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Mount Sinai School District

Retired teacher Virginia Armstrong, district head of IT Ken Jockers, head Buddhist Monk from Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center Bhante Nanda, and Superintendent Gordon Brosdal prepare to load computers to be donated into cars at Mount Sinai Elementary School July 18. Photo by Kyle Barr

An African proverb states that “It takes a village to raise a child.” Though when helping to get 140 computers in the hands of children overseas, more than just a village is necessary.

Virginia Armstrong, a retired Mount Sinai educator, joined up with Bhante Nanda, a Buddhist monk from the Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center in Riverhead, and the Mount Sinai School District to help ship 140 retired netbooks, or small laptop computers to children in both Sri Lanka and to the Maasai tribe in Kenya. Thirty will go to Sri Lanka and the rest to Africa. District Superintendent Gordon Brosdal, Armstrong, Nanda and others were at Mount Sinai Elementary School July 18 to help load the computers into cars headed back to the Riverhead facility where they will be shipped out.

“When the world is in many pieces – when people are just pushing each other away, it’s the little guy, the people on the ground that will keep the world going,” Armstrong said.

Both Armstrong and her partner Ron Hamilton have been working together for the past five years to raise donations for children of the Maasai tribe in Africa. Though the school district donated the computers to them last year, the project hit a snag this year when the district learned the shipping cost climbed upwards of $80 per box. The two requested the help of Nanda, who is a native of Sri Lanka, and he agreed to help ship the large bulk of computers as long as he could send some back to his homeland as well. Shipping donated items is something he and his community have been doing for more than two decades.

“We get satisfaction and happiness from helping others,” Nanda said.

Computers set to be shipped and donated to Kenya and Sri Lanka from Mount Sinai Elementary School. Photo by Kyle Barr

Armstrong retired from Mount Sinai after 28 years of teaching. After leaving the district she first decided to climb the 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Afterwards she went to the rural parts of the country to teach. That’s where she met Chief Joseph Ole Tipanko, the leader of more than 5,000 Maasai tribal members who reside in Kenya and Tanzania. His group, the Maasai Good Salvage Outreach Organization, receives outside donations of many necessities and supplies from outside Africa. Armstrong and Hamilton have dedicated the past several years to sending clothing and other supplies for the children there, and the Mount Sinai School District has been a big supporter of their efforts.

“It’s faith over politics,” Brosdal said. “[Chief Joseph] and their culture is so strong, and then we have [Nanda] who’s helping too. It’s become so multicultural.”

The netbooks are all approximately five years old and were deemed obsolete by the district. Ken Jockers, the director of information technology at the school district, said each netbook has been reimaged, meaning all computer files have been wiped and all programs re-installed. All the netbooks currently run Windows XP operating system and contain Microsoft Office programs. Being reimaged means they should require little fixing and maintenance.

“That’s important, because maintenance is so hard in some of these places,” Armstrong said.

Nanda arrived in the United States from Sri Lanka in 2001, and he said he has come to love the cultural diversity of this country. While his group of Buddhists have existed in Port Jefferson for several years, in 2017 they opened their Riverhead meditation center, where Nanda said many people, not just Buddhists, come to meditate and find peace.

With a smile that can illuminate a dark room, Nanda said that doing things like donating the computers, helping children both overseas and in the U.S. is an integral part of his and his community’s beliefs.

“Everybody needs peace and happiness,” Nanda said. “Buddhist, Christian, whatever we are, if we don’t help human beings, and if we don’t help other people we lose a part of ourselves.”

Guards say they’re settling in to posts in the district, will be brought back in September

From left, John, one of Mount Sinai’s armed security guards, Superintendent Gordon Brosdal and Christopher Innace, Pro Protection Inc. CEO, in one of the district’s school buildings, now guarded by armed security. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Guns in schools.”

Even to Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal it sounds like a foreign concept, but since March, the district has had four armed security guards stationed in all school buildings.

“When you look at what’s going on around you — you can’t ignore it,” Brosdal said. “Are we going to wait around for something before it happens?”

It has been a few months since the district hired its guards from Hauppauge-based Pro Protection Security Inc., and with the school year now over, those guards, such as elementary school guard John, said they have settled into a routine.

“The students and staff see me every day — the same face — and they get used to me. I think that’s really important for what I’m here to do.”

