Tag Archive | "jeff nichols"

Concerned Sag Harbor Parents Crowd Pierson Library for Math Curriculum Workshop

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Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols presents a workshop on the Math Curriculum in front of concerned parents at Monday evening.

Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols presents a workshop on the Math Curriculum in front of district administrators, the Board of Education and concerned parents Monday evening.

By Tessa Raebeck

Parents told stories of children bursting into tears, berating themselves for being “idiots” and spending hours agonizing over homework at the Sag Harbor School District’s math curriculum workshop Monday night, voicing concern over the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS).

“The first thing we say to her is get out your math homework,” said Christa Schleicher of her daughter, who is in seventh grade at Pierson Middle/High School.

Concerned parents, mostly of seventh graders, filled the Pierson Library to hear a presentation led by Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone and Pierson Principal Jeff Nichols, with assistance from their math teachers.

Developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core is a set of educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade that states voluntarily adopt. CCLS has been adopted by 45 states. New York State (NYS) adopted CCLS in July 2010, but it is being phased in over several years.

Every seat in the library was filled as parents showed up to express their discontent with the Common Core program, which many believe was rolled out haphazardly without clear direction from the state and to the detriment of students.

“It’s not specific or indigenous to Sag Harbor,” said Nichols, who has three children in the Southampton Intermediate School. “Everybody is struggling with these same issues.”

“We really want to commend the effort of all the instructors in our district who are working through this new initiative,” said Malone. “There’s a lot of challenges and in a way we’ve all kind of been thrown into it.”

At the end of the 2012/2013 school year, NYS math assessments for students in third through eighth grade measured CCLS. Nichols said state assessments assume kids going into the seventh grade curriculum had Common Core instruction since kindergarten, when in reality, mathematics instruction was not fully aligned with CCLS until the 2012/2013 school year for students in grades three through eight and the 2013/2014 school year for high school students.

“That assumption is a big assumption to me,” Nichols said Monday evening, adding that the pacing of the modules is also inaccurate. “They say a lesson will take 40 minutes…reality is it’s not 40 minutes, it’s 60 or 70 minutes.”

“As a school,” he continued, “what we struggle with and what I’m struggling with is to what extent do we let mathematics dominate the landscape?”

Nichols said about an hour and a half of math homework each night is on pace with the modules, a time requirement many parents said is overwhelming for their kids.

“It’s a lot more rigorous,” said Diana Kolhoff, a Sag Harbor resident and math consultant. “So some of the historical traditions that these schools have had are running into trouble with the Common Core. Things that had worked in the past are no longer working.”

“This is probably the most exciting part but also the most challenging part,” said Malone. “This is the part where you wrestle with, ‘are we presenting things in the best way to kids?’ Because it’s really challenging and it’s causing kids to have to work a lot harder than they had to before.”

“I get it all and I get that they’re reprogramming,” said Schleicher. “My struggle and our struggle at home is the amount of it. My daughter, she’s beginning to despise math because it’s so much…she’s getting it, she’s getting better at it, but it’s just taking too long.”

“I’m dealing with the same thing with my children,” Nichols said, calling it a “juggling act” because by diminishing homework, the students fall behind the state’s expected pace in the classroom. He said they are trying to gauge how fast teachers can go without turning kids off math.

“If we have to tweak our workload and at the end of the day where our students are at, we’ll do so,” said Nichols, who has already implemented a few modifications.

To increase instructional time and hopefully minimize time spent on math at home, Pierson added a lab period designed to reinforce the CCLS lesson for students in seventh grade and algebra classes.

Middle School Assistant Principal Brittany Miaritis said lab time provides the students with far more one-on-one learning instruction than available in the classroom setting. Teacher Richard Terry said it has been “very helpful” for his seventh grade students. Additionally, several senior math teachers were moved from the high school to the middle school two years ago, due to their comprehension of what would be required of those students later on.

Although they recognized its challenges, the teachers in attendance appeared to be proponents of the CCLS methodology. Fifth grade teachers George Kneeland and JoAnn Kelly shared a CCLS fluency activity, a fast-paced drill that is supposed to be a fun way to measure a student’s personal best. Kelly said her students love sprints, asking for them almost every day.

