Tag Archive | "Sag Harbor Elementary"

Petition Calls for Civility on Sag Harbor School Board; Board Will Attend Retreat

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By Amanda Wyatt

Over six weeks since the resignation of former school board member Gregg Schiavoni sparked debate, Sag Harbor Board of Education (BOE) members appear to be moving forward.

The BOE has been under a microscope since Schiavoni sent in his letter of resignation in early March, which criticized the board and its practices.

For members of the recently formed community organization, the Sag Harbor Education Best Practices Group (SHEBPG), the resignation and “the divisiveness between board members raised a red flag that we believe could not be denied or ignored,” according to a petition filed with the board Monday night.

At the start of Monday night’s well-attended BOE meeting, the petition asking the board to commit to best practices and examine the concerns of the community, among other things, was delivered to the district clerk.

John Battle, also speaking on behalf of co-creators Jonathan Glynn and Gordon Trotter, said in an email to The Express that the petition ultimately contained nearly 275 signatures.

“The petition includes no demands, no ultimatums, no charges of wrong doing. It implies none of these things. It is meant to be a loud and clear call for this board to get its house in order,” Battle pointed out at the meeting.

“The intent of this petition was to encourage a more thoughtful response to a wary public and though we believe that there is more work to be done we thank you for your reassurances to date,” he added.

Following the delivery of the petition, Theresa Samot, board president, announced that in response to requests at previous meetings, the BOE would hold a special retreat next month.

“We will be having our board retreat on May 9, focusing on those topics that we talked about at previous meetings — best practices, open meeting laws and communication,” she said.

Battle, speaking for SHEBPG, said he was “heartened” by this news and thanked the board for “tightening up executive session procedures” and “affirming its commitment to best practices.”

There was also discussion about public expression at meetings, including whether the district needed to have two public input portions. Currently, members of the community sign up with the district office to speak for the first public input session before the regular meeting begins. The second public input session, which occurs after the meeting, is open to anyone who wants to speak.

While speakers are limited to just a few minutes, there is no cap on the number of speakers, which means that public input can be as short or lengthy as desired. Recently, some of the more contentious school board meetings have had public input sessions that have lasted for over two hours.

Still, Samot pointed out that this separated the district from others, which sometimes allot only 30 minutes for public expression.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of that, because I think it’s important that everybody be able to speak,” she said.

Board member Mary Anne Miller and Chris Tice, the board’s vice president, said they would work on the policy and present it to the BOE at its next meeting.

Also on Monday, Samot said the board would place on the agenda a time for a representative of School Leadership, the consulting firm overseeing the search for a permanent superintendent, to attend an open BOE meeting. At the last meeting, several community members questioned the BOE’s decision in January to delay finding a permanent superintendent for another year and wondered why the search could not continue sooner. Samot said that School Leadership had recommended waiting until before the holiday season to resume the search, since people sometimes look for new jobs at that time of the year.

In related news, the BOE approved contracts for two consultants to work with the district in its efforts to curb the use of drugs and alcohol. The contract with Human Growth and Development Network, which is for $100 per hour, will not exceed $8,000. The contract with East End Counseling LLC is for $70 per hour and will not exceed $5,600.

Human Growth and Development Network has been contracted to help the district develop a comprehensive drug and alcohol prevention program, which they hope to put in place for the 2013-2014 school year. East End Counseling, on the other hand, was described by Dr. Bonuso, interim superintendent, as providing some “hands-on” counseling and working with parents on the substance prevention initiative.

Hamptons Film Festival Reaches a Younger Generation

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By Amanda Wyatt; Photography by Laurie Barone-Schaefer

While the 20th Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) brought a touch of Hollywood glitz and glamour to the East End last weekend, students at local schools were also able to get a taste of the silver screen — right in their own auditoriums.

On Friday, Pierson Middle School and Bridgehampton School students were not only treated to private screenings, but also to visits from the filmmakers behind two award-winning documentaries.

The screenings were part of the HIFF’s brand new Filmmakers in the Classroom program, which for the first time brought films and their directors and producers into East End schools.

The program was funded by a $20,000 grant from the Long Island Community Foundation to encourage community outreach and visiting artistic programing in schools.

Such an initiative is particularly important in an age of cuts to arts education, said HIFF community outreach coordinator Marianna Levine, whose own daughter attends Pierson Middle School.

“The foundation wanted to help bring the arts back to schools, because they think it’s a really important component to education,” she said. “I really wanted to be a part of it — as a parent, as a member of the local community.”

