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Education

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Here are a couple of things to think about in this new year. First, it is the Chinese Year of the Dog. Each year is related to a zodiac animal within a 12-year cycle, and the Dog is in the 11th position, after the Rooster and before the Pig. Other Dog years include births in 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994 and so on. You get the pattern. If you are a Dog, you are undoubtedly loyal, honest, kind, amiable and sincere, although you’re probably not all that good at communications. As a result, sometimes you are perceived as stubborn. However, you make up for that by always being ready to help others.

Enough of that and on to the latest law for Suffolk County. As you have probably experienced by now, wherever you might be shopping and inclined to make a purchase, you will have to add 5 cents to the total if you want a bag. Two bags: 10 cents. Again, you get the pattern. That means if you are shopping in a supermarket or a hardware store or Macy’s, you will need to pay for each bag. We have, however, been trained for such a situation by Costco. For years, those who shop in their warehouse-like stores have carried purchases out to their cars in shopping carts and then loaded the contents into their trunks, one item at a time. Costco has never provided bags, although it has been known to offer boxes when available. The smart ones among us carry cloth bags into the store in advance so we can load cars more efficiently at the end, and I suppose that is what the rest of us will learn to do if we don’t buy the bags. Although the charge is only a nickel, it is irksome because the nickels don’t go toward funding an environmental cause but revert to the store.

So expect to see people crossing parking lots with the items they have just purchased in their hands. While the perennially curious among us will be fascinated to check out what people buy, the instinct to bag a purchase to prove it was paid for rather than whipped off the shelf and out the door will make some of us uneasy. Best to invest in some large and solid cloth bags, which are what they bring to stores in Europe and elsewhere. And by the way, this should be a great help for our local waterways and wildlife since so many plastic bags have caused harm. So BYOB, or “bring your own bag,” and know that you are helping a fish.

On to another topic to consider in 2018. Private schools and universities are going to take a beating from the loss of international students. Total tuition from those students, who generally pay more, will decline as a result of more restrictive immigration policies for those wishing to come to study here. Visa applications are being more carefully scrutinized and foreign students are finding it harder to stay in the United States after graduation. There had been a huge increase in foreign students here, supplying $39 billion in revenue to the U.S. economy last year, but now schools in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries are attracting some of those dollars. The decline in new students nationwide was some 7 percent just this past fall.

That means colleges will have to cut offerings and American-educated grad students who may want to settle here will be lost to the nation. It also means colleges will not be able to help low-income students as much with tuition aid. Diversity is also affected. Enrollment is already falling from China and India, the two biggest sources of students from abroad. Of course this is not only a national issue but also a local one: Stony Brook University is here. Long Island has numerous schools, and with fewer students less money will be spent locally.

Meanwhile enjoy the weather. Let’s celebrate the thaw.

Port Jefferson High School Principal Christine Austen. File photo

Being named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education is an achievement that takes a village, but leaders in Port Jefferson School District attribute the designation to one confident, tough yet compassionate woman.

Christine Austen is in her third year as principal at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. In that short period of time, according to her colleagues, she has imposed her strong will, ideas and work ethic on the school and is the person most responsible for the school being recognized on a national level in September with the Blue Ribbon honor.

“The award acknowledges and validates the hard work of students, educators, families and communities in striving for — and attaining — exemplary achievement,” the education department’s website says regarding qualifications for Blue Ribbon distinction. About 300 public schools nationwide were awarded in 2017.

Teachers Eva Grasso and Jesse Rosen accompany Austen to Washington, D.C., as part of receiving the award. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

For helping to earn the prestigious award for Port Jeff and for her tireless efforts to improve the academic, social and emotional well being of all of her students, Times Beacon Record News Media named Austen a 2017 Person of the Year.

“The things that are happening at the high school among the staff, with the students, with the community, you can’t have those things happening without a principal who’s really moving it, is a big part of it, gets involved — she does not look at the clock,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said.

According to Jessica Schmettan, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, Austen’s relentless commitment to analyzing the effectiveness of academic programs and initiatives, and examining results with a critical eye have created quantitative improvements in student performance since she became principal.

“She’s always attuned to the data to help push the academic limits forward, and we definitely see those quantitative results,” Schmettan said. The curriculum and instruction director pointed out Austen’s strengths as a principal are far from limited to fostering academic excellence though. “The principals I’ve worked with always demonstrated a clear strength — who was more of a social and emotional leader, who was more of an instructional leader, who focused more on the community. Everybody that I worked with demonstrated a strength in certain areas, where Chris I think embodies all of those things and that’s really unique.”

