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New York State Education Department

Some parents had advocated to make the pandemic-era reprieve permanent

Public domain photo

Regents exam scores will account for 10% of student grades this year in Three Village Central School District, despite calls to extend a COVID-19 pandemic-era policy that only includes the scores when they improve student course grades.

The decision, which came after robust discussion and disagreement among board members at their Nov. 29 meeting, goes along with the recommendation of a district committee to include the scores at 10% of the final grade — down from the 12% that was policy before the pandemic reprieve.

Freshman board members Karen Roughley and David McKinnon spoke openly against including scores in all student grades, particularly because New York State does not mandate doing so for all districts, and they said it could disadvantage Three Village students who struggle with test anxiety, have special needs or experience a personal catastrophe before the test date.

“Using the Regents scores would decrease a student’s GPA and put them at a disadvantage against all the other students in the state who do not have it included, in applying for colleges and scholarships,” Roughley said.

The State Education Department’s website states it “does not require nor recommend the inclusion of Regents exam scores in the computation of final course averages,” and rather leaves it up to each district to decide.

McKinnon called this approach a failure of leadership. “The state doesn’t stand behind their test,” he said. “The state makes the test, they pass it out, they grade it, but then they have no effective policy on what we should do with that test.”

After parents — especially those of children with special needs — spoke out last spring, the previous board voted to extend the so-called Do No Harm policy through the end of the 2022-2023 school year with the caveat that a permanent decision should come this fall.

In recommending inclusion of Regents scores at 10%, the committee suggested students may not take the exams as seriously if the scores don’t count toward a course grade.

Trustee Vincent Vizzo, a former teacher and administrator who has a long affiliation with Three Village and said he was part of writing Regents exams in the past, admitted he was not a fan of the state tests and understands they can hurt students who do not do well. “I have very mixed opinions right now,” he said. “But if a committee of educators are saying that they want to keep the percentage, then I don’t think the board should micromanage and decide against what the committee is saying.”

Board president Susan Rosenzweig also expressed mixed feelings, saying she believes Do No Harm makes philosophical sense, but that there can be valuable information garnered from all students “meaningfully engaging in the assessments.”

When the remaining board members echoed Vizzo’s desire to defer to the committee of professional educators, Rosenzweig attempted to broker a compromise by suggesting the board include the scores at 5% instead of 10%, which she said was her “comfort level,” but only trustee Jeffrey Kerman expressed interest in changing the percentage, saying he would vote for either 5% or 10%.

Seeing no appetite for middle ground, Rosensweig cast the deciding vote with an audible sigh. “Because I guess it’s not going to go any other way,” she said.

Graphic from PJSD website
By Aidan Johnson

The Port Jefferson School District Board of Education held its monthly meeting on Tuesday, July 11, at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School.

During the “old business” section, Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan discussed several capital projects the voters approved in May 2022.

During the school year, the board has to get its plans approved by the New York State Education Department. Once approved, the projects can go out to bid.

A small section of the high school’s roof needs to be renovated and was awarded to a responsible bidder.

Elementary school pool

For the elementary school pool, even though NYSED approved it, the Suffolk County Board of Health still needs to approve it, asking for several redesigns of certain items, including where drainage sites are to be located. 

Therefore, the project could not go out to bid, and as of this meeting, the pool will likely not be getting done this summer.

The school budgeted $561,000 for bleachers, but the price is coming in at just under $1 million, with some of the bids being for a smaller-scale bleacher than the downsized 650 seats (there are currently around 1100 seats) that the school would prefer.

Continuing supply chain issues are also getting in the way, and the bleachers may take anywhere from 10 to 12 weeks for production.

The pool is still open for student use.

Middle school drainage/BOCES

The retaining wall and drainage for the middle school have yet to have a bid come in under the $2.3 million allocated from the capital reserves. 

Because of this, the board does not expect the retaining wall to be done this summer. The school architect is looking at redesigning the wall with poured concrete faced with stone instead of using pricier cinder blocks.

During the public comment section of the meeting, the parents of a child who will be attending the elementary school in the upcoming year expressed their concerns about the BOCES program that has been brought into the building.