Just a few days before the film festival awarded “Best Short” to the film “Growing Farmers,” director Michael Halsband and producer Hilary Leff paid a visit to Bridgehampton students.

Sponsored by the Peconic Land Trust, the film focuses on how the organization has sought to revitalize agriculture on the East End. Particular attention was paid to the younger generation farmers, those in their 20s and 30s, making their way in the local agriculture industry.

Since Bridgehampton School has been a leader in the Edible Schoolyard movement, Levine believed the film was a perfect match. She also thought students would respond well to Halsband, a well-known photographer and director.

“[Halsband] discovered his love of photography when he was 10 or 11 — middle school age — so I thought it was a good fit,” she added.

And for Halsband, “Growing Farmers” was always designed to be an educational tool. He and Leff began filming with the intention of teaching the wider community about the efforts of the Peconic Land Trust and local farmers.

East End farms are “so visual and beautiful,” Halsband said. “So that was a draw for me, to explore that world deeper and to be the person discovering it for people who are going to eventually see the film.”

“I was learning as I was taking it in, like anybody else in the audience, just going along for the ride,” he added. “So in that respect it was an educational experience for me.”

At Pierson Middle School, students screened “CatCam,” which won an award at the South by Southwest film Festival. Charles Miller, the film’s director of cinematography and producer, introduced the documentary and handed out buttons with the image of its feline star, Mr. Lee.

The film tells the story of a German engineer who invented a miniature camera to track the whereabouts of Mr. Lee, a former stray. The images and videos taken on Mr. Lee’s excursions around his neighborhood transformed him — as well as Juergen, his owner — into Internet superstars.

“It’s really a dynamic film,” said Miller. “It’s about art and curiosity. It deals with technology. It’s just playful and fun on the surface, but it has a lot more depth to it.”

“This is the first time we’ve shown it to kids, and we’ve never heard audiences laugh like that. I think kids really respond to it,” he added.

According to Reilly Rose Schombs, a Pierson sixth grader, “CatCam” was “really awesome” and had an unexpected twist.

“I think that it teaches you that if you have a question in life, you should always try to find a way to answer it, ‘cause you never know what can happen,” she said. “You can always find surprises.”

Miller said that he and the “CatCam” crew were certainly open to invitations from other schools.

“I think it’s a perfect venue for the film,” he said.

According to Levine, the film festival is also interested in continuing Filmmakers in the Classroom next year.

“Our hope and dream is that we’ll have this year round, where we can bring local filmmakers into schools,” she said.

“I’m hoping in the future we can hook into the film community out here and also in New York City, and have them mentoring young people who are interested in film and photography, which is so accessible. It’s open to everyone,” Levine said.

Meet the Candidates Debate, Sag Harbor

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The race for two seats on the Sag Harbor School Board has three contestants: the veteran, the local and the experienced newcomer. All candidates met inside the Pierson auditorium last Thursday, May 3 for the annual “Meet the Candidates” debate run by the Sag Harbor Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and moderated by Bryan Boyhan, publisher of The Sag Harbor Express.

The incumbents include former School Board President Walter Wilcoxen, who is running for this third term, and Gregg Schiavoni, who was born and raised in Sag Harbor and is vying for his second. Newcomer Tom Gleeson, who moved to the area seven years ago and currently works part-time in admissions at Vaughn College in Queens, is making his first run for a seat on the board.

Though Schiavoni was not present at the debate Thursday night, he was contacted by The Express via phone and asked the same set of questions posed to Wilcoxen and Gleeson during the debate. Like his opponents, he was given no more than two minutes for each answer.

How do you see the International Baccalaureate (IB) program changing the school?

Wilcoxen: It will allow a greater rigor to be introduced [to the district]. The stress that [IB] puts on the communication pieces—oral and verbal—is something I think we’re lacking in our curriculum currently.

Gleeson: Most people know that I was not in favor of the IB program. But, if elected, I would make sure we implement it in the best way possible. I agree with Walter that writing is very important in society. Yes, we need to improve writing here.

Schiavoni: I think it’s going to change two things: I think it’s going to change the education of the students for the better, and I also think it’s going to better teachers’ instruction. Teachers who go for IB training will be able to use that for professional development. From what I’ve heard, this training is the best training for teachers. Let’s say in a year or two IB doesn’t pan out, teachers will be so advanced it will even benefit [the school] should we go back to AP.