— John, security guard

“I man the hallways, make sure no unauthorized persons come in around the building, are going outside unauthorized — I check the doors, make sure they’re locked,” John said. “The students and staff see me every day — the same face — and they get used to me. I think that’s really important for what I’m here to do.”

Mount Sinai School District asked that the last names of the guards and their exact locations inside the school not be disclosed.

Despite the huge push for increased school security after the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, only four of 69 districts in Suffolk County have opted to hire armed guards — Center Moriches, Hauppauge, Miller Place and Mount Sinai — as far as TBR News Media has identified. Other districts have publicly expressed interest in the possibility, but to date those are the only three.

It’s also a commitment in financial terms. Hauppauge is paying $300,000 for its contract to hire its armed security guards and Mount Sinai’s 2018-19 adopted budget included $400,000 in security funding, which was $305,000 more than the 2017-18 school year.

For the last months of the 2017-18 school year, four guards stood at attention around the Mount Sinai campus, which includes the elementary, middle and high schools. Each was dressed in a clean suit with an earpiece microphone in his ear and a concealed gun at his side. Though Christopher Innace, the CEO of Pro Protection, said the important thing in hiring these guards wasn’t necessarily about the heat they were packing, but how they could interact with students.

“In the case of the elementary school we wanted someone who had a bubbly personality — someone who is outgoing, is smiling — things of that nature,” Innace said. “We also train our officers to say hello, good morning and be interactive with the parents, the community and visitors. That’s just the impression we want to give.”

Innace said each of the security guards is a retired police officer. Security guard Dave mans the campus gate, Paul is stationed at the high school, John serves the elementary school and helps Don at the middle school.

“The kids have been excellent — they come up to me and shake my hand, they give me a high five,” John said. “You didn’t get that sense of it so much working [as an officer] in the city, but here it seems everyone is overwhelmingly appreciative, and it’s a nice feeling.”

Innace and vice president of Pro Protection Christopher Alger both said the recruitment process for the guards in Mount Sinai was rigorous and included background checks. The district specifically didn’t look for prison guards or people that Innace called the “bouncer” type. All the guards at Mount Sinai are trained in what Innace referred to as “verbal judo,” or using speech to de-escalate tense situations.

In the months leading up to the final decision to hire armed guards in March, the Mount Sinai community was divided on the issue, and many remain so. Some felt the armed guards were an absolute necessity and the only way to really ensure a safe school.

“I fully support it and I sleep better at night as a result of it,” Mount Sinai resident Heather Janae said. “When I pick up my elementary-aged daughter from school every day and see the armed guard standing there I am content. It’s a very sad and unfortunate need, but in my opinion, it’s a need.”

Others in the community said a gun in school, no matter who was holding it, could lead to danger and violence.

“It’s a travesty — more guns is not the answer to too many guns, especially in or near our schools where there appears to be the most hideous shootings,” Mount Sinai resident Ron DiGennaro said. His daughter graduated from Mount Sinai High School in 2002.

Some residents were concerned how the guards would respond to kids with mental and physical disabilities. While Brosdal said there haven’t been any problems in those cases, he said he plans to host training with the guards and the school’s special education teachers designed to teach the guards how to interact with students who have special needs.

“It’s a travesty — more guns is not the answer to too many guns, especially in or near our schools where there appears to be the most hideous shootings.”

— Ron DiGennaro

Since the Parkland shooting, security has become a greater concern for every local school district. Shoreham-Wading River, Smithtown and Kings Park school districts are building security vestibules in all school buildings over the summer. Smithtown is receiving unarmed security guards at the elementary schools, and the Huntington School District is replacing old doors and is hiring new security guards.

Along with its armed guards, Mount Sinai is using money from its unassigned fund balance to finance renovations to the school’s perimeter fencing and replacing some of the glass fronts seen at the high school.

Alger, who himself is a retired NYPD detective first grade, said the armed guards are just a part of the four D’s of security, which are: detect, deter, deflect and defend. Cameras and staff can act as detection. Layered entrances, such as vestibules, locked doors and perimeter fencing function as deterrents. Glazed and bullet proof glass works well as deflection, but Alger said a guard capable of stopping an intruder is the only real defense against an intruder.

“We’re not running away from the shooter,” Innace said. “We hear shots, we hear a commotion, we are running right to that scene. We’re running right to that shooter.”

Since the beginning of 2018, 26 students have been killed in school shootings through the middle of May, according to fact checking website Politifact. Accounting for school shootings that have not resulted in any deaths, there has been roughly a shooting per week since the start of the year.