‘Our primary concern is to keep things safe for all students.’ ­

— Ellen Boehm

Currently, BOCES is renting five classrooms as integrated for this summer and then four classrooms when September starts, Schmettan said in an interview.

“Those students will be integrated for recess, and then they will have gym, art and music with our teachers, but by themselves,” she said. “It adds revenue to the district and some differently abled children.”

The father of the child shared his worries about letting non-PJSD employees, along with the new students, have “unfettered access to this building,” he said.

“These are students that we don’t know, whose IEPs and potential issues we are not allowed to know by law,” the father said.

“We, as Port Jefferson, have no control over these particular students, and these are employees that are hired by BOCES, not Port Jefferson,” he added.

In response, BOE president Ellen Boehm said that over the past week, the school has been operational with the BOCES students, and there has not been a situation.

“Our primary concern is to keep things safe for all students,” she said. “At this time, there are no red flags.”

The Port Jefferson father responded that Boehm’s judgment was based on only one week in the summer when the Port Jeff students were not in attendance.

He also asserted that the BOCES agreement would not bring the district the financial benefit previously stated in the May meeting.

“Not including your potential chargebacks, Port Jeff will only see an average of $43,000 per year throughout the three-year lease, not the $105,000 that was estimated and listed in the budget proposals back in January as leases for Spring Street with no mention of Scraggy Hill,” he said.

However, Schmettan clarified why the board’s estimate is correct in her interview after the meeting, saying, “There’s a lease agreement for the actual space, which is what [he] was referring to, and then there are chargebacks for the teachers, so it does still estimate to about $100,000.”

“He is just estimating the cost of the actual physical space, but there’s also the cost of the employees associated that our teachers are providing instruction for,” the superintendent further explained.

Graphic from CSD website

The New York State Education Department is cracking down on Native American mascots in schools, and Comsewogue School District is now in its sights.

In a Nov. 17 letter sent out to districts across the state, NYSED senior deputy commissioner James Baldwin alerted school administrators that using Native American mascots, team names or imagery is prohibited “without current approval from a recognized tribe.” 

Districts failing to meet these standards, Baldwin wrote, “may be in willful violation of the Dignity [for All Students] Act.” The penalty for violators could “include the removal of school officers and the withdrawal of state aid.”

Facing the threat of losing state aid, CSD officials will have to work against the clock. NYSED is placing a deadline on school districts, ordering them to retire these mascots before the end of the 2022-23 school year.

The Education Department is developing new regulations to clarify its policy, with a release date anticipated sometime in April. Until then, New York school districts remain in limbo.

Jennifer Quinn, superintendent of schools at Comsewogue School District, said the district would not make any policy determinations until NYSED releases its detailed guidelines. 

“There are so many question marks,” she said. “Until we see the actual regulations, we’re kind of playing a guessing game.”

While school districts statewide undergo significant changes in the coming months, certain characteristics may set Comsewogue apart from the pack.

Emblazoned at the center of the high school’s turf field is a district logo containing Native American imagery. Photo from Google Maps

Historical background

Before Europeans had ever stepped foot on Long Island, from present day St. James to Wading River and as far south as Gordon Heights, the Setalcott Nation once inhabited the lands. Within that territory lies Port Jefferson Station/Terryville, an area known to the Setalcotts as Comsewogue, meaning “place where paths come together.” 

The Terryville-Comsewogue School District was formed in 1874, and the senior high school opened nearly a century later in 1971. The school district has prominently showcased its precolonial heritage along with its name. 

One district emblem contains the initials “CSD” with a feather draped over its side. Another logo displays a visually striking profile depicting a Setalcott. This logo is etched ubiquitously throughout the district’s website, school walls and at the center of the high school’s turf athletic field. Sports teams are called “the Warriors.”

Setalcott reaction

Helen Sells is president of the Setalcott Native American Council. In an interview, she said she is personally not offended by the use of Setalcott images and references in Comsewogue schools. Sells referred to the term “warrior” as a distinction among her ancestors. 

