Written by Judy Epstein Friday, 05 November 2010 00:00
The Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, October 19, took the form of a Community Forum at Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School. As Board Member Sandra Ehrlich explained, the forum was meant to be “a conversation between the community of Port Washington and its Board of Education.”
The forum was broken out into three workshops around the building, with the evening divided into three time periods. Curriculum issues were discussed in the library, led by board member Rob Seiden, who is chairman of the Curriculum Committee, and Dr. Nicholas Stirling, who is the District’s Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment (testing).
Technology issues were discussed in a computer lab, led by Larry Greenstein, chair of the community relations committee, with David Baylen, the district’s technology director, and Hank Hardy, director of guidance for the district and the administrator who works most closely with the community relations committee.
Facilities discussion was led by board member Robert Ryan, chair of the budget and facilities committee, with James Ristano, the district’s director for facilities and operations. As the facilities discussion wrapped up early, it could not be included in this report, but board members said students were present at all three workshops to take notes, which will be posted on the district’s website, portnet.k12.ny.us.
Mr. Seiden began the curriculum discussion by inviting the public to attend monthly meetings of the curriculum committee. They are held at the Daly Annex on Friday mornings at 8:30 a.m. Future topics include:
November 5: BOCES, STEPS, and the Teachers’ Center
December 3: Literacy coaches; Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES).
January 7: “Schools to watch,” Middle School initiatives and Technology
February 4: PEP and Athletics programs
The first curriculum question was asked by Alan Baer, one-time board of education member, who wanted to know, “Where are we on foreign language in the elementary school?”
Mr. Seiden, Dr. Stirling and Dr. Gordon all had comments in response. Mr. Seiden said, “You make a good point. We have had positive momentum, and are meeting with other districts, discussing how we might pool our resources.”
Dr. Gordon elaborated that “Dr. Stirling and I intend to work on this with the teachers,” through the use of technology that enables “distance learning.” He said, “Say there is a certificated teacher at one school, for example a Mandarin teacher in Herricks district; and we have one course of students who want to take that, at Schreiber. We would have a teacher for them without having to hire one, if it is mutually agreeable to both schools.” He added that the problem has always been funding. With five elementary schools in the districts, it would be costly to hire enough teachers to teach language in each elementary. “But if we could hire one teacher, and distribute them around the schools via technology, it could be a win/win: we’d have one certificated teacher, but we’d only need one instead of five or six…. If we can do this, we can have a language program without killing the taxpayers, he stated.” Dr. Gordon added he met this summer with Mandarin teachers, and wants to pursue the matter with the teachers’ association and the board.
Dr. Stirling said he is aware of concerns that the district is moving too slowly, and has been looking at foreign language in the elementary schools for the last several years. “There is no debate over the concept,” he said. “The issue is economic, regarding the number of positions it would take to have a real world language program at the elementary level.” A successful program couldn’t be given in just 30 minutes a week, he said. “It has to be taught daily, or at least three times a week, for 30 minutes each as a minimum.” Many New York districts claim to have a language program in elementary school, said Dr. Stirling, “but they are one-shots; the children are not truly learning a new language.”
Recently, the district has considered putting a language program in third grade, integrated into the music program; but there are still considerations of how much time there is in the instructional day, when all the other specials and programs are netted out.
Schreiber parent Audrey Weill had concerns on two fronts. One was class size: “For the second year in a row, at Open House, we sat in an advanced science class of more than 30 students. I understand there are budget issues, but I am concerned that if we have any competitive edge, we are going to lose it. Every year there are more and more kids in a class.”
Dr. Gordon responded that some “shaking out” is expected at the high school by the end of the first quarter, when many students decide to drop some of the higher-level courses; but he acknowledged that “Once all is said and done, we know we still have a problem with numbers in the honors classes. Class sizes are significant, but staff numbers are frozen.”
Mrs. Weill’s second concern was poor use of technology. “Only about one-third of the teachers have web pages.” Mr. Seiden added that someone had written in, via email, the same concern: “Teachers need to have web pages listed on the website.” In the ensuing discussion, various parents related that they felt their schools and teachers were accessible on the web – but it varied from school to school. Mrs. Weill said, “We are failing our students if they leave here not learning how to use technology well, and ethically. They are great at texting and downloading – but using it responsibly? Not so much.”
Dr. Stirling said, “We are going through a Middle States evaluation process right now, and one of the standards is about information literacy.” He added that “There is undoubtedly a learning curve for the teachers all getting up to speed on this – we need time for staff development. Mr. Baylen has worked very diligently on this. I have seen an increase in the number of websites and the use of technology beyond just the computer.” Dr. Stirling added that they are working on getting WiFi at the high school. There have been some problems, but they are committed to getting it working. In general, he summed up, “You are absolutely right, we could be doing a better job. It is a board issue, a budget issue.”