The proposed school budget for the 2012-2013 school year succeeded in coming under the state-mandated two-percent tax cap, but that may prove more difficult going forward. What decisions do you see the district having to make in the coming year to meet the cap again?

Wilcoxen: The problem in our future is labor costs. Seventy percent of our budget is labor-related. Next year we’re going to have a choice. I think it’s going to be up to the staff and the board renegotiating contracts. I see no other way around it, other than cutting staff.

Gleeson: You’re going to have to look at labor costs, and that includes the superintendent on down. Our superintendent’s salary is high. I thought that when we brought him in from upstate. I think that you have to look at every possible cut without affecting education. One of the things we’re going to have to look at is the cost of books and technology.

Wilcoxen: The superintendent’s salary… while it’s high, if you look at the hourly cost of what he’s produced, it’s not that high. In order to get good, quality work you need to pay people to come here. Dr. Gratto has more than made up for his salary by what he’s saved us.

Schiavoni: It’s the battle we always have. We have to look at program: what’s available, what do students want, what do they not want? We have to ask the students and the community. I think the other thing is we have to be prepared to look one, two, three years down the line.

There has been considerable conversation about the school’s wellness policy. Do you believe the existing policy is too strict? Should students be given the opportunity to purchase products that include such items as high-fructose corn syrup?

Wilcoxen: I think the Wellness Policy is very good the way it is. I would like to see the education piece added to it. We all grew up on high-fructose corn syrup… I would say that if children want to bring in things that aren’t on our Wellness Policy, they’re free to do that. But the higher goal has to be to educate our kids to be healthier than we are.

Gleeson: I have to look at [the Wellness Policy] more carefully. What’s happening now is there’s so much research going on about how food affects people. We have to create a mindset in the students [that allows them] to make the proper choices. The other question I have about this is, how is it affecting our funding down at the cafeteria? Is this drawing students away?

Schiavoni: I don’t believe it is too strict. I don’t see the value in teaching that high-fructose corn syrup is bad for you and then promoting it. The Wellness Policy has language that states the school should move toward developing a menu that doesn’t include those things.

Should the school district take a greater role in ensuring students eat healthier?

Wilcoxen:  In the Curriculum Committee, we’ve discussed this.  We’ve requested the administration look into programs where students might integrate growing and making food… we haven’t gotten very far.

But, the school’s responsibility to feed children I don’t think is paramount.  We’re not an under-privileged community.

Gleeson:  We continue to try to educate the students through all classes, not only health classes. One of the things I find funny is that we’re removing high-fructose corn syrup, but one of the biggest allergies out there is peanut butter.  We’re removing one thing, and yet that’s still out there… I’m not sure how that fits into the guidelines.

Schiavoni: The school should take a greater role in giving the students healthy options.  Students can bring in whatever they want from home; but, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to offer healthy choices that reflect the Wellness Policy.

Drugs on school campuses are a problem nationally, and there are those that believe Sag Harbor is no different. Do we have a problem with drugs on our campuses, and was the school overreacting when it approved bringing in drug-sniffing dogs?

Gleeson: I’m still looking into this issue. Schools differ. The problems at East Hampton and Ross may be different than ours. As far as the drug-sniffing dogs, it puts a bad taste in my mouth. Are we not doing a good job administrationally so that drugs are coming into our schools? We have to have more forums about it. We’ve seen some about the dogs, but I’d like to see more research.

Wilcoxen: The dogs are not the issue. The dogs are just one small piece of an attempt to address what we see as an increasing drug problem… we’re starting to see it in the middle school. The school board has actually asked the administration to incorporate greater resources in providing a coordinator for all programs that deal with substance abuse. It hasn’t been done; but, I can assure you that, if elected, if will be on the summer goals list.

Schiavoni: I don’t think we have a problem. I think we do have correct procedures in place should there be an event. As far as the dogs, if we don’t have a problem now and they’re just one more tool, then I’m all for it. The dogs are not targeting a student or a group of students; they’re not in there because we have a problem, they’re in there as one more [preventative] tool. I don’t think the school overreacted, I think it’s just one more step we’re taking to be proactive.

Board members have talked about the importance of involving more community members in discussions about the school and its campuses.  How do you plan to improve communication between the school and the community?

Wilcoxen: Six years ago we seemed to have a lack of communication or understanding with the public.  We spent two years opening up the process, [adding two public input portions during board meetings]—that seemed to help a lot—and we paid attention to answering questions right away.