“It was an honor for our men, and some of the women, to serve for our country and for the freedoms of all,” she said. “The men were considered warriors because they had to go out and hunt for food and hold the community together.”

Asked whether Comsewogue School District should continue using Setalcott mascots, team names and imagery, Sells responded affirmatively. “To me, it’s important as a family to try to keep that history going,” she said.

Whether this response constitutes “current approval from a recognized tribe” is still to be determined. NYSED declined to comment for this story.

Debating mascots, logos and team names

‘The state takes the approach that one size fits all. They’re not looking into every local district.’ ­

— Ed Flood

New York State Assemblyman Ed Flood (R-Port Jefferson), whose 4th Assembly District encompasses CSD, said the state has more pressing educational concerns than deciding mascots and team names.

“There’s so much wrong in education right now,” he said. “I think our kids — I see it in my own children being out of the classroom for so long — are kind of behind,” adding, “We have bigger problems to fix.”

A Comsewogue alum, Flood held that the logos and team name were not intended to deride Native Americans. “It’s not used in any way to be offensive,” he said. “Comsewogue is a pretty diverse district with people of all races and ethnicities. We were all proud to put on that jersey, and we understood what it represented.”

Flood’s predecessor in the state Assembly, Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), offered that ethical dilemmas often require moderation and restraint by decision-makers. He cited the example of the U.S. Army renaming bases that had honored former Confederates.

“I believe the model for what should be done is probably the way that the U.S. Army has approached the question of renaming military bases,” Englebright said. “The approach was to set up — two, I believe — study commissions and to give thoughtful consideration if there is a controversy.” He added, “I’m not sure there is a controversy here.”

State aid conundrum

Debates surrounding state contributions to public education have been ongoing for over a century and a half, said Campbell Scribner, assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland College of Education in College Park. 

In an interview, he traced the historical trends of public education in the United States, highlighting the complexities surrounding state aid.

“One of the ambiguities or tensions in American education is that, constitutionally, there has never been a federal right to education, but there is a state right,” he said. “Since at least the Civil War, all state constitutions make provisions for public education.” 

However, until the early to mid-20th century, state funding lagged behind local contributions. “Although states have a constitutional obligation to provide education, they didn’t fund it very well,” Scribner said.

Without organized state bureaucracies or state income tax, school districts generated revenue primarily through local property taxes. This model offered considerable local autonomy in setting curricula and other districtwide standards.

‘States have taken a much more robust posture. They’ve taken more interest in what’s happening locally.’ ­

— Campbell Scribner

Invoking social reforms

The dynamic between states and school boards changed as state aid began to comprise a heftier chunk of school districts’ overall budgets. With the injection of state funds, Scribner suggests power has shifted away from local school officials and into the hands of state bureaucrats. 

“States have taken a much more robust posture,” Scribner said, adding, “They’ve taken more interest in what’s happening locally.”

With more say over budgeting, states have found leverage in setting curricula and social standards within school districts. Moreover, the threat of revoking state aid can be an effective instrument.

Despite the state’s newfound power, this approach has limits: “The state certainly does not want to come across as coercive,” Scribner said. “I don’t think it’s going to help state legislators to look like they’re bullying local school boards or denying children education.”

“But on the other hand,” he added, “I don’t think, legally, the school boards have the sort of rights they might assume they do or the same prerogative against the states.”

Native American imagery

‘There’s a long history of European settlers appropriating Native American imagery.’ ­

— Andrew Newman

Within the scope of national and statewide politics, CSD is caught in a much broader web over the role of Native American imagery.

Andrew Newman is a professor and chair in the English Department at Stony Brook University whose research focuses on the intersection of early American, indigenous and media studies. 

Newman shared that Native American imagery within popular culture is a centuries-old practice dating back to the 18th century.

“There’s a long history of European settlers appropriating Native American imagery,” he said. “There was an idea of Native Americans as being sort of tied to the land, athletic, representing this kind of uncivilized masculinity that was very attractive to the mainstream white culture.”

He added, “This phenomenon was referred to by the scholar Philip Deloria, in a book [of the same title] from 1998, as ‘Playing Indian.’”

