Tag Archive | "dr. gratto"

Try To Teach Tolerance

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By Claire Walla

For one mother in the Sag Harbor School District, her son’s taunting started back in third grade. He was aware of his sexuality early on, she said, and was regularly made fun of for being different. (For privacy’s sake, she has asked not to be named.)

Her son — who’s now at Pierson—doesn’t talk about being bullied much anymore, which led her to believe he was finally being left alone.

“I said, ‘You’re so popular and you seem so happy,’” she recalled telling him at the end of last year. But that wasn’t the case. “He told me, ‘They bully me every day now. I just let it roll off of me.’”

While she said her son now has the tools to deal with the name-calling and he doesn’t blame anyone for not stepping in to defend him, the fact that kids are still using the word “gay” is a problem.

In her son’s experience, she said the taunting has varied from students flippantly using the word “gay” in a derogatory way mid-conversation, to more “vicious,” targeted remarks. One of the difficulties in addressing the issue, she continued, is that there aren’t many students who are out, which means the school district has not had to confront many issues of homosexuality.

“Maybe students are just comfortable and accepted,” she offered. “But, we [she and her husband] feel the need for some action to be taken.”

The mother is spearheading two efforts to address the bullying of what she termed “gender non-conforming” students within the Sag Harbor School District. At the elementary school, where she said kids might not be aware that using the term “gay” can be offensive, she has purchased an educational video for teachers called “It’s Elementary.” The video gives teachers practical tools to address any anti-gay prejudice they may encounter. So far, she said a couple of teachers have expressed interest in seeing the video and have also lent their support in trying to show it to the rest of the faculty.

“If kids knew that that word was hurtful, my hope is that they wouldn’t use it,” the mother explained.

At the high school, where kids are more apt to have already discovered their sexuality, she hopes the district will implement a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The club will need at least 10 members before it can officially be formed.

In the past, School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the school has never specifically addressed bullying based on sexual orientation.

“I’m not sure there’s been a need to, because we try to treat all kids with dignity,” he explained in an interview. “Is that any different than a girl who’s overweight? Or a boy who’s skinnier than his peers?”

What’s more, Dr. Gratto said he has not observed more students being bullied for being gay than for any other issue.

Similarly, Debbie Skinner, Director of the Youth Advocacy and Resource Development (YARD) Program, added she hasn’t noticed much bullying at all after school.

“I see a lot of little dramas,” Skinner explained. “But I just try to nip it in the bud and diffuse the situation immediately.”

Pierson Middle School Assistant Principal Barbara Bekermus said she is constantly reevaluating the school’s efforts to prevent bullying, and implementing new ways of addressing these issues when they arise.

In fact, this year she said she hopes to run anti-bullying workshops during students’ academic support sessions at the end of the school day. In this setting, students will have the opportunity to talk in smaller groups, which she hopes will encourage them to open-up more easily. She has already worked with some teachers and administrators on workshops to address specific topics, including racism and body type.

“I haven’t done a workshop just on the word ‘gay,’” she continued. But Bekermus said she understands parents’ desires to shed light on the issue. “Personally, I think it’s an important thing to address.”

However, she added that homosexuality and bullying have never fully been discussed under the same umbrella within the district because it’s never really been brought up before. She speculated this might be because the topic is sensitive for some parents.

“With homosexuality, it crosses into religion,” she explained, which makes things tricky. “Bullying someone for being fat or skinny is not about religion.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller recognizes that there are some families in the school district who may be homophobic. But overall, she said families in the Sag Harbor School District are lucky to be living in a relatively liberal area where there are students in the school district who do have gay parents, and it’s accepted.

“Our district has a lot of gay families and bi-racial families, and because we’re so small, more of us get to experience that more often,” Miller said. “But, do we need to educate kids more, and create more awareness [of these issues]?” she asked rhetorically, stepping back to look at the bigger picture. “Obviously we do, because look at our society. We’re still not doing a good job of creating that acceptance.”

The mother echoed Miller’s remarks, explaining how difficult it can be to address these issues as a parent.

“So many people think that when you support your gender non-conforming child that you’re trying to make them gay,” she said. “People have such misconstrued ideas. It’s just about support. And that’s what the GSA is all about.”

After a meeting with Dr. Gratto last week, the mother said the district seems to back her effort to bring a GSA club to the school. She doesn’t expect it to happen overnight, but she’s happy to know the school is willing to open the door for her son.

“He thinks he’s the only one at the school that’s like him,” she said. She knows there are more students at Pierson who are gay, but some aren’t open with their sexuality.

“A lot of kids wait until college to come out, which is fine,” she said. “But we want our son to be able to be who he is now.”