Austen and her husband Phil are each products of the Port Jefferson School District and community. She got her start working for the district as a librarian, and eventually served as a kindergarten-through-12th grade assistant principal for her first foray into the administration world. Despite competing against at least one other candidate with experience as a principal, Austen wowed the school board at her interview, which led to her earning the position.

“She came in the room, straightened her back, she sat in the chair and just emitted this confidence that, ‘I’m going to nail this, I’m going to give you my best answers,’” board of education President Kathleen Brennan said. Brennan said Austen’s confidence, without arrogance, stood out during her interview and has translated seamlessly into the position.

Many of her colleagues spoke about Austen’s knack for deftly walking the fine line between holding students accountable without being punitive, while always remaining positive and generally warm.

“If you’re working in this field, and she’s no exception, her ‘put the students first’ mentality is definitely a great strength,” Assistant Principal Kevin Bernier said.

Bernier shared a story about an incident that occurred during a pool party at a student’s home in 2016.

Port Jefferson high school Principal Christine Austen, second from right, and others from the school celebrate its National Blue Ribbon School award. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

A student at the party, who frequently had seizures, was the only person in the pool at one point. Bernier said he noticed something was wrong with the student, and realized he might be having a full seizure in the pool at that moment.

“It only took a second,” Bernier recalled. “I said, ‘Is he OK?’ You saw something and he started to go down and before I even blinked my eyes, [Austen] was in the pool. If he went under he was going to take in water right away, and it was literally before I could even blink my eyes she was in the water.”

Bernier noted, Austen is far from an avid swimmer and the student was much taller than her, making the rescue no simple task.

“It took quite a bit of courage to dive into that pool,” said Edna Louise Spear Elementary School Principal Tom Meehan, who also was at the party.

Middle school Principal Robert Neidig, who started the same year as Austen, said he considers her a mentor. He said she’s great at giving one on one advice, but he also loves to hear her speak publicly because she strikes a perfect tone of humility and warmth accompanied with an unquestionable confidence that creates a perfect mixture for a leader.

“I couldn’t imagine doing the job without having her perspective,” he said.

Casciano summed up some firsthand observations he’s had since Austen took over at the high school.

“You’ll see her in the hallway putting her arm around a child,” he said. “She knows them and knows just from expressions on their faces, she could tell whether or not they’re having a good day, bad day. And if things look like they aren’t going well, she’ll engage the student and try to encourage them.”

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Mean test scores for Port Jefferson School District students in 2016 and 2017 on AP exams in 10 major subjects. Graphic by TBR News Media

The results are in, and Port Jefferson School District teachers, administrators and students have plenty to be proud of.

Jessica Schmettan, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, presented data regarding Port Jeff students scores on Advanced Placement tests taken in May 2017 during a Dec. 12 board of education meeting. AP is a program that offers college-level curriculum and exams to high school students, and college credits are available based on performance in the courses. The College Board, a nonprofit formed to expand access to higher education in North America, created the AP program. The exams are scored from 1 to 5, with scores 3 or higher considered proficient and a minimum standard to be able to earn college credit.

Participation in AP courses and performance on exams overall are trending up in Port Jeff. In 2017, Port Jeff students took 354 AP exams, compared to 280 in 2015. Schmettan said the district was proud to see the increase in the number of students taking the exams and expects that number to increase as more AP offerings are made available to students.

PJSD superintendent, board discuss future after bond fails

By Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson School District superintendent, Paul Casciano, and board of education president, Kathleen Brennan, each made public comments Dec. 12 regarding the future of capital improvement projects that would have been addressed by a $30 million bond, a proposal that was voted down by a wide margin by district residents Dec. 5.

Casciano: “Our capital bond proposal was defeated [Dec. 5]. Our board of education and administration are in the process of reviewing what implications there are in the results to determine which steps would be in the best interest of our students. Although we’re disappointed by the outcome, we are grateful that so many residents took the time to vote. Our discussions moving forward will be focused on how best to address the problems that we are facing, namely the health, safety and security of our students and staff; compliance with state and federal regulations; our aging infrastructure; and our overcrowded and overtaxed athletic fields. Hopefully at some point in the future we’ll actually get to plan how to transform our instructional settings into a 21st-century learning environment.”

Brennan: “This is our first board meeting since the vote, so clearly we had no time to discuss the outcome among the board members. I can assure you that we hear you, we heard the vote from the public, and we plan to study that and clearly and carefully and slowly move forward. We certainly will include the public in those plans. So I thank you for your comments and your interest in our district.”

“It is gratifying to see the number of our students [taking AP courses] continuing to grow and the offerings in AP,” board of education member Mark Doyle said during the meeting.