Newman maintained that these portrayals often negatively affect self-perceptions within Native American communities, adding that such caricatures can minimize historical injustices.

The movement away from Native American mascots and team names has gradually developed within public education and professional sports. After years of resistance, the former Washington Redskins football and Cleveland Indians baseball franchises have finally changed their team names to more neutral identifiers, respectively the Commanders and Guardians.

Newman said mascots, team names and imagery can be hard to do away with because of the strong emotional ties these symbols can produce. This effect is especially prevalent within schools. 

“The students and families and communities that are associated with these schools are kind of attached to the school’s traditions,” the SBU professor said. “They’re hard to give up.”

Veneration vs. denigration

The debate over the use of Native American mascots surrounds two main arguments, according to Newman. On the one hand, proponents say these images glorify indigenous heritage and tradition. On the other, detractors view them as derogatory and offensive to Native Americans. 

Reflecting upon the function of public education, Newman noted the apparent contradiction between the mission to educate about local history while potentially alienating a segment of the local population.

“Especially in educational institutions, where presumably part of the mission is to educate the students about the local history, I don’t think that educational mission is compatible with the use of a Native American-themed mascot,” the SBU professor said.

‘When we do make our plan, we are very mindful of including every stakeholder.’ ­

— Jennifer Quinn

An opportunity for dialogue

Assessing NYSED’s approach, Flood suggested Albany is applying a blanket policy to a multifaceted issue. He contended the state government is neither informed of Comsewogue’s historical circumstances nor sensitive to the variations between tribes across Long Island.

“The state takes the approach that one size fits all,” the assemblyman said. “They’re not looking into every local district.”

While pressure comes down from Albany, Scribner said schools are uniquely suited to answer these moral questions through their abundant channels for local input.

“School politics remain one of the strongest and most accessible democratic spaces we have in this country,” the UM professor said. “They are, of course, hemmed in certain ways by state regulations. But again, I still think that if local voters really want something, they do have levers to pull.”

Quinn affirmed CSD’s commitment to working as a community through this sensitive local matter. “Nobody wants to do anything to make a child feel uncomfortable,” she said. “Ultimately, we have to see what [NYSED is] going to tell us we have to do, and then we can make a plan.”

The district superintendent concluded, “When we do make our plan, we are very mindful of including every stakeholder. Our community is going to be very involved.”

Englebright noted that CSD likely did not intend to disparage Native Americans when it created its logo and team name. 

Nonetheless, the former assemblyman reiterated that study commissions and community forums could be fruitful in working out competing ethical considerations. 

“History is complicated,” Englebright said. “That’s why I think this deserves some introspection.”

Photo courtesy Rob DeStefano
By Rob DeStefano

On Nov. 17, and subsequent to a judicial ruling against a New York public school district, the New York State Education Department sent a memo communicating a “need to ensure that district mascots, team names and logos are nondiscriminatory.” This memo closed with an unfortunate edict: “Should a district fail to affirmatively commit to replacing its Native American team name, logo and/or imagery by the end of the 2022-23 school year, it may be in willful violation of the Dignity Act. The penalties for such a violation include the removal of school officers and the withholding of state aid.” 

In response, I contacted NYS Commissioner of Education Betty Rosa and introduced several preliminary questions and recommendations, including the imperative that time be afforded to make this a teachable moment — both a cultural and business education opportunity. The commissioner agreed with the academic opportunity. She recognized more information for affected school districts was needed, and these details are expected soon.

Throughout our conversation, Commissioner Rosa’s responses to my questions continued to incorporate the term “reasonable.” The dialogue yielded some insights and elevated some concerns that have been topics among our community members during these intervening weeks:

By the end of this school year (June 2023), affected districts shall provide an attestation that they intend to comply with changes to ensure nondiscriminatory logos/mascots/names, etc.

Logo development and implementation will be done in a reasonable time frame. Subsequent to our conversation, NYSED has indicated implementation by the end of the 2024-25 school year.

