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Weber, Elementary Presentations at BOE Meeting

Principals discuss impact on schools from previous budget cuts

In order to come in under the 2 percent state tax cap, the Port Washington Board of Education will have to cut $2.6 million from the 2012-2013 budget. The board faces difficult decisions, and in order to be fully informed on the entire workings of the school district, presentations have been given at each meeting. The Jan. 10 meeting featured presentations on the elementary schools and Weber Middle School, where principals provided detailed information to the board on their programs and general structure. After the presentation, the school board asked follow-up questions to gain more insight on specific issues.

The board first commented on the Weber Middle School presentation.

School Board Member Larry Greenstein said that accelerated courses in math and science are working well for the students, and it was noted that enrollment in accelerated earth science is up over 100 percent from previous years. Greenstein asked Principal Marilyn Rodahan whether options for accelerated English and social studies could be expanded and School Board Vice President William Hohauser also asked if she would be in favor of enrichment in English. Rodahan stated she has observed every English class and that with each project and assignment, there is always the ability to go above and beyond. She said, “We also have cocurricular activities where students who have a natural gift or a desire to do more writing and students are involved in many writing contests.” Rodahan went on to explain that the jury would be out for her on enrichment in English, and she would need to see more research on schools where it has been done successfully.

The House Structure at Weber was discussed and Hohauser asked about any economies that could be utilized if there were changes. Rodahan said, “If we move to three houses [instead of four], we could have 34 students in each class and we could eliminate 12 teachers. It is not something that I would recommend.” Hohauser clarified that he was not talking about eliminating courses or programs, but questioning whether there could be a budgetary savings without harming the students and possibly enriching their studies if Weber became a traditional middle school structure. Rodahan said that the houses create a smaller learning community, which is how adolescents learn best. “It is the teaming part of it – it is all research based and pedagogically sound. So that is the nature of what a middle school should be. That is the model that the state and U.S. education departments say is best,” she said.

Board Member Alan Baer asked if eighth grade could be effectively run as a non-house grade. “Some parents felt this would be a better transition to Schreiber,” he said. Rodahan responded, “I would tell you that more districts are looking at ninth grade becoming teamed and housed than they are looking at eighth grade becoming un-housed.”

The elementary presentation was given by the five principals – Bonni Cohen of Manorhaven, Barbara Giebel of Guggenheim, Drew Graves of Daly Elementary, Dr. David Meoli of Sousa, and Chris Shields of South Salem Elementary. The new Common Core Learning Standards were discussed, since implementation of these standards begins in July 2012. These standards were written by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Offices to create a uniform curriculum across the country. The principals mentioned that a new Annual Professional Performance Review is included in these standards, which are evaluations with ratings for all teachers and building principals starting in 2011-12. They said that it will require substantial training and meetings as well as significantly increased paperwork to choose and administer both.

Hohauser asked about the amount of time that the principals would be required to leave work to deal with this mandate. Dr. Meoli responded that as of this month, “The state is requiring every principal go to 10 full days of training, essentially, to be retrained to supervise teachers – to do what we have already been doing, even though I have a terminal degree in it and have been doing it for 30 years.” He added that there are some good things that could come out of the new standards, but there are also things that could go awry, and he thinks that the extra training is one of them.

The elementary school principals spoke about the impact on programs from previous budget cuts during their presentation, focusing specifically on increased class sizes and the loss of several librarian and guidance counselor positions. Board Member Sandy Ehrlich spoke about the impact of these cuts in the schools. She asked, “Do you think we should be revisiting that decision and maybe going in a different direction for next year?”

Dr. Meoli said that the loss of librarians and counselors have been more onerous than perhaps other cuts might have been. “Academic growth is very important, but social and emotional growth is just as important. The guidance and library cuts have been difficult. We would prefer to look at other ways to economize,” he said, adding that he and the other elementary school principals would love to have these positions reinstated. Cheers and applause from the audience followed this statement.

Ehrlich noted that the elementary schools really bore the brunt of program cuts. She said, “You are now in the position to say, ‘Don’t cut that – cut something different.’ We would like to hear what that something different is, as long as it saves the kind of money we need it to save.”

Principal Barbara Giebel said, “We need more time to talk amongst ourselves to come up with our plan, but we will have recommendations for you.” She then went into more detail on how the schools have been impacted from these cuts. One of the things she mentioned was that in the last four days, her school was visited by Child Protective Services for a total of 12 different issues ranging from divorce to sexual abuse. “This is what we deal with on a daily basis,” she said, stating that there should be more counselors on hand to deal with these crises. She added, “In regard to libraries, our children are not getting what they need to be ready for 21st century skills.” School Board President Karen Sloan thanked Giebel for her honest input, and stated, “Not only did you have the faith in us to stand up tonight to talk to us about what is really going on in your schools, but you have carried on through this year, which has obviously been a difficult task, and we haven’t heard a lot of complaining.”

Greenstein questioned what is considered too big for class size. Principal Shields said, “Class size policy in grades K-2 is to the maximum of 21 students. We have seen 22 and 23 in recent years that has been waived by board approval. In the upper grades, the class size maximum is 24 students. We currently have classes with 26 students… I think once you start creeping up, you need to keep in mind that there is only so much square footage in each classroom, so at some point it becomes a crowding issue.”

The elementary presentation provided further information on school programs, such as Reading Recovery, where first grade students whose reading levels fall at the bottom 20 percent are worked with throughout the year to be pulled up to average range for reading and writing. Principal Barbara Giebel noted that she sees many former Reading Recovery students named to the honor roll and principal’s list at Schreiber, and that several years ago, one former Reading Recovery student became an Intel Science winner. Board member Larry Greenstein asked about the numbers shown that represented the progress of children in Reading Recovery over the course of a year compared with a random sample of students. These numbers showed that Reading Recovery students tested below the average level at the start of the year and tested above the average level by the end of the year. Giebel explained that the numbers in this chart are consistent every year and that for the last three years, the average ending reading level is about two and a half reading tests higher than the random sample.

Superintendent Dr. Geoffrey Gordon said, “Reading Recovery in this district has had a 100 percent success rate, and I think the board’s problem is in dealing with the budgetary issues from the state…. No matter how we look at it, there is a $2.6 million shortfall.” He added that these programs are extremely important, but they can also be expensive.

The next Board of Education meeting will be held at Schreiber High School on Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. This meeting will be a preliminary budget discussion.