Mrs. Weill provoked a laugh when she suggested a “show and tell” presentation could be made to the public at a board meeting – “but not PowerPoint!”
Dr. Gordon said, “No question, technology is the future; that point is absolutely correct. There will come a time in the near future – in your kids’ lives, and mine – when a simple hand-held device will do everything, from changing the heat in the room to calculating to doing research. We need to look at how to do technology better.”
Dr. Stirling attempted to wrap up the first session’s discussion with an announcement that, “The world language program is in a state of change this year. There is no proficiency exam any longer.” This is the exam that New York State used to administer at the conclusion of 8th grade, which validated the three years of language study in the middle school.
Dr. Stirling said that middle school students will still receive “local credit” for their work, but as to how, “We are still deciding the details on that.” The Regents are also discontinuing tests in the high school in Latin, Hebrew, or German (of those three, Schreiber offers Latin). When asked what that means for our high school students, Dr. Stirling replied, “If the state allows us to continue, I don’t see a need to change.” In later discussion, Dr. Stirling reiterated the district’s commitment to seeing these students through.
Discussion continued with other concerns. One mother said, “I have a young child, but we have baby sitters from the high school, and I am amazed to hear how many classes they have that are cancelled! Can this be true?”
Other parents and teachers in the audience assured her that yes, it is true, certainly for the first day of a teacher’s absence and maybe the second; but Board Member Dr. Nelson commented that the personnel department monitors absenteeism extremely closely, to look for “pockets of absenteeism.” That said, he reminded people that “We do have a young staff, with young children, and we don’t want teachers coming in sick, if only because we don’t want them infecting their students.”
Another mother had concerns with how reading is taught. “I am a reading teacher in another district, but I have children in fourth and second grade here, and I’m so disappointed with the instruction they are getting. I don’t see differentiation, or level libraries, or guided reading groups – how are you teaching them, here?”
A long back-and-forth ensued, with other parents and many teachers, who were also in the audience, responding. “I teach everything,” answered one teacher. “Ask the teachers, not your children, what they’re doing,” said another. A parent from SEPTA reinforced the first parent’s concern, saying, “She is not alone. What a parent wants to know is, ‘Where is my child?’ more than just ‘Oh, he’s fine.’ If there are running records, and DRAs (Directed Reading Assessments), those are not being given to parents.”
Mr. Drew Graves, principal at Daly School, gave a run-down of reading methods that are in use at that school. Mr. Chris Shields, principal at Salem School, said, “You should be able to have a conversation with your child’s teacher about this.”
One parent – who is also a teacher – compared parent-teacher conferences to talking with the doctor at a check-up, in that you want more than just the data. Rob Seiden remarked, “You can change doctors, but you are stuck with whatever teacher your kids have for that year.” Dr. Stirling assured the audience that “We address the big five: phonics; phonemic study; fluency; comprehension; and vocabulary,” but also observed that “What I am hearing are concerns about communicating to parents how their kids are doing.”
Much of the technology discussion centered on SMARTBoards – their cost, their installation, and how they are used in the district. When asked to sum up the costs of installing one SMARTBoard, Mr. Baylen replied “About $4,000 each, not including the computer but including the projector, the board, speakers, and cabling.” When one parent asked, “What about ‘short-throw’ projectors?” Mr. Baylen replied that the district does use those in places, but the configuration of some rooms will not permit it. “For example, Room 216 in this building – Family and Consumer Sciences. It’s all kitchen, where would we put the projector? So it’s difficult. We have to have a mix.”
Ms. Erlyn Madonia, a Technology teacher at Weber, spoke on behalf of what teachers are able to teach with SMARTBoards. “You can do a unit on fractions and actually move things around on the screen, show the kids how they add up to the whole,” she said. “It is the most gratifying, rewarding experience to see this tool when it is being used effectively. If you can open the door and give teachers the initial training, it will take on a life of its own.”
Mr. Baylen said he works with Schreiber staff, where teachers are supporting other teachers in learning the new technology.
When Mr. Baylen was asked for a wish-list of what he would purchase, if he had enough money, he would only point out that “It’s a package. We need the equipment, the support, and professional development,” all of which the board and its budget committee must consider.
He added, “We get zero dollars of state aid for hardware, because the state figures we are wealthy enough to provide it to the students ourselves. It’s not like poorer districts where the state buys every child a computer.” As to the overall perspective, Mr. Baylen said, “I’m pragmatic. I believe this community values instruction and technology, and understands the challenges, wherever you are on the spectrum, and whatever amount of taxes people feel they can live with. That’s a reality.”
The other major topic mentioned was the desire by parents to see more websites for teachers, and to have at minimum a syllabus available on that website. There was also a concern that at some schools, it should be easier to figure out how to email your child’s teacher.