The mean score for Port Jeff students increased when comparing 2016 results to 2017 results on exams in 13 subject areas, including chemistry, environmental science, world history and calculus. In each of those particular subjects, more than 90 percent of students taking the test scored a 3 or better. In addition, the mean Port Jeff 2017 scores in 14 subject areas exceeded the New York State means. In environmental science and chemistry, the Port Jeff means were more than a full percentage point better than New York State means. Schmettan said she was impressed to see the 2017 chemistry scores as the district mean was 4.00, compared to 2.90 across the state and 3.13 in 2016 in Port Jeff.

Average scores in English language and composition, English literature and composition, world history, and U.S. history all went up from 2016 to 2017. However, AP calculus scores skyrocketed in 2017, jumping from 2.57 on average last year to 4.15, which represented the largest increase in any subject.

“We saw a very strong comeback in AP calculus, and we’re proud of that,” Schmettan said.

In another area of mathematics, statistics, 2017 test takers struggled compared to last year. The average 2016 score was 3.92, compared to 3.05 this past May.

“We’re hoping that is a similar event as to what happened in AP calculus last year, that perhaps it is an event not a pattern in the data,” she said.

Port Jeff came in below other New York State test takers on average in five subjects: macroeconomics, biology, Spanish language and culture, music theory and computer science. Biology scores have come down from a mean of 3.19 in 2014 to a 2.92 in 2017.

In total 29 students in Port Jeff were named AP Scholars with Distinction, which is granted to test takers who receive scores of at least 3.50 on all exams taken and scores of 3 or better on five or more exams. Six students were named National AP Scholars for earning a 4 or better on all tests taken and at least a 4 on eight or more exams.

“This is something that we should very much be proud of in Port Jefferson,” Schmettan said.

Visit www.portjeffschools.org to see the full results and click on “Curriculum & Instruction” under the “Departments” tab.

The best way to defray the cost of a college education is to open a 529 plan.

By Linda M. Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: I would like to help defray the cost of college for my grandson, Joe. My daughter and son-in-law are not in a position to pay full tuition, room and board. I don’t want them or Joe to borrow for his education.

THE QUESTION: What is the best way to help out without hurting Joe’s chances of receiving needs-based financial aid?

THE ANSWER: Although there are a number of ways to defray the cost of Joe’s education, including giving him money, giving money to your daughter and son-in-law or paying the college directly, for many people the best way to assist with college expenses is to set up a Section 529 College Savings Plan (a “529 plan”) with Joe as the beneficiary. Your various options are discussed below.

If you want to simply gift money to Joe for his education, you can give him up to $14,000 per year without incurring any gift tax. However, when the college reviews his financial aid application and determines how much Joe should contribute toward his education, they will take any gifts you have given him into consideration. Since students are expected to contribute approximately 20 percent of their savings to their education, the more you give to Joe directly, the less aid he will receive.

If you decide to give money for Joe’s college expenses directly to your daughter and son-in-law, you can gift each of them $14,000 for a total of $28,000 per year. Clearly you can make a larger annual contribution to Joe’s education this way; but, like the funds gifted to Joe, the funds you gift to your daughter and son-in-law will be taken into consideration when calculating any financial aid that may be awarded to Joe. The negative impact of gifting funds to his parents rather than to Joe will be less than the impact of gifts made directly to Joe because his parents are only expected to contribute about 6 percent of their assets to his education.

Paying the college Joe attends directly is an option that avoids any potential gift tax issues on gifts exceeding the $14,000 annual limit. Paying the college directly would allow you to make larger contributions annually to his education; but, this method is not recommended since the money paid directly to the college will be considered as income to Joe. Like gifts to Joe, payments to the college will adversely impact the amount of aid Joe may receive.

In my opinion, the best way to defray the cost of Joe’s college education is to open a 529 plan. Many states, including New York, offer such plans that allow for tax exempt growth on investments so long as distributions from the accounts are used to pay qualified college expenses. Contributions to a 529 plan are subject to gift tax; but, the law allows contributions up to $70,000 to be made in one year as long as the person funding the plan files a gift tax return and applies the contribution over a five-year period.

If you open a 529 plan, you could decide how the funds in the account will be invested and to change the beneficiary in the event Joe decides not to attend college. You could also remove funds from the account for noncollege expenses although such a withdrawal will result in a penalty and tax liability.

Although the income on the investments in the plan will be considered Joe’s income, increasing the amount he will be expected to contribute to his education, it is only assessed at 50 percent as opposed to other income that is assessed at 100 percent so the negative impact is greatly reduced.