Effort to Fight Bullying

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By Claire Walla

Vanessa Leggard began to notice her daughter’s behavior gradually changing at the end of last year, the tail end of sixth grade.

“She had a really short fuse,” Leggard explained. “And I began to notice that, for about two months, she wasn’t invited anywhere and she was by herself on the weekends.”

Leggard said it was odd because her daughter is typically very spontaneous and outgoing. After some coaxing, Leggard was able to get her daughter to talk about the issue.

That’s when she realized her daughter was being bullied at school.

Her daughter’s friends would talk in front of her in the cafeteria, but would not invite her into the conversation, Leggard explained. Or they would post a photo album on Facebook titled “my friends” but not include certain girls.

“In their world, that’s so huge,” Leggard added. When a child is bullied, she continued, “It dominates everything. And before you know it, they can’t think about anything else — they can’t do anything.”

After delving into the issue last year, Leggard reached out to about 15 middle school parents and learned that almost every one of them admitted that their child had been affected by bullying in some way. So, as she announced at a school board meeting last month, she has decided to tackle the issue in a significant way this school year.

Leggard and other parents have recently organized to urge administrators to implement more interactive anti-bullying programs in the coming school year in an effort to have students themselves better understand where the problems originate.

“I’m convinced that the kids don’t understand what bullying is,” she continued. “And that’s a problem.”

Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said bullying is often addressed by teachers and administrators as an issue of tolerance, which is a topic embedded in every teacher’s yearlong curriculum.

“I don’t even think [teachers] talk about it in the context of bullying,” he said. “Teachers confront inappropriate behavior; and there are punitive consequences, as well.”

There are “a dozen or so” incidences that get reported and dealt with each year, Dr. Gratto added, and there are a number of steps the district takes to prevent problems from occurring, including administering programs on tolerance and setting up one-on-one discussions between students and teachers and guidance counselors.

Dr. Gratto admitted it’s an issue that is typically more prevalent at the middle school level, which is why Pierson Middle School Assistant Principal Barbara Beckermus is invested in developing tactics to prevent bullying. In fact, when she first came to Pierson five years ago, Beckermus said there was little in place that addressed anti-bullying tactics directly.

She has since asked three teachers each year to be “team leaders” — there to guide faculty and students on issues involving bullying — for every grade level in the middle school and has been more proactive in coaching teachers to address inappropriate social behaviors both in and out of the classroom. This year, Beckermus added she is currently in the process of developing programs on specific types of bullying, addressing issues like racism and “relational aggression,” which is mostly seen among girls.

“It’s become a little more difficult [to prevent bullying] because of the Internet and technology,” Beckermus added. “The minute students walk out of the classroom with their smartphones, it’s no longer under our control. In the past, kids could at least go home and breathe a sigh of relief.”

“I think parents really want to do something about [cyber-bullying],” she added. “But they didn’t go through it themselves, so they don’t really understand it.”

As Sag Harbor School Board President Mary Anne Miller sees it, the degree to which students at Pierson Middle School are bullied “is somewhat normal.” She clarified, “While I don’t believe bullying is normal, it’s something that’s existed for some time in society and I think [relational aggression at Pierson] is nothing out of the ordinary for kids this age.”

The real culprit when it comes down to it is technology, according to Miller.

“I don’t think parents are as engaged and aware of these technologies as they should be,” she said. “Situations will escalate in the evening and then kids come to school after these horrible incidents online … How does the school police that?”

Combating bullying largely comes down to the parents, according to Miller.

“I just feel like unsupervised electronic use is a big part of the problem,” she said.

Beckermus continued to explain that the school has held workshops for parents through the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), but few parents ever show up.

“I guess there really could be more of that,” she added, referring to parent involvement. “It’s like that old adage, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ It really does. When everyone does something [to fix a problem], that problem has to decrease.”

While Leggard believes the school should be doing more to actively make students aware of the different types of behaviors that can be considered bullying, she agrees that parents play an important role in preventing such behavior. (She added that she has even interacted with parents who have refused to address instances of bullying related to their child.)

Leggard said she recognizes that “relational aggression” is nothing new, and that bullying is a common developmental phase for some junior high school students.

“Yes, it will blow over and it’s not the end of the world,” she noted.

“I foresee issues for this seventh grade class,” Leggard told the Sag Harbor school board at a meeting last month.  ”If the school chooses not to do anything, I’m still going to do something off school grounds,” she added.  Leggard said she will continue to contact parents to address anti-bullying techniques.

