this year and have done some considerable concrete and paving work around many of our schools, fencing work all around the district, and completed numerous painting projects. We have also completed the installation of new playground equipment at Saddle Rock and JFK, rebuilt the Snack Shack at the North High football field and renovated the computer lab and TV 75 studio at South Middle. Additionally, within the next few weeks we will begin work on the sidewalk on Lakeville Road (adjacent to the South Campus) in an effort to make it both safer and more attractive.

Much of this work is done by our own buildings and grounds and custodial crews. They take great pride in the work that they do and I would like to publicly commend them for caring as they do about our facilities and the quality of their work. It is difficult to maintain as many buildings as we do and try to use two months to play catch-up. This is sometimes made more difficult by the age of our facilities. But, the work they do keeps us going.

I began this brief missive with an acknowledgment of the key issue that will confront us this year. That challenge will be to preserve and maintain the many aspects of the Great Neck School District that have made us unique and successful, while at the same time confronting challenges that are equally unique. We must find creative solutions to a set of circumstances never before seen. These tests are not just fiscal, they also related to how public education is perceived and administered in the United States, along with the overriding challenge of preparing students for a world that we cannot fully predict. Part of our job is to impart the skills necessary to our students to build that world that we cannot even envision.

Schools are local institutions. They reflect the values and interests of the community whose name they bear. The Great Neck Public Schools proudly reflect a community that has recognized the value of education and supported the efforts of these schools. On behalf of our schools I am proud to say thank you for that support and offer the assurance that we will continue our primary mission of educating and developing every child to their fullest potential. Despite events that might be considered outside of our control, our schools will continue to find ways to serve the needs of this outstanding community.