In some states you can avoid the negative impact of increasing Joe’s income if you transfer the 529 plan to your daughter before Joe applies for aid. Unfortunately, this option is not available in New York where transfers are prohibited unless the account owner dies or there is a court order. For this reason, it may make more sense if you simply contribute funds to a 529 plan opened by your daughter.

Regardless of the method you decide to use to defray the cost of Joe’s education, it is worth noting that gifts made to Joe or his parents after January of Joe’s junior year of college should not have any impact on his ability to get financial aid. That is because by then Joe will have already filed his aid application for his senior year.

Before you make a decision about how to help Joe and his parents pay for his college education, you should not only look at all the options available to you but you should discuss with an estate planning attorney how Joe’s college education should be addressed in your estate plan. You don’t want your estate plan to jeopardize whatever steps you may take during your lifetime to benefit Joe.

Linda M. Toga provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of estate planning and administration, real estate, marital agreements and litigation out of her Setauket office.

An electronic sign in front of Port Jefferson High School alerting residents about the referendum. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

After months of passionate and at times heated debate, the Port Jefferson School District community has spoken.

Residents voted overwhelmingly against a $30 million capital bond proposal that carried an additional $10 million in interest over its 15-year life and included over 20 districtwide repair and upgrade projects. The issue garnered feverish local attention at numerous school board meetings and on social media forums since it was presented to the public by the district and board of education in September, driving more than 1,700 voters to the polls on referendum day Dec. 5. After all was said and done, 1,355 residents voted against the bond, with just 374 voting in favor of it. By comparison, just 412 people voted on the 2018 budget and school board vacancies back in May.

A lawn sign on Barnum Avenue encouraging residents to vote ‘No’ on a $30M PJSD bond proposal. Photo by Alex Petroski

The proposal featured a three-story addition to a wing of the high school, additional classrooms at the high school and elementary school, a turf football field at the high school and lights for the Scraggy Hill Road athletic fields, among many more improvements. Some of the fixes — like additional girls locker room space and handicapped parking spaces at the high school track — were included to get the district in compliance with Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act and will likely need to be addressed either using the district’s capital reserves or a reworked bond proposal.

“While I am disappointed in the result, I am encouraged that so many residents took the time to vote,” district Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an email. “The district and our board of education will discuss the matter further at subsequent meetings. The safety, security and compliance concerns that we were attempting to address through the projects in the capital bond still exist and need attention.”

Many of those opposed to the bond pointed to the uncertainty surrounding an ongoing district and Port Jefferson Village lawsuit against Long Island Power Authority, as both entities stand to potentially lose substantial tax revenue in the coming years should a settlement or decision in the LIPA case be reached. LIPA has contended it pays too much in property taxes to operate the Port Jefferson Power Station, now that sweeping energy-efficiency upgrades have drastically reduced the regular need for the plant. The district and village’s annual operating budgets are funded in large part due to that revenue. Others were also opposed to the “all or nothing” proposal, which included upgrades that were seen as imminently necessary alongside projects that were viewed as extravagant, like the stadium lights at the Scraggy Hill fields and a new synthetic playing surface for the varsity football field.

“I think the result demonstrates that the community is seeking more transparency and fiscal responsibility from the board and the administration,” said Rene Tidwell, a district resident who was vocal in her opposition to the proposal. “We as a community are eager to roll up our sleeves and help identify urgent projects to fix compliance issues and to help prioritize long-term projects.”

Tidwell said she was not previously as engaged in the goings on of the board of education prior to the emergence of the debate over the bond.

“There had been talk in the community about it and when I started looking closely at the information the board provided I ended up having more questions,” she said. “Many in the community felt there wasn’t a consistent resource or outreach to the entire community with respect to contributing input for what went into the bond proposal.”

Depending on the assessed value of a district resident’s home, the bond would have resulted in an increase of between $289 and $1,185 annually in property taxes, according to the district.

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant publicly requested that the district hold off on bringing the proposal forward in September until a resolution was reached on the LIPA issue.

“Tonight’s heavy turnout and result reflects the engagement and passion of our community,” Garant said Dec. 5 via email. “They spoke to the board of education with resounding voices of concern over this bond proposal and while doing so, expressed their deep concern for the children in our school district, clearly stating their support for the ‘needs,’ and not the ‘wants’ in the proposal.”

Elwood Middle School will get a new roof with the passage of Proposition 1 by voters. File photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Elwood taxpayers are willing to pay for critical infrastructure repairs to their schools, but turned down athletic program and field upgrades.