Kneeland then introduced an application problem, or “problem of the day,” which is designed to be strategically linked to previous lessons and concepts.

“We were just taught a methodology for doing it and we did it,” he said of his grade school experience. “The Common Core philosophy is taking a step deeper and looking at things so we get a pictorial understanding and more concrete understanding and then transition to what’s called the standard algorithm.”

Janice Arbia, who has four children in the school district, asked, “When they’re actually grading these tests, does it matter how they do it?”

The intent, Malone said, is for students to grasp what they were asked to do, so they can choose the way of solving the problem that works best for them. Energy is devoted to the concepts instead of the calculations.

“One of the big shifts now,” added Terry, “is rather than have a teacher standing in front of the students doing all of this work, the students are becoming an active participant in the lesson.”

“My students coming up this year in geometry are significantly stronger than they’ve been in the past and I expect that trend to continue,” said high school teacher Chase Malia. “I really think my students are much better prepared than they’ve been in the past.”

The administrators said their model of approach relies on feedback from teachers, parents and students. Nichols said that while some parents say their children are overwhelmed, others say they like the rigor and their kids are thriving. He plans to administer a survey to hear students’ opinions on how much they can handle.

“We do have an obligation to make sure that we safeguard kids’ emotional well being,” said Nichols. “And if in fact we’re asking too much of them in terms of the amount of homework, this survey will be able to generate some data related to that.”

“Grading” Sag Harbor Teachers: Administrators Discuss Goals Updates at Board of Education Meeting

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External Auditor Alexandria Battaglia, CPA, addresses the Sag Harbor Board of Education Monday night.

External Auditor Alexandria Battaglia, CPA, addresses the Sag Harbor Board of Education Monday night.

By Tessa Raebeck

“This has been a week of very special teams,” said Dr. Bonuso, interim superintendent for the Sag Harbor School District, congratulating the champion Lady Whalers field hockey team and the community team that helped pass the district’s two bond propositions.

Passing the bond was a key component of the district goals for the 2013/2014 school year, which Dr. Bonuso presented to a small group of people gathered Monday for the Board of Education (BOE) meeting.

Dr. Bonuso discussed the headway made on the first three of the district’s nine goals. He said progress was made on the first goal, improving academic achievement, through the resubmission and implementation of Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR), an evaluation system required by the state since 2012. It rates teachers as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective, based on a 100-point scale. Half of the review relies on administrative observations, 10 percent on an “evidence binder” of components like electronic posting and 40 percent on test scores. For teachers whose students are not yet being tested regularly, that portion is determined by a project the district assigns in order to produce a score. Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols said the majority of Sag Harbor teachers were graded “effective.”

“We need to take a second look at this emphasis on testing, the over testing,” said Dr. Bonuso. “We need to take a second look at whether or not we have the materials and modules – let alone the mindset – to approach this in a manner where people are feeling good about what’s happening instead of anxious and discouraged.”

Susan Hewett, a parent, asked the board how teachers are rewarded or reprimanded based on their APPR performance. Dr. Bonuso replied teachers are not rewarded, but if they are determined to be “developing” or worse for two years, “we can literally remove them…even if they are tenured.”

If a teacher is rated “ineffective,” the superintendent said, “We don’t have to go through all the gyrations and all the bureaucracy that in the past we had to in order to remove you.”

The administrators reported on the progress of the newly formed shared decision-making teams, a component of the second goal: to build partnerships with the community. Two teams have met, one for the elementary school and one for Pierson. The district-wide team is looking for two replacements for members who left the committee prior to the first meeting.

Board member Mary Anne Miller questioned the inclusion of the middle and high schools in the same team, which BOE Vice President Chris Tice agreed should be revisited.

The third goal is to ensure sound fiscal operation and facilities management. The district added experienced security personnel and hours at both school, enhanced systems at school entryways and held its first lockdown drill of the year last week. External auditor Alexandria Battaglia said Monday the district is in good financial health, with an unassigned fund balance of about $1.4 million.

In other school news, BOE member David Diskin again asked the board to discuss starting to video record their meetings. Board President Theresa Samot said it was a good idea to look at further.

