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Principal Presses for OK on IB Plan

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By Claire Walla

It’s been nearly five years since the Sag Harbor School District began exploring the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, and about a year since the district started pursuing the program in earnest. But the board of education has yet to formally take a stance on IB — a detail Pierson High School Principal Jeff Nichols hopes will be remedied sooner rather than later.

“I would like the board to formally take a position on IB in the next month,” Nichols declared at a school board meeting last Monday, October 17. More specifically, he continued, “I’d like the board to say that, if this school receives the OK from the IB administration, we will offer IB diploma program courses next fall.”

To date, the district has spent about $23,000 to participate in the IB application process. This money has covered the base application fee and paid for an IB consultant to visit the school — a mandatory part of the application process. The next and final deadline for Pierson High School’s IB application is Tuesday, November 1, when those teachers tentatively slated to teach IB programs next fall will submit sample course outlines to the IB board.

Nichols explained that Pierson administrators plan to meet with the handful of those teachers crafting IB course outlines this week so that the district will be able to submit the final step of its application well before the November 1 deadline.

At this point, support from the board is imperative, Nichols explained, because should the school follow through with plans to introduce IB in the fall of 2012, Pierson administrators will need to reach out to the students who would potentially participate in the IB diploma program next year.

“If we’re successful in bringing the program here, we’ll meet with students in the coming months and start to map out their junior and senior year schedules,” Nichols clarified.

The IB program has been contentious for some in the community who have criticized its cost (roughly $10,200 annual base fee), perceived exclusivity and questionable reputation within the college admissions process as compared to the more standard Advanced Placement (AP) program.

Nichols disputed this claim. While IB credits are not accepted for credit at every university — though he said they are recognized by many schools — he explained that many institutions of higher learning are beginning to discount AP credits, as well.

But Nichols insisted this is beside he point. He has maintained from the get-go that the IB program is, in fact, more rigorous and rewarding than the AP program because it emphasizes critical thinking skills, and it’s more versatile than AP because it encourages a range of learning styles that push students to absorb and communicate information without relying on rote memorization (which is sometimes associated with AP). Furthermore, he looks forward to implementing new learning styles within the classroom that will challenge all teachers to think outside-of-the-box when administering lessons.

Parent Tom Gleason said at the meeting that he worries about introducing a new curriculum while the district currently lacks a K through 12 curriculum coordinator.

“We haven’t had any of that curriculum going on [prior to IB],” argued Gleason argued who wondered whether students in the lower grades will be adequately prepared for IB coursework.

Pierson High School Vice Principal Gary Kalish countered that the IB curriculum — which focuses on more broad-based and internationally focused learning — is a step-up from what the district currently teaches. Furthermore, he said teachers have reported that IB “has more flexibility” when it comes to designing lesson plans than courses purely designed according to state requirements.

Parent Laura Matthers expressed her concern for this year’s tenth grade class, which she referred to as the veritable “guinea pig” class: the first Pierson class with the opportunity to graduate students with IB diplomas.

“I want to make sure you’re going to be leaving a lot of options available for these kids coming up the pike,” she said.

Nichols estimated that in its first year, the IB program would probably only have 10 to 15 diploma candidates, a figure based on the current number of students who take five to seven AP classes before graduation. But this leaves several dozen other students who currently take advanced coursework to a lesser degree.

While Nichols mapped out a three-year plan that would reduce the school’s AP offerings to three courses by 2015, he assured Matthers that students in next year’s eleventh grade class would have the opportunity to take up to seven AP courses by the time they graduate. And gradually, as AP courses are pared down, Nichols said he’s confident that the school will be able to grow its number of IB diploma candidates, the same way it grew the number of students taking AP courses.

As for the cost of the program, Nichols said he hoped to put some rumors to rest Monday night.

“A lot of people have concerns about the tax cap, and justifiably,” he began. “But the primary cost [of the IB program] would be an IB coordinator. But we’re of the opinion here that we don’t need to assign a teacher to do that. Mr. Kalish and I can just fold [those duties] into what we do, which would [garner] a savings of $60,000.”

