Tag Archive | "education"

Sag Harbor School Board Approves Field Trip to Cuba

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Cubamap

Map of Cuba courtesy of Google Maps.

By Tessa Raebeck

Following rave reviews from a group of students who recently returned from a field trip to Spain, the Sag Harbor Board of Education on Monday, April 27, approved a Pierson High School extracurricular field trip to Cuba.

Peter Solow, an art teacher at Pierson who was one of the chaperones in Spain during the spring break trip, told the board the same British company that had run the trip to Spain has been offering trips to Cuba for the past 15 years. The company, WorldStrides, specializes in educational student travel and experiential learning across the globe.

The trip would certainly be the first of its kind in Pierson’s history.

Due to mounting tensions between the two neighboring nations, in January 1961, the United States closed its embassy in Havana and withdrew all diplomatic recognition of Cuba. By 1963, President John F. Kennedy had prohibited Americans from trading with or traveling to Cuba.

In the decades since, some Americans have managed to travel to the Caribbean island by way of Canada or other countries and with special State Department permission, but most travel from the United States to Cuba was forbidden until December 2014, when President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would work to normalize relations between the neighboring countries.

As long as enough students are interested, the field trip will take place during the school vacation in February 2016.

“We thought this was an extraordinary opportunity… to visit a place that has just opened up to the U.S. that people around the world have been traveling to,” said Mr. Solow.

When the board asked whether there are heightened concerns about security due to the diplomatic history, Mr. Solow replied, “Sure—and there are concerns about security whenever we travel to any of the places we go.”

Acknowledging that the situation makes the circumstances somewhat different, Mr. Solow said both the federal State Department and the Cuban Government have sanctioned the trip, “so to a certain extent the itinerary is an itinerary that’s shaped by both entities.”

Citizens of South American, European and other countries around the world have been continuously traveling to Cuba on a regular basis—without the heightened fear Americans have due to the strained relationship of the two countries for the past 50 years.

“It’s only because of the circumstances between our countries that this is something that has been off limits or not available to us,” said Mr. Solow.

Since the teachers know nothing firsthand about Cuba, as they do when taking students to Spain or Italy, they had some initial concerns about the quality of the country’s accommodations. WorldStride provided information on various hotels, however, and it turns out one is a sister hotel of where the students and teachers stayed while in Barcelona earlier this month—and appears to be the better of the pair.

“I think it’s a great thing…being able to go to a country like Cuba [at this time],” said David Diskin, a member of the school board. “Just when I graduated high school, I did a trip to China when China was [first] opened up [to Americans]. It’s like when you see a work of art in person,” he said, referring to what one student said was special about the Spain trip.

“When you see political persecution and the limitations a society like that has—you can’t believe it ’til you see it.”

“We’re hoping this is going to be both an extraordinary and unique experience because of what you’re talking about,” replied Mr. Solow. “I’m probably one of the only people in the room that’s old enough to remember vividly the Cuban Missile Crisis, so for me, this history of the two countries has some personal note, having lived through it when I was a kid—but yes, I think it would be interesting to get the different take on that event and also the Cuban revolution.”

The board agreed, and the field trip was approved.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the school board accepted a donation of $1,000 from the Sag Harbor American Music Festival. The money will go to the music department at Pierson Middle/High School.

“Not only do they put on wonderful events that are free for the community to attend and inspire our students, but they’ve also donated the money to go back to our music department,” Chris Tice, vice president of the school board, said of the festival, adding she knows the funds will be of good use with all the talented musicians at Pierson.

The Sag Harbor Board of Education will hold a budget hearing and educational meeting on Tuesday, May 5, in the library at Pierson Middle/High School, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor. Also in the library, the Sag Harbor Elementary School PTA and the Pierson Middle and High School PTSA will host a Meet the Candidates Night to better introduce the community to the 2015 candidates for school board, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 7.

Sharp Decline Expected in Bridgehampton School Taxes

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By Tessa Raebeck

Bridgehampton residents can expect to see lower taxes next year, as property assessments in the hamlet are expected to increase significantly, according to preliminary estimates from the Town of Southampton Assessor’s office. Although the number is not finalized, town Assessor Lisa Goree confirmed on Tuesday, April 28, that the Bridgehampton School District’s tax base will see an increase of about $252 million—or nearly $100 million more than in the three years prior.

“It’s not final, but the numbers are staggering,” said Robert Hauser, the district’s business administrator. The expected windfall is welcome news for the district, which had to ask voters to approve a budget that breached the tax cap last year. This year’s $12.8 million budget is below the tax cap, and the school’s impact on taxpayers will likely be minimal, as the tax levy will be more widely dispersed due to the influx of new commercial and residential properties in Bridgehampton.

“It’s almost as if [on] people’s school taxes they won’t see an increase, just because the increase in our budget is being spread among so much more property,” Mr. Hauser said at a school board meeting on April 22, adding, “We’ve got a lot of activity going on here.”

To the chagrin of some and the delight of others, Bridgehampton is abuzz with construction. A drive around town offers a glimpse into the extent of home renovations and new construction, as well as new commercial activity including the proposed CVS on the southeast corner of Ocean Road and Montauk Highway. Across the street, the completion of the Topping Rose House alone accounts for $25 million of the expected increase, Mr. Hauser said.