Logos on gymnasium floors and turf fields were greeted with a “reasonable” replacement. I interpret this to mean the turf field logo would be replaced when the turf is next due for wear replacement, as anything that accelerated financial burden on the district or our residents, I view as “unreasonable.” However, my interpretation awaits confirmation in the forthcoming details from NYSED.

Existing logos/names in question could be maintained if there is an existing agreement with local tribes to preserve these artifacts. As recently as 2020, local Native American leaders have not favored our logo. Further discussion should always be an option.

It was not explicitly affirmed whether our district naming was at risk. However, “Comsewogue” is a vocabulary word — not a direct name of a Native American person or peoples — and “Warriors” is a generic term originating from Anglo-French and used ubiquitously across cultures. These origins suggest reasonable, nondiscriminatory terms.

Going at least as far back as my elementary experience, Comsewogue School District has taught the history of our community, including the Setalcott Native Americans and the translation of the local Native American term “Comsewogue” — or its historic spelling “Cumsewogue” — as “an intersection of many paths,” or “where many paths meet.” Perhaps the exploration of this history could be expanded through our problem-based learning curriculum. It might include an opportunity to meet present-day local Native American leaders willing to share their insights on topics of interest, but I will yield to our educators on best practice implementation.

From a business education perspective, I advised the state commissioner that business logos take more than six months to change — let alone a logo with strong emotional ties. It would require time to engage and collaborate with community stakeholders, then a period of research to determine the design of a new logo. Again, our problem-based curriculum offers an opportunity here: To learn the process of brand building and brand value, and the opportunity to perform the research to understand the emotions beneath the surface of Warrior Pride. Here again, I will yield to our educators for the creation of compelling learning experiences.

As clarification is received from the state, the school district will keep all stakeholders informed. However, it is always helpful to be prepared. Today’s Comsewogue students are the stewards of the Comsewogue Warrior, its appearance and the values associated with growing up in our community. I could not imagine a change of the current logo that isn’t led by them, built on perspectives from and backed by all our supporting stakeholders. 

Our students are the standard-bearers of today’s Warrior in human and artistic representation. And as envisaged by our students, Comsewogue’s logo will be an intersection of ideals and imagery.

Rob DeStefano serves as trustee for the Comsewogue School District Board of Education. The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Comsewogue School District or its Board of Education.

File photo by Julianne Mosher

Schools are staring down the barrel of funding cuts because of the COVID-19 crisis.

While students have been returning to their new normal of hybrid classes, remote learning and plastic barriers between desks, school districts across New York state are concerned about the news surrounding a potential 20% state funding cut.

Elwood Super Ken Bossert, pictured above before the pandemic, said every single school will need to make painful cuts if things don’t go their way. Photo from Heather Mammolito

According to New York State Education Department, the State Division of the Budget has begun withholding 20% of most local aid payments, forcing reductions in some payments to school districts across the state. The reductions in aid, combined with increased costs during pandemic times, could affect not only students, but community members too.  

“All public schools throughout New York state will have to make deep and painful cuts if federal assistance in the form of school aid is not secured,” said Ken Bossert, superintendent of Elwood school district. “The governor’s proposal of reducing aid by 20% will impact districts that rely heavily on aid in a devastating way. Not only will programs and staffing be redacted, the gap between the ‘haves and the have-nots’ will widen.”

Mark Secaur, superintendent of Smithtown school district, noted that during the height of the pandemic in New York last spring, the state adopted a budget that contained three review periods, in which local aid distributions might be reduced on a rolling basis, based on the revenues the state received. 

“On August 18, districts throughout New York state received a state aid payment for the 2019-2020 school year that withheld 20% of the expected payment,” he said. “Also included was a note that all future payments would be reduced by 20% in the absence of federal relief.”

Secaur added that for Smithtown, this equates to a potential loss of upward of $9 million in state aid. 

“When developing our 2020-2021 school budget, the district took into consideration the potential loss of state aid and made adjustments,” he said. “However, these losses, coupled with the unfunded expenditures required for the safe return of students, will likely force the district to significantly utilize the fund balance and reserves to balance the budget.”