While Leggard has been assured by Pierson administrators that the school has hired a new middle school guidance counselor this year, she said the school’s efforts to combat these problems remain to be seen.  She concluded, “I think kids are still confused with what bullying really is.”

Changing of the Garb

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web Teachers Shirts

“This is no longer about gray shirts … wearing them or not wearing them,” pronounced Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) President Eileen Kochanasz at the Sag Harbor School District’s board of education meeting on Monday, January 11. As her words reverberated throughout the Pierson High School library, the district’s teachers uniformly stood up and pulled off their gray shirts imprinted with the words “Year Two, No Contract” to reveal black ones with a new slogan, “Sag Harbor, District in Crisis.”

During a later interview, Kochanasz said the protest garb is meant to call attention to statements and actions allegedly made by the board, in regards to the tumultuous teacher contract negotiations, and to respond to public displeasure with the visibility of the gray shirts. The new black apparel will be worn by the teachers only on Monday and the educators will dress in regular attire for the rest of the school week. Kochanasz added that TASH members will continue to picket in front of school grounds on Fridays.

“[We were told by the public] if the shirts were not there, there would be more support. If we removed the shirts completely people would forget … The sole purpose [of the black shirts] is to keep the community aware that this issue is seriously unsettled for us,” said Kochanasz later in the week.

The new TASH garments are being met with disapproval by some parents in the community. Since TASH members arrived in the gray shirts on the first day of school in September, parent Laura Avedon said many parents repeatedly requested TASH wear regular clothes inside the classroom. She believes the new message might also be frightening for students especially those in the elementary school.

“The t-shirts are a menacing artifact of a dispute that belongs in the realm of adults only,” noted Avedon in an email. “When I got home from the Board of Education meeting . . . I had to explain to my elementary school daughter that tomorrow she was going to see new t-shirts on all her teachers, saying that the school district was in crisis. She was very concerned, since she knows the word crisis means a dire or life-threatening emergency. I explained to her that the district was not in crisis, and that no harm would come to her by going to school.”

Of the plan to only wear the shirts on Monday, Avedon said, “It should be no days a week. The children shouldn’t be involved … I think it harms them emotionally.”

A fellow parent, Glenn Lawton, added, “These semantics further fuel the polarity and only help to erode our collective ‘spirit.’”

Parent Bill Collage remarked, “I am very pro teacher. I think the gray t-shirts were very effective messaging and the penetration of the message is roughly 100 percent among the parents. The black t-shirts will be met with less regard, I’m willing to bet. I think the next great message in this process will be when they take the t-shirts off.”

Chris Tice added “I am supportive of a process where teachers have the right to publicly voice their position. I would prefer it not be done on shirts worn in front of our young children.”

Kochanasz said TASH members haven’t noticed the shirts negatively impacting the students adding that they are very sensitive and tuned into the children.

School superintendent Dr. John Gratto noted the teachers are allowed to dress in any manner they see fit as the teachers’ contract and the district policy doesn’t speak to attire.

For TASH, said Kochanasz, the black shirts merely hint at larger issues that have arisen since their contract expired in June 2008. Though the teachers’ contract expired, the provisions of the former contract will continue until a new one is settled. In a speech delivered at the board meeting on Monday, Kochanasz asserted the board discredited a Fact Finder’s report and his qualifications, saying he wasn’t given enough time to complete his work and his professional background focused on national sports leagues instead of school districts. In an interview, school board president Walter Wilcoxen noted the board felt the report was incomplete because the Fact Finder didn’t address all of the major issues and he was given just three days to submit his recommendations.

After learning that four teachers have submitted their resumes to neighboring school districts, Dr. Gratto said if he was in their position he would also apply elsewhere to make more money, claimed Kochanasz. In an interview, Dr. Gratto said he didn’t make that statement. Kochanasz noted, in her speech, that Dr. Gratto was awarded a 13.5 percent raise last June which she said is a “greater percentage raise in one year than the combined percentages of [the board's] offer to teachers over five years.”

But Kochanasz’s statement, contended Wilcoxen, doesn’t include a 2.7 percentage step increase, or additional money given for each year a teacher is employed in the district.

“In my opinion you have deliberately misled this community with your repeated assurances that your negotiators are prepared to stay all night to reach an agreement,’” added Kochanasz of negotiations so far. “Yet during our most recent sessions, we weren’t given one counter-proposal to any comprehensive proposal we made at the same session. It was always, ‘we have to adjourn to assess … or cost out.’”

“We have to cost out but they don’t,” argued Wilcoxen. “We came up with our best offer. We would love to come up with a contract that is good for them and an efficiency, i.e. cost savings to us.”

