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Discussion Starts on Future of Education

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By Claire Walla
In the Sag Harbor Elementary School gym, many speakers ran past their three-minute limit and the event spilled into over-time. But since the goal of the Education Forum held last Wednesday, December 8 was to bring a diverse range of voices from the community together to discuss the future of education in Sag Harbor, it would seem the event was a success.

The forum attracted nearly 90 people for just over two hours of public comments ranging from specific topics like implementing a gifted and talented program at the elementary school; to broader ideas, such as making the district more competitive in a global context; and even serious concerns, like making more of an effort to reach out to Sag Harbor’s Latino community.

Forum organizer and former Pierson High School principal Bob Schneider said the forum went very well, for its first run.
“I appreciated that there wasn’t a lot of criticism of the school district,” he said.

Although, in the interest of time, not every person who wished to speak had the opportunity to do so, Schneider added that school board president and forum co-organizer Walter Wilcoxen has received emails and index cards with as yet unvoiced comments. “These will be addressed at the next forum,” he added.

It was parent Leah Oppenheimer who first raised the issue of reaching out to the Latino population who, she said, make up 18 percent of the G.D.P. on Long Island. She expressed concern that Sag Harbor’s Latino families are not given the opportunity to learn about their cultural traditions, and many children are not coming to kindergarten with enough preparation because they aren’t able to afford the pre-schools in the area.

As a social worker in East Hampton who works with many Latino families, school board member Dan Hartnett echoed this sentiment. He also commented on the importance of the International Baccalaureate program, which Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols is investigating for next school year.

The idea of evolving the Sag Harbor curriculum is one that was touted by many who spoke at the forum. While Pierson senior Max Moyer thanked every one of his teachers for doing a great job, he expressed frustration that, often, times the scope of his school work does not leave the four walls of the classroom.

“It does not get to a state, a global or a national level,” he said.
Community member Chuck Neuman, who said he went through a baccalaureate program as a child in Germany, emphasized the need for rigor at the school.

“It has to be tough and it has to be demanding,” he said. “I went through six years of boot camp.”

Several parents, including Alison Scanlon, spoke of the need for classes on all grade levels to put more time and effort into developing reading and writing skills. Scanlon spoke of a school in Rockton High School in Massachusetts, which at one time had a drop-out rate of one in three students.

“Decades ago it was a case study in failure,” she said.
But after organizing a school-wide campaign to incorporate reading and writing into every single class, including gym, Scanlon said the school went on to out-perform 90 percent of high schools in the state.
“And it doesn’t cost a thing,” she added.

The need for ecological programs, as well as health and wellness initiatives, was brought up by teacher Kryn Olson who said she wanted to focus on developing more energy efficient techniques within science courses. Similarly, Eco-Walk creator and parent Ed Bruehl and parent Barbara Kinnier of the Wellness Foundation of East Hampton were passionate about increasing health and wellness within the district.

While Bruehl mentioned his desire to form a committee of parents who might work together to tap into the fresh food sources available here on the East End, Kinnier spoke about further improving the district’s approach to nutrition. She lauded the school’s efforts to incorporate organic milk and healthy vending machine options.

But, she added, “It breaks my heart to hear that we have Pop Tarts in the vending machine because it keeps us out of the red.”
Technology was another hot-button issue, prompting many parents to address the lack of adequate options at the school.
“We’re a very low-tech/no-tech school,” said parent Gay Snow. “It’s time we start introducing laptops and computers.”

Snow added that she wants the board of education to approve a foundation so that parents can start soliciting corporations for grant money and donations. She added that the school should do “anything to help educate and simulate kids in the district,” including appealing to corporations, “because that’s what the times require.”

Speakers differed on the scope of the education problems afflicting the district, some blaming national issues and some blaming problems closer to home. But, most audience members seemed to agree with what teacher Peter Solow had to say at the end of the night.

“We’re not going to change the education system [in the country],” he said. “But one of the students that goes to this school may in fact change the world.”

While the event brought a good-sized crowd to the elementary school, both Schneider and Wilcoxen said they’d like to see more people at the next forum on January 12. Wilcoxen added that although there were 10 teachers at Wednesday’s event, he wished there had been more. Wilcoxen also said he was surprised that the science and math curriculum was not mentioned during the forum, but there’s always next time.
And Schneider noted that for the next forum he and Wilcoxen will specifically try to do more outreach to members of Sag Harbor’s Latino community.

For the next meeting on January 12, half the time will be devoted to comments that were not heard at last Wednesday’s meeting (all will be limited to three minutes), and the rest of the time will be devoted to small group discussions centered on eight umbrella topics: Enrichment, Careers/College Prep, Technology, Reading and Writing, Ecology (including health and wellness), Pre-K, Communication and Curriculum Enhancement. Each group will be moderated by a teacher, administrator, school board or community member.