In addition, the budget doesn’t cover the costs that are protecting children returning to their classrooms. 

“Cleaning supplies, dividers for rooms … the cost is close to $4 million,” said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country school district.

That sum didn’t include the cost to keeping the schools operational — even when students weren’t in them when the pandemic hit. 

“There was still a cost to keep the schools running,” Gerold added. “It was a rough couple of months.”

Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River school district, agreed.

“In a time when students need more, we won’t be able to provide that,” he said. 

While Poole and his peers are trying to stay optimistic, and are pleased to have students back, he wonders if it will be sustainable. “It’s an uncertain time — it won’t be the easiest thing for districts to put a budget together this year,” he said. “We just have to take it day by day.”

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen.”

— Roberta Gerold

While each district is different on the Island, they can all agree that continuing to plan during an uncertain time is very difficult. 

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen,” Gerold said. “If we have the info, we can figure that out. … It’s a scary time for sure.”

Miller Place school district declined to comment but did release a letter Sept. 3 penned to elected officials, asking for their support.

“As our elected officials we implore you act quickly to stop any and all federal and state reductions regarding payments to New York state school districts,” the letter said. “As district leaders we remain focused on the mission of returning students to our classrooms, and providing them with the social, emotional and academic supports they need in order to achieve their 2020-21 instructional goals.”

The letter continued, “Please recognize any reductions in federal or state aid payments would dramatically reduce our ability to sustain our district’s fiscal health, as well as maintain the support needed to ensure our students and staff physical health.”

Elwood Superintendent Ken Bossert. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Earlier on in the still-ongoing pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) spoke of his intentions to remake the lagging parts of society. In early May, the governor announced a new committee to “reimagine” education in New York state. He tapped the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to serve as just one of several “experts and stakeholders” for the initiative and named numerous people throughout the state to serve on the committee.

But since that was announced May 8, little has been heard from the committee. Among its 19 members, two are from Long Island, including Martin Palermo, a chemistry teacher at William Floyd High School who was designated a Master Teacher by New York State in 2016, and Jackie Duodu-Burbridge, of Copiague, who was described as a parent in a state release, but also ran unsuccessfully on the Working Families Party ticket for the Suffolk County 15th District seat vacated by former Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville).

Palermo, who is currently working on a doctorate of chemical education at Stony Brook University, was unable to respond to requests for comment by press time about what kinds of discussions were going on in the committee. Duodu-Burbridge could not be reached for comment.

How involved is the Gates foundation? It’s hard to tell, but the organization did tell the Washington Post in a statement it is recommending experts and contributing its own insights into how technology can enhance learning.

For some school district officials, these calls instead brought forth shivers of memories from a little less than a decade ago, with the advent of standardized testing and Common Core where teachers’ evaluations depended on how well their students scored. The Gates foundation played a major part in crafting that initiative.

Some district officials worried it would be an attempt to make distance learning more standard going forward, even when the pandemic has died down. Cuomo since clarified the position that distance or online learning could “never replace in-person learning with a teacher,” yet school officials have remained skeptical for a number of reasons, with many still feeling the governor is emphasizing replacing in-person learning.  

Ken Bossert, the superintendent of the Elwood school district, a former head of the Port Jefferson School District and past president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said he did not believe there is any need to reimagine education. 

“A lot of educators heard that and winced a little bit because there is this false perception that what we were doing pre-pandemic wasn’t in the best interest of students,” he said. “I don’t think school districts need to be reimagined, I think they need to be revised — I think there is always room for improvement.”

Comsewogue school district has a long history of actively decrying Common Core and New York State’s attempts at standardized testing. Former Superintendent Joe Rella, who passed earlier this year, was a major opponent of the 2012 implementation of Common Core, writing a letter to New York State against its implementation in 2013. He was at the forefront of a rally hosted later that year which gathered support from thousands of residents.

The district later implemented problem-based learning initiatives as a response to those earlier state standardizations, and has been accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools.

Comsewogue Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said the district is still waiting to see what comes out of the committee, especially since there has been little news since it was created. 