Even with armed guards, Alger said there is no guarantee there will be no fatalities in the event of a shooting, but the severity of any shooting is decreased dramatically.

“Armed security isn’t the 100 percent cure but it will 100 percent at least reduce some of these casualties that are taking place,” Alger said.

Brosdal said he feared schools that do not take action now in hiring guards would regret it later.

“It takes one shooting on Long Island, only one, and I believe you’re going to see people clamoring for armed guards,” Brosdal said, then emphasized his point. “You’ll have people clamoring.”

Alger said all four guards have committed to returning to their positions at the start of the next school year in September.

Mount Sinai High School. File photo by Barbara Donlon

Most people would be ecstatic to have millions of dollars put aside for a rainy day, but for school districts it’s not such a benefit, at least according to state law.

The New York State comptroller, who serves as a financial watchdog on public institutions, issued a report June 1 that said the Mount Sinai School District had amassed millions of dollars in its fund budget higher
than the legal max of 4 percent of the districts overall budget. Mount Sinai has said it intends to comply with the suggestions of the report, but some trustees said the restrictions on rainy-day funds only hamper the
district’s ability to handle its finances.

“We knew we couldn’t wait — those projects needed to be done now. I think that according to the [budget] vote the residents agreed with us.”

— Gordon Brosdal

“If you spent all the money you got every year, and then had nothing left, how fiscally responsible is that?” incoming board trustee Steve Koepper said.

The report said officials overestimated expenditures by more than $7.5 million and had underestimated revenues by $1.7 million from the 2014-15 through the 2016-17 school years. In the three years examined in the report, the district operated at a surplus and did not use any of its appropriated fund balance. This led to Mount Sinai’s unrestricted fund balance to be equal to 19.8 percent of the overall 2016-17 budget, way above the 4 percent limit.

The unassigned fund balance is developed from a school district having leftover, unspent funds by the end of each school year, and these funds accumulate. There are three levels to a districts total fund balance, including the restricted fund balance, which can only be spent for specific purposes like retirements; the appropriated balance, which is what the district sets up every year that can be spent from the overall funds; and the unassigned fund balance, or the unused portion. As of the 2016-17 school year, the district had $1.61 million appropriated and $9.9 million unassigned, according to the report.

Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said at the June 12 board of education meeting that talks with auditors have been congenial, and that they already have plans in motion to resolve the issue by using the funds in the already established capital project.

In the district’s 2018-19 adopted budget Mount Sinai residents voted 787-176 in favor of using $5 million of the unassigned fund balance to make repairs to the high school roof, upgrade the turf field and replace the campus’ perimeter fences, as well as other school security improvements. 

Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal speaks to community members about the state comptroller’s audit findings during a June 12 board of education meeting. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We hope that they will listen to our plan to spend down the fund balance, rather than just say, ‘No, your fund balance is too high,’” Brosdal said.

Brian Butry, a spokesperson for the comptroller’s office, said Mount Sinai is not the only district in the state that has been caught with a surplus of unassigned fund balance.

“We have districts in the state showing that they are using fund balance, but that money is not being spent,” Butry said. “You have districts planning for one thing that doesn’t materialize, or you have districts overestimating their expenditures and then just continually have this surplus that rolls over into the next year.”

According to Butry, the penalty for not complying with the comptroller’s report could be a withholding of state funds up to the amount that district’s fund balance is over the 4 percent limit.

Koepper works as the superintendent of buildings and grounds at Sayville school district, and he said that so many districts do not operate within the limit because it does not make financial sense to do so.

“To be imposed upon by the state ties our hands, because if emergencies occur what do you do?” Koepper said. “Especially because you’re not allowed to overspend your budget.”

“To be imposed upon by the state ties our hands, because if emergencies occur what do you do? Especially because you’re not allowed to overspend your budget.”

— Steve Koepper

Butry said the law is in place to keep school districts from having too much money on hand that’s not being put toward productive use. He added the comptroller’s office often recommends putting the surplus into a one-time expenditure or to use it in subsequent school years for reducing the tax levy.

Brosdal said the district had already planned to use the unrestricted fund balance for the capital projects months before the district received any news on the comptroller’s findings.

“We knew we couldn’t wait — those projects needed to be done now,” Brosdal said. “I think that according to the [budget] vote the residents agreed with us.”