After hearing the news, school board member Jeff Mansfield joked, “Thank you Joe Farrell,” referring to the developer with signs on the lawns of shingled houses across Bridgehampton.

Even with the influx of new development across the hamlet, some tried and true Bridgehampton locals remain in town. Dr. Lois Favre, Bridgehampton’s superintendent and principal, has started a new tradition to honor those graduates. With help from the spouse of a graduate of the Class of 1965, she is inviting the class to celebrate its 50th reunion this spring by returning to their alma mater for the high school graduation.

Graduates of the class of ’65 who would like to attend graduation should contact Dr. Favre at (631) 537-0271, extension 1310. The graduation ceremony for the Class of 2015 is Sunday, June 28, at 4 p.m. at the Bridgehampton School, located at 2685 Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton. The next meeting of the board of education is Wednesday, May 27, in the school’s café.

Test Refusal Rates Soar Across the East End

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By Tessa Raebeck

For the first time, the New York State Education Department has asked the Board of Cooperative Educational Services to compile data from school districts to learn what percentage of students in the state refused to take its tests in grades three through eight. Parents who opposed Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to linked overarching and controversial educational reforms to the state’s budget and the amount set aside for school aid, have voiced their dissent by having their children “refuse the tests,” or not sit for the exams, which cover English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics.

Nearly 40 percent of Sag Harbor students in grades three through eight did not sit for New York State’s standardized tests on Common Core mathematics last week, according to Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Katy Graves. The numbers represented a 9- percent increase in test refusal from the English Language Arts (ELA) in the same grades earlier this month. The decrease in participation is likely attributed to the increased publicity of the refuse the test movement statewide.

Although much higher than in previous years, test refusal rates on the East End were not as high as those in western Long Island, where refusal rates reached nearly 80 percent in some districts.

Some administrators fear the substantial non-participation rates seen across the state this month—the largest in recent memory, if not ever—will affect not only teachers’ jobs, who could be rated as ineffective and fired if enough students opt out, but also the data some schools use to drive curriculum.

But teachers’ unions, involved parents and education experts from around the country say the reforms are threatening the human, interactive aspects of education so many students need. By raising the high stakes on standardized tests even higher, they say the governor is encouraging “teaching to the test,” which they fear replaces creative projects and interactive lessons with redundant workbooks and monotonous drills, substituting “tricks” for ideas.

Both the overhaul and the reaction could leave many teachers and administrators out of jobs should their students not perform up to par—regardless of the socioeconomic environment they teach in. Many of the students refusing the tests are the same students who perform best on them, and schools like Sag Harbor, where students traditionally excel, could see their scores plummet as refusal rates rise.

Yet, since the governor’s budget passed at the end of March, advocates for public education—including many teachers who could lose their jobs as a result—have declared refusing the test as the only means of resistance left.

Academically but not legally, test data is considered invalid if participation is limited. The federal government calls for 95 percent participation on a state’s standardized tests, but it is unclear whether any action will be taken. New York State has made no announcement as to what will happen to districts that have high refusal rates—now nearly every district in New York—and some fear school districts that did not play ball with the governor will see their state aid slashed.

“I hear that there will be no action taken,” Ms. Graves told the Sag Harbor Board of Education on Monday, April 27. “We have not gotten any guidance documents from New York State yet, I will just keep everybody posted.”

“So at this point we don’t know if we lost the school aid or not,” explained Chris Tice, vice president of the school board.

In the Bridgehampton School District, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 refused to take their respective mathematics exams and 34 percent refused to take the ELA tests, Superintendent/Principal Dr. Lois Favre reported.

“Parents are genuinely concerned about the tests,” she told the board of education at its April 22 meeting.

Southampton Middle School Principal Tim Frazier said 54 percent of his students had not sat for their mathematics exam and estimated the district wide refusal rate was 55 percent.

East Hampton had far lower refusal rates, with 9 percent of student opting out of ELA and 15 percent not taking the math exams. Last year, all but 2 percent participated.

“As a building principal, the testing gives us good data to support and help children, and to improve the teaching and learning in the building,” East Hampton Middle School Principal Charles Soriano said Wednesday, adding, “The Common Core linked testing provides another opportunity for our students to develop comfort and familiarity with the genre of times, standardized testing.”

At the Montauk School, 46 out of 208 students, or 22 percent, refused to take the mathematics exam, versus about five refusals last year. Principal Jack Perna said on Tuesday, April 28, that he has “no idea” how the test refusals will affect teacher evaluations and state aid for next year and that “the state seems to be ‘confused’ as well.”

“While the Common Core standards are good, the assessments are not,” he said, “and using them so strongly for teacher evaluation is wrong.”

The governor had voiced his desire for half of a teacher’s evaluation to rely on students’ scores—even if they do not teach the subjects that are tested—but the final percentages will be determined by the State Education Department.

The Addams Family Comes to Sag Harbor Tonight

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Colleen Samot and Denis Hartnett as Morticia and Gomez Addams lead the cast in a rehearsal of the Pierson High School musical production of The Addams Family in the school auditorium on Tuesday, April 21. Photo by Michael Heller.