I think the community can be part of the school to whatever degree they want.  The school board is open to participation; it has to be respective, non-accusatory and follow the norms of decent communication.  We’ve had ad hoc committees in the past, but people only seem to get involved if there’s a touchstone issue.

Gleeson: I think community outreach is vital.  This is everyone in the community’s school.  We have a tremendous resource in the community and sometimes we don’t use it as well [as we should].  That’s one of the nice things, as I said before, about my schedule.  I have time to sit and talk to community members, to find out what their needs are.

Schiavoni: The school does a good job of communicating with the community through email blasts, posting notices online and The Express, through paper mailings… We form community groups when we have an event that may affect the community as a whole.  The bigger problem is how do we get community members more involved?  I can’t force someone to go to a board meeting.

Negotiating with the unions has been contentious in the past. What will you do differently this year to ensure a successful bargaining process?

Gleeson: I think the process needs to start early. Part of the problem is the state mandates…. We need to have those mandates relaxed. I look at it so differently because when I started teaching, we didn’t make a lot so our benefits package was so important. But, the pendulum has swung. We also want to make sure we get the best quality teachers. The issue is a thorny one.

Wilcoxen: Teachers are so important, but the control the school has over how things get taught… once a teacher has tenure, it’s almost impossible to remove that teacher.

Gleeson: We have to look at the contract, look at how many periods a day teachers are teaching. Maybe we can increase the workload. We have to look at health insurance costs and what their actual salary is when we take benefits; we have to look carefully at how they fit in with society. The issue of tenure has been kicked around for years. Can you get rid of a bad teacher? Yes, but it takes time and energy. We forget that teachers give recommendations for tenure. We have to make sure no one’s getting tenure that doesn’t deserve it.

Wilcoxen: I don’t know [how to ensure effective communication with the teachers’ union], but we’re going to have to start investigating it. To go that long without having a sane conversation is incredible. We have to be very honest and show people what [teachers’ benefits] are actually costing.

Schiavoni: I think the process has to begin earlier, and there has to be constant communication between the administrators, the board and the union. We’ll send our proposal, they’ll send theirs; we’ll look at it, but there’s no immediate talk. I think there has to be a set time frame; if we can keep moving forward, keep discussions going, it will move discussions much quicker.

The following are questions from the community, as posed to Walter Wilcoxen and Tom Gleeson during last Thursday’s debate.

Do you support the two-percent tax cap?

Wilcoxen:  I support it.  I don’t like the way it’s done, but I support it.  There has to be some way to let people know that the increasing rate of taxes is important.  I also see no other way to bring the unions to the table and be responsive.

Gleeson:  I support the concept.  I think in today’s society two percent may be more difficult as we move forward because of the lack of funding for certain mandates.

How can we improve middle school academics?

Gleeson:  If there’s more articulation between elementary and middle school, I think that will help as we meet the common core mandate.

Wilcoxen: I agree, I think the common core is a good effort by the state to help us out.  But, one of the things that’s going to help the middle school is IB.  We’re first saying, what do we want our children to be like when they graduate?  Now, what do we have to do for middle schoolers and high schoolers to get there?

What does the board do with a bad teacher?

Wilcoxen: One of the most important things with the school board is we don’t determine what a bad teacher is.  There is a process that has been changed, it’s going to be easier to discipline a teacher, but we also have to understand that teachers have the same problems that the rest of us have. We need freedom and trust to help them. I would like to see the union step up.

Gleeson: It’s really an administrator’s job to monitor their teachers.  What’s the tool that determines what we should be doing?  Do we have a teacher-mentoring program?  What is the administrator doing to improve the teaching in the school?  What assistance are we giving?  Some teachers should not be teaching because they don’t like kids.  We need to monitor and mentor the other ones.

Do you think health benefits for staff should be reformed?

Gleeson:  I need to look at [benefits] more carefully.  I’m sure it needs to be improved, but I can’t answer specifically.

Wilcoxen:  We have to change the medical insurance system.  The union agreed that we were allowed to offer an alternative health plan, which had a lot of wellness parts to it… there was basically no interest because everyone has Empire, it’s what they know.  [Benefits] are going to have to be repaired everywhere, or the United States is going to go broke.

Gleeson: This is a nation-wide issue.  I had surgery and thank God I had Empire, otherwise it would have cost $300,000.

How can we continue to attract more students from other districts?

Wilcoxen: The immediate answer is IB.  We will have quite a few people interested in that.