In the letter to the state comptroller the district also said it would be establishing a capital reserve of $750,000 in an effort to reduce the unassigned fund balance. The district letter said there’s five-year-plan
effects that should reduce the overage by more than half, below the 4 percent limit, within two years. This will include tightening the amounts the district uses in fund balance appropriations for future school years.

Butry said that the comptroller’s office was largely satisfied with the district’s response so far.

“To their credit,” he said, “they did say they were putting this money to use.”

Trustee Mike Riggio, above on right, is congratulated by current board of ed president Lynn Capobianco after it was announced he won his second term. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Instead of three, there’s four cheers for Mount Sinai School District, as all four of the board of education’s propositions passed with flying colors.

Residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of the $60,203,745 budget, with 769 voting yes and 193 no. The library budget received even more support on an 849-116 landslide. Receiving the second-highest voter approval was Proposition III, which will transfer $5 million from an unassigned fund balance to the capital fund to start immediate critical facility improvements, with 787 voting in favor and 176 against. The capital projects that will immediately be tackled are repairs to the high school roof, replacement of the turf field and the hardening of campus security, mainly through fencing in the entire campus.

Proposition I [Budget]: 769-193

Proposition II [Library]: 849-116

Proposition III [Capital Project]: 787-176

Proposition IV [Reserve Fund]: 761-199

“I’m ecstatic, especially to see the community support,” Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said. “I was concerned about Proposition III — these are things we absolutely need and couldn’t wait for a bond to do. Even if it were approved tomorrow it would take two years, and our one turf field could be condemned tomorrow.”

He said replacing the roof is of the utmost importance though, noting the issues seen each time it rains, like it did on the day of the budget vote May 15, with wind and heavy rain ravaging the North Shore as a storm rapidly passed.

“I’d hate to see the picture of what it looks like tomorrow,” the superintendent said. “It’s a disaster every time it rains.”

Other security improvements in addition to the fencing, included paying for armed guards and adding security vestibules at the entrances to the campus and adding more patrol routes for security personnel near the new fencing along the perimeter of the schools, among others.

“Ever since that tragedy Feb. 14 we’ve taken measurements necessary to keep our students safe,” Brosdal said, referring to the shooting in Parkland, Florida. “When these schools were first built alongside each other we never thought this would happen, so we will take the appropriate steps so that come the fall this will look like a different campus. There’s no fluff — this is all needed.”

Proposition IV was given the green light 761-199, which transfers money from fund balances to establish a $10 million capital reserve fund.

“If we have emergency repairs that are needed, now we can plan to pay for them,” trustee Mike Riggio said. “It’s a home run. And the best thing is it’s not costing our taxpayers any more money.”

Votes are counted in Mount Sinai. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Riggio, who was re-elected to the board with 747 votes, said he’s looking forward to serving another term.

“I understand much better what my role is in everything that we have to do and I’m ready,” he said. “I ran focused on security three years ago and I’m still focused on that and the fiscal stability of the district. People are losing their jobs, programs are being cut elsewhere, and we don’t want that to happen here. You have to budget right and be fiscally sound into the future.”

Board President Lynn Capobianco, who chose not to seek re-election to focus on family, was sad to see the voter turnout.

“It’s so light — under 1,000 and we usually have 1,400 or 1,500,” she said. “Perhaps it was the weather, the uncontested board or the budget being under the tax cap, but I am disappointed in the low voter turnout.”

The president said she’s proud of some of her accomplishments during her tenure — like seeing through the establishment of a full-day kindergarten program and the Columbia Reading and Columbia Writing programs, and said she’d like to see the creation of a science research or robotics program.

Steve Koepper, who ran unopposed for her seat on the board of education, received 651 votes.

“I felt now was a good time to offer more of my volunteer time in service to educational process to help shape the future of Mount Sinai schools,” said Koepper, an 18-year resident, in a previous interview. The father of two previously volunteered on the district’s bond committee. “There are problems like declining enrollment that need to be looked at, and I’m here so that we can work together and move forward.”

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The district is hosting a meet the candidates night May 2

Mount Sinai School District's budget and trustee vote is May 15 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Mount Sinai Elementary School, located at 118 North Country Rd. in Mount Sinai. File photo

By Kyle Barr

Two are running for two open seats on Mount Sinai’s board of education this month, with eight-year board veteran and president Lynn Capobianco stepping down.