Colleen Samot and Denis Hartnett as Morticia and Gomez Addams lead the cast in a rehearsal of the Pierson High School musical production of The Addams Family in the school auditorium on Tuesday, April 21. Photo by Michael Heller. 

By Tessa Raebeck

A man wearing a white fur toga and an Einstein-esque wig is stroking something. Earlier, he was a tree, dancing around with branches alongside a flapper, a Native-American woman, a woman resembling Marie Antoinette, and others, all dressed eerily in white. The man is neither Socrates nor Einstein, but is in fact a “Cave Man Ancestor”—or, in reality, Pierson High School student Nick Knab. He is one of the many unnerving, yet strangely comedic, “ancestors” in “The Addams Family,” the latest theatrical production at Pierson High School.

Pierson’s take on the musical comedy will come alive this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, under the leadership of musical director Paula Brannon and producer Melissa Luppi, who also teaches sixth grade English at Pierson Middle School.

Based on the characters in the classic comic strip by Charles Addams, the show was first staged in 2009. Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, it opened on Broadway in 2010 starring Nathan Lane as Gomez and Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia.

The talented cast of Sag Harbor actors, musicians and stagehands was at school late in the evening on Tuesday, April 21, to work out the final kinks, which always seem to magically disappear come opening night. During the cast’s last run-through before Wednesday’s dress rehearsal—the culmination of near-daily rehearsals since February—students appeared from all sides in between scenes, expertly weaving among one another to pull props and erect elaborate sets.

Ms. Brannon designed the set and the costume concepts, with Ms. Luppi—“seamstress extraordinaire,” according to Ms. Brannon—in charge of costume construction. In addition to the creative duo, many hands are on deck to ensure the music, set and performances run smoothly. Pierson student Jennifer Hall is the assistant director, and her classmate Christen Heine is stage manager. Former Sag Harbor students have returned to their alma mater, helping as make-up artists and teaching workshops on props construction and various elements of entertainment.

Pierson chorus director Suzanne Nicoletti is the vocal coach for the production. Oscar Gonzalez, called the “Zumba king” by Ms. Brannon, is the choreographer. The tech director is Doug Alnwick, a shop teacher at Pierson. Some of the student actors also act in roles behind scenes: Shane Hennessy is the lighting designer, Paul Hartman is student choreographer and Zoe Vatash designed the playbill.

The play has the classic characters of “The Addams Family,” but with modern jokes about pat-downs by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), thyroids and healthcare, and even Jews living in Florida. The comic relief is not reserved to a few staple characters; the whole cast, from leads to extras, adds to the show’s humor and entertainment.

As in most tales, the plot revolves around love. Wednesday, the morbid daughter of the morbid family, has fallen in love with Lucas, the cheery son of a nice, “normal” family from Ohio.

When Wednesday, played by Rebecca Dwoskin, is pleading with her father, Gomez, begging him to act more like a Fred or a Joe in order to impress her new fiancé and his family, she tells him, “We’re who we are and they’re from Ohio.”

“Ohio—a swing state! Monsters!” replies Gomez, with an eerily on-point vampire accent portrayed by actor Denis Hartnett.

Morticia, played by Colleen Samot, swishes around the stage in an elaborate gown of black and crimson. Even with the knowledge that Ms. Samot is a high school student without an extensive rap sheet or a gang of ghosts, the audience will undoubtedly be intimidated by her portrayal of Morticia.

All the classic characters are easy to recognize as their singing selves in the play. There’s gargling, mumbling Lurch, played by Oree Livni, and creepily hilarious Fester and Grandma Addams, played by Matt Shiavoni and Shannon Keane, respectively.

In one scene, a giant set of wood and chains suddenly appears from behind the curtain. Gomez and Morticia’s son, Pugsly, portrayed by Emma McMahon in the classic black and white t-shirt, is on a contraption, holding chains that his sister Wednesday is using to playfully torture him.

Later, the curtains open to reveal the Addams house, complete with the white-clad ancestors—Yani Bitis, Hope Brindle, Alexandra Dudley, Natalie Federico, Jennifer Hall, Charlotte Johnson, Sofia Karamolegou, Zeb Kinney, Courtney Kinsella, Nick Knab, Phoebe Madison Miller, Rachael Miller and Zoe Vatash—crawling in and out of picture frames and acting as picturesque statues on podiums. In the corner, Kerrie Vila acts as a somehow charming “Thing,” sitting in a box as her hands dance on top of it.

After asking the audience for directions, the “normal” family of Wednesday’s love-interest, Lucas, portrayed by Paul Hartman, makes it to the Addams house. Lucas’s parents, Alice and Mal, or Audrey Owen and Shane Hennessy, are apprehensively in tow, dressed in beiges and yellows and slightly skeptical of Wednesday’s accessory choice: a crossbow.

“This is how they live in New York,” remarks Alice, decked from head to toe in yellow, when she enters the Addams house. “They spend all their money on rent and have nothing left for furniture.”

Show dates for “The Addams Family” are at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 23, Friday, April 24, and Saturday, April 25, with a matinee performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 25, in the auditorium of Pierson Middle/High School, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor. Tickets are available through the main office or by emailing agalanty@sagharborschools.org.

Candidates Come Forward for School Board Races in Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton

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By Tessa Raebeck

Voters in Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton  will return to the polls next month to cast their ballots for school board candidates and approve or deny districts’ proposed budgets.

