Friday, March 31, 2017

Enforcing student residency policy

As an educator, I understand that for children and teens moving to a new home, particularly when it involves transferring to a new school midway through a school year, can be a difficult adjustment socially and academically. It is not easy to leave behind the familiarity or comfort of your friends, your teachers and the school community you know.

As the leader of a school district, however, it is my responsibility to adhere to and enforce the district’s policies, and that includes student residency. The Board of Education’s policy on residency, which I will add is based on state education law, states that the primary responsibility of the district is to provide the best possible educational opportunities for children who are legal residents of the district and who are of legal age to attend school.

School districts have residency policies in place for a reason. New York Education Law §3202 gives students the right to attend school tuition-free only in the district where they reside, and gives school districts the authority to determine whether a student is a legal resident. The purpose of this law is to relieve public school districts from the financial burden of educating non-resident students. In other words, it is not fair to Watervliet taxpayers to fund the cost of educating children whose families live outside the district, and therefore, do not contribute to the tax base.

Our board’s policy is clear. If a student moves out of the Watervliet school district before June 1 in any given year, that student must transfer to a school within the district in which they now reside. If the move occurs June 1 or later, the student may be allowed to complete the school year in Watervliet. The student must then enroll in their new school over the summer. The one and only exception we will make is if a high school senior moves at any time during their senior year, they may be allowed to complete the year and graduate from Watervliet High School, but only if the student was a resident during the prior year (as a junior).

In the 12 years I have served the Watervliet schools, first as high school principal and now as superintendent, whenever the residency of a student has been in question, we have looked into it as we are obligated to. The process involves informing the parents in writing of our concerns and offering them an opportunity to submit proof of residency. If that does not happen, we have no choice but to conduct a thorough investigation to verify their residency. Once we have gathered evidence and determined that the student does not reside in Watervliet, the family receives notification from the district registrar that the child has been removed from the attendance register and is no longer permitted to attend our schools.

Often, it is other parents or community members who tip off school officials or staff members if they know or have a strong suspicion that a student or a family does not reside within the district. Other times, we investigate after receiving mail returned to us marked as undeliverable by the postal service. But always, it is the student who is caught in the middle of a bad situation. My point to parents is simply this: do the right thing in the first place, that way you won’t be putting your child in an even more difficult position down the road.

Friday, February 24, 2017

No longer on the list, thankfully

I am really pleased to report that last month when NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released his annual report of fiscally stressed school districts, Watervliet was conspicuously absent from the list.

I posted a blog in February 2014 when our district sat atop the comptroller's list of most fiscally stressed schools in New York State. I remember at the time making a prediction when speaking with news reporters that as a district, we would work diligently to get off the list as quickly as possible. Three years later, following some significant belt tightening, I am proud to say that we have turned the corner. It did not happen overnight, nor did it happen without painful cuts to staffing and programs. The slide below recaps the reductions made in prior years that have helped get us back on track fiscally.

image of budget presentation slide listing program and staffing cuts

In addition to those cost-cutting measures, we came in under budget on some capital project expenditures as well as transportation and special education tuition costs, and realized savings from unexpected retirements and resignations over the past two years. All of this has allowed us to rebuild the district’s depleted fund balance, a factor cited in the comptroller’s report as contributing to our fiscal stress.

With a healthier fiscal outlook this current school year, we were able to restore some of the programs and staffing that had been eliminated to balance prior-year budgets. In June 2016, our district received more good news: We were awarded a five-year grant to provide after-school academic support and enrichment opportunities for grades 3-8 students and offer a morning reading and math club for students in kindergarten through grade 2 to reinforce learning before the start of the regular school day.

Still, where school finances are involved, we recognize that it is important to remain cautious, especially in these uncertain times at the federal level. With the new administration in Washington, it is unclear what will happen with federal education funding to public schools. From every indication, Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Department of Education Secretary, is partial to charter schools and has unfavorable views toward the public school system. As a lifelong public school educator, and now district leader, I wholeheartedly believe in the power of a free public education to move everyone forward, no matter who they are or where they come from. Unlike charter schools that are free from many of the regulations imposed on public schools and can be selective about who they teach, we in public education welcome all children and provide opportunities for every child who enters our buildings.

Looking ahead to the 2017-18 school year, we will develop a budget that is fiscally conservative in an effort to sustain the financial stability we have worked so hard to achieve. This will not be the easiest task, because as I have said many times, ours is not a spending issue but a revenue problem because of our heavy reliance on state aid and a property tax levy cap that limits our ability to raise much in the way of local funding.