Capobianco said she will not be seeking re-election, saying she believes it’s time for different community members to lend their voices to the discussion.

Lynn Capobianco. File photo

“All my children are through school, my youngest is now a freshman in college and I think it’s time for new faces and new voices to come in,” she said.

Incumbent trustee Michael Riggio is running for a second term and newcomer Steve Koepper is running first time. Both are running unopposed.

Riggio, the board’s vice president, is a 12-year resident of Mount Sinai finishing out his first three-year term. He has a 12-year-old daughter enrolled in the district.

Riggio is a retired officer of the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism unit who now provides security consulting. He said Mount Sinai’s push toward new security measures is something he has advocated for since he first arrived to the board.

“That’s one of the things I ran on three years ago,” Riggio said. “The new security’s working out, and it’s great to see it finally taking shape.”

Riggio said his focus is on making smart financial decisions to make sure school programs don’t get cut.

“Let’s say for example you have a senior and you have a kid in eighth grade,” Riggio said. “The senior was exposed to all these special programs and had great teachers, then, when the eighth-grader gets here, you want him to have the same things as the senior. You don’t want to tell the eighth-grader, ‘oh, we cut this program,’ and this is all gone because we have fiscal problems.”

Michael Riggio. File photo

Koepper and his family moved into their Mount Sinai home in 2000. He has previously volunteered on the district’s bond committee. The father of two said he understands the financial part of schools well, as he’s currently the superintendent of buildings and grounds for the Sayville school district.

“I have been involved with the community as a firefighter for over 15 years,” Koepper said in an email. “I felt now was a good time to offer more of my volunteer time in service to educational process to help shape the future of Mount Sinai schools. There are problems like declining enrollment that need to be looked at, and I’m here so that we can work together and move forward.”

He also has a 12-year-old daughter and a 3-and-a-half-year-old son in the district. Capobianco endorsed Koepper for the open seat.

“[Koepper] did a great job on the bond committee, so I think he will be a nice fit for school board,” she said.

Mount Sinai School District is hosting a meet the candidates night May 2 at 7:30 p.m. in the Mount Sinai Middle School auditorium. The school is located at 114 North Country Road in Mount Sinai.

Uniqua holds her two new teddy bears tightly. She received the gifts from members of Mount Sinai's Students Against Destructive Decisions club. Photo by Kevin Redding

Just one night at Mount Sinai High School helped to make the season bright for local families in need.

For Christmas, all 6-year-old Uniqua really wanted was an Elf on the Shelf toy, a gift her mom struggled to afford. But Moniqua McGee, who lives with her daughter at Concern for Independent Living in Medford, knew she had nothing to worry about. She had Mount Sinai high schoolers to rely on.

A family from Concern for Independent Living receive gifts from Mount Sinai children through Hauppuage-based nonprofit Christmas Magic. Photo by Kevin Redding

On Dec. 6, during the Students Against Destructive Decisions club’s Christmas Magic dinner in the high school’s cafeteria, a beaming Uniqua not only got her wish, but two new teddy bears and holiday-themed face paint, too. She even met Santa Claus and Rudolph.

“I’m grateful they’re doing this for the families and putting smiles on the kid’s faces,” said Moniqua McGee, who has been coming to the event the past five years. “It works every time.”

The McGees were just one of dozens of families from the Medford nonprofit enjoying the holiday spirit in the room. An 18-year partnership between the Hauppauge-based organization Christmas Magic and the SADD club, the Christmas soiree served as the ultimate payoff of a shopping spree by the students Dec. 1. Under the supervision of SADD club advisors John Wilson and John McHugh, they spent that day rushing around Smith Haven Mall and Walmart to buy gifts for more than 60 boys and girls from Concern for Independent Living, which provides housing and employment help for struggling families, based on wish lists they wrote to Santa. The school district also raised $8,000 for Christmas Magic.

Members of Mount Sinai’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club watch children open up presents. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I’m happy and proud to be part of a program and district that not only encourages, but fosters this type of activity,” McHugh said. “The students involved display the best we have to offer … we have grown our program every year and that makes me feel great.”

With all the gifts wrapped and labeled, every kid left the dinner with at least three presents given to them by Santa, played by rosy red cheeked wrestling icon Mick Foley, who also posed for pictures. Christmas tunes blared through the cafeteria’s speakers as families ate chicken, pasta and desserts, and SADD club members — some dressed up in costume — went around the room with little gift bags of extra toys for attendees. SADD club members also played games and watched “Elf” with the kids.