With that cost out of the picture, the school would have to pay $10,200 annually, plus a one-time cost of $135 per diploma student and the $92 test fee, which Nichols said is comparable to the fees associated with individual AP exams.

“Certainly, every dollar counts,” Nichols continued, but with an overall budget set at roughly $33 million, he added, “that’s a very small number.”

“It is my opinion, and the opinion of others who have looked at both programs, that IB allows us the opportunity to raise our standards even higher,” Nichols said. “The skills emphasized in IB will allow us to serve our students better.”

With the exception of one to two teachers, Nichols said the Pierson faculty largely supports IB. Teacher Peter Solow, who attended last Monday’s meeting and is slated to go to IB training this year, told the board he has a positive outlook on the program. “Without having gone to training, [Art Teacher Elizabeth Marchisella] had a very positive reaction to the training that she got,” he relayed. “I’m looking forward to seeing more of what it’s about.”

A Place for IB

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Though summer is approaching and the school year is winding down, the IB debate goes on in the Sag Harbor. The IB or International Baccalaureate program is one that could replace AP at Pierson High School in the coming years, and while the district is keen to go ahead with the program, there are still many people who are nervous about what it will mean to our students.

On the surface, IB sounds good to us. The program emphasizes a global curriculum with an emphasis on critical thinking skills over rote memorization or “teaching to the tests,” which many people criticize as a problem with education in this country today.

So in principle, we like the idea of IB. But we are worried that with the district considering it for juniors and seniors, it’s being introduced at the wrong time in a student’s academic career.

By the time kids are in 11th and 12th grades, they have a pretty good sense of where their academic strengths and weaknesses lie. For better or worse, at this point in the game many of the skills that have been honed over the previous years are firmly ingrained — those test taking skills, if you will, and the ability to recognize what instructors are really looking for when an assignment is given. Their interests are likely firmly established as well with students by this point knowing whether they are particularly adept (or not) in subjects like mathematics or science, English or languages.

IB differs from AP in that it asks students to be multi-faceted and well-rounded in them all. But what about the students who aren’t — the math whiz, for example, who panics when he has to write a literary essay? With AP, that kid can just choose to take math, but with IB, a student tackles it all as a package.

Which is why we would like to see what IB looks like at the lower grade levels. It seems like this is the time when students are truly multi-faceted in their educational options. They have not yet developed the interests and aptitudes in specific subjects that will come later, so in many ways, elementary age students are blank slates just waiting for inspiration to lead them in a direction.

It also seems like the elementary level is the ideal place to develop the critical thinking skills that IB embraces. We imagine that IB would not just be training them early on to be test takers, but to form arguments and working methods according to how the real world works. By the time they reach high school, they should be well on their way.

There are many different kinds of learners and in their final years of high school, most students have a pretty good idea of where they are on that curve. Perhaps there are students out there who didn’t click with the teaching methods used in their elementary or middle school years and because of that, lost confidence and never excelled as they might have had they been offered an educational alternative. We think IB could be that educational alternative, but if it is offered only at the upper grades, it may bypass those who could benefited from it greatly earlier on. Because it places such emphasis on critical thinking and hands on-learning, is it possible that IB at the lower grades would provide students with a clearer picture of where their future lies? We think it’s certainly an idea that’s worth exploring.

Student Teachers: Pierson Grads Come Home to Teach

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Pierson alumni, and current teacher, Sean Kelly was just 14-years-old when his family moved to Sag Harbor from a rural, landlocked town in Ireland. Although, his new home and old stomping grounds were separated by thousands of miles, Kelly says both shared a tight-knit community. This close sensibility allowed Kelly to flourish at Pierson High School and he was soon playing on sports teams and garnering a stellar academic record. Kelly graduated in 1999 and went on to earn a Bachelors degree at Harvard University, but soon returned to Pierson to teach social studies.

Above: Government and Economics Teacher Dr. Jon Baer. 

 When Kelly became a member of the high school faculty, he joined dozens of former alumni who currently work for the district as educators, administrators, custodians, kitchen help and school board members. Of the nearly 40 alumni who work for the district in some capacity, many of them say they were drawn to Sag Harbor because of the close-knit school community.