“Each district has different populations, I don’t know if it will be one size fits all,” Quinn said. “I would like to see support for helping us with lower class sizes. All these social-distancing technologies, it’s very expensive. If we were going to come back to school, it’s very difficult to keep young kids apart.” 

She added that the focus the committee has on online, technology-based learning and shared classrooms over the internet presents itself a huge, new problem. The pandemic has only exacerbated inequalities among some communities and districts on Long Island. Some districts have access to computers or Chromebook laptops they simply hand out to students. Others don’t have anything like that. Not to mention there is a wide disparity between households that have multiple devices that can access the internet and those that have few or none.

School districts are already internally trying to find ways to promote more technology in and out of the classroom, especially since the question of how schools will come back in the fall is still to be decided. Mount Sinai school board president, Robert Sweeney, has been on the board for the past nine years. He said the district has in the past dealt with issues over Common Core with creating its own agencies, books and instructions in-house when the state wasn’t offering much in the way of aid for teachers on the new material.

The district will be using a successful allocation under the Smart Schools Bond Act to bolster their internal networks, potentially increasing the school’s online options.

“How much technology can we get into the hands of our students, what can we do with classroom-based technology, what can we do with technology to our students at home?” Sweeney said. “Let’s take it out of these difficult times and put it into the new normal.” 

Bossert was recently named to the New York State Education Department’s Regional Reopening Schools Task Force. He said a subcommittee of that group is specifically looking at tackling that lack of access to technology. 

But in the end, he said such a reimagining committee should not be handled by the governor’s office.

“The governor should empower the state Education Department to work with the 700 school districts of the state,” Bossert said. “I’m not sure it should be a function of the governor’s office.”

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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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Superintendent Ken Bossert. Photo by Eric Santiago

By Eric Santiago

Port Jefferson’s school board took a firm stance Tuesday night against the direction in which New York State is moving public education.

In a statement approved at its meeting this week, the board highlighted three of the most controversial pieces of the educational reform agenda: the Common Core Learning Standards, standardized state tests linked to the new curriculum and teacher evaluations that rely on student performance on the former two. They join a growing mass of politicians, teachers and parents who, with a new school year winding up, are renewing a call for the Common Core to be revised or removed.

While the board called the Common Core “a significant step forward in providing a sound curriculum for our students,” the members spoke against what they perceived as a poor job by the state in implementing the more stringent standards, which were launched in New York classrooms a few years ago.

The backbone of the program is a series of standardized tests that track student progress. That data is then used as a component in teachers’ and principals’ annual evaluations. For those reasons, parents and educators have referred to the exams as “high-stakes” tests.

According to the board, it “forces teachers to spend the greatest percentage of instruction time on tested areas” while neglecting other important topics. For example, Common Core emphasizes English and math learning and as a result, the board said, teachers have spent less time on subjects like social studies and science.

The tests have also faced criticism because many parents and educators say they are not properly aligned to the curriculum, and thus include material students would not have learned.

The opposition to the tests has launched an anti-testing movement over the last two years in which parents have declined the tests for their kids, calling it “opting out.” In the last state testing cycle, Port Jefferson saw half of its third- through eighth-graders opt out of the standardized English and math exams.

This hasn’t been lost on state officials.

Last week Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced he would assemble a group of experts, parents and educators to review the Common Core program, saying that he believes the system contains problems.

“The current Common Core program in New York is not working and must be fixed,” he said in a press release.

Cuomo said he will call upon the group to “provide recommendations in time for my State of the State Address in January.”

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MaryEllen Elia succeeds John B. King Jr. as the state’s next education commissioner. Photo from state education department

School boards across Long Island swore in new members and re-elected trustees in the last couple of weeks to kick off a brand new school year. With every fresh start, we have an opportunity to better our communities, and ourselves, but this idea carries even greater weight when a top state education official is also starting a new term.

Our greatest hope is that our superintendents, school board trustees, parents, principals, teachers unions and other leaders will make every effort to partner with the state’s new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia.