If you are interested in taking part in the process, I invite you to join us for upcoming budget discussions on Tuesday, March 14 at the Watervliet Elementary School’s PTA meeting at 6:30 p.m., and then on Saturday, April 8 at 9 a.m. for our annual Budget Breakfast at Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A first look at budgeting for 2017-18

Watervliet student vocalist chosen to sing at State of the State address

First, a shout out to Watervliet High School senior Jessica Vallee who was selected to sing the national anthem a cappella to open the Governor’s State of the State Address at the University of Albany on January 11. She did a tremendous job and made her school and her community proud! You don’t have to take my word for it, you can see (and hear) for yourself, here.

Governor releases his state budget proposal

The state Division of Budget recently released school state aid runs following Governor Cuomo’s presentation outlining his proposed Executive Budget to legislators. The Governor’s proposal includes $1 billion more in aid to schools, an increase of just about 4 percent, which brings the state’s overall investment in education to $25.6 billion for the coming year.

This is a welcome starting point as the state legislature begins its budget negotiations. Still, I have to agree with leading education groups that say the governor’s proposal falls short of the amount needed for many schools to maintain the current level of services and programs offered. The Board of Regents, the Educational Conference Board and the New York State Association of School Business Officials (NYSASBO) all had called for aid to increase in the range of $2 billion.

Closer examination of the governor’s executive budget reveals the different nuances of his proposed billion-dollar increase in funding to education, which includes the following:

  • $428 million in Foundation Aid, which supports everyday school operations; 
  • $333 million in reimbursements for expenses such as transportation, BOCES services, and approved capital projects; 
  • $35 million to expand after-school programs in 16 previously identified high need districts, (Watervliet is not among them); and 
  • an additional $15 million in other educational initiatives, such as the expansion of prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year old children in high need districts and Early College High Schools programs, funding typically awarded through competitive grants.

Also in the proposed increase is $22 million in charter school tuition reimbursement, and $17 million related to financing the Smart Schools Bond Act, which allows districts to invest in newer technologies. There is also mention of a new Fiscal Stabilization Fund totaling $150 million, but no details yet on how those dollars would be dispersed to schools.

What does this mean for Watervliet? While it is still early in the process, right now it appears that under the governor’s proposal, our district would receive a 3.17 percent overall increase in aid, which equals $585,183 in state funding. Of that, $216,572 is foundation aid (an increase of 1.8 percent), while the balance is expense-driven (reimbursement for certain expenditures) or other categorical aid.

On the plus side this year, we get to begin developing our school budget with knowledge of the level of aid we can anticipate to receive from the state, as opposed to last year at this time when the governor withheld this essential information from schools for many weeks while the legislature worked on its state budget proposal.

Another known factor: according to the Office of the State Comptroller, the property tax levy growth for school districts will be capped at 1.26 percent for fiscal year 2017-18, making this the fourth consecutive year that the so-called “2 percent cap" will be less than its name implies. The cap limits the local revenue our district can collect through property taxes. Still, it is better than the 0.12 percent cap, the lowest allowable tax levy growth since the law was enacted in 2012, that we and other school districts had to contend with when developing our 2016-17 budget.

Tuition-free college proposal

Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo announced his plan to provide tuition-free college for students who meet income eligibility requirements and want to attend to any of the state university system’s two- or four-year schools.

Serving as the leader of a district where more than 70 percent of students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, my initial reaction was to think how a program like this would benefit many of our students. Having tuition covered would create a significant incentive for students who aspire to pursue a college degree; and it would help remove the financial barriers for students who simply cannot afford the high cost of college.

I have since read conflicting reports on the proposal; some in favor of the free college tuition, with others expressing questions about the cost to taxpayers and lamenting that nothing can really be called “free” when someone else must pick up the tab. Elected officials are known for introducing well-intentioned ideas, but the devil is always in the details.

It also would be helpful if the governor and other state leaders would recognize and remember that public schools provide an important foundation and pipeline to college, and we need equitable funding and appropriate resources to prepare our K-12 students for higher education, whether or not it is tuition free.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Holiday message

Students, teachers and staff are likely counting down the days as the holiday recess nears, anxious to leave the classrooms, hallways, lockers, lesson plans, books and binders behind and spend time at home (or away) with family and friends. Our teachers, staff and students have been working hard throughout this first semester and deserve a welcome break.