“This is not about people disagreeing. It’s about what happens when they do. They are marginalized, trivialized, dismissed in public, in the press and at cocktail parties,” continued Kochanasz, interjecting a claim that a school board member was heard referring to a parent who spoke at a previous board meeting as a “buffoon” at The American Hotel.

Of this incident, Wilcoxen said he didn’t know about the comment made but said, “We are a small community and haven’t board members been called worse in public?”

Dr. Gratto and school board member Mary Ann Miller believed the new shirts would have little effect on the progression of the negotiations.

“Picketing or attacking people or wearing t-shirts isn’t going to change the fact that both parties will have to reach an agreement they think is fair,” noted Dr. Gratto. He said the board made the last proposal at the last negotiation session on December 3.

Miller added, “I don’t think the protesting methods are doing a lot to sell their positions. I think the financial state of the economy in this country is what people are focusing on.”

At Monday’s meeting, community member and parent Brigid Collins said she believed as a superintendent of the district Dr. Gratto should represent the board and the teachers, and try to mediate a compromise. She said, “The board brought this person in to bring us to a place I am not sure we want to be. I am really hopeful this can stop.”

On another note, TASH’s charge with the Public Employee Relations Board accusing the board of pre-conditioned bargaining is still under review. However, another TASH charge asserting the board is bargaining in bad faith was found to be lacking evidence, noted PERB representative Monty Klein in a letter from December 30. TASH has the opportunity to file an amendment of the charges by January 15.

Seek Ways to Track Student’s Progress

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By Melissa Lynch


As the Sag Harbor School District settles into a new school year, superintendent Dr. John Gratto and members of the board of education are looking forward to a new year of their own as well — one in which they will seek to refine the way student progress is tracked and analyzed.

At the school board meeting on Monday night, Gratto presented new plans for tracking students’ improvements in English and mathematics for grades three through eight.

Students in those grades are required to take state-mandated tests in English and math and Gratto said the tracking plan will provide teachers with individualized test results in order to help them understand the needs of each student.

“It helps the teachers to focus in on rectifying the specific skills that each kid may have,” he explained.

At the beginning of each year, said Gratto, a student’s new teacher will be given an in-depth report for the child with performance indicators showing how the student is progressing in English and math. The indicators will point out how many questions relating to a particular skill the student answered correctly or incorrectly on the last state mandated test. Gratto explained that this will help teachers understand the areas in which students may require more help.

Audience member Chris Tice expressed concerns over how a teacher who is responsible for covering a new year’s curriculum will be able to review the previous grade’s material as well and further, make plans to also cover that material with students.

Tice asked, “If there are certain areas where that specific student clearly has not attained a satisfactory level of understanding is it the teacher that goes back the next year and teaches them those skills that they didn’t get?”

Gratto responded by explaining that teachers will receive a list of the top 10 performance indicators by grade level. That, he added, will enable the teachers to have an understanding of what English and math skills the class needs to work on as a whole.

Ultimately, it was decided that additional help, if needed, would be given to students after school. Gratto also believes the individualized analysis will provide academic intervention services, teachers and special education teachers with additional knowledge to help their students as well.

“Teachers can hone in on the area that a particular student may need to learn,” Gratto commented.

Also on Monday, the board announced the formation of a long-range planning committee that will address infrastructure needs in the district. The district’s architect will share information at committee meetings and describe projects that are currently in the design stage. According to Gratto, new buildings and grounds/athletic director, Bill Madsen, is also expected to attend these meetings. Topics might include things such as installation of security cameras, parking issues, storage concerns, building systems, sidewalks or landscaping. Items of discussion will be presented to the board of education for consideration before any decisions are made on costs and scope of the projects.

The planning committee’s first meeting will be September 18 in the Pierson School library. The district asks that anyone interested in attending future committee meetings check the website for dates.

Also at Monday’s meeting, board president Walter Wilcoxen announced that he is expecting to report on the Pierson lunch program sometime around Christmas.

The report will be in response to an audit completed in July, which showed that the Pierson lunch program was operating in the red. In an effort to fix the problem, the board opted to terminate the school lunch coordinator, Paula Brannon, who was making $49,000 in the position. Because just 11 percent of the children were purchasing lunches, Brannon’s salary was not being covered by the money coming in and the program operated at a loss. This year, in an effort to cut costs, Brannon’s duties have been assumed by head cook Lisa Becker.

“The only complaints of the lunch system are that there is not enough room in the cafeteria,” joked Len Bernard, business administrator for the district.

Wilcoxen asked whether the board might consider adding boxed lunches for the elementary school, which may help increase profits.

“We’re doing well if the program just breaks even,” replied Bernard.