SAG HARBOR

With three seats up for grabs in Sag Harbor, five candidates have come forward. Incumbents Thomas Schiavoni and Chris Tice are running to keep their seats and have been  joined in the race by challengers Stephanie Bitis, James Ding and James Sanford.

The top two vote getters from among the three candidates will serve three-year terms starting on July 1, and ending on June 30, 2018. Ms. Tice and board member David Diskin, who is not running again, currently hold those positions. Both Ms. Tice and Mr. Diskin were elected to two-year terms in light of resignations in the spring of 2013.

The candidate who receives the third highest number of votes will serve the balance of an unexpired term, starting on May 19, the day of the school board elections, and ending on June 30, 2016. The third, shorter term is a result of the board’s appointment of Mr. Schiavoni last August to temporarily fill the position vacated when Daniel Hartnett resigned after moving out of the school district. Mr. Schiavoni’s appointment expires on election day, May 19.

A lifetime resident of the Sag Harbor area who is known as “Tommy John,” Mr. Schiavoni now lives in North Haven with his family. A Sag Harbor parent, Mr. Schiavoni is also a teacher of middle and high school social studies in the Center Moriches School District. He is an active member of the Sag Harbor Fire Department and a North Haven Village trustee, as well as a former member of the North Haven Village Zoning Board of Appeals and past president and treasurer of the Bay Haven Association.

Since he was selected out of a handful of candidates vying for Mr. Hartnett’s position last summer, Mr. Schiavoni has acted as legislative liaison to the school board. Last month, he traveled to Albany to lobby state legislators in support of public schools.

The parent of two Sag Harbor students and a Pierson graduate, Ms. Tice is the school board’s vice president and has been on the board since 2010. She is a real estate agent with Corcoran’s Sag Harbor office and a past president of Sag Harbor’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and a past board member of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce. Prior to relocating to Sag Harbor full time in 2004, Ms. Tice worked in various marketing and management positions for companies such as American Express, Cablevision and SONY.

Newcomer Stephanie Bitis is also a real estate agent, having worked at Sotheby’s in Sag Harbor since March. She has a master’s degree in business administration from St. John’s University and was previously the general sales manager of WFAN Radio, an affiliate of the CBS Corporation, in New York City from 2006 to August 2014. Before that, Ms. Bitis was the vice president/general manager of Univision.

Challenger James Ding, of Noyac, is an active member of the Noyac Civic Council and has been vocal in the opposition to helicopter noise from the East Hampton Airport. He was a member of the Noyac Citizens Advisory Committee of the Town of Southampton in 2013.

The third challenger, James Sanford, is the founder and portfolio manager of Sag Harbor Advisors, which he launched in New York City and Sag Harbor in 2012. A CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst), Mr. Sanford has worked on Wall Street since the early 1990s with companies including Credit Suisse and JP Morgan. He is also chief financial officer for fragrance company Lurk.

A “Meet the Candidates Night” for the Sag Harbor Board of Education, sponsored by the Sag Harbor Elementary School PTA and Pierson Middle and High School PTSA, will be held on Thursday, May 7, at 7 p.m. in the Pierson Library, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor. The Sag Harbor School District budget vote and school board elections are on Tuesday, May 19.

 

BRIDGEHAMPTON

The Bridgehampton race is thus far uncontested, with three incumbents, Douglas DeGroot, Lillian Tyree-Johnson, and Ronald White, all seeking reelection. If no other candidates come forward, they will each serve three-year terms starting July 1, and ending June 30, 2018.

First elected to the Bridgehampton School Board in 2009, Mr. DeGroot is president of Hamptons Tennis Company, Inc. and has facilitated many tennis clinics and athletics-oriented field trips for Bridgehampton students. His four children are all students or alumni of the Bridgehampton School.

Mr. White is a lifetime Bridgehampton resident, and both a past graduate and current school parent. He has been president of the school board since 2013, and was vice president beforehand. Mr. White is a real estate agent at Prudential Douglas-Elliman.

Also elected in 2009, Ms. Tyree-Johnson became vice president of the school board when Mr. White became president in 2013. A bookkeeper, she is also an avid Killer Bees fan—her husband, Coach Carl Johnson, led the Bees to the New York State Class D Championship this winter.

Because the race is uncontested, the district will not host a “Meet the Candidates” night this year, but will hold a budget hearing and school board meeting on May 6, at 7 p.m. in the gymnasium at the Bridgehampton School, located at 2685 Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton. The Bridgehampton School District budget vote and school board elections will be held Tuesday, May 19.

 

Pierson Vice Principal Headed to Greenport

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By Tessa RaebeckPierson Middle/High School vice principal Gary Kalish will leave the Sag Harbor School District in May for a position as secondary principal in Greenport.

Pierson Middle/High School vice principal Gary Kalish has accepted a position as secondary school principal in Greenport and will be leaving the Sag Harbor School District at the end of this month.

The Sag Harbor Board of Education accepted Mr. Kalish’s resignation with regret at its meeting on Tuesday, April 14. He is expected to start in Greenport on May 1.

A graduate of Pierson himself, Mr. Kalish has been Pierson’s vice principal for the past seven years. He was the driving force behind the implementation of the IB (International Baccalaureate) program in Sag Harbor.