Above: Social Studies Teacher Sean Kelly, then and now. 

 “I feel very blessed to work for the school. I always knew that I wanted to invest my life in Sag Harbor because of the location and the community,” said Kate Berkoski, a fellow 1999 Pierson graduate and current fifth grade teacher. “Every teacher I had from kindergarten through sixth grade is still working at the school.”

 “The teachers really try to do something more than educate. They try to give students an experience,” continued Berkoski, referencing programs such as the annual fifth grade Wax Museum and the recent Ellis Island project where children mimicked the journey of turn of the century immigrants.

 Dr. Jon Baer, Pierson’s government and economics teacher and a member of the class of 1963, fondly recalls how his English teacher, Helen Muller, inspired him to pursue a degree in education. Dr. Baer, however, pursued this career later in life after spending years in the army, earning masters degrees in education and political science, a doctorate in political science and working for the local radio station WLNG until 2000.

 “It was kind of my dream to teach English because of my teachers from Pierson,” contended Dr. Baer. “The school is very cozy and friendly.”

 Although Dr. Baer fostered close relationships with a few select teachers, he says on the whole, teacher and student dynamics were more formal in the past, which is noticeably different today.

 “[Now] teachers can joke around with their students. There isn’t that barrier and I think it is that sense of community [between teacher and student] that leads to less drugs and violence in our schools,” opined Dr. Baer.

 Closer ties between the faculty and students is one change of many, adds Dr.  Baer, compared to his experiences at Pierson. Academically, Dr. Baer says the school focused on business and career training electives in the 1960s. During this time, Pierson offered classes in accounting, bookkeeping and typing. Current Sag Harbor Elementary School teacher Bethany Deyermond, who graduated in 1971, remembers learning to balance her checkbook in one class.

 According to Dr. Baer, vocational oriented courses, such as electrical shop classes, were mainly dominated by male students, while woman traditionally attended the home economics and typing classes.  


 When Terri Federico graduated from Pierson in 1983, the school was just beginning to offer special education courses and the school provided students with little help when applying to colleges.

 “They now make it easier to apply,” said Federico, who added that when she was in school Advanced Placement programs weren’t offered.

 “Many more kids go to college now than before,” said Dr. Baer.

 In addition to better preparedness for college, Kelly added that the school now offers a more diverse curriculum and elective course offerings.

 “I look at what the kids have available to them now with a certain amount of envy. They have all of these amazing extra curriculars, facilities, science labs and the library. There is such a variety of classes. There is an outlet for any individual skill — like sports, art, drama. Each individual can find a way to show their talent. I wish I had had that diverse experience, though my experience was amazing,” opined Kelly.

 Kelly says the small class size also gives the school the feel of a private institution, with which Frank Atkinson-Barnes, a social studies teacher who taught at several boarding and private schools before starting at Pierson, agreed. Several of the teachers reported that the number of Pierson students has remained relatively stable throughout the years.

 Although each alumni turned teacher fondly recalls their Pierson experiences, few expected to end up teaching in the district where they grew up. Atkinson-Barnes says he applied to schools very far from Pierson and attended college in Virginia.

 “When I left to go away to college, I don’t think I ever thought I would come back to Sag Harbor,” remembered Deyermond, though life had other plans for her. After attending college in Pennsylvania and Vermont, Deyermond transferred to Southampton College to finish out her studies and to be closer to her future husband Ed Deyermond, now a village trustee and Southampton Town Assessor.

 Others, like Federico and Berkoski, always had an inkling that their paths would lead them back to the village. Federico didn’t stray far and completed the bulk of her studies at C.W. Post and Southampton College. Although, Berkoski attended college in North Carolina, she ended up returning home shortly after graduation.

 Though teaching in the Sag Harbor school district was an unexpected turn of events for several Pierson graduates, many of them say they feel lucky to work for the school.

 “Pierson educates its students to a high enough level that the school wants them to come back,” said Kelly. “For those of us who came back, Pierson treated us so well and our experiences were so amazing that we wanted to come back.”


