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“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.

Mary Ann Miller

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By Laura Houston

Getting the documentary “The Race to Nowhere” out into the public has been a grass roots effort all over the country. How did you hear about the film and why did you feel it should be screened in Sag Harbor?

I’ve been reading about the movie and hearing about it for well over year, so when we the educational forums started a few months ago I thought the film would be a nice addition to helping spur on our community discussion on how to go forward with education in our area. And, as a parent, the concerns of pushing and overworking your kids is what you hear about all the time. Everyone thinks their kids have to do X, Y and Z and do them as fast as possible so they can build a resume that will get them into college and lead to a good job.

I mentioned the film at the first education forum, and everyone thought it would be a good idea, but getting the screening to happen was not easy. There are a lot of issue like dates and space that have to be worked out. But Annette Bierfriend, whose husband is affiliated with Bay Street, was able to get Bay Street to show the film and even though the screening is last minute, it’s nice for the East End to have access to the film. Usually all these types of documentaries screen far west from here, this is a real opportunity for us.

As a member of the Sag Harbor School Board, why do you feel it’s important that the community be made aware of this issue?

As a school board member I represent a lot of different constitution, but ultimately I feel I represent the students and I try to oversee an educational system for them that provides them with a foundation for a successful future. On the board we are always discussing things like building renovations and financial issues, but we also look at educational challenges and the well being of our students and families. So I wonder, what goals are our children and families and students working towards? Is it the right goal? Having a discussion is the best way to find this answer and the film is an opportunity to explore the long-term goals of our school. It is important for all of us to hear, not just for the families at the schools right now, because this is a local, state and national issue that we have to constantly evaluate and reevaluate so we can be the best we can be.

As a parent of a student in the 6th grade, what impact has this documentary had on you?

On a personal level, as a parent, I have found that when you gather with other parents you are always talking about school. I have noticed for years, well before I became a member of the school board, that parents experience so much stress and anxiety about doing the right thing for their kids. We sign our children up for all these wonderful supplemental programs, but they are scheduled every night of the week. It’s like they are running on a treadmill all the time. We push our kids to do all these extra things all the time trying to build their child’s resume. Sometimes I have to take a step back and ask why? And sometimes, myself and the parents I know can’t even answer. We just think we have to.  While every community and culture is different, our society has changed so much from when I was in high school. It seems that we have all bought into the idea that we have to build our children’s resumes and sometimes you need to take a deep breath and step back and ask, is this working? The film is a good outlet for reflection.

What do you hope the community will gain from seeing this film? What would you like to see happen here in Sag Harbor?

I always love a good healthy discussion with people in and outside of the Sag Harbor community. With all the challenges in education today, especially with all that’s going on  with New York State’s financial troubles, I want to spark a debate and discussion so we can shape our community schools to best serve our students. The best board meetings I am a part of are the ones that have good attendance with students, teachers and community members taking part in issues, so the more opportunities we have to get together and talk about more than just the budget or why parking is so bad, the better.  I find it all every exciting, this is why I love being a member of the board of ed.

You spoke of running on a treadmill, how did you come up with this analogy?

I am comparing and contrasting life now from when I grew up. Both my parents worked and we didn’t go to after school activates, but we lived in a neighborhood with a lot of kids and families around all the time. There are good and bad in both scenarios, but it seems the minute a child goes to preschool they are involved in after school activities. I wonder why we have shifted towards a culture of resume building and keeping our kids scheduled all the time. My daughter does goes to some of the incredible activities offered in the area, but I do think it can just be too much sometimes. There’s dance, tennis, horse back riding, tutoring and I wonder what are we doing, why are we doing it? The whole community used to be involved in several activities, but now kids are split all over the place trying to diversify and get ahead.

My daughter isn’t in high school, but listening to parents of high school students, they can be hysterical. I want a happy kid and I know my daughter will find the right school for her. I believe there is more to education than accelerated and advanced studies.