Kyle Sturmann, who graduated from the program last spring, said Wednesday that Mr. Kalish “was very dedicated to the success of the IB program at Pierson. He always made himself available to the candidates, maintained regular communication with the teachers [and] made sure that the students understood the guidelines of the program and that they never felt too overwhelmed by its rigor.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the school board and administrators congratulated Mr. Kalish on his new position while expressing regret at seeing him leave Pierson.

“We’ve been lucky to have a homegrown Sag Harbor Pierson graduate to come back and make such a difference here for our students and our community,” said Chris Tice, vice president of the school board. “We’re sad to see you go, but we know it’s a promotion and it’s an opportunity to be captain of a ship and they’re lucky to have you.”

“We’re all happy for you but also, we will miss you,” agreed school board member David Diskin, who said his daughter Zoe, a Pierson student, shared his sentiments.

“I think you’re ready for the next step in your journey and I think you’re going to be fabulous, so good luck,” added board member Sandi Kruel.

“I was very proud to be able to come back,” Mr. Kalish said. “I was a student here and I loved being a student at Pierson and to be able to come back as an administrator—I was very honored and very proud. It was a great experience, I’ve learned so much. Pierson continued to teach me after I came back.”

“Mostly, I will miss the students—not just because I’m related to a few of them, but I really [will] miss all of them and I hope that they know that even if I’m not here, I’m still a whaler.”

Sag Harbor School District Proposes $37.5 Million Budget

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By Tessa Raebeck

With many school districts scrambling for funding to maintain programs and staff, Sag Harbor School District administrators are striving to find ways to save money down the line in their proposed 2015-16 budget.

The second draft of the budget, which will not pierce Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2-percent tax cap, was presented at the final of many budget workshops on Tuesday, April 14. The total proposed 2015-16 budget is $37.5 million, an increase of 1.85 percent over the current school year’s budget.

The second draft of the budget is higher than the first by about $118,000. It includes newly received information on state aid figures and the cost of BOCES, which provides school districts with shared educational services such as test grading and vocational-technical programs.

Although it is widely known as the “2-percent tax cap,” the property tax levy limit is actually calculated individually for each of the state’s school districts based on a number of factors. This year’s tax levy limit for Sag Harbor is 2.5335 percent and the second budget draft’s projected tax levy increase is 2.4864 percent, or $826,082.

Sag Harbor will receive nearly $67,000 more in state aid than originally projected, representing an increase of 7.94 percent, or almost $130,000, over the current year. Due to this increase in state aid, other additional revenue, and the decision to postpone a project included in the first budget draft (the resurfacing of the tennis court and play area behind the Sag Harbor Elementary School), the tax levy will be $55,000 lower than the first draft, despite the budget itself being higher.

“We’re maintaining and growing our programs here and our opportunities for students while keeping under the tax cap—and there are almost no districts on Long Island that can claim that—so you’re doing a great job, thank you,” Chris Tice, vice president of the board of education, told the administrative team.

The projected tax levy is $34,050,000 for 2015-16, with the monthly impact on the local taxpayer being anywhere from $4.97 to $10.15, according to School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi. Those figures are based on the current assessed values for the towns of East Hampton and Southampton, which both send students to Sag Harbor schools.

“If assessed values go up in the towns of East Hampton and Southampton, like they did this year, your tax rate is actually going to go down, it’s not going to go up,” Ms. Buscemi told the three people in the crowd Tuesday, adding she hopes no taxpayer will see a $10 monthly increase in the end.

Due to aging infrastructure and potential cost savings, Ms. Buscemi also hopes to include a proposition in the annual budget vote in May that would permit the district to establish a reserve fund for future repairs.

The proposition would allow the school district to take the surplus funds from the current year’s budget, 2014-15, and put the money in a repair reserve account to be used for future infrastructure needs. The fund would have no impact on tax rates. In order for the district to use money from the fund, it would have to hold a public hearing. If an emergency repair needed to be done before a hearing could be held, the district would have to replace the money used in the next year, with interest.

One project the repair reserve would potentially be used for is repairing the boilers at the Sag Harbor Elementary School, which posed several problems this winter. The cost of a full replacement of the boilers is estimated to be over $500,000, but a repair would cost about $100,000 and allow the boilers to hold out for another five years, Ms. Buscemi said.

“If we do decide to go the repair route, we would be able to use some of that repair reserve to make those repairs and that would have no impact on taxes,” she added.

Ms. Buscemi said the district has made over $1 million worth of “efficiency” actions since July 1, 2012, which can be included in an efficiency plan that may garner additional savings for taxpayers in the form of rebate checks. A more detailed plan will be presented before the board adopts the budget and property tax report card on Wednesday, April 22.

A budget hearing will be held on Tuesday, May 5, and the annual budget vote and school board elections are on Tuesday, May 19. All budget presentations and drafts are available under “Budget Info” on the district’s website.

Test Refusal Movement Continues to Grow in Sag Harbor

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By Tessa Raebeck

Spring break is traditionally used for some much needed relaxation and time in the sun before the final sprint to the end of the school year, but a group of East End parents, teachers, and community members had a loftier goal for last week’s vacation: Taking back public education.

