Tag Archive | "mary anne miller"

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.

Try To Teach Tolerance

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By Claire Walla


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effort to Fight Bullying

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By Claire Walla


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOE Swears In Kruel, Elects Miller President

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By Claire Walla

On Monday, July 11, the Sag Harbor School district welcomed two new administrative faces at its annual organizational meeting. Sandi Kruel was formally sworn into her new position as a school board member (replacing the outgoing Dan Hartnett), and Scott Fisher was welcomed to the meeting on his first day on the job as the district’s new technology coordinator.
Then, prompting a slight shift in the seating arrangement, board member Walter Wilcoxen was relieved of his duties as school board president, replaced by board member Mary Anne Miller who was voted in unanimously. She happily took center stage behind the wooden gavel, as a regular board meeting ensued.
Teachers’ Early Retirement Incentives
The Sag Harbor School Board faced the first major decision involving the impending state-imposed two-percent tax cap.
Director of Business Operations Janet Verneuille presented the board with two options the state offered for paying back the early retirement money the district owes based on the number of teachers who took early retirement incentive packages.
The board had the choice to pay five installments of $132,240 at eight percent interest over five years, or spend $572,022 in a one-time payment this year.
“[The latter] approach weakens cash flow going into a tax cap, but is saves costs in the long run,” Verneuille said.
Ultimately, after discussing the issue again Tuesday night, the board voted unanimously to pay the Teachers Retirement System bill of $572,022 in its entirety by the end of this month.
“The board’s rationale was they thought it wise to avoid paying over $90,000 in interest over the next five years,” Dr. Gratto explained in an email.

Cafeteria
“Last year at this time we were debating whether or not to keep the cafeteria open,” said Dr. John Gratto, school superintendent. “But I’m pleased to announce that this year we’re operating at a $1,000 deficit.”
The news comes in the wake of major changes that were made to the cafeteria last year when the program was overspent by about $25,000. The school added a point-of-sale system, which allows the district to keep better track of the food items that are actually selling, and allows parents to pay into their children’s accounts online.
Last year, the program owed the general fund $187,405, said Director of Business Operations Janet Verneuille. “This year, we were able to get that down to $144.037.”
Verneuille also added that the school was able to make about a $3,700 profit off its vending machines this yeah, which prompted a discussion as to the foods being offered.
“We have to recognize that, unfortunately, some of the best sellers are some of the things that people have problems with selling in a cafeteria,” Verneuille explained. “It’s what you’d expect: Snapple and Pop-Tarts.”

Summer School
The board heard from Elementary School Principal Matt Malone who gave an update on the primary summer school program, which is in its second week. He noted that it currently has 63 students enrolled, all of whom are involved based on teachers recommendations or administrative review.
“Everyone’s really been collaborating well and it’s off to a great start,” he said. “The addition of the transportation this summer has really been a big help. [The district has funded a bus service to take kids to and from the program.] It’s helping students arrive on time, which leads to a much more efficient session.”
Pierson High School Principal Jeff Nichols explained that the upper school program is currently serving 49 students. This year, the summer school program is being hosted by Hampton Bays High School instead of Riverhead, where it was in previous years.
“It felt very structured,” said Middle School Assistant Principal Barbara Bekermus who, along with High School Assistant Principal Gary Kalish, visited the program last week. She added that middle school enrollment this year is higher than it has been since Bekermus has been at the school.

