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Apparent Divide Between Sag Harbor’s Schools

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By Claire Walla

Departing from the usual multi-course discussion, last Monday’s education forum served up a smorgasbord of information. After a brief introduction from forum-organizer and school board president Walter Wilcoxen, the crowd of about 50 participants fractured into small groups for more pointed discussions on career and college prep, oral and written communication, technology, communication and outreach, ecology and wellness, learners who excel and what ended up being a discussion on IB.

Each group was moderated by a at least two Sag Harbor School Board members or administrators, and attracted at least two participants for the initial 45-minute discussion. Though most participants are district parents, there were some in attendance from outside the district, and some with grown children who just wanted to be involved. The groups were spread out in different corners of the Sag Harbor Elementary School auditorium and three nearby classrooms.

Because of the small nature of the discussions (in some cases very small: Communication and Outreach only had two participants), discussions varied depending on the topic and the engagement of the parents and community members involved. Some groups gave parents a chance to finally shed concerns they’ve had for some time.

The Oral and Written Communication group, which attracted nine people, heard from parents who expressed frustration over the schools’ approach to writing.

“I’m bursting at the seams,” said elementary school parent Anne Miller who is frustrated by the lack of writing mechanics being taught at the elementary school. “There needs to be more emphasis on understanding their own language.”

Parent Vanessa Leggard agreed. “This has been an issue I’ve had with the school district for a very long time,” she said. “The grammar part needs to be revised at this school. They’re taught the basics in elementary school, then when they get to middle school it stops.”

The disconnect between elementary and middle school seemed to be an issue broached by many of the discussion groups.

Members of the Communication and Outreach group talked about the problems that arise when children aren’t taught organizational skills. After members lamented the issue of their children’s papers being scattered about, discussion moderator Dan Hartnett brought up the idea of a “master notebook,” which requires all students to be organized in the same way. He added that these tactics need to be maintained at all levels, especially middle school: “That’s when the effectiveness of elementary school can diminish.”

This sentiment also rang true at the Ecology and Wellness table, where participants agreed much more could be done to foster an environment that promoted environmentally sound practices within its students.

“There’s too much division [between the schools],” said parent Tin Larsson-Wilcoxen. “That’s where it’s lost, in the sixth grade.”

A group of five participants joined School Board Member Mary Anne Miller and Director of Physical Education, Health and Athletics Montgomery Granger in a rousing discussion that ultimately led to a proactive effort to form an Ecology Club that would boost both school’s efforts to encourage students to mind the environment. Parent and Eco-Walk organizer Ed Bruehl seemed to be at the forefront of the issue along with Pierson senior Jessica Warne.

Miller explained that forming a club necessitates finding two faculty advisors and raising some amount of money. Bruehl said he would contact elementary school teacher Kryn Olson and Warne would try to touch base with high school teacher Shannon Judge. With teachers from both campuses acting together, the idea is to ultimately bridge that divide.

A record 12 people showed up for a discussion moderated by Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone on Learners Who Excel.

“This is an area where we can do better,” Malone said. “We do have children who tend to stagnate. We need to recalibrate and pay more attention to students who are doing well.”

The group discussed several programs to address these needs, such as Gifted and Talented, the International Baccalaureate program (which is being considered at the high school) and differentiated instruction.

“This has been a raging debate in the middle school,” said school board member Chris Tice of the differentiated instruction model, for which teachers are required to tailor lesson plans to students’ different abilities. Because of the small class sizes in the district, Tice added, “I do think we’re challenged by the differentiated model.”

Whatever way the district decides to tackle the issues, Malone said this is an area that should be dealt with now. “We do not think this is something that should take an endless amount of time to address,” he said.

Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols addressed similar issues next door, as the conversation focused almost entirely on the future of education and the IB program. Some participants questioned whether or not the program should be implemented earlier, such as in middle school or even elementary school.

The group also discussed “the notion of capturing students’ minds at an early age,” as he put it. “IB is perhaps a way to address that.”

Both the Technology and the Career and College Prep groups were relatively small (with no more than five participates each), but moderators, including Pierson High School Assistant Principal Gary Kalish, came back to the larger group discussion with some salient points.

“We talked about how students are far exceeding their community service requirements,” Kalish said, “and that maybe we need to revisit that.”

He also mentioned that one member of the discussion group suggested a support group for parents and students applying for college, so that junior parents and students can learn from senior parents and students who have already gone through the admissions process.

After discussing modes of technology and its use throughout the school, the group decided there are two tracks to consider. One, using technology as a tool; and two, making technology into a tool.

After participants shared information and the groups reconvened, Wilcoxen thanked everyone for coming. Although the next school forum is not slated to take place until June — “budget season takes up our lives” — he told the crowd that they would hear from someone soon.

Moderators may try to form study groups in order to further investigate certain topics, but that’s all up in the air.

Either way, he added, “you’ll hear from us.”