About 50 people filled a meeting room in Sag Harbor’s Old Whalers’ Church on Thursday, April 9, for an informational dialogue on test refusal hosted by the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH). The “refuse the test” movement has gained steam across New York State in recent weeks, in reaction to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to increase privatization of the state’s education system and put mounting emphasis on state tests by tying teachers’ jobs and basing schools’ effectiveness on students’ performances on standardized tests written by for-profit companies. The governor threatened to hold out on providing aid to schools if the State Legislature did not pass his reforms as part of the state budget earlier this month.

The picture painted at the forum is one that has been repeated across the country increasingly since the implementation of the past two major federal educational reforms, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top: public schools in which art and history classes and recess, gym and lunch periods have been eliminated and replaced with test prep.

The Sag Harbor School District has made many efforts to resist pulling the plug on the creativity administrators say is fundamental to a strong, engaging education, but the new state regulations will force school districts to fire teachers and administrators and relinquish local control of schools should students not perform up to par. Sag Harbor’s schools, which perform well on state tests, will be subject to the same guidelines as the state’s lowest performing schools.

As a means of resistance, unions and some administrators have urged parents to “refuse the test” by not having their child sit for them. From an academic standpoint, a test becomes invalid if 17 percent or more of the students across the state refuse to take it.

On Tuesday, April 14, the first day the state tests were administered, Superintendent Katy Graves said 25 percent of Sag Harbor students had not taken the ELA test that day. Many of the students who refused the tests are the same students who do the best on them, and Sag Harbor’s scores will likely suffer as a result.

Ms. Graves said Thursday that she does not support refusing the test because the district has invested so much in the scores and analyzing the data they provide, but that “watching this has been heartbreaking.”

“The majority of the districts in the state—especially upstate—are so aid dependent,” she said. Never before, she added, had a governor inserted language into the budget linking school aid to how schools operate.

She added that tenure, which the governor wants to make more difficult to obtain, had been brought in for a reason, so, for example, if a teacher decided to teach a topic like evolution, which was once highly controversial, he wouldn’t have to fear losing his job.

“There’s some reasons we deal with things very slowly in education, so we’ve never dealt with this embedding of this kind of language—I as governor am deciding how you locally evaluate your teachers…so you’re living in a new world,” she told the crowd of parents.

TASH President Jim Kinnier, a math teacher at Pierson, said he and Ms. Graves are on the same team, however, they “disagree upon what pitch to throw.”

The governor has issued a gag order on teachers forbidding them from encouraging their students and parents to refuse the test.

Mr. Kinnier, under that gag order, said he hosted Thursday’s forum to “bring forth some facts [and] allow folks to voice their opinions.”

“From my perspective, we’re out of strategies. There’s only one strategy left that I see,” he said. “In my view, to let your children take the test is to endorse the governor’s efforts to make public schools be like charter schools…I don’t want to have this opinion, but I only see two possibilities—either sit here and take it or do this.”

Mr. Kinnier said he is not opposed to tests, but said the current state tests are not age or ability appropriate and are far too long. Elementary school students take the tests over six days, for a total of anywhere from nine to 18 hours depending on whether they receive extra time. He said if the scores were a smaller part of teachers’ evaluations the teacher could reflect on the results, but it wouldn’t drive their instruction.

This is the third time in four years that the legislature has addressed the issue of teachers’ evaluations.

“This is called education reform—in my opinion, it’s anything but,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor said when voting against the governor’s budget. “What we’re doing tonight is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; this isn’t reform at all. The fact of the matter is that the only solace I have tonight is that I know that we will be back here again at some point dealing with this issue.”

Administered by private for-profit companies and not written by educators, the tests are graded by hired temp workers who are paid per test. The only requirement to be hired as a grader, which includes critiquing a writing section, is a college degree.

In addition to lamenting the arbitrary nature of the tests, many teachers and parents in attendance expressed fear that the data-driven instruction will affect students’ ability to learn and be prepared for careers in a rapidly changing global marketplace.

Sag Harbor resident Laura Leever, who teaches on Shelter Island, said while she understands Ms. Graves’s concerns over faculty and students being affected by scores lowered from high test refusal, “We have to look at this in a bigger picture…this is about taking away public education, it’s about taking away local control.”

“I think we have a very punitive governor,” Ms. Graves replied. “I think he will punish every school that doesn’t comply and I think it’s going to make things worse.”

She said she fears that, rather than acknowledging how many families refused to take the test, the governor will instead say the scores mean “our schools are failing even more.”

“I’m an AP U.S. History teacher,” said Sean Brandt, president of the Southampton teachers union, “and America is founded by a bunch of rebels—and I think now is the time to stand up. My son’s in the third grade and he’s not taking the test. As far as what’s the outcome, we don’t know, but this is the loss of local control, this is the privatization of public education and this is as criminal as it gets—and this is our opportunity to take a stand.”

Chase Mallia, a Pierson math teacher, said teachers who have a lot of students refuse the test would likely have worse results, because those students are often the same ones who would perform the best.

“There’s a possibility for me that I’ll be rated ineffective,” he said. “That’s a risk I’m willing to take, because I see the direction the state’s going, because I’m in it for the kids.”