Elwood School District residents approved Proposition 1 of a bond referendum by 718-371 votes to make health and safety upgrades to the district’s four buildings Nov. 28. A second proposition to spend $3.72 million in enhancements to the athletic fields and other amenities narrowly failed, by a 508-577 vote.

Dilapidated auditorium seating in Elwood Middle School, will be repaired as a result of the passage of a capital bond proposition. File photo by Kevin Redding

“My sincere appreciation to all residents who came out to vote,” Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said. “I think the voting results show the priority that Elwood residents place on education.”

The approved bond proposition contains $34.5 million in capital projects including the replacement of the roofs in each of the four buildings — Harley Avenue School, Boyd Intermediate School, Elwood Middle School, and John H. Glenn High School — which was included due to leaks and flooding issues; and fixing sidewalks and pavement cracks.

Large renovations are also slated for each of the individual buildings under Proposition 1. Three of the schools — Harley Avenue, Elwood Middle School and John Glenn — will undergo cafeteria renovations to install new ceilings, replace outdated lighting fixtures, replace damaged furniture and install new air conditioning systems. The intermediate school will have a new parking lot installed for approximately 60 vehicles as well as a newly designed parent drop-off loop for $260,000 to improve traffic flow. In both the middle school and high school, there will be renovations of art and family and consumer science classrooms.

The district will move forward with having construction plans drawn up by their architects and submit them to the New York State Education Department for approval, according to Bossert, which he said takes 12 to 18 months on average.

“We are trying to make the roofs a priority, as the roofs leak and cause flooding during inclement weather,” Bossert said. “It doesn’t make sense to do any of the interior work before the roofs are fixed.”

The superintendent said he hopes to have the plans submitted to the state as soon as possible, as the district will still need to go through the bidding process for contractors prior to starting construction. He estimated it may be five years before all of the bond work is completed.

A damaged ceiling tile resulting from a roof leak in Elwood Middle School, that will be repaired as part of a capital bond project passed by the community. File photo by Kevin Redding

“Having patience is important in this project,” Bossert said.

The average estimated cost to taxpayers for Proposition 1 is $221 per year, or $18.32 per month, for a home with median assessed value. A calculator that allows homeowners to plug in their tax information for an exact quote is available on the district’s website.

The failed Proposition 2 asked taxpayers for $3.72 million to make enhancements to the district’s athletic programs. It was separated from Proposition 1 by the board of education as it was expected to be a divisive issue.

“The reason it is separate is there was division among opinions in the community,” Bossert said at September presentation. “Some members of the community were strongly in support of this proposed $3.72 million as something they can afford to invest in, other factions said, ‘We don’t feel that way.’”

Proposition 2 would have permitted the district to build a new concession stand for the athletic fields with an outdoor bathroom, a synthetic turf field, sidewalks to make the fields ADA compliant and a new scoreboard for the varsity baseball field.

The referendum will appear on ballot as a single, all-or-nothing proposition

Port Jefferson high school could look very different in the coming years if a $30M bond proposal is approved by the community. File photo by Elana Glowatz

In Port Jefferson, 2017 will seemingly have a dramatic, down-to-the-wire election day just like it did in 2016, though this year it will be held in December instead of November.

The Port Jefferson School District Board of Education voted unanimously in support of a resolution to establish Dec. 5 as the date for the much-discussed and intensely debated $30 million bond referendum that has seemingly created a two-party system within the community: the Pro-Bond Party and the Anti-Bond Party.

Despite objections from some residents at prior board of education and Port Jefferson Village Board meetings, the date for the vote was set for the first Tuesday in December. The resolution to set the date was removed from the eight other items listed in the board consensus agenda under the category of finance after a motion by board Vice President Mark Doyle, so that the resolution to set the date could be voted on as individual item.

“At this moment in time both my husband and I are strongly inclined to vote ‘no’ on this bond, even though it’s great for the kids and the buildings.”

— Renee Tidwell

Those opposed to that date cited the potential absence of a large number of “snowbirds” or Port Jeff homeowners who tend to spend winters in warmer climates, on the date of the vote. The thinking being those residents are likely the same people who no longer have children attending the district, and therefore would be less likely to support the massive spending plan.

“We’ll discuss the best way of getting the word out and try to make the availability [of absentee ballots] a little bit easier than people might otherwise imagine, although it is relatively easy,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said during the Oct. 10 board meeting, when the date was finalized.

Casciano previously stated during one of the district’s several building walk-throughs, which were scheduled to allow residents the opportunity to tour the facilities slated for upgrades as part of the bond, that the December date was more preferable than attaching the proposition as part of the budget vote in June because the board felt it was important to allow the bond to stand on its own and not be lost as an afterthought to the budget.