Sag Harbor School Kids – Three times better than Global Average

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Although teachers are still working without contracts, the Sag Harbor school district has managed to triple the worldwide average for certain college-based courses for its school students.
At the Sag Harbor school board meeting Monday night, Pierson High School Principal Jeff Nichols gave a PowerPoint presentation to the board, community members and faculty on how the students in the high school compare with those in surrounding districts and other high schools with similar curriculums worldwide.
Currently, Pierson offers a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) courses for students in subjects such as world history, English, chemistry, calculus, art and so on. Nichols compared recent test results to those collected from previous years. In 2005, according to the data, there were 48 students enrolled in at least one AP course at Pierson and in 2008 there were 79 students. Nichols said that there was a 16 percent achievement rate for AP courses in 2002, but that results from 2007-08 show that there was a 74 percent achievement rate, even though the amount of students enrolled in AP courses has increased dramatically.
Nichols’ presentation also showed a comparison of the average exam results in AP classes in Sag Harbor and how they compared to other schools worldwide.
“We are doing very well against the global mean,” Nichols said on Monday.
The information presented was taken from the College Board and the results show that Sag Harbor doubles the physics and biology worldwide average and nearly triples the worldwide average for English literature and composition.
Nichols’ presentation also showed a comparison to local districts such as Bridgehampton, Southampton, Westhampton, Greenport, Mattituck and Eastport among others. Pierson typically scored higher in most state regents mandated exams such as English and math for eighth graders. Sag Harbor Regents test results showed Sag Harbor leading in five out of seven courses.
“Regents are tests mandated by the state and AP is not mandated,” Nichols told the crowd on Monday. “But the AP courses are the courses that help prepare for higher education and I see it as a necessity.”

Extracurricular Trips
After Nichols’ presentation, superintendent Dr. John Gratto explained that he and Nichols have worked on a revision of a new policy which outlines restrictions and allowances for extracurricular trips.
The new policy requires an outline for trips, those that will be curriculum-based and those not particularly tied to a curriculum. The new policy indicates students would not be allowed to miss more than two school days.
Board president Walter Wilcoxen said there is great concern for the quality of the education for the children that are left behind. He said they are trying to do a better job of finding a substitute or design activities relative to the subject for the children that remain in school.
Board member Sue Kinsella said on Monday that she is not in favor of taking the teachers out of the classroom for more than two days at a time and said that extensive field trips should be taken during vacation time.
Resident Elena Loreto, who also spoke at Monday’s meeting, said that she believes the only real impact a teacher has on a student is during traditional classroom instructional time. Loreto also expressed concern for those students that would be left behind.
This was the first reading of the policy, there will be a second reading and a chance for more input at the next meeting.

More Cost-Saving Measures
On Monday night, Gratto talked about additional plans that the district is investigating to try to save more money. Gratto said that there could be a mid-year state aid reduction, and that he and business manager Len Bernard are working diligently to try to come up with creative ways to cut costs. At the moment, Gratto said there are 16 ideas in the works for ways to try to reduce costs, including the South Shore Purchasing Consortium, a reduction in special education contracts and a freeze in the budget on some supplies. The district is now adding to that list an analysis of a different dental insurance company and requesting that computers are turned off when not in use, which Gratto said has shown a tremendous reduction in energy use in other municipalities. The district is also looking at a Medicaid reimbursement for services.
“We are in for a difficult year this year and possibly next year,” Gratto said.
Wilcoxen said, according to a publicized report from New York Governor David Paterson, the state has a two billion dollar deficit in education.
“I believe there will be no state money coming our way in the foreseeable future,” he said.
In response to the possible aid reduction, the school is considering buying a school bus and shuttle for field trips and trips for daily sporting activities. Bernard explained that the current bus company charges $85 per hour for a minimum of three hours.
“We had a field trip to Shelter Island, it cost three hours to bring the kids to the ferry and three hours to pick the kids up,” Bernard said. If the school had its own bus, the district could easily save money on trips such as this, according to Bernard.
Bernard said that the school might be able to examine shared services with Southampton or East Hampton and ask if those districts could pick up additional students. At the moment, Bernard said the district pays $22,000 to pick up Stella Maris students.