The next BOE meeting will be held December 2, at 7:30 p.m. in the Pierson Library.

Principal Proposes New Program To Help ESL Students

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By Claire Walla

English as a Second Language (ESL) learners at Pierson Middle/High School are typically not at the top of their class.

According to statistics presented at the most recent school board meeting, Monday, June 2, ESL students typically underperform on Regents Exams, often failing altogether.

Of nine ESL students who took the Regents Exam in Global History last June, only two received a score of 60 or above, the highest grade being 66. Of the nine students who took the Regents Exam in Algebra only three scored 60 or above. The numbers fluctuate over the years, but — on the whole — they remain low.

“This is our riskiest population,” said Dr. John Gratto, the Sag Harbor School District’s superintendent.

But according to Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols, this is not really a surprise.

In some cases, he explained, ESL students come from countries where the education systems are on par with the United States. However, particularly in recent years, Nichols said many ESL students come to Pierson well behind their peers, academically.

“What we have now are a lot of students with interrupted formal education,” he continued. “Not only is there a language deficit, there are preparation issues.”

For this reason — and in light of dwindling test scores — he has proposed hiring a new ESL teacher and adopting a new model of education geared toward helping the ESL population achieve success.

According to the district’s director of pupil personnel services, Dr. Lisa Scheffer, the ESL population district-wide has hovered between 50 and 60 in the last three years. About one third of the entire population is at Pierson, she added.

The plan is to create a class based on an education model called Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). The model focuses on eight inter-related components: lesson preparation, building background, comprehensible input, strategies, interaction, practice/application, lesson delivery and review/assessment.

Nichols said the idea at Pierson, starting in the fall, would be to hire one new bilingual teacher who either has ESL certification or is pursuing certification. While most candidates would likely have expertise in one content area, Nichols said that instructor would have to be able to teach the five content areas covered by Regents Exams: Living Environment, Algebra, Global History, U.S. History and English. There would also be an academic support period.

The newly hired teacher would work with Fausto Hinojosa, a teaching assistant who currently works with the ESL population at Pierson.

“It all situations, a key piece [to academic success] is to establish a strong connection between home and school,” Nichols said. “This is more difficult in core content classes, where teachers have [roughly] 100 students… it’s difficult to establish the kind of relationship required for these students to be successful.”

The SIOP model would allow instructors to work with ESL students more closely, giving them the ability to better follow through with homework and assignments, more clearly explain instruction, translate information (if need be), and establish stronger relationships between the school and the families of ESL students.

Nichols said he and Hinojosa have already identified 36 ESL students at the high school who could benefit from the SIOP model, however not all 36 need help in each of the five core content areas. The students would take part in a SIOP class on an at-need basis.

In total, Nichols added that he imagines each class would be anywhere from eight to 17 students. He added that ESL students at the high school range in age from 15 to 21, and it’s likely SIOP classes would see a range of ages for each subject.

“Is this a perfect solution?” Nichols asked rhetorically. “No. But, for what we’re faced with, is it a viable solution? Yes.”

“We have to do something,” School Board President Mary Anne Miller agreed. “We’ve tried a lot of different initiatives, but we’re not getting these students to where we want them to be.”

Nichols added that the new position would be paid for with reserves that have been set aside for special education.

“The goal is not just to get them to graduate,” Nichols continued. “But to get [ESL students] to be number two or three in their class. We have to continue to reach for that.”

Drug-Sniffing Dogs Brought to Pierson

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By Claire Walla

Last Thursday around 8:45 a.m., Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols got on the intercom and told students to remain in their classrooms.  Suffolk County Police were on the premises, he explained — drug-sniffing dogs in tow.

Two dogs from the county’s K-9 unit performed a quick sweep of middle and high school lockers on June 7 with negative results.  Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said no illegal substances or related contraband were found.

According to Sag Harbor Village Police, which sent patrol units to the school to supervise the search, the entire operation took 14 minutes.

In an interview this week, Dr. Gratto confirmed the county’s K-9 unit was not brought to the school as the result of a specific incident.

“We wanted to get [the drug-sniffing dogs] in before the end of the school year,” he said.