Sag Harbor School Board Adds Wellness as a Goal

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By Claire Walla

When they gathered last Tuesday, July 12 to discuss goals for the coming school year, the Sag Harbor school district’s Board of Education and its top administrators revisited the three overarching goals they had set the previous year: to improve academic achievement, communicate effectively with the school community, continue to maintain fiscal responsibility.
And they added a fourth.
“We should be graduating children that are looking at the world in a healthy way; my generation seems to have gotten something wrong,” said school board member Walter Wilcoxen referring to society’s unsustainable, unhealthy, or wasteful habits.
He alluded to various topics the board discussed that evening — from banning Snapple in the cafeteria or removing costly and environmentally wasteful bottled water from vending machines, to emphasizing more health-conscious class lessons — when he said that wellness is a way to do that.
“That’s the big goal,” he continued. “If we do that, we will create better educated children.”
The group was unanimous in deciding to add the fourth goal for the upcoming school year: to develop a K-12 wellness curriculum.
Newly elected School Board President Mary Anne Miller said that, as the board’s liaison to the Wellness Committee this past year, she spent a lot of time discussing the topic and trying to impose gradual, incremental changes in the district — beginning with the cafeteria. While it has made improvements over the last year, there are still changes that need to be made, she said.
“I’m not comfortable with teaching kids that these things are bad for them and then [at the same time] selling them to them … that’s insane,” she said. Miller added that the district should eliminate unhealthy options, like Snapple, to make space for more health-conscious choices.
Board members agreed that the focus on wellness will see fundamental change in certain aspects of the district.
Board member Chris Tice spoke to the ills of using candy in the classroom as a reward for good work.
“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any sugar,” she explained. “But sometimes this happens on a weekly basis.”
And Miller also mentioned the overuse of paper at both campuses, a practice she said she’d like to see the school cut-back on.
In terms of communication, board member Ed Drohan emphasized the need for more outreach and communication with the community at large, a point board member Theresa Samot agreed with.
“I think that’s very important, and it’s something we’ve talked about for years,” she said. “There are wonderful things happening here and the community doesn’t know about it.”
The board discussed the notion of issuing press releases to the community at large and uniting the school community with a software program that would send out regular e-mail blasts and perhaps even text messages to parents and others in the district.
Pierson High School Principal Jeff Nichols explained plans to spearhead the International Baccalaureate (IB) program this year, applying for IB recognition at an accelerated rate in order to be ready to implement the program in the fall of 2012.
“It’s a pretty big goal,” he admitted. “My assessment of the school is that we’ve plateaued to some extent. But, the bigger picture is that we’ll be graduating students who think in a bigger way. If we want them to be broader thinkers, this is probably the easiest way to do it.”
Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone also said he would make it a point to explore the IB primary years program, but he doesn’t aim to take any significant actions this year.
District-wide, both campuses will also push an emphasis on math in the coming year (much like writing was emphasized this past year), and superintendent Dr. John Gratto noted that the district will work on establishing a grading policy to unify grading standards among all teachers, both academic and physical education.
Finally, to remain financially responsible, the board talked about improving outreach to other districts — primarily the Springs School, which no longer automatically filters into East Hampton — in order to profit from students paying out-of-district tuition. (Dr. Gratto mentioned he had already ordered promotional brochures for the school.)
And then came the topic of the two-percent tax cap.
Without getting into any specifics, all in attendance agreed that this legislation will need to be assessed in a timely, ongoing and very public manner. Those in the room concluded that the issue will be brought up at least once a month, at every other business meeting leading up to the budget season.
“As someone whose kids go to school in Southampton, I would want to know what two percent is going to mean in a concrete way for my kids,” Nichols said. “The more people know, the more likely they’ll be to support a budget that’s responsible, but above two percent.”

Sag Harbor Passes Budget / Elects Miller, Samot and Kruel

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web_Sag Harbor School Board Elections '11_2521

The Sag Harbor School District’s proposed $33.2 million budget was passed by taxpayers Tuesday, May 17 with a final tally of 917 to 698.

“I’m pleased for the community,” District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said after the results were read to the crowd gathered within the Pierson gym. The budget—which represents a 5.48 percent increase over this year’s $31.5 million operating budget—includes $75,000 for a new playground at the elementary school, and $180,000 for a universal Pre-K program.

Incumbent school board members Mary Anne Miller and Theresa Samot secured their seats on the seven-member board with the highest number of votes at 1,065 and 1,053. While former two-time board member Sandi Kruel nabbed the last vacant spot with 886 votes, just 85 more than challenger Annette Bierfriend.

