Before they approved the redistricting plan, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Geoff Gordon and the members of the board of education expressed their heartfelt wish that they could have made everybody happy with the plan. Assistant Superintendent of Schools Mary Callahan noted that at the beginning of this yeoman's task, the principals of the four existing elementary schools did not want to give up one family. However, reality set in, and Dr. Gordon and the board finally created a redistricting plan that they feel confident in because it is "educationally sound," offering the most number of students a chance to learn about all types of people in a diverse environment. "When youngsters have positive experiences with a variety of peers in a healthy environment when they're in grade school, they are more accepting of differences when they get to middle school. They learn tolerance, and out of that grows kindness," noted Ms. Callahan.
Many factors contributed to the final version of the plan. The desire to keep class size low (in the elementary schools 19-20 students) and distribute students from different backgrounds (i.e. ESL students, Special Needs, free and reduced lunch) evenly throughout the five schools are two of those.
Complicating these goals were consideration of building size and capacity, the location of the schools (four in the northern end of town and one in the southern part), transportation issues and costs, and wanting to keep neighborhoods together. All agree, it was a very complicated process.
The board vote on the plan was 6-1, with board member Dean Nardone dissenting. As each board member gave his/her rationale for approving the plan, each one stated in one way or another that they believed they were doing the right thing for students.
However, a few areas in town expressed dismay over their school assignment. A large group from the Park section vocalized their unhappiness. Their youngsters will be attending Guggenheim, which is the same school they have been going to. They had wanted to go to Salem School, as their homes are near this facility. They argue that students from the west side of Port Blvd. in the Flower Hill area extending to South Bayles St. will be going to Salem, and feel it would be more convenient for them. Additionally, their four block neighborhood is sandwiched in between students from Salem, to the south, and Daly, to the north. They don't see why they have to be bused to Guggenheim, and why their kids lose out on possible friendships with classmates who live nearby.
The families also argue that the board has accommodated other areas (i.e. Sands Point and Soundview).
Dr. Gordon and board members replied that the four block area has 80 plus students in elementary school. Unfortunately, Salem, the only elementary facility in the southern part of town, has a planned capacity of 400 students. Ms. Callahan also reminded the parents that in the beginning of the process, at one of the many meetings the board held with the community, the families of the Park section requested that they be kept together, a wish the board honored.
One Park section resident accused the board of being political in making its decision. Board member Rob Seiden stated firmly that the plan has no political motivations and caters to no special interest groups. "It was done with integrity."
Another area unhappy with the plan encompasses the homes on the north side of the Mill Pond and Smull Place. The parents report that they cannot send their kids out to play because of traffic which is currently exacerbated by the development that's taking place now. They feel that their youngsters are isolated. But, fortunately, they report, Manorhaven Principal Dr. Linda Welles has created a "fabulous" community for the kids and their families at the Manorhaven School. Under the new plan, they will be at Guggenheim School. "We want to remain part of the Manorhaven family. We've come to rely on the school as our community," said Adina Genn.
One other group protesting their assignment are parents from Cow Bay, Harbor Homes. whose children have been placed at Salem School. They argue that they do not want to be bused to Salem, when other schools are much closer to their homes.
Defending his plan, the Superintendent said "From the time the board began deliberations about reopening Salem School in 1998, through today, when we have four elementary schools on the north side of town and just one on the southern end, it was clear that we could not please everyone. Change is never easy, but having received just four e-mails since the meeting, we are now down to a very small percent of issues, and we are trying to help parents as best we can. We are working with the Harbor Homes and Cow Bay families in a very positive way. We now have five liaisons with the community. We'll continue working closely together to assess the impact of the planned upcoming reconstruction of Harbor Homes.
When asked why he voted against the plan, board member Dean Nardone replied:
"The school district had a very difficult undertaking. In the end, what bothered me most was that children who were able to walk one-half-mile to a school will be bused to a different one.
Other issues that Mr. Nardone mentioned were the following:
1- The Park section of town with its 85 students will be isolated from the other 450 students at Guggenheim.
2- Manorhaven School, which is now educating 566 students, in two years will be educating only 420.
3- Forty fifth-graders who would normally be sent to Salem, are instead being grandfathered, which means they remain at their present school (Guggenheim), and have to be bused there. This means the large majority of their younger siblings and friends will be attending Salem.
On a positive note, Nardone commented that he was impressed that the district was able to accomplish creating a fifth elementary school without adding classroom teachers to the budget.
While acknowledging that redistricting changes are always difficult, board member David Strom pointed out the students eventually come together in the middle school (grades 6, 7 and 8) and high school. "It wasn't possible to have a perfect plan," he said.
Commenting on the philosophy of the overall plan, Dr. Gordon said that the foundation of the redistricting plan is to utilize this necessary process as an opportunity to enhance education for every Port Washington student. "We are very excited that this plan attains this and accomplishes another long sought-after goal - keeping every elementary school class below 20 students." He added, "Moreover, we have carefully planned to have diversity in every school, which we know will enrich every student's education."
Continuing, the superintendent noted, "From all the school meetings and communications we listened to the community's preferences and for the most part, kept neighborhoods together. Educationally, this plan moves our district forward, I want to let the community know that orientations are already being planned for students; we intend to make the transition as smooth as possible."
Ms. Callahan mentioned that the staff will determine, on an individual basis, which teacher will be best for each student.
Also for the first year, all fifth-graders will be grandfathered in the schools they currently attend, so that a change in schools doesn't happen in a consecutive three-year period (4th to 5th and 5th to 6th grade at Weber).
Board member Dr. Roy Nelson asked the superintendent when the board could expect the implementation plan to make the transition as comfortable and easy as possible for students and parents. Dr. Gordon told the Port News that the district will be sending a letter directly to parents detailing their thorough student and family orientation programs.
One very positive step the district will be undertaking to help the grade school youngsters cope with the transitions in the schools will be to make a presentation on how to help the kids adjust to their change in schools. Ellen Fox points out that this does not only apply to students leaving a school, but also will give advice on how to help the youngsters whose friends will be leaving their school to attend a different one. (Guggenheim, alone, will be losing half of its current student body.) The program will be organized by Ronnie Smithline, a counselor in the district, and sponsored by the Parent Council. It will be held on March 9 from 7 to 8:30 p.m., ending at that time to allow parents to get home early enough for their elementary school children. Guidance counselors will be attending. Though the meeting is being held at Sousa, it is open to parents of any of the five elementary schools.
During the last round of community comments for the evening, a Park section parent said that he wants their area to unite for the appeal process.
Another parent thanked Dr. Gordon and the board for working hard to create increased diversity in the elementary schools. "You went beyond your duties," she said, adding that "because of this, kids have fewer problems when they get to high school. "Segregation leads to problems later on," she concluded.
At the end of the meeting, board president Laura Mogul thanked the superintendent for his willingness to be at the center of this difficult and unpopular task.
Parents who want to make individual requests regarding their child's placement will be able to file an appeal with Assistant Superintendent for Business Mary Callahan. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 767-5000 and asking for her.