Gleeson: I think quality programs, whether it’s IB or AP, doesn’t matter.  [My family] chose to come to Sag Harbor because of the quality of the art program.  We also do great programs outside the classroom, like robotics, and if we continue to do things that are quality programs we’ll attract more people.

Fuel Costs Increase Budget for Buildings and Grounds

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By Claire Walla

Sag Harbor School District Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Montgomery “Monty” Granger didn’t just talk numbers when he presented his budget last Monday, December 12. He showed pictures.

As part of his slideshow presentation, Granger took Sag Harbor School Board members inside the Wyandanch School District where, through the school’s virtual building management system, he was able to display a map of the school grounds, which showed various temperatures corresponding to each room within the school building — in real time.

Granger said he hopes to bring a similar system to the Sag Harbor School District.

This was the focal point of his presentation on the 2012-2013 budget for buildings and maintenance, which as of now is predicted to see a $99,586 jump over this year’s budget. While buildings and grounds only accounts for about six percent of the school’s overall operating budget, Granger said often times the cost of energy is the most expensive part of this portion of the budget.

To further illustrate his point, Granger told the board that the district’s total energy costs for the 2010-2011 school year totaled $370,467. And based on estimates put out by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA), Granger said this is bound to go up by 2012-2013.

Fuel oil alone is projected to see a 28-percent jump, while natural gas costs are estimated to rise 13 percent and electricity costs are expected to be up by five percent.

According to Granger, the cost of implementing a building management system with Direct Digital Controls (DDC) would be about $500,000; however, he said the new virtual system could bring savings on energy costs anywhere from 25 to 50 percent.

This figure is imprecise, Granger admitted, because he’s unsure of how much energy the school is currently wasting.

“We currently have limited or no control over the heating of the buildings, and we have no benchmark for expenditures,” Granger wrote in one of his slides.

The program, Granger argued, would make regulating temperatures much easier and more efficient because he or one of the schools’ head custodians could monitor temperatures for the entire building remotely. Plus, Granger added, the program makes it possible to pre-plan heat regulation, essentially scheduling low temperatures during holidays when no one is using the building, even making temperatures low in certain segments of the building that may not be used as frequently as others.

Other cost increases for next year are tied to several expenditures Granger has built into the next school year: purchasing a lift, equipment replacement, new high school lockers, new boiler burners, purchasing a sod cutter, replacing doors and installing new wall padding in the Sag Harbor Elementary School gym.

“I have a significant increase in next year’s budget,” Granger explained. “But, I have some significant needs.”

As far as athletics are concerned, Granger — who also acts as the school district’s Athletic Director — said next year’s proposed budget will be kept relatively flat, only going up by about $22,000.

“We are proposing the same number of teams as we currently have,” explained school superintendent Dr. John Gratto.

According to Granger’s presentation, the school district currently fields 50 teams, with most student athletes participating in fall sports — 245 students, versus 170 in the winter and 146 in the spring. And Granger noted that the number of female athletes is greater than the number of males in both the fall (by 25) and the winter (by 30), while the boys outnumber the girls 86 to 60 in the spring.

Though nothing is set to change for next year, Dr. Gratto added that it’s still early and the impending threat of the two-percent tax cap could rock the boat.

“This is certainly going to be a tight budget year,” he added.

Schools: Gearing Up For Day One

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By Claire Walla

Taking Advantage of Tax Cap Exemptions

Starting a process board members hope to continue through the next budget season, the district heard a presentation from District Business Manager Janet Verneuille on the two-percent tax levy cap.

Verneuille noted three crucial exemptions to the cap. First: pension cost increases above a certain threshold, which in this case is two percent. In other words, Verneuille explained that this year the district’s increase in pension contribution costs is 2.49 percent, so .49 percent will be exempted from the cap.

Secondly, the tax cap will exempt the local share of capital expenditures. “That’s good news,” Verveuille exclaimed, “that’s huge.” Without this exemption, she continued, the district would have less incentive to pass capital improvement projects.

The third exemption refers to certain legal expenses. However, Verneuille explained, “this does not apply” to this district.

The board briefly discussed the notion of looking at its current budget with a little more scrutiny to get a better sense of where some cost-saving measures might lie. Referencing the school’s clubs and sports programs, board member Walter Wilcoxen wondered how much the district could save if certain programs were cut.

“What about trying to pare-down now” to avoid making more drastic cut-backs going into next year, he wondered.

