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To the benefit and credit of our community, our school budget passed recently and we elected two excellent candidates to our school board.

Passage of the budget should not be seen as an end. It is a beginning; an opportunity for everyone in Port to work as a team in an unprecedented project to evaluate and improve our educational process without having our students, teachers, administrators and parents laboring under the negatives of austerity and even more state interference.

Without a sea change in our approach, our schools and their costs will continue to become a more divisive issue each year. Even with what we're each paying in school taxes now, the Port Washington schools, while very good, are not rated among the very best on Long Island.

Let's put down our boxing gloves and use the incredible talent and determination we have in our community to meet the challenge of making Port Washington a national leader in providing an education superior to what we provide now, at lower cost.

Impossible, you say? Nonsense. What it takes is the willingness of each of us, from kids through our senior citizens, to open our minds, put aside the conventional wisdom and slavish adherence to the current way of doing things, and say: Let's start from the beginning. If there were no schools yet and you were asked to create the best ways to educate our kids, how would you do it?

Perhaps what we're doing now, with a little tweaking, is the best way. But maybe we've somehow gotten lost. Maybe our basic educational pattern of having kids sit in a building each day and be encouraged to memorize facts and regurgitate them on more and more tests is not the best way to prepare them to play positive roles in society and lead productive, meaningful lives.

Some possibilities to consider:

1) Perhaps our children will learn more facts and learn how to meet the challenges of life if, instead of almost always being taught at, they learn, at least part of the time, through doing. Let them undertake projects to study and analyze important societal challenges, consider and determine possible solutions, and actually then help implement those solutions, with more work done outside of the classroom.

Just as one of many examples, one of the biggest issues facing society today, encompassing environment, economics, international relations, science, math, etc. is our sources of energy, most of which today are non-renewable. In different ways, according to what school level they're in, the children can study all aspects of this societal challenge, consider remedial courses of action, and then recommend solutions through actions in the homes, schools, businesses, transportation of Port Washington, which they can help implement and monitor. They will learn to analyze, consider, plan and act. Reading, writing, speaking, planning, English, math, history, science, health, etc. are all necessary to successfully complete their tasks. They can learn teamwork and maybe even compete with other schools in coming up with and implementing solutions. That's competition for achieving something worthwhile instead of just for the sake of competition.

2) What are the advantages and disadvantages of organizing schools by grade levels? Perhaps it would work better if students were placed in small groups organized by ability level in each subject, and then advance to a different group when their progress warrants it in each subject. Among other advantages, there will never be a need to leave kids back so they have to repeat a grade. And students who are weak in one subject may be better in another. Those needing more help might do better in groups of their own ability level.

3) If current, tenured teachers are guaranteed that their jobs will not be threatened, should we consider bringing in experienced, inspirational, highly competent professionals (retired and otherwise) in various fields to introduce and teach some one or two semester courses in our public schools, sometimes as volunteers or for honorariums?

4) Should we begin to constantly teach, show and instill during the school day that treating people, animals and our planet in our daily lives the way we'd like to be treated ourselves not only is the right thing to do but leads to greater success in whatever we do?

5) Should we in Port Washington take control of our educational process back from the often-clueless bureaucrats and politicians in Albany and Washington? Should we make clear to any governmental level seeking to impose programs on us that Port Washington will only consider complying with mandates from other jurisdictions if they provide us with the full financing for the programs or procedures they're mandating and if our Port Washington educational administrators and teachers decide that the mandated programs in question will benefit our students. Or should we continue to be sheep and increase our taxes to pay for programs we don't even want?

6) Should we conduct a thorough analysis of the costs and benefits of federally or state mandated programs and procedures we already have in our schools and determine whether we want to continue with them?

7) If and when we refuse to carry out mandates we must be prepared for federal and state sanctions, including cutting off all federal and state funding to our schools. If, however, we eliminate the mandated programs we don't want, the cutoff of federal and state funds will not, on balance, significantly affect our total budget.

There are infinite issues to consider in our quest to create a school system which produces more knowledgeable, caring, interested graduates inculcated with a lifelong interest in learning and a thirst and ability to confront and meet challenges in all facets of their lives.

While an argument can be made that daring to strike out in new directions might create a negative connotation of our school system, possibly impacting college admissions, I think the opposite will occur. By involving the students themselves in solving problems and even studying and making recommendations about the educational process they're taking part in, Port Washington will become known for producing students better equipped than any others for successfully meeting the challenges, academic and otherwise, of college life and life in the real world of jobs and families.

The Port Washington School District will become known for involving the whole community in providing a better education at lower cost.

None of this will happen if we don't get the process started. How about having a series of discussions open to all Port residents and invited guests, starting this summer at the Sands Point Preserve and perhaps in other locations, also including small groups meeting on their own in homes and businesses in Port. This will lead to an educational summit in late 2004 or early 2005, aimed at producing a detailed action plan. For this to work we need parents, teachers, administrators, business people, professionals, senior citizens, students, home keepers ... everyone ... to say what they think and give their ideas. This is a great challenge, which we all can meet together. Are you in?

Robert Berens

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