Dr. Gratto added that the district had arranged for the dogs to come in on two other occasions, but the date kept getting pushed back due to school conflicts, one of which was state testing.

“It went quite smoothly,” Dr. Gratto continued, adding that he has not received any complaints from parents.

The decision to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the campus was preceded in February with the adoption of a policy on the “Use of Drug-Sniffing Dogs.”  The policy details the process of bringing drug-sniffing dogs onto the Pierson campus, which allows the administration to bring the dogs in unannounced.

As for whether or not those in the district can expect to see similar instances in the future, Dr. Gratto could not say for sure.

“It’s a tool,” he began, “along with other preventative measures, that can be used occasionally to let kids know they can’t bring drugs to school.”

Sag Harbor Schools Look At Anti-Drug Programs

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By Claire Walla


Some D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs.

Others fry an egg ands say, “this is your brain on drugs.”

In the realm of substance-abuse prevention programs, methods for getting kids to “just say no” are various, and Sag Harbor Elementary School may be adding another mantra to the mix.

At a school board meeting Monday, May 21 elementary school principal Matt Malone spoke of a program that asserts, quite simply, kids are “too good for drugs.”

Created by a national organization called the Mendez Foundation, Too Good For Drugs is a substance-abuse prevention program that focuses not merely on the consequences of substance abuse, but on the strength of the character of each child.

According to the foundation’s website, the program “introduces and develops social and emotional skills for making healthy choices, building positive friendships, communicating effectively, and resisting peer pressure.”

It does so by focusing on five key categories: goal setting, decision making, bonding with pro-social others, identifying and managing emotions and communicating effectively.

These principles are then woven into the curriculum for each grade level.

“At this moment, we’re just at the exploratory phase,” Malone said.

The school’s assistant principal Donna Dennon and guidance counselor Michelle Grant recently received training in the program. However, at this point Malone explained that he and his staff are just looking into the possibility of running Too Good For Drugs as a pilot program for third graders next year.

This possibility was first brought to Malone’s attention by Sag Harbor School Board President Mary Anne Miller earlier this year as a suggestion for strengthening the district’s efforts to prevent substance abuse.

“The curriculum we have in place is multi-faceted,” Malone added.

He went on to explain that students are taught at an early age to distinguish between good and bad drugs, then in grade three students learn about the harms of cigarettes and in grades four and fives students discuss the dangers of alcohol.

If implemented, Too Good For Drugs would be another program added to the mix.

Malone continued, “We’re always trying to bring new innovative programs to the kids.”

Similarly, Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols spoke of the programs in place to prevent the instance of substance abuse at the upper school.

“Our [prevention programs] are based on the philosophy of trying to reach students from different angles,” Nichols said. “That’s the best way to reach as many students as possible.”

So this year, in addition to lessons in seventh and tenth grade health classes, educational assemblies, special speakers, teen leadership programs, outside counseling and the annual prom presentation, Nichols introduced a Community Coalition.

The group is made up of school personnel, as well as members of the community, and reflects 11 different constituencies in Sag Harbor. (These include police officers, religious officials, parents and counselors, among others.)

“Their philosophy here being that the drug/alcohol problem can only be solved by the community addressing it,” Nichols said. “The Community Coalition is an effort to make this a community-wide program, not just a school program.”

The first Community Coalition meeting is scheduled to take place Thursday, June 14 at 5:30 p.m..


In other news…


Superintendent Dr. John Gratto pointed out that the Sag Harbor School District was recently named 437 out of 1,000 schools in the United States, in a survey conducted by Newsweek/The Daily Beast. The survey ranked all participating schools according to a set of criteria which included test scores, AP/IB and SAT scores, graduation rate, college matriculation rate and AP courses offered per student.

Third grade teacher Bethany Deyermond and her student Valerie Duran introduced the board to the oral history project Duran recently completed.

After presenting a blank questionnaire to “an elder in the community,” Deyermond’s third graders took the completed form and turned those answers into what Deyermond referred to as “a living history of the person.”

Standing before board members with a microphone in one hand and a copy of her project in the other, Duran spoke about her great aunt, for whom she said “life was harder in almost every way.” Her aunt used to ride mules instead of drive cars, and she used to make tortillas by hand.