Although it is easy to be swept up in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, I encourage everyone to find some time to reflect on the many reasons to be thankful and to remember the most important gifts of all: family and friends, food and shelter, and good health.

This time of year can be especially difficult for children in our community whose families struggle to provide the essentials that many of us take for granted, like a hot meal and a warm bed. I understand the emotional toll this can take on educators as they strive to balance the needs of their own families with the needs of their school “families.” I thank you for your efforts each and every day to support our students; in particular, these past few weeks sharing the holiday spirit while continuing to challenge students academically.

The support our educators provide to students is clearly demonstrated in new initiatives implemented at the elementary school this year. These programs provide support for the minds, bodies and souls of our youngest students. WES Principal Loida Lewinter and her staff in partnership with the Watervliet Civic Center launched Food is Fuel in October. This program provides bags of non-perishable, easy-to-prepare, healthy foods for up to 60 students to take home on weekends. The Cannoneer Closet offers gently used or new clothing, like warm coats and mittens, for any student who needs it. Students look forward to the morning exercise program each day. After morning announcements, physical education teachers lead students in a short exercise and stretching routine done in the classroom that allows them to prepare their minds and bodies for learning. The ExTRA Breakfast Club provides additional reading and math interventions for struggling kindergarten through grade 2 learners before the official start of school three days per week.

Season for giving

I express my sincere appreciation to everyone who generously donated to the Watervliet Housing Authority’s Adopt-A-Family program. Many, many children in our community will experience joy this holiday season thanks to your generosity. Thank you everyone who purchased and wrapped gifts or offered a monetary donation. Your support is helping to make the holidays brighter and happier for struggling families in our community.

I also applaud second grade teacher Kim Tallmadge and her colleagues for organizing a highly successful Pajama Day fundraiser and Pajama Drive. In a short three days, the elementary school collected 126 pairs of pajamas and raised nearly $600 to purchase additional pajamas to donate to the Scholastic Great Bedtime Story Pajama Drive. (Impressive!) This national program pairs the PJs with a book, which is then delivered to local children in homeless shelters and other facilities in time for the holidays.

Arsenal Partnership plays Santa

A quick shout out to our friends at the Arsenal Business & Technology Partnership for their generosity to our schools this year. Peter Gannon presented a check for $10,000 to the district during the December Board of Education meeting that will help support more learning opportunities for Watervliet students. I am grateful for the continued support of the Arsenal Partnership and I extend my thanks to the event volunteers for their time and efforts, as well as to the many local businesses and community members who donated to support our student programs.

In the spirit of the holidays, I wish everyone good health, happiness and success in the New Year!

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Making the call: How weather-related school closings are decided

Mother Nature recently offered a gentle reminder that winter weather will soon be on its way.  Like many of my superintendent colleagues, I dread when snow is in the forecast because deciding whether to open or close school due to a weather-related event is often difficult ‒ but a fact of life in the northeast.

With that in mind, I wanted to speak to the process used to determine a snow day before Old Man Winter officially arrives. On mornings when winter weather is forecast, I am up well before the break of dawn monitoring local weather channels for information. Throughout those early hours, I consult primarily with our maintenance and transportation staff, but also with city road crews and local law enforcement. I remain in frequent contact with our district’s lead bus driver about road conditions to find out if our buses will be able to navigate the city streets. Watervliet is a small city that spans approximately 1.5 square miles. Unlike most other school districts in our region that are geographically expansive, our buses do not have to travel long distances or varying terrain to transport students safely to school.

Next, I take into account the condition of our facilities by checking with our maintenance crew to find out if they will be able to remove snow from the parking lots and have all walkways cleared in time to open school on our regular schedule, or whether they think a delay is warranted. I also speak with superintendents from neighboring districts for their input; but ultimately, I am responsible for making a final decision about closing our schools or calling for a delay.

Those who know me best, know that my priority is to open school whenever possible because our students are best served academically and socially when they are in school. Our schools serve a majority of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, meaning that when school is in session, our students are guaranteed two meals a day – this also factors into my decision making.

I understand that the decision to open or close school has an impact on families as changes in the schedule can present childcare challenges for working parents. Once children are in school, parents leave for work. If weather conditions worsen during the day, it’s likely that I will cancel after-school activities, but I will refrain from an early dismissal because sending students, especially young ones, to unsupervised bus stops and homes with no adult supervision would be unsafe.

I recognize that there is no perfect decision when