Board Member Chris Tice said she agreed, in theory, with being proactive in taking steps to cut costs, but she cautioned the board against looking at certain aspects of the budget with a narrow lens.

“The beauty of the budget process is that we get to see what our program looks like, A through Z,” she said. “We’re looking at it from an informed, balanced perspective.”

With both perspectives, the board had little argument, and yet drew no conclusions. The discussion will be ongoing.

Summer School a Success

Before giving his “back to school” report at last Monday’s board of education meeting, August 14, Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone spoke for a few minutes about the success of this year’s summer school program.

“We invited the same number of students as last year,” he said. “But our participation rate was higher than in years past. Bussing [which was provided for all students] made it more possible for parents to get their kids to and from school.” Most importantly, he added, it made it so that students were in their classrooms on-time, which had been a problem in years past.

School Board Member Sandi Kruel complimented Malone on a job well done, explaining that field trips — like those to the South Fork Natural History Museum, Morton Wildlife Center and even a math-related journey to Conca D’Oro, measuring ingredients for pizza dough — reportedly made the experience worthwhile for one family she spoke with.

“However you did it this year, it was the first time I heard of a student actually enjoying summer school,” she noted.

Enrollment Increases

Though enrollment is slightly up at the elementary school with the closing of Stella Maris last year, Malone said, as of now, enrollment “is still fairly steady” in comparison to last year. In fact, the slight increase is even less than administrators had initially imagined because much of the Catholic school’s student population was from out of district.

“Many of those families that live in Sag Harbor and chose Stella Maris for the Catholic education chose to go to Our Lady of the Hamptons [in Southampton],” he explained.

However, while the main student body will remain steady, the district’s Pre-K program — which was offered last year for a fee, but is free for all families in the district this year — has an expected enrollment of 42. “It’s a big up-tic from last year,” Malone continued, when the program had 12 students. The Pre-K program is scheduled to have two morning sessions and one in the afternoon.

Playground to be Ready for Start of School

Though it may look like a giant sandbox now, Principal Matt Malone confirmed Monday night that the district just signed a contract with Lobo Construction Company to begin work on the school’s new playground. The work actually began last Tuesday, August 15 and is scheduled to be completed next Thursday, August 25.

“We’re right on track,” he continued, noting that the work will all be complete before the start of the school year.

New Courses for the New Year

At the upper school, Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols announced four new classes that will be offered this year. In addition to a 3D sculpture course and advanced marine biology (which will be taught by Dr. Robert Shoemacher, himself a former marine bio major), the school will add a year-long personal finance class. This is a subject several board members and participants at last year’s educational forums highlighted for its importance. Lastly, the school will offer a course in social studies called Philosophy of Understanding. Nichols said it is partially modeled after courses in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which emphasize critical thinking and a depth of knowledge over wide-ranging survey courses.

Nichols also pointed out that the school will see a savings of about $75,000 this year. Instead of hiring a new faculty member in the wake of art teacher Tim Kraszewski’s retirement, “his classes have been farmed out to other departments,” as Nichols put it.

“The big challenge this year will be to finish portions two and three of the IB application,” Nichols continued. Should all go according to the current timeline, Nichols expects the school to be approved in the spring, which would allow Pierson to begin offering its first IB Diploma courses in the fall of 2012.

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.