“Life is so much easier now,” Duran continued, “but definitely she valued things more.”

Some Say “No” To Drug-Sniffing Dogs

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By Claire Walla


For some parents and community members, measures the Sag Harbor School District is taking to combat the use of drugs and alcohol among students is aggressive — too aggressive.

“Do we want our middle and high school building to mimic a prison?” parent Marianna Levine asked school board members at a regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.

Levine said she shared her perspective with several other parents of children in the Sag Harbor School District who strongly oppose the use of drug-sniffing dogs on campus. She argues that bringing in a police K-9 unit would essentially create a dynamic similar to a “totalitarian state” where students are stripped of their rights.

Community member Leah Oppenheimer also expressed her concerns with bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus.

“I’m really worried about the link of trust between the children and [the administration],” she said. “Dogs don’t have a good reputation. They really signify something scary, even if the intent behind it is good.”

Elementary school parent Lawrence LaRose agreed.

“This is going to erode the bond that this school has with its students,” he said.

And by forcing all students to stay in classrooms during a sniff search based on evidence that some students have been found in possession of drugs, LaRose further contended, “You’re putting that suspicion on all students.”

Levine took particular issue with the notion that the school would go into what it called a “lock-down” scenario at the time of the so-called drug sniff.

“That’s a prison term,” she said.

During the course of the meeting, several board members expressed a keen interest in changing the terminology for the school’s lock-down procedure so that it would be referred to as a “safety check” instead, as Levine suggested.

However, Dr. John Gratto, the district’s superintendent, said the board disagreed with some of Levine’s comments.

“We certainly don’t think you’re correct in saying it would engender a police state,” he stated. “We have, as a basic philosophy, a desire to build relationships with students. Some of you have characterized this as an either/or issue; I don’t think it is. We’ll still continue to build relationships with students, [drug-sniffing dogs] are just another deterrent to keep kids free of drugs and alcohol.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller added, “Where this conversation came from and why we got here today was never about putative measures.”

She said that based on survey results conducted by an organization called OASIS, the board has determined that the use of drugs and alcohol among students needs to decrease.

“This is not a knee-jerk reaction,” she continued. “This is something that’s always on the table here.”

Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols added to that by explaining he is currently working to finalize a community coalition to prevent substance abuse. It’s made up of people from 12 different constituents from the community, including parents, teachers, police officers, doctors and even students.

“The goal of the coalition would be to look at what we’re doing comprehensively to lessen the likelihood that students would engage in drugs and drinking,” Nichols said. “Hopefully, we can address this in a way that involves different parts of the community to get different perspectives on the issue.”

Levine said she was pleased to hear that the school would be working to counsel students who may be found in possession of drugs as a consequence of drug-sniffing dogs on campus, and encouraged by the start of the coalition Nichols is putting together.

“I do appreciate that they’ve started the conversation on this,” she said. “And I have some hope that maybe the community coalition will come up with some better counseling solutions.”

However, she said she is still adamantly opposed to having drug-sniffing police units on campus.

“I just believe that the energy they’ve put into the dogs can be better spent looking into counseling programs,” she said.

“I think alcohol is the big problem at the school,” she continued. “And I don’t think the dogs are going to help with that.”

Teaching Budgets Projected to Remain Relatively Flat

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By Claire Walla

According to both Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols and Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone, the Sag Harbor School District’s anticipated instructional costs will remain relatively flat going into the 2012-2013 school year.

At a budget presentation on Monday, January 23, Nichols and Malone reported projected budgets that will see district totals increase roughly 6.99 percent over this year’s operating budget.

Overall, teaching costs — which include teachers’ salaries, equipment costs, contractual fees and textbook prices — are projected to increase $731,784 next year, bringing the 2012-2013 total to roughly $11,197,784 million, versus this year’s operating budget of $10,465,851.

The district’s business manager Janet Verneuille explained that the only changes in staffing will include the additions of a new sixth-grade teacher and a new English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching assistant, who actually began working in the district last year but wasn’t hired until after last year’s budget was adopted, and therefore hasn’t been factored into the budget.

Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto added that the district has seen a decrease of four special education teachers and one nurse, who had been at Stella Maris Regional School until the school closed last spring.

Principal Nichols asserted that there are “not that many significant changes to the budget.”

While equipment costs for all departments are looking at a 2-percent increase (or $4,757) for next year, a decrease in special education by $1,053 and a $12,531 drop in co-curricular activities more than make up for it.

Part of the high school’s extra costs for next year are expected to go to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which will add another $14,500 to the annual budget. The annual fees for the program are $11,000, the program’s software management program (ManageBac) is $1,000 and an additional $2,500 has been allotted for field trips. Nichols explained that part of the program requirements for foreign language classes include field trips to areas where those languages are spoken, so students will most likely attend trips to parts of New York City.

Nichols went onto explain that the school will also spend $30,000 on professional development to allow more teachers to attend IB training workshops. Although, he added that this expense is part the school’s budget each year regardless of whether or not it is used specifically for IB training.

Nichols noted the fact that Pierson High School has not yet garnered approval from the IB board and is not yet officially an IB school; however, he said he expects to know whether or not the IB diploma program will be offered next fall as soon as this spring.

“We have to submit some paperwork to IB this week, then we’ll have a site visit within the next two months,” he explained.

Following in the wake of Nichols’ presentation, Malone said IB is one of the focuses of next year’s elementary school budget as well. Though the school is not on-track to implement the IB Primary Years’ program, Malone said he plans for teachers to attend IB training to learn more about the program and bring that information back to the community. This way, if IB principles are instilled in the elementary school curriculum, he said students will be better prepared for the diploma program once they get to Pierson.

Malone is currently budgeting $44,292 for professional development (roughly a 17 percent increase over this year), of which he said about $10,000 will be dedicated to IB training.

Dr. Gratto confirmed that the district does not intend to implement the IB primary years’ program. Rather, IB training at the elementary school will help primary teachers better train students for the high school curriculum.

“We believe there’s a lot of benefit to attending these workshops,” Malone added.

He also explained that he’s exploring options for a new math series at the elementary school, which takes advantage of new technologies. And although Malone hasn’t settled on a program, he’s set aside roughly $30,000 in next year’s budget for this purpose.

Finally, Verneuille reported that employee benefits are expected to see an 8-percent increase next year, bringing this year’s total benefit costs from $6.8 million to $7.3 million next year.

While Verneuille said she’s still waiting to see the projected rates for teachers’ retirement costs, she said the rates for health and dental insurance are projected to jump by about 10 percent and the rates for employee retirement costs are expected to jump 12.5 percent—“we got whammed on that!” she exclaimed.

A comprehensive budget breakdown is scheduled to be presented before the Board of Education at its next meeting, February 6.

School Makes Community-wide Coalition to Curb Substance Abuse

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By Claire Walla

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event to incite change. For the William Floyd School District in 2009, it took the loss of one of its star athletes — who died of a heroine overdose — for the school to finally crack-down on substance abuse.

Here in Sag Harbor, however, administrators and school board members are taking measures to make sure it never comes to that.

At the end of this month, a collection of administrators, teachers, guidance counselors and school board members will come together to begin planning a coalition made up of school personnel and community members aimed at preventing substance abuse in the district.

“The goal is to bring together the entire community, all the stakeholders,” said school board president Mary Anne Miller. The philosophy behind this approach is that alcohol and drug abuse are not problems that are in any way limited to the school’s purview, even if situations unfold on school grounds — this is a community issue.

Miller said the purpose of this month’s meeting is to decide who in the community the coalition should reach out to. Ideally, Miller added, the coalition will be comprised of a wide swathe of people, from law enforcement officials, to medical personnel, clergy members and even business owners.

“It’s a commitment [for everyone involved],” Miller admitted. “But these are the people who are going to go and create this culture change, and push it beyond the school doors.”

The seeds of this coalition were planted last spring when the school district banded together with the state-run Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) to put together a comprehensive survey for all students, grades 7 through 12.