Others who have voiced opposition to the bond have expressed concerns with voting on the more than 20 items as an all-or-nothing proposition and urged the board to split it into at least two propositions: one for education and safety upgrades and one for upgrades relating to athletics. The board elected to keep all 23 items and $29,900,000 worth of upgrades and improvements to district facilities intact as a single proposition.

Proposal highlights

•$7.6M to construct a three-story addition at PJHS

•$2.3M to construct new music room and instrumental practice room at PJHS

•$2.2M to build addition to PJHS cafeteria and renovate kitchen space

•$1.2M to replace windows at PJHS

•$2.5M to construct two additional classrooms at elementary school

•$1.7M for locker room renovations at PJHS

•$1.6M for installation of stadium lighting at Scraggy Hill fields

•$1.4M for a new synthetic turf football field at PJHS

•$3.7M to convert tech ed building to new central administration headquarters

•$1.6M to install drainage walls at north side of middle school building

“At this moment in time both my husband and I are strongly inclined to vote ‘no’ on this bond, even though it’s great for the kids and the buildings,” district resident Renee Tidwell said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “We want to vote ‘no,’ and we’re very troubled by that.”

Tidwell pointed to the inclusion of a synthetic turf football field and stadium lights at the athletic fields on Scraggy Hill Road included with health, safety and educational components in one proposition as a reason to vote against it.

“Split the bond into two bonds; one which addresses the urgent and critical capital improvements and infrastructure upgrades, and the other bond which could address less critical initiatives,” Tidwell said, prior to the vote, which eliminated that possibility.

Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister suggested it’s possible the district might have legal ways out of the bond agreement should an extenuating circumstance arise, such as a settlement in the district’s lawsuit against the Long Island Power Authority, which could cause the district to lose substantial property tax revenue, prior to borrowing the money. Leister said previously that projects and borrowing would be unlikely to begin prior to 2019.

Based on discussions during several public meetings and conversations taking place on Port Jefferson-related Facebook pages, the community seems to be split down the middle roughly two months away from the vote. Results of a survey that was available on the district’s website are expected in the coming weeks, and Leister has also promised an imminently available property tax calculator so that residents can see about how much the proposal would cost individual households if passed. This tax hike would be unrelated to potential raises as a result of the LIPA lawsuit and/or if next year’s budget were to ask for an increase. Casciano has also promised more walk-throughs, including a virtual tour for those unable to attend in person.

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New Mount Sinai Elementary School Principal Rob Catlin, Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal and Executive Director of Educational Services Deena Timo discuss how to incorporate new reading programs into the school district. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

It’s not as easy as A-B-C for some. That’s why the Mount Sinai school district recently rolled out new reading programs that will help K-8 students who struggle with the subject find success.

Last fall, Superintendent Gordon Brosdal was concerned the elementary school’s standard reading program did not accommodate for the fact that all students learn at different levels. So those challenged by reading tended to fall behind while their classmates soared, he said.

A closer examination of the district’s overall reading results, through assessment programs such as aimsweb, showed plenty of room for improvement to meet the school’s academic standards.

So this year, three widely used and proven effective programs designed to sharpen literacy skills  — the Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention System, the Sonday System and the Wilson Reading System — were implemented in the elementary and middle school reading and writing curriculum. Training sessions on the ins-and-outs of each program took place over the summer for district educators, including English as a second language and special education teachers.

“We focused on how we could do more to target those students who are not making progress and are stuck at a level or falling behind as they get older, and the work gets more difficult.”

Deena Timo

Throughout the year, new elementary school reading teacher Lindsey Mozes, who has extensive experience with the three programs, will work with students and train teachers to use them.

“We’re increasing our teachers’ toolboxes so they can handle the individual needs of each student better,” Brosdal said. “Kids have more challenges today — the population’s more diverse, some don’t speak English, some speak very little English and some can’t read. We have to address those individual challenges.”

By starting it at the elementary school, Brosdal said the district is building a solid foundation, especially if it wants to maintain its Reward School status, which is given to schools that demonstrate either high academic achievement or most progress with minimal gaps in student achievement between certain populations of students, according to the New York State Education Department.

“We want to remain a Reward School, but we’re not going to have that if kids aren’t being more challenged in reading and writing early on,” Brosdal said.

Deena Timo, Mount Sinai executive director of educational services, worked alongside the superintendent to bring the reading programs to the district.

“We focused on how we could do more to target those students who are not making progress and are stuck at a level or falling behind as they get older, and the work gets more difficult,” Timo said. “We’re looking at the individual student’s needs and adjusting to meet those particular needs.”