Push for Tuition Students

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President of School Board Walter Wilcoxen and Superintendent Dr. John Gratto

At their last meeting, the Sag Harbor Board of Education was treated to a demonstration by Pierson High School Jeff Nichols, who showed the students’ achievement levels compared to others on a global scale. At this week’s board of education meeting, superintendent Dr. John Gratto talked about those achievements and proposed that the school look at ways to raise revenue, including a plan to invite more students to the district on a tuition-based status.

“There are good test scores and they are attractive to any parent that may want to send their kids to this school,” Gratto said on Monday. “Could we be a bit entrepreneurial? And are we willing to accept students on a tuition basis?”
Gratto explained that by looking at the master schedule, he predicted the school could accept more students at no additional cost.
“How many kids could we take, without negatively affecting class size?” asked school board member Ed Haye.
Gratto responded there could be up to 35 more students per grade level, on the current schedule. Haye suggested that the district should start off slow, and added that 35 seemed like a lot of additional students in one grade.
School board president, Walter Wilcoxen suggested that for some of the Advanced Placement (AP) courses, adding more students might make those classes more economical to run.
Gratto added that the school might have to make some major decisions next year as to whether the school will offer the AP courses with limited enrollment.
“If we decided as a district to keep the classes vibrant, keep a rich curriculum … it would be a good thing to look into as long as we are able to say when we have too many students,” board member Mary Ann Miller, said. “We have tuition paying students now and this is the school they chose; I think that speaks to the program.”
“I second the notion of exploring it gently,” board member Daniel Hartnett said, “I think our school may be appealing because of our small class size.”
“We are talking about negatively increasing 25 to 35 percent and that it won’t have a negative impact on the kids,” Parent Teacher Association President Chris Tice said at the meeting. She said the idea of raising revenue was approached nonchalantly by the board and noted that even if the district added three, four or five students to the class it would have a negative impact on the students. She said she would be cautious about adding to class size.
Gratto said on Tuesday that he intended to bring in more tuition-based students, but still stick to the school’s goal of small class sizes. For example, he said that if 30 new students came in to the school on a tuition-paying basis, and that tuition was $20,000 for each child, that would be $600,000 revenue for the district. He added, if the district had to add a teacher to keep class sizes small – that may cost the district $50,000, but the district could still potentially make $550,000 in profit.

Teacher Contracts
President of the Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor, Eileen Kochanasz, spoke at Monday’s meeting about the prolonged teacher contract negotiations, which are closing in on the one-year mark.
“We are asking the board for a change in the process,” Kochanasz said, “There is an inordinate amount of time that goes by to consider the proposals.” She explained that in between the contract negotiation meetings, too much time lapses before they are able to come to the table again. She asked on Monday that the board consider authorizing the superintendent and the school’s attorney to negotiate at the table – eliminating the study and review process after each session.
Kochanasz said that as TASH president she is able to actively negotiate on the teachers’ behalf.
Wilcoxen responded that the board hasn’t discussed that but said that he supposed board members and Gratto could do so after the meeting.
“Let John [Gratto] know prior to the 10th [of December], that would clearly move this process,” said Kochanasz to Wilcoxen, “rather than stopping and waiting, stopping and waiting.”
“I’m torn,” Wilcoxen said. “On one hand I want to be honest and open, but I’m limited to what I can say, I’m only one voice of our seven.”
“We always had the authority to negotiate within parameters,” Gratto said on Tuesday. He said along with the board and the school’s attorney, he will meet with TASH members to talk about teacher negotiations on December 10.

Extra-Curricular Trips
At the start of Monday’s school board meeting, high school art teacher, Peter Solow, asked the board if he could show them a short film about past school trips to Italy.
“We hope to show you the effects and lasting effects of this very meaningful experience,” said Solow who would like to plan a trip to Italy in 2010.
At last month’s board of education meeting, a change in policy for field trips was discussed. In the past, several trips have extended beyond scheduled school vacation time and the board had its first reading of a new policy at that meeting, which outlined parameters for class-based and extra-curricular trips.
Resident Elena Loreto expressed her concerns that students would be losing valuable instructional time and also expressed concern for those students that would be left behind. Loreto asked the board to reconsider the policy.
Wilcoxen said that he did not believe the policy was ready to go yet, and it was tabled, for now.