While not nearly as drastic a situation as they were up against at William Floyd, Miller said the results of that survey — which the district finally received in December — showed that alcohol and marijuana use are prevalent among teens in the district. But rather than stop at those results, Miller said one of the greatest benefits of the OASAS program is that it gives the school district access to drug-prevention professionals and counselors across Long Island and the state.

Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols said school officials already held a meeting with Kym Laube of Human Growth and Understanding Seminars (HUGS) earlier this year to begin fleshing out plans for the coalition. Nichols said Laube has most recently worked with the Westhampton school community to organize a similar community endeavor.

The Westhampton school district has already taken efforts to better bolster the relationship between its students and the community at large. For example, Nichols explained, the district set-up an “alcohol-free zone” at last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

But, as Miller explained, coalitions in different communities will all operate a little differently.

“Some towns have asked all restaurants and bars to post signs and make the commitment not to sell alcohol to minors,” she explained.

Once Sag Harbor’s stakeholders are involved, she added, “the coalition will sort of take on a life of its own.”

The bottom line, as Miller sees it, is that the best way to combat substance abuse is to take a look at the bigger picture.

“It’s not just about risky behavior, it’s about a risky environment,” she said. “You have to look at what you’re doing in the school [to foster] the home/school connection. Do students feel connected to the school? Do parents feel connected to the school?”

And the big question: “Are we providing enough low-risk environments to prevent high-risk behaviors?”

Pierson May Bring On the Dogs

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By Claire Walla


Before the end of this school year, it’s quite possible the Sag Harbor School District will bring drug-sniffing dogs onto the Pierson campus.

“For years I was hesitant to pursue this angle, but I’m more inclined to do this now,” said Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols, who took a hard-lined stance against bringing drug-sniffing dogs onto the campus as recently as last fall. “I don’t want to say there are more incidents than in the past, though there have already been a few incidents this year,” he explained.

According to Sag Harbor Village Police Officer Paul Fabiano, there has only been one reported incident of marijuana possession on the Pierson campus since September 2011. The event involved a 14-year-old student. However, Fabiano said not all campus incidents get reported.

Nichols continued, “I know the harm [in bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus] is in saying to the students that we don’t trust them; but, making sure drugs are not on this campus outweighs the trust factor.”

All board members, including those who were previously on the fence on the issue, seemed to support the notion of bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus. And school superintendent, Dr. John Gratto, introduced a school policy on the topic.

According to a draft of the policy read at a school board meeting on Monday, “The Superintendent of Schools is authorized by the Board of Education to utilize dogs, which are trained to detect illegal drugs. The superintendent and high school principal are designated as the contact persons and they will determine if, and when, and how often a police agency’s ‘drug dogs’ will be called to school property.”

What’s more, the presence of drug-sniffing dogs would not be announced prior to their arrival. And the policy goes on to say that the dogs would be active on the campus while students were in classrooms, and the dogs would not be permitted to “sniff search” the students themselves.

While board member Water Wilcoxen pointed out that it’s within both Nichols’ and Dr. Gratto’s power to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the campus without a formal vote from the board and without an official policy, Nichols indicated that he wanted to make certain he had the full backing from the board and the superintendent before proceeding with any plans.

“This is a big step,” said Nichols. “I would not want to move forward with this unless I knew that the superintendent and the board were ok with it.”

Part of the supporting materials behind the motivation to crack down on substance abuse in the district includes results from the Sag Harbor School District Survey which was administered earlier this school year to students, parents and teachers.

According to those results, 71 percent of Pierson students agreed with the statement: “Students in my school use drugs and alcohol.” And 39 percent of those who responded said they had witnessed students consuming alcohol and/or using drugs on school grounds.

Overall, 57 percent of Pierson students either agreed or strongly agreed that drug and alcohol abuse is a problem for students in the Sag Harbor School District. But, that figure rose to 69 percent when it came to the teachers’ responses to that same question.

Dr. Gratto and various board members referred to the survey to further illustrate the problems with substance abuse that have found their way to Pierson, but Dr. Gratto was careful to note that the survey results are not perfect and do not necessarily reflect the community as a whole. (To their credit, he said, 87 percent of all students actually took the poll, but only 23 percent of teachers and TAs responded.)