Shorn Locks Show School Spirit

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On the day before April vacation ended, fifth grade teachers George Kneeland and Kelly Hornung learned one of their students, Katy Stewart, was diagnosed with liver cancer. On Wednesday, the day school reopened, Hornung and Kneeland sat down with their students to explain the news.
“I had asked Katy what she wanted us to say and one of her biggest concerns was about her hair because she would most likely lose it,” said Hornung. “Her hair was so long and it had kind of become her trademark.”
In the weeks after Kneeland and Hornung explained the effects of chemotherapy treatment to Katy’s fellow classmates, eight boys from her class decided to shave their heads in support of Katy and her recovery.
“The boys said to me, ‘Mr. Kneeland, I didn’t want Katy to be alone.’ I think they didn’t want her to feel like she was on an island,” Kneeland recalled.
Kneeland says most of his fifth grade students are on the cusp of adolescence, and are starting to become more aware of their appearance.
“I think the kids have a truer understanding of what that embarrassment feels like,” said Kneeland of Katy’s experience of losing her hair.
Student Harrison Yardley was one of the first boys to shave his head.
“The school nurse recommended it to a lot of people. The day Katy lost her hair, I got mine shaved,” remembered Harrison. “I think it will help her because now she isn’t the only one who will have a shaved head.”
After Harrison buzzed off his hair, fellow students slowly followed suit. At first, Jaime Cantrell’s son, Otis Eames, was reluctant to shave his head.
“I told him that it would be a nice thing to do and he said, ‘Mommy do you know how embarrassing that would be?’,” Cantrell recalled. “But I told him that Katy is a girl and she would probably be very embarrassed. A week later when we found out that Katy had lost her hair, he came home and said that he had decided to do it.”
“I did it so that she wouldn’t feel left out,” said Otis. “The class is really small so everyone is friends with everyone.”
Both Kneeland and Hornung believe their students share a special kinship with one another, which has helped them deal with Katy’s diagnosis and help her through it.
“Even though the kids have a school family, we are their class family. We have a very close knit environment. Not everyone is best friends, but they all respect each other and they all know how to rally around each other and be there for one another,” said Kneeland.
The students continue to confirm Kneeland’s observations as Katy proceeds with her treatment. Students write on a webpage created for Katy through the website CaringBridge at www.caringbridge.org/visit/katystewart. Hornung says the children have also worked on several projects for Katy, including compiling a scrap book complete with letters they have written to Katy. Hornung said Katy often reads the scrapbook during her chemotherapy treatments.
Because of her medication, Katy is only able to come to school once or twice a week, but she has already seen the boys’ new hairdos.
“At first I don’t think she knew how to react. I think she is really appreciative, but she doesn’t have the words to articulate it,” added Hornung. “But she said to me that she thinks it is pretty cool.”
Teaching assistant Mary Schiavoni and another female student also recently snipped off their tresses and donated the hair to the not-for-profit Locks of Love.
Externally, the students continue to find ways to support Katy, but internally Hornung believes her illness has had a deeper effect on the children’s outlook on life.
“I think this is a good lessen for the students. It shows them the little problems here and there are nothing compared to what Katy has had to go through,” opined Hornung. “They are starting to appreciate the little things in life, when they see her going through something so serious and she still has a positive outlook.”
For now, Katy’s treatment appears to be going well and Hornung and Kneeland say they are continually surprised by the class’ solidarity in helping Katy through this difficult time.
“It has been a pretty emotional ride, but it has been really nice to see how mature her classmates have been,” noted Hornung.
“I couldn’t be prouder of how the class has handled this,” Kneeland declared. “They have been really encouraging.”

Sag Harbor Elementary March 19, 2009


At Morning Program the guest on “I Love This Town,” hosted by kindergarten teacher Nina Landi and teaching assistant Paula Krzyzewski, was Emma Walton Hamilton, author, freelance editor, arts educator and theater professional. Ms. Walton Hamilton talked about the importance of reading, no matter what genre. Her latest book is “Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment.” She told the students she loves to write every day and that reading and writing contributes to success later on. When asked about her preferences, such as chocolate or vanilla, Ms. Walton Hamilton was pretty quick on her feet with clever answers—when asked ocean or bay, she said, “Both,” Coke or Pepsi? “Tea.”  Miley Cyrus or the Jonas Brothers? “The Beatles.” 

Nancy Stevens-Smith’s second graders gave an oral presentation at Morning Program about firsts in African American history. Forming a human timeline, each student spoke about a prominent African American figure from history, the arts, sports, business and literature, ranging from Phillis Wheatley, Jesse Owens, Bessie Coleman, Rebecca Lee all the way to Barack Obama, the first African American President of the United States.

Music teachers David Fox and Nancy Remkus played a duet of traditional American songs, such as “Camptown Racetrack,” “Blue Tail Fly” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” on banjo and guitar at Morning Program. 

Pierson junior Kyla Kudlak came to Morning Program and played a Bach Invention as well as the Beatles’ “Little Help from My Friends” on the piano. She also talked to the students about how much she enjoys playing the piano and that putting forth hard work and perseverance is worth the effort.

Parent Todd Bennett played the bagpipes at Morning Program on St. Patrick’s Day and showed the students how the bagpipes make their sounds. Mr. Bennett serves on the Southampton Town Police Force and is a member of the Eastern Long Island Police Pipes and Drums.

There was an orientation for parents of incoming Kindergartners on Wednesday, March 18. This was an opportunity for parents to meet the teachers, see the classrooms, and learn about the program. Children who turn five by December 1 are eligible for kindergarten next year.