She explained the Wilson and Sonday systems are based on the Orton-Gillingham instructional approach, which commonly consists of a one-on-one teacher-student setting and is targeted for those with more severe reading issues, such as students with learning disabilities. The programs focus mostly on word pronunciation and expression, Timo said, while Fountas & Pinnell is more comprehension based.

“As a parent, you don’t want your kid reading books that are too hard or too easy, you want them reading books that are just right, and this makes it really clear.”

Rob Catlin

During a Fountas & Pinnell session, a student simply reads a book with his or her teacher. As he or she reads, the teacher takes note of overall reading ability and then asks questions about the book to gauge understanding of the text, whether it’s a “Clifford the Big Red Dog” or “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” book. If the student understands the book well, that student graduates, moving on to a book with a more challenging reading and comprehension level.

Beyond expanding the student’s literacy understanding, the program allows for teachers to grasp exactly what learning level a students is at — which can then be easily communicated to parents.

“As a parent, you don’t want your kid reading books that are too hard or too easy, you want them reading books that are just right and this makes it really clear,” said Rob Catlin, the district’s new elementary school principal. “It’s helping parents and teachers become a team to help that kid.”

Catlin taught Fountas & Pinnell for years as an educator in New York City before arriving at his new position. He is also well versed in the Columbia Writing Program, which enters its third year in the Mount Sinai school district and has aided in strengthening students’ writing scores on English Language Arts exams.

As a principal, he said his goal is to see students progress throughout the year and believes these reading programs will help with that.

“I want to see that no matter where you were in September, you’re at a different point in June,” Catlin said. “Each kid is getting differentiated instruction based on what they need and we’ll find the right program for them. Maybe they do need Wilson, maybe they don’t. Regardless, we’ll figure out the best approach.”

He said he doesn’t want to see kids continue to fall through the cracks.

“Good instruction is never one-size-fits-all,” he said. “We’re equipping our teachers with options when a student is struggling and making sure they have the skills to address the individual needs of every kid in their room. I feel like this district was on the precipice of doing really great things and I happened to just come in at the perfect time.”

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Long ago, I wrote a column about vomit and education. No, I didn’t suggest that teachers should encourage vomiting or that education gets better amid the smell of vomit. Sorry to those of you who are gagging even at these words.

No, for those without an encyclopedic knowledge of my columns — OK, all of you — I wrote that my son, who was only 5 at the time, often came home with exactly the same answer to the question about what happened in school: “Nothing.” Then, one day, a classmate was in the middle of saying something when she vomited.

Suddenly, my son became the bard of vomit, describing in technicolor detail everything that poured out of his classmate’s mouth. It didn’t stop there. He recounted each of the steps the teacher took to clean it up and resettle the room and then, to my shock, he shared a few things about the next lessons she tried to teach.

While I’m not suggesting the value of vomit in the classroom, I did recognize something unusual that occurs during these high-energy moments: People pay more attention.

What triggered — bad word choice here, I know — my thinking about this observation is March Madness. The NCAA basketball tournament has 64 teams entering this bracket, all of whom have fans, family and friends hoping their journey can go just one more game all the way to the championship.

Now, these games can be — and often are — ridiculously exciting, with young players pushing themselves to the limits of their speed, endurance and coordination to make impossible game-winning shots that carry their fans to the next level of ecstasy.

The winners stand in front of a microphone at the end of the game and recount what we’ve just witnessed, taking us through the moment when they got the ball at the top of the key, faked left, passed it to a teammate, and then crashed the boards just in time to grab the rebound and slam home the game-winner.

We know what we saw and rarely, if ever, do these interviews produce much more than, “Yeah, it was great,” or “I’m so excited, I just don’t have words for this.”

So, this is where the vomit analogy comes in. Some of these players likely contribute to causes, believe in community service, have something to say about what they’ve overcome, can share the best advice they’ve ever gotten or remember a moment that still matters.

I realize it’s asking a lot of the reporters and the athletic superstar whose primary concern may be going to the bathroom, getting his uniform clean for the next game or getting to the bus on time to go to the airport.

Still, these moments, with the players, coaches and even fans could include some kind of life lesson. Players don’t need to preach, nor do they have to demand that we participate in their favorite charity. However, they can use the spotlight to inspire and encourage us with their incredible achievements off the field, their commitments to family or their contributions to a church group.

Now, I realize Olympic coverage often includes features about people who are dedicating their efforts to a relative or who volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. And, I appreciate how sports purists may find the effort an intrusion in the cliché-riddled wide world of sports, where the players are just happy to help the team and they take everything one game at a time and they try not to do too much.