The New York native, who was a teacher in this state and a superintendent in Florida, took the helm from controversial former Commissioner John B. King Jr. this month. She certainly has a rough road and a lot of work ahead — agreeing to pilot an education system in which large numbers of students are refusing state exams and concerned parents are protesting the Common Core Learning Standards on a regular basis. It’s not a job many would envy.

King’s approach to implementing the Common Core left a bad taste in a lot of parents’ and educators’ mouths, but we should be careful not to allow that sourness to affect our relationship with Elia — she deserves a chance to prove herself.

We should do our best to open the dialogue and calmly communicate our grievances. We should keep open minds and be willing to collaborate.

Our children and our education system are important to our communities. In order to stay competitive globally and to further challenge our teachers and students, we need to keep as our No. 1 goal the improvement of our educational system. It sorely needs improvement.

Let’s do everything we can to build a positive relationship with this new commissioner, and thus build a more positive school environment for our students who will inherit the future.

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Port Jefferson students had a 94 percent passing rate on the Common Core algebra Regents this year. Stock photo

Several dozen students will get better grades in algebra after Port Jefferson school officials agreed not to count their final exam scores.

For the 92 students who took algebra this past school year — some of them eighth-graders and some ninth-graders — and sat for the Common Core-aligned Algebra I Regents exam, those test results originally counted for 20 percent of their course grades, according to high school Principal Christine Austen. But the large majority of the kids saw their course grades, and thus their overall GPAs, drop after those test scores were considered.

It was just the second year that the new Algebra I Regents was administered, and Superintendent Ken Bossert said at the school board meeting Monday night the test was not aligned with the Common Core algebra materials and resources the state provided to schools. He said his teachers called the test “unfair,” “brutal” and “rigorous.”

Last year, when the new algebra Regents was administered for the first time, students were also permitted to take the old Integrated Algebra Regents, and use the higher of their two scores on their transcripts. But Bossert said that safety net was not in place this year.

There has been some controversy in Long Island schools over whether districts were allowed to administer the Integrated Algebra test again this year, and let students use the higher of their two scores — some did and some did not. Port Jefferson was one of the districts that did not, and Bossert cited differing interpretations of a state memo to explain the discrepancy.

The memo from the New York State Education Department, dated December 2014, says if students began algebra instruction before September 2014, school districts could choose to administer both tests to those specific kids. Eighth-graders who took the Algebra I Regents this June, for example, would have had to begin algebra instruction in seventh grade in order to qualify.

The memo states the June 2015 exam period was the last time the Integrated Algebra Regents would be administered, ruling out that backup exam for future algebra students.

While Bossert spoke against students in other school districts receiving what he called “an unfair advantage” on their Regents scores, he said Port Jefferson could take some action at least on the local level — recalculating algebra course grades so the Regents exam results did not negatively impact students.

“I believe it’s the right thing to do,” the superintendent said.

Most of the difference in Regents scores between Common Core algebra and Integrated Algebra was in the number of students testing at mastery levels, scoring at least 85 percent.

According to a presentation at Monday’s meeting by Maureen Hull, Port Jefferson’s executive director for curriculum and instruction, 94 percent of Port Jefferson’s test-takers passed the Common Core algebra Regents this year, but only 19 percent scored at the mastery level. In 2014, the first year the new test was administered, those numbers were 90 percent passing and 16 percent mastery — significantly higher than the numbers statewide. But the kids did better on the Integrated Algebra exam that year, with a 95 percent passing rate and a 47 percent mastery rate.

Bossert called the struggle with mastery levels — while other school districts have students who are failing and cannot graduate — “a good problem to have.” But in light of exam difficulty and the discrepancy in how tests were administered, he suggested the district should not count the 2014-15 algebra students’ Regents scores toward their final grades as a “one-time solution,” and in the future reevaluate how final exams should factor into student grades. The board of education unanimously supported the idea.

Austen explained in an interview after the meeting that for the 80 students whose algebra grades dropped due to their Regents scores, school officials would remove the scores from their course grades and recalculate both their final grades and their GPAs.

There were also five students whose saw their grades boosted by their Regents scores and seven who saw no change, Austen said, and those students’ grades will not be touched.