This week’s fifth grade announcers are Abigayle Holder and Courtney Kinsella.

Buddies on Skates

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There were plenty of slips, flips and falls, but more laughs than anything else at Buckskill Winter Club last week when students of Sag Harbor Elementary School took over the ice-skating rink.

Kindergartners were partnered up with their fifth grade “buddies” who helped the younger kids maneuver around the ice.

Though this wasn’t the first time the kindergartners got help from their elders,

Some of the students said it was their favorite so far in a series of “buddy” activities which are designed to help kindergarteners transition smoothly into school.

Throughout the year, the Sag Harbor fifth graders help the kindergarteners with academics and learning to cope with their new school. They also eat lunch together at least once a week.

Last Friday, the kids enjoyed a skate day at the Buckskill Winter Club in East Hampton, where they could be seen practicing their ice skating skills with each other.

“I fell a million times,” kindergartener Francesca Vitale said, but she added that her fifth grade buddy helped pick her up and put her back on her feet.

Fellow kindergartner, Anne Browning, had never been skating before and said her buddy really helped her a lot by teaching her how to use a walker, a device designed to make it easier for beginner skaters to get around on the ice. She said the fifth graders also helped her by picking her up when she fell.

One fifth grader said his partner was “slipping and flipping” all over the ice. But by the end of the day, the kindergartener was able to give up his walker and “went all by himself,” according to George Kneeland, a fifth grade teacher.

Sofia Fernandez, another fifth grader, said that her partner just kept “falling and falling” but the best part of the day was helping her back up.

Erica Selyukova said she was surprised her kindergarten buddy could skate at all — she said it made her feel good she could be next to her to skate. When asked how she thought her partner might feel if she didn’t have a buddy — Selyukova said, “She would feel lonely.”

Fellow fifth grader Sheila Mackey said it makes her feel good to be part of the buddy system.

“I felt like I was re-living what it was like to be in kindergarten,” said Mackey who added that when her buddy feels sad, she is able to talk to her and make her feel better.

Otis Eames said that being a fifth-grade buddy to the kids in kindergarten “teaches responsibility.” Eames also said that he “watches over them so they don’t do anything they are not supposed to do.”



Mitten Line

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Some parents look forward to the holiday season, scrambling to buy gifts for friends and family, buying decorations and spending money on yards of wrapping paper. For them, this is a fantastic time of the year. But for others, holiday shopping is a dreaded event. This year, especially, it has become difficult for those with limited funds to make Christmas special for their kids.

For those with children in Sag Harbor Elementary School who cannot afford to purchase gifts this year, the school provides some relief through their “mitten line” — a popular holiday giving program that allows students to choose a paper mitten off a corkboard in the school which describes a child and the gifts they desire.

The mitten line started as a previous program called “The Giving Tree” — named after a popular children’s book by Shel Silverstein. Guidance counselor Eileen Kochanasz, who now works at Pierson High School, began the program through the elementary school guidance office nearly 20 years ago. Current elementary school counselor Michelle Grant renamed the program “The Mitten Line” after a short story that she wrote. In her rhyming story, Grant outlines how a child finds a mitten with the wishes of another child written on it. The child then feels proud on Christmas Day, having helped make Christmas better for someone else.

“We receive a wish list from the parents,” said Grant, explaining how the mitten line process works. Parents are found using school registration documentation or other information that indicates a family may be in need of financial assistance, especially at this time of year.

“Some of the parents contact me,” Grant said. “I am the only one who knows who is getting the gifts.”

“We ask the kids to bring in the gifts unwrapped so that we can give them to the parents unwrapped,” she said and added. “We like the parents to feel involved, and they prefer to wrap the gifts themselves and if they need it — we give them the wrapping paper.”

Grant said this year there were 275 mittens that were hung in the hallway at the school, representing a total of 18 families in the district who will receive the gifts. This year, according to Grant, there are 30 kids among the families and they will each receive eight presents.

Grant also said that each child gets certain staple items — like new pajamas, a hat, gloves or scarf, a book, and an arts and crafts item.

“Sometimes there are bigger ticket items like a new bike,” Grant said, “And we can get those from donations by the Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) and Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH).

“Its not easy for the parents,” she said, “It’s really hard to get the parents to ask for help and it can take time. Sometimes it’s situational or a recent divorce, a single parent or a medical issue.” 

Grant collects all the gifts in her office, and then said that she privately meets with the parents at their work, home, or street corner to hand them the gifts.