But some day, that athlete will no longer have the microphone and some day, the world will no longer be watching. While we’re inspired and moved by their magnificence on the court, how about if, to the extent possible, they also encourage us to follow their lead in other arenas. An energized audience may see this as a chance to turn a good game into a great achievement.

President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education Betsy DeVos has been met with opposition from North Shore educators. Photo from Senate committee website

Many North Shore superintendents and educators are concerned with President Donald Trump’s (R) nominee for secretary of education: Betsy DeVos, chairman of The Windquest Group, a privately-held investment and management firm based in Michigan, to serve as secretary of education. According to her website, the Michigan resident has a history in politics spanning more than 35 years. She was elected as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party four times, and worked in a leadership capacity for campaigns, party organizations and political action committees, her website states.

DeVos went before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions for a confirmation hearing Jan. 17.

“Any programs and initiatives that attempt to weaken public education by diverting funds away from it … do not have my support.”

—Paul Casciano

“I share President-elect Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve,” DeVos said during her opening remarks at the hearing. “Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children? I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children. The vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools. If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child — perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet — we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative.”

DeVos’ views on public education created a stir around the country, and superintendents from the North Shore and county as a whole joined the chorus of those skeptical about the direction she might take the country’s education system.

“I have devoted my entire adult life to public education and believe it is the bedrock of our democracy,” Port Jefferson school district Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an email. “Any programs and initiatives that attempt to weaken public education by diverting funds away from it or that offer alternatives that are not subjected to the same strict standards and scrutiny that public schools must live by, do not have my support.”

Kings Park Superintendent Tim Eagen echoed many of Casciano’s concerns.

“I find President Trump’s nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to be unacceptable,” he said in an email. “Education in this country is at an important crossroads. As an educational leader and parent of two public school students, it is my goal to provide our children with a globally competitive, rigorous, relevant and challenging education that will prepare them to be active, contributing members of society.”

“As an educational leader and parent of two public school students, it is my goal to provide our children with a globally competitive, rigorous, relevant and challenging education.”

—Tim Eagan

Eagen also has concerns about DeVos’ qualifications.

“I believe that Betsy DeVos is unqualified to run the U.S. Department of Education,” he said. “She is a businesswoman and politician without any experience in public service or public education. She does not have an education degree, has no teaching experience, has no experience working in a school environment, never attended public school or a state university, and did not send her own four children to public school.”

Middle Country Central School District  Superintendent Roberta Gerold stressed that she does not support the appointment of DeVos, stating that she believes all of DeVos’ actions to date evidence a lack of support for, and understanding of public education.

“I was disappointed with her answers during the hearing – she didn’t appear to do much, if any, homework,” Gerold said. “She couldn’t seem to, for example, understand or explain the difference between growth and proficiency — very basic concepts. And her answer to whether guns should be allowed in schools — please.”

The superintendent said, though, that she is most disappointed that DeVos would even be considered for the position.

“It seems clear to me that this is purely a political appointment, not an appointment that recognizes merit or values authentic education,” Gerold said. “John King — who I don’t believe was a great champion of public education, at least had credentials that deserved respect. The new nominee does not. It’s worrisome and disconcerting….and insulting to the public education system, K–12 and beyond.”

She said her teachers, several who are community residents, are preparing a petition that requests the board of education adopt of resolution in opposition to the appointment.

“I was disappointed with her answers during the hearing – she didn’t appear to do much, if any, homework.”

—Roberta Georld

“I believe that our board will be supportive of that request,” she said. “I know that our board president is in agreement with opposing the nomination.”

The Miller Place school district’s administration and board of education drafted and passed a resolution opposing DeVos’ appointment. Superintendent Marianne Cartisano addressed the appointment in an open letter on the district’s website.

“Our concerns are twofold,” she said. “The first reservation we have is regarding the candidate’s lack of first-hand experience as an educator or administrator within the public school system. Since the majority of the children in the United States are currently being educated within the public school system, we feel that this experience is very important for an effective Secretary of Education.”

Cartisano elaborated on her other issues with DeVos.

“Her record also shows a clear bias towards private, parochial and charter schools and the use of vouchers to attend these schools,” Cartisano said. “This bias leads us to our second overarching concern with Betsy DeVos as a candidate for Secretary of Education. The concern is that Betsy DeVos has been a strong advocate for the use of public funds to attend private schools through vouchers, and this would have a direct negative impact on our public school system’s fiscal stability if it is put into effect on a national level.”

The committee will vote to either approve or deny DeVos’ nomination Jan. 31.

Victoria Espinoza and Desirée Keegan contributed reporting.

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