Teacher Peter Solow cautioned the school against following through with actions based on results culled from these surveys, which he called “imperfect instruments.”

“I’m not denying there’s an issue here,” he declared. “But I don’t think any policy should be based on inaccurate or anecdotal information. I don’t know the extent of the problem, but I know it’s relatively serious. And I don’t know about the drug-sniffing dog thing, but that’s got to be a little piece of a bigger comprehensive plan.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller told Solow that the school district already has a comprehensive plan to address issues of alcohol abuse and prevention.

“It’s working, but it’s not working to the degree any of us are comfortable with,” she explained. “There’s still a problem. How many more times do we have to catch kids before we solve it?

“We need to look into bringing in a parent seminar immediately,” Miller continued. “That has to be done almost twice a year. I know these things cost money, but we should try to come back with a game plan.”

According to Nichols, the school needs a multi-pronged approach that is not limited to drug-sniffing dogs. In addition to taking a serious approach to eliminating substance abuse on campus, Nichols echoed Miller’s sentiments and mentioned that preventative measures must move beyond the classroom, even beyond the walls of the school.

“We have kids for seven hours out of a 24-hour day,” he began, alluding to the fact that students often develop habits and behaviors at home, or else off school grounds. “There are instances that are indigenous to our community.”

“We’re a resort community and we have some specific challenges,” he added.

Namely, Nichols said, the presence and availability of both alcohol and drugs are prevalent.

Wilcoxen agreed, and added that education needs to involve parents, as well as students. “You tell your child not to drink alcohol and drive, but how many parents get in the car after drinking, and their kids see them? It’s the same thing with dope. How are we going to reach out and help this? All I know is we haven’t done a very good job.”

Board member Sandi Kruel said she was in favor of utilizing drug-sniffing dogs when she previously served on the board five years ago. But now, especially with backing from Nichols who had previously been a staunch opponent, she said it’s imperative.

With a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old son, Kruel went on to say that she’s often privy to information about parties where there is underage drinking.

“I myself have gone to the police station to get the cops to help close down parties,” she said. “We have a problem. And if it takes this to help stop it, I say get the dog treats ready.”

District Contemplates Cut to Arts Club

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By Claire Walla


For parent Roberta Riela, Pierson High School’s open art studio is a key factor in some students’ educations. In fact, she said the art program is in part why she moved her family to the Sag Harbor community nearly 25 years ago. And now that the open art studio program has been temporarily eliminated, preventing her son from continuing with his art endeavors, she is appealing to the Sag Harbor Board of Education to bring it back.

“I’m here with four students who have been affected by the open studio being cut,” she said at a Sag Harbor School Board meeting last Monday, November 14, flanked by four Pierson High School students. “Why can’t it happen for these students?”

Indeed, the cost of administering open art studio this school year ($2,800) was made part of this year’s operating budget. While the funds are there, Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols said the program has not been halted because of a lack of support for the arts — though it may seem that way.

“I’m a supporter of the program,” Nichols said in response to Riela’s concerns. “I do want to run it and I do want to support it, but I do have to balance that with an obligation to tax payers.”

Nichols said he targeted the program at the end of last year as one that would potentially get cut from the budget due to its low enrollment numbers. But instead of cutting it outright, Nichols offered what he said was a good balance to the school’s dilemma of needing to cut costs without eliminating important class time.

“I essentially said yes to running it this year with the opportunity to reevaluate the program with the [teachers’] union midyear,” Nichols explained.

If enrollment dropped midway through the year to where enrollment numbers were at the end of last year — hovering around three or four — then Nichols said he would be more inclined to end the program. Otherwise, it would remain for the duration of the year.

“The response I got from TASH [the Teachers’ Association of Sag Harbor] was that they weren’t in support of that,” Nichols added.

School Board President Mary Anne Miller said she sympathized with Riela, but noted that the school board is tasked with the unfortunate responsibility of making cuts.

“We have to tighten up every single department,” she said. “This magnifying lens is everywhere in the district.”

Nichols said he would continue to try and reach an agreement with the teachers’ union so that if enrollment numbers stay strong, students will be able to participate in open art studio for the rest of the school year.