Though this year’s budget seemed to pass without much of a kerfuffle, Dr. Gratto did note that voting numbers were down this year.

According to District Secretary Mary Adamczyk, as of Tuesday night this year’s total is nearly 500 voters short of last year’s count of 2,097.

School Community Connects on Facebook

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Facebook, the online networking site, has become a popular pastime among members of the community and now parents, teachers, administrators and others can join a group to learn about Sag Harbor School and community events.
Benefits of the Facebook group, according to school board member and founder of the group, Mary Anne Miller, are that people can regularly stay informed of happenings in the area.
For example, this weekend, the Sag Harbor Elementary School is having its annual Multi-Cultural Feast, where students can bring a food of their choice that is representative of their family heritage. For those who belong to the Facebook group, Sag Harbor UFSD Parents Connect, their attendance can be confirmed online.
So far, according to Miller’s Facebook group, there are 10 confirmed guests attending Friday night.
For many in the district, events like the multi-cultural dinner have come and gone without parents even having knowledge of it until after it was finished, according to Miller.
“A lot of parents say they don’t know about a certain event until afterwards,” she said.
For that reason Miller thought of forming this group earlier in the school year to help keep the notification of events at the forefront of people’s attention.
“I started this group for anyone in the district to join, and it has an open enrollment so anyone can post any event they are aware of occurring in the district,” Miller said.
“In the last couple of years, there has always been a feeling of disconnect, especially as the children get older, and the parents have tried various ways to get involved,” she continued.
Ellen Heller, mother of two in the Sag Harbor School District, began a Yahoo group from a suggestion put forth by Pierson’s assistant principal, Gary Kalish. She said that group has 30 members, but just two days ago she recommended the members of the Yahoo group join the Facebook group instead.
Now, the Facebook group has 65 members and is still growing.
“Facebook was very easy,” said Miller because members of the online community can join a group, even if they are not “friends” with anyone else in that community.
The first event Miller posted was for Little League sign ups, now, she said the PTA and the PTSA use the group to post their events and regular school events are posted there by parents and teachers as well.
Miller said the Facebook idea is not the only technology-linking group designed to connect parents within the Sag Harbor School’s community.
The school district’s website has recently been going through some upgrades and changes, which technology coordinator Vincent Raicovi helped to implement. The new system, called Unity Messaging, is credited with allowing visitors to utilize various mediums. With the system, the school district can send a message to computers and telephones and they also support email and text messaging.
On the district’s website, it also states that Unity Messaging allows the school to “store multiple sets of contact information so we can be sure your message is delivered.”
Miller said that although this is a great tool, the Facebook group has been very successful because there’s no need to speak to anyone, people can just learn about events online. But she added, the Unity Messaging service is a good tool for keeping the school community informed in many other ways, for example snow days.
Any event that occurs in the Sag Harbor community can be added to the group by any member of the group, said Miller. She noted for example, Bay Street Theatre could use the tool to announce their family film series and said that any family oriented events can be listed here as well.
“We encourage people with young children who are not yet in the school system to join, and it really helps just to get everybody talking.”
Miller said that one of the first thoughts for the group was to create an equipment swap. This, she said, parents can use for trading things like ice skates, rackets or anything else children use for one season, but quickly out-grow. But she said that plan hasn’t really taken off, yet.
“One of my biggest mantras as a board member is trying to get people together,” said Miller. She also added that there has always been a “bit of a disconnect” among parents in the community. She also noted it would be a great tool for parents considering what nursery or kindergarten school to send their children to. This way, she notes, parents can get advice or recommendations from others.
“Facebook is a much larger animal and can include the outer groups like Little League events and happenings at SYS in Southampton,” said Miller.
Anyone can join Facebook at www.facebook.com and search for the “Sag Harbor UFSD Parents Connect” group to join.