Refuse the Test Movement Growing on the East End

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Parents bring their children to the Sag Harbor Elementary School at the start of the school day. Photo by Michael Heller.

Parents bring their children to the Sag Harbor Elementary School at the start of the school day. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

A grassroots movement of parents who say the government is taking the creativity out of learning—and doing so in impractical ways that help neither students nor schools—is growing statewide and across the East End, with many parents refusing to let their children sit for the tests the state uses to judge public education.

Advocates for local control of education were outraged when Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through sweeping education reforms as part of the New York State budget last week (see related story), which include further linking teacher and school performance with student performance on tests written by a private company, Pearson, rather than educators.

The Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) sent parents a letter last week clarifying its position on test refusal.

According to the letter, TASH “strongly supports a parent’s right to advocate for his/her child and refuse the New York State ELA and Mathematics assessments in grades 3-8. As a collective body, TASH believes that the purpose of education is to educate a populace of critical thinkers and lifelong learners who are capable of shaping a just and equitable society in order to live good and purpose-filled lives. We believe that the education of children should be grounded in developmentally appropriate practice. TASH opposes the over-reliance on high-stakes testing that is currently being pushed by both the federal and New York State governments because this testing has not been used to further instruction, help children, or support their educational needs. These commercially prepared assessments are not transparent and teachers, parents, and students are not permitted to discuss the content or to know which questions students answered incorrectly.”

These tests are administered over the course of several weeks each spring in addition to other state-mandated tests throughout the year. Last year, the State Education Department administered the tests on the new federal Common Core curriculum before providing lesson plans or textbooks. This year, schools are more familiar with Common Core, but unions and school boards alike have expressed concern over the connection of a teacher’s or administrator’s employment with a test that doesn’t take into account outside factors such as poverty, non-English speaking students or parents, or what a teacher does in their classroom aside from drilling students for the test.

Parents can “refuse the test” by writing a letter to their child’s school requesting their child be excused from the tests. When other students are taking the test, those who have excused are provided with another space to be so as not to disturb the testing.

Shona Gawronski has had five children attend Sag Harbor’s schools, and this year she is  refusing the test for her youngest two, a son in fourth grade and a daughter in seventh grade, as a form of activism in support of strong public education.

“I’ve been a parent [in the Sag Harbor School District] for 18 years and I’ve seen such a…decline in not the quality of the teaching but the parameters in which the teachers can be creative in their teaching,” she said. “Everything is evolved around these state tests—math, science and reading—and not so much the arts and…the more creative aspects of education.”

Tim Frazier, principal at the Southampton Intermediate School, said that, as of the start of the April break last Friday, about 10 percent of his students had refused, and he expects that number to increase by test time next week.

Aside from the political message it sends Albany, the movement to refuse the tests could have big implications on the performance of teachers and schools. Often, the students refusing to take the test are those who will do the best.

“Those scores will be reflecting the performance of my school and the performance of my teachers, so it’s really not a good place to be as an administrator at a public school right now—especially if a high percentage of students refused to take the test,” he said.

“There are so many other factors that go into making a ‘highly effective’ or highly performing teacher than just how…students do on a test score,” he added. “The state minimizes it to look at just that number instead of looking at all the other factors.”

Many teachers don’t actually teach the subjects being tested and are evaluated based on students they have hardly any contact with. A special education, technology or health teacher will get a score linked to how their students do in English language arts and mathematics.

But with the bill already passed and the governor showing no signs of changing his mind, advocates for education say refusing the test as their best option.

“When Washington, D.C., linked 50 percent of teacher evaluations to standardized test scores, teacher turnover increased to 82 percent, schools in communities with high poverty rates showed large or moderate declines in student outcomes, and the combined poverty gap for D.C. expanded by 44 scale-score points, causing poor students to fall even further behind their affluent peers,” said Anthony Chase Mallia, a seventh grade mathematics teacher at Pierson Middle/High School in Sag Harbor. “It is time to begin to acknowledge that the accountability movement has failed.”

 

The Teachers Association of Sag Harbor is inviting those seeking more information on test refusal to attend a forum on Thursday, April 9, at 6:30 p.m. at the Old Whalers’ Church, located at 44 Union Street in Sag Harbor. For more information on test refusal and other commonly asked questions, visit the New York State Allies for Public Education website, nysape.org.

New York State Budget’s Education Reforms Draw Criticism

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Just before graduation, Jessica Warne takes one last walk down the hallway at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. Photo by Michael Heller.

Just before graduation, Jessica Warne takes one last walk down the hallway at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

New York’s school districts have watched Albany intently since January, when Governor Andrew Cuomo promised a $1.1 billion increase in education aid on the condition that the Republican-controlled State Senate and Democratic-led State Assembly agree to his series of education reforms.

Those reforms, called a “disgrace” by the state’s teachers’ unions and denied by a growing movement of parents who are “opting out” of state tests, include linking teacher evaluations more closely with student test scores, making it harder for teachers to be hired and easier for them to be fired, and allowing state takeovers of schools whose students perform poorly on tests.

Democrats in the Assembly, members of the governor’s own party, voiced their strong opposition to the reforms as they voted on the budget on Tuesday, March 31, but conceded that passing the budget and avoiding a government shutdown was of greater priority than preventing the education overhaul. An aide  to Senator Kenneth P. LaValle confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the budget’s final language was still being worked on before the formal adoption. By Wednesday, some concessions had been made, but not enough to quiet the worries of educators across the state and the growing opposition of parents and their children.