“It’s so nice to be able to see all the kids here and see them get the gifts we got for them,” said Allie Garrant, an 11th grader and SADD club member, who picked up a lacrosse stick and Rubik’s Cube for a 13-year-old boy. “Just seeing their faces — it’s a whole different thing. It’s like, ‘Wow, these are real people I’m helping’ and you get to see firsthand the difference you’re making.”

Renato Lugo, whose four children were ecstatic over their gifts, expressed his gratitude to those involved in the event.

Students dressed up to entertain children during a Christmas Magic dinner at Mount Sinai High School. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s a beautiful thing to have organizations like these that help out and take care of people in need,” said Lugo, who has been aided by Concern for Independent Living for six years. “The students bring joy and cheer and they make my kids very happy.”

His 12-year-old daughter, Elena, was ecstatic receiving a long-sleeve Unicorn pajama shirt from Santa.

“I think it’s really amazing I got the present I wanted,” Elena said. “And the food is amazing and everyone’s so happy. I love SADD. They’re really like another Santa.”

Kim Dellamura, who’s been at the nonprofit agency for six months, said the event allowed her 4-year-old daughter MacKenzie to have a Christmas.

“It feels good because I don’t know how much I would’ve been able to give her this year,” Dellamura said. “So this really helps out a lot. She loves it.”

For Lawrence Aurigemma, the event is a perfect reflection of what this time of year means.

“This season is all about peace and generosity,” said Aurigemma, a military veteran whose 14-year-old son received Pokemon cards. “These students are just fantastic. They go out of their way to help out the less fortunate people here. It’s a wonderful thing. They knew exactly what to get my son … he’s so happy.”

Smithtown resident and former WWE wrestler Mick Foley dishes out gifts to children. Photo by Kevin Redding

Also at the event was Christmas Magic founder Charlie Russo and representatives of Concern for Independent Living, including case managers Ella Cantave and Julio Villarman, who were excited to see their clients enjoying the holidays.

“It’s a very special day for them,” Cantave said. “It took a lot of effort to make it happen and to make it nice for them.”

As everybody in the room sang “Jingle Bells,” Santa arrived and joined in. Each kid’s name was called out to sit down with the big man in the red suit.

Foley, who has been a volunteer with Christmas Magic since 2000 and officially assumed the role of Santa for the organization in 2014, said he looks forward to the event all year round.

“It’s a great organization — they spread joy and happiness to so many of the less fortunate in the community, and it’s an honor to wear the red suit and represent Christmas Magic,” Foley said before turning his attention to the SADD club. “I make it a point to thank all of them because I think it’s wonderful that they get involved in volunteer work at a young age. They do a great job and it’s really easy for me to show up and get a lot of the credit from children, but the truth is, without them, absolutely none of this is possible.”

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Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

With the yearly rise in the number of Mount Sinai students who refuse to take standardized tests — in relation to a statewide movement against Common Core — district administrators have rolled out new ways to assess and strengthen learning skills. So far, three months into the school year, school leaders believe students are reaping the benefits.

“We’re doing things differently than we’ve ever done before,” said Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal during a Nov. 15 board of education meeting.

Brosdal said the district has implemented new literacy-based assessment programs to fill a great need to measure the academic abilities of elementary and middle school students. Since the 2012-13 school year, more and more students have opted out of the state’s English Language Arts and Math standardized exams, which are administered to evaluate those in grades three through eight, Brosdal said.

“I don’t necessarily agree with Common Core … but it’s important for kids to take the test because you get information out of them. What do we do to inform us about the kids who don’t take it? Or get more information on those that do?”

— Gordon Brosdal

“We went from a participation rate of 97 percent down to 40 percent,” he said, pointing to the uproar among members of the community over the adoption of Common Core as the main cause. Those against the tests criticize the pressures it places on students and teachers. “I don’t necessarily agree with Common Core … but it’s important for kids to take the test because you get information out of them. What do we do to inform us about the kids who don’t take it? Or get more information on those that do?”

Joined by district principals — Peter Pramataris of the middle school and Rob Catlin of the elementary school — Brosdal showcased the growth of students at both schools as a result of the newly implemented programs. Fountas & Pinnell, which started in September, gauges the reading and comprehension level of individual
students by having them read a book with their teacher three times a year. It’s a more relaxed form of testing that serves to measure a student’s progression throughout the year while also encouraging them to find the fun in reading.

When the student demonstrates overall reading ability and understanding of the text, he or she graduates to more challenging books. Books are organized into letter-based levels, “A” books being Dr. Suess and “Z” books being “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

In a demonstration of the district’s Columbia Writing Program, which was put in place three years ago as a
result of weakness in the subject across the elementary and middle schools, Pramataris compared a middle school student’s writing assignment from the second day of school to a writing assignment in October. As he pointed out, the second assignment was lengthier, and the student’s narrative skills were punchier.

Academic Intervention Services — help offered by the state at schools to help  students achieve the learning standards, monitors and helps those falling behind.

“We see weaknesses and we want to make them stronger and really work at it,” Brosdal said. “I believe our students have become better writers and readers and they will only get stronger. We’re going to see a lot of good things.”

Catlin, who was hired as principal of the elementary school over the summer, came to the district already well versed in the new programs and was determined to help initiate them.

“We’ve really developed a district wide action plan this year,” Catlin said. “The absence of meaningful assessment results required us to have meaningful in-house assessments. We can’t be in the dark about how a majority of our kids, who don’t take the state tests, are doing.”

The absence of meaningful assessment results required us to have meaningful in-house assessments. We can’t be in the dark about how a majority of our kids, who don’t take the state tests, are doing.”

— Rob Catlin

Catlin said in the first Fountas & Pinnell session performed by the district, teachers observed that 45 percent of students in lower elementary grades (first and second) performed at or above grade level. In the upper elementary grades (third and fourth) 22 percent of students performed at or above grade level.

“There are many reasons for this,” Catlin said. “As they say, data doesn’t answer questions, it just opens up questions and makes you think more about why things are happening.”

He explained that while students at these grade levels may have understood the books they were reading, they aren’t used to answering the high level of questions about it, and aren’t engaging in enough independent reading to practice these skills.

Now that teachers have that information about the student, they will be able to directly address their needs before the second session, which takes place in January. In the meantime, the elementary school librarian has started leveling books in the library and Scholastic money from the PTO, totaling $4,000, is being used to purchase more leveled books, Catlin said.

“Now we can use resources to really target their needs,” Catlin said. “And we’re able to see progress quickly, which is nice, and not have to wait until April when the state tests are taken.”

Deena Timo, executive director of educational services and another integral player in bringing the programs to the school, said of the state tests: “We’ve always viewed them as just a little snapshot in time and not the be all, end all to assess a child. It’s that, taken with a lot of things done in the classroom throughout the year that give you a good picture of a student.”

While Brosdal said he wishes more students took the Common Core tests in order to prepare for Regents exams once they reach the high school, he agreed.

“When you have to push the state stuff aside you ask, ‘Now what do we have to measure our kids?’” Brosdal said. “In the classroom, are we seeing growth? Are they engaged now where they weren’t earlier in the year? We are reacting to what we’re seeing, trying to put better things in place. I believe we’re heading in the right direction.”

Thanksgiving Turkey Trot races benefit Hauppauge-based nonprofit Christmas Magic

By Bill Landon

Thanks to Mount Sinai community members displaced children are once again getting what’s on their Christmas lists this year.

The school district’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club members teamed up with Strong Island Running Club and more than 36 local businesses and families for the 7th annual Mount Sinai Turkey Trot 5K and Fun Run to benefit Hauppauge-based nonprofit Christmas Magic.

According to running club founder John McHugh, the organization receives letters from children who write to Santa from area homeless shelters.

“Many were originally displaced back in 2008 as a result of the housing market crash,” McHugh said. “We get those letters, and with the proceeds of today’s race, we’ll go shopping next week and buy presents for the kids and host a dinner for them and their families.”

The races brought out more than 350 entrants, and Mount Sinai student-athletes swept the top five 5K spots. First across the finish line was Mount Sinai junior Sean Higgins, who is a member of the school’s varsity track and field and cross country teams. He clocked in at a personal best 17 minutes, 26:31.

“I practice at 7 a.m. every day,” the 17-year-old said. “I run for a living.”

Second across the finish line was teammate Ryan Wilson, who tripped the timer at 17:55.88. Mount Sinai runner Jackson Law finished in third with a time of 18:23.38, and was followed by his twin brother Christian who covered the distance in 18:24.97.

The first female finisher was Mount Sinai senior Noreen Guilfoyle, who finished in 18:35. It was her third consecutive first-place finish among females in the event.

“It’s a beautiful morning,” she said.

The event had the best turnout of any year so far, with event proceeds totaling just over $7,500, according to McHugh. After dinner, which will be held at Mount Sinai High School Dec. 6 at 5 p.m., there will be a visit from Santa where the kids will receive their gifts and sing Christmas carols.

“These people all have hearts of gold,” McHugh said. “It is our privilege to help make the holidays special for those children and families in need across Long Island.”

For more information about the collaboration, visit www.strongislandrunningclub.com or call 631-806-4649.

Mount Sinai teacher Virginia Armstrong hands a netbook to a Maasai girl. Photo from Virginia Armstrong

One former Mount Sinai educator is proving what a world of difference we can make if we share the wealth.

For the past four years, Virginia Armstrong, an English teacher for 28 years, has helped the district in partnering with the Maasai Good Salvage Outreach Organization to raise donations for communities in Kenya. After retiring with a love of teaching and for students, Armstrong first climbed 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania before deciding to teach in Africa. That’s when she met Chief Joseph Ole Tipanko, the leader of more than 5,000 Maasai tribal members who reside in Kenya and Tanzania. The organization builds schools for needy and vulnerable children, especially girls forced into early child marriage or who become victims to female genital cutting.

Armstrong invited Chief Joseph to Mount Sinai Middle School to give a presentation, and students and staff presented him with donations.

“We share our lifestyle and culture of the Maasai people,” Chief Joseph said of the assembly. “We got a good welcome and reception, and receiving their help is a very good feeling. It’s teamwork. They’re all able to bring us together and help my community.”

Maasai children gather around their new technology. Photo from Virginia Armstrong

Small donations of clothing eventually grew to include sneakers and 40 laptops in 2015. Armstrong’s son Matthew, now carrying on the family’s teaching tradition at Mount Sinai, helped set up the clothing drive as part of Athletes Helping Athletes, and director of information technology Ken Jockers proposed the repurposing of the laptops.

“We were impressed with their presentation and viewed them as a worthy candidate for donation,” Jockers said. “We are happy to see that the Maasai can make some use of them.”

This year, the school handed over a batch of 140 eight-year-old netbooks that were deemed obsolete by the district.

“It opens up the world to them,” Virginia Armstrong said. “They come into the world with no electricity or internet and for them to have access now is a fabulous thing.”

Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal takes great satisfaction in the partnership between the schools.

“Knowing they’re going to schools to educate young children and young women — to raise them up — means a lot,” he said of the computers. “They’re such kind, gentle people and extremely grateful, but I don’t know if this would be possible without Virginia Armstrong. She still has all this energy and excitement. It’s amazing what she does with this group and she makes the Mount Sinai community proud. It’s hard to think she’s even retired because she’s totally dedicated to these people.”

The high schools for the Maasai people in Kenya were  recently wired for electricity, according to Armstrong, who is also the organization’s New York representative, booking Maasai members to come to schools, libraries and churches, where they speak about their culture and sell handmade jewelry and other African-made merchandise. Chief Joseph said the schools have also been trying to make use of green power, so some of the schools are installing solar panels to generate electricity to charge the laptops.

Mount Sinai district members donate clothes to the Maasai, including Chief
Joseph Ole Tipanko. Photo from Virginia Armstrong

Chief Joseph said the clothing and sneakers have meant a lot to his people, especially because most of the women don’t have shoes, but also said the computer donations have opened their eyes to how other people live, and they’ve also become a major teaching opportunity.

“It is new technology to us,” he said. “It enables teachers to access information, to do research. It helps them to keep records and it gives the students an opportunity to learn to use technology. They’re also learning how to type.”

Chief Joseph said personal donations given to his organization go toward feeding the children, or providing school lunches.

“It goes a long way changing their lifestyle,” he said.

The well wishes and support though, especially from the Mount Sinai school district, are unparalleled.

“It allows us to exist,” he said. “We look to continue this relationship for the betterment of our communities and share what’s happening on the other side of the world. It helps our students connect, and it shows people out there are thinking about them, love them and care.”

To find out more about Chief Joseph’s Maasai tribe, visit www.magsaoutreach.org. To find out more about the Maasai’s ties to Suffolk County or to donate, visit www.leavingfootprints.org.

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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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