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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.”

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There was confirmation for what I have been saying over the past couple of years. Shopping has changed. Now I have never been a particularly astute shopper. When I need something, I go into the closest appropriate store and buy the item. The only time I enjoy shopping, for the most part, is when I am on vacation and feel I have the leisure to browse. Especially if I am in a foreign country, shops are a place where the clerk probably speaks English and will be inclined to chat, hoping for a sale. That way I learn about the place I am visiting and also perhaps see unusual products that may tempt me.

That said, I know something about shopping because of the newspaper business. The traditional backbone of the community newspaper has been advertising from the retail shops along Main Street, USA. No longer is that the secure source of our revenue. And why? Because the nature of shopping has changed.

Catalogs presaged the change many years ago. Busy residents could scan catalogs from different stores, pick out the items they needed or thought they needed, call a store’s 800 number and receive delivery a few days later. It wasn’t necessary to bestir oneself from the living room sofa and go out to see the product. If, when it arrived, it didn’t fit or wasn’t the right color, we could send it back, often postage paid. I used to joke that they should put a try-on room in the post office.

Then came the internet, and more specifically, Amazon. No longer do we have the inconvenience of searching through multiple catalogues. We can now indicate what we want and select from among many manufacturers the precise item we seek. Further, that item may appear at our door within 24 hours, or even the same afternoon for a slightly higher fee. Amazon has become the entire world’s bazaar.

Sometimes people venture out to a store to get a three-dimensional look at the desired goods. Yet often they then retreat to their cellphones and order the same item for less money over the internet. E-commerce is king.

This sea change in shopping has been happening gradually but now is moving at an accelerating pace. At least that is what a recent article, “Is American Retail at a Historic Tipping Point?” by Michael Corkery, in The New York Times tells us: “Between 2010 and 2014, e-commerce grew by an average of $30 billion annually. Over the past three years, average annual growth has increased to $40 billion.” The Times article continues, “This transformation is hollowing out suburban shopping malls, bankrupting longtime brands and leading to staggering job losses.” It has also shaken the money tree of daily and weekly newspapers, as evidenced by the fewer number of pages and hence news stories that newspapers can afford to publish. But we papers are only collateral damage.

“More workers in general merchandise stores have been laid off since October, about 89,000 Americans. That is more than all of the people employed in the United States coal industry, which President Trump championed during the campaign as a prime example of the workers who have been left behind in the economic recovery,” according to The Times. One out of 10 people works in retail, and the consequences of their being unemployed are as upending for society as the loss of jobs for manufacturing workers has been.

We are talking about the disappearing middle class here, folks. The small-store owners and their workers are losing their livelihoods. Shopping malls, with the exception of a luxurious few, are emptying out, and their sales staffs are being laid off. The great irony of Amazon now experimenting with brick-and-mortar stores will hardly replace the thousands of workers cut loose, and robots largely operate their fulfillment centers in huge warehouses.

There is a brilliant little business book by Spencer Johnson called, “Who Moved My Cheese?” which summarizes the current condition in first-grader detail. Retail life as we knew it, in this case the old cheese, is elsewhere. To survive in business now requires innovation, retraining and finding the location of new cheese.

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State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, right, is applauded after paying a surprise visit to the Three Village board of education meeting last week in honor of Gary Vorwald. Photo by Andrea Moore Paldy

The science department chair at P. J. Gelinas Junior High School received special recognition at the most recent Three Village board of education meeting.

Gary Vorwald has taught science in Three Village since 1997 and has led the Gelinas Science Olympiad team to several championships. He also has received awards in his own right. Among them, he was named a New York State master teacher in 2015. In the same year, the New York Earth Science Teachers Association gave him its first Distinguished Earth Science Teacher award.

In Vorwald’s honor, State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket)paid a surprise visit during the board meeting. The Gelinas science teacher and paleontologist had just completed a presentation on the secondary science curriculum with colleagues Marnie Kula and Patrick McManus.

Englebright praised Vorwald.

“He has brought distinction to his work, but that’s not what he tried to do,” said the assemblyman, who also is a geologist and lecturer at Stony Brook University.

“What he tried to do is bring opportunities for learning for our children. The other things just happened because he was successful in bringing out the best. … He’s a scientist as well as a teacher. We’re so very fortunate that he brought his mastery of science and his unquenchable desire to learn as an inspiration for our kids.”

During their curriculum presentation, Vorwald and his colleagues emphasized dedication to science instruction.

“We want to keep kids jazzed about science,” said Kula, Ward Melville High School science and InSTAR chair.

The department’s goal, she said, is to help students to be hands-on, active learners.

“I’m happy to say that science is alive and well in Three Village,” Kula said, mentioning the district’s Regents scores, which surpass the state’s pass and mastery rates.

She added that while students are only required to take one physical and one life science for an Advanced Regents diploma, 60 to 65 percent of each graduating class exceeds the minimum requirements by taking both chemistry and physics.

Ward Melville offers every AP science course available, as well as several science electives that include astronomy, consumer chemistry and forensics.

Perhaps the best-known program at the high school is its three-year Independent Science Technology and Research (InSTAR) program. Its participants have received numerous honors in competitions such as The DuPont Challenge, Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision, Siemens and the Intel Science Talent Search.

Opportunities for students to engage in science outside the classroom include the Robotics team at the high school and Science Olympiad and Science Bowl at all three schools. Students can also take part in beach cleanups and partnerships with Stony Brook University and the Brookhaven National Lab Open Space Stewardship program.

Vorwald said that the district’s science educators are preparing for an update in science standards. He explained that New York is developing new standards, based on Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a framework for K-12 science education. New York state science teachers are providing feedback “to tweak and modify” the standards, he said, adding that the edits will be submitted to the Board of Regents for possible adoption this spring.

Once the new standards are adopted, the department will develop a new curriculum. McManus, science chair at R.C. Murphy Junior High School, said additional goals are to bring coding to the junior high schools and to continue to bring more technology and upper-level advanced courses to the classroom.

English as a New Language

Perhaps less well known is the district’s English as a New Language (ENL) program, previously known as English as a Second Language. This program provides specialized instruction to English language learners at Nassakeag Elementary School, Gelinas and Ward Melville.

The district differentiates instruction according to proficiency level. There are “stand-alone” classes that follow the research-based Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol model. This means students learn English and develop academic skills to prepare them for success in a non-ENL classroom. Integrated classrooms offer grade-level instruction in English taught either by a teacher certified in English and ENL or taught with a co-teacher.

As of December 2015, the district has a total of 55 ENL students. Forty-seven percent of the district’s ENL students speak Spanish as their “home” language, while 25 percent speak Chinese and 9 percent, Korean. Other “home” languages include Russian, Japanese, Gujarati, Lithuanian, Greek, Tagalog, French and Hebrew.

Board Policy

In other news, the board voted to allow the use of district credit cards.

District credit cards will be used mostly for maintenance projects, said Jeff Carlson, assistant superintendent for business services. He said the cards would be used for purchases from stores such as Lowes and Home Depot, so that workers wouldn’t have to travel for parts.

The use of district credit cards represents a significant policy change.

“At a different time in our history in Three Village, we specifically established a policy that forbade the use of credit cards because there had been abuses,” BOE head Bill Connors said.

“We’re at a very different time. Plus we have the checks and balances in place now that we didn’t have back at a different time in our history.”

Carlson’s office will review disbursements monthly. The district has an internal auditor and a claims auditor who will also review the records.