Although legislators, educators and teachers unions opposed the bulk of the reforms, the primary standout is teachers’ evaluations, which will be taken further out of the hands of the schools themselves. The governor wanted half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student performance on state tests, which educators and parents alike have decried, saying the system would put even more emphasis on “teaching to the test” and less on creative, engaging learning.

Administrators and school board members in Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Southampton and Bridgehampton have publicly spoken out against the governor’s reforms.

“It is ridiculous,” said Chris Tice, vice president of the Sag Harbor School Board, at a meeting last month. “It just puts more pressure on that single test being the only measure of effectiveness…it’s very unhealthy—this increased anxiety-ridden testing environment that the governor’s creating and ratcheting up.”

The new budget removes teachers evaluation planning from the legislative process and places the power of determining the weight of the various components, primarily test scores and observations, into the hands of the State Education Department, which will have to come up with a plan by June. The department gained notoriety last year for its haphazard rollout of the Common Core standards  when it administered tests to students before providing teachers and parents with basic materials like lesson plans and textbooks.

Under the new evaluation system approved Tuesday, teachers will continue to be judged on the current scale as “ineffective,” “developing,” “effective,” or “highly effective.” Those who teach math and English to third through eighth graders will be judged on their students’ performance on state tests in those subjects and high school teachers will be judged on the Regents exams. Educators whose courses don’t end in state exams, such as art or kindergarten teachers, will be evaluated based on “student learning objectives” determined by the state.

Observations conducted by a principal or administrator within the school and an “independent” observer from a different school will also play a role in a teacher’s grade. Lesson plans, student portfolios, and student and parent feedback surveys may no longer be considered in determining whether or not a teacher is doing their job.

In addition to requiring that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on tests, the governor wanted 35 percent to come from an observer from outside the district, with the remaining 15 percent determined by the teacher’s school itself, numbers that education proponents are urging the state to abandon.

“The idea of a teacher evaluation system being related to 85 percent coming from outside local control is absolutely horrific,” said Jim Kinnier, a math teacher at Pierson Middle/High School and president of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, who fears the Education Department is under the governor’s control and will end up implementing his desired weighting regardless of the input of legislators and educational experts.

“A lot of what this is, is the governor is unhappy with the teachers union on the state level because the teachers union didn’t endorse him…. a lot of this on his part is an eye for an eye kind of thing.”

Other components of the budget will make it harder to become a teacher in the state, which has been struggling to recruit new educators in recent years, and for teachers to keep their jobs. Every five years, teachers and administrators with lifetime certification will be required to register with the state again and complete 100 hours of continuing education or professional development under “rigorous standards” to be released by the Education Department. There is no funding mentioned to help school districts comply with the mandate. The state’s graduate schools of education will be required to “adopt rigorous selection criteria,” including a cumulative 3.0-grade-point average during an applicant’s undergraduate career. Teachers will not be able to qualify for tenure until they have taught for four years, as opposed to the current three.

“We’re reading articles about less and less people wanting to become teachers in New York State because we have a governor that’s creating a platform that seems to be…hostile to teachers and children, both,” said Ms. Tice.

In addition to the teachers union and state legislators, a grassroots movement of opposition has formed in the state and is swiftly growing on the East End. New York State United Teachers Union President Karen Magee encouraged parents to “opt-out,” or remove their children from standardized testing, saying it is the only effective method of resisting the governor’s changes, and a group of local parents is taking up the charge, opting their children out of the state exams, which begin on April 14.

“The goal for us parents and teachers is to get as many families to refuse the test as possible, because that’s where it gets noticed,” said a Pierson Middle School parent who wished to remain anonymous until the group comes out publicly. “I don’t really have a political bone in my body, but at this point it’s really hard to ignore…. the testing is ineffective and it’s not pro-student, it’s not pro-teacher, it’s not pro-school.”

Mr. Kinnier said he is generally in support of standardized testing because it helps teachers to serve their students and “the school can look at their program and make adjustments based on results. It allows you to compare where our students are compared to other students across Long Island and across New York and I think those are good things.”

On the state exams for third through eighth graders, however, teachers do not receive students’ results. They are given a numerical grade of one through four for each student, but no additional information on what a student struggled with or what areas were challenging, so they cannot diagnostically look at the right and wrong answers and adjust their program accordingly.

“The state exams on the seventh and eighth grade level are more challenging than the Common Core Algebra Regents Exam,” said Mr. Kinnier. “And the reason why the state makes the Common Core Algebra Regents Exam so easy is because it’s one of the requirements to graduate from high school, so they have these other tests which their only purpose is to judge teachers.”

Teachers across the state write the Regents exams, which are included on students’ high school transcripts, but Pearson, a for-profit testing company with strong lobbies in Albany, writes, administers, and grades the exams for younger students.

“That’s another thing that virtually all teachers are opposed to—these state exams ought to be written by teachers and not a for-profit test writing company,” said Mr. Kinnier.

The teachers union is “taking a close look” at how the state is spending money for testing purposes and links between leaders in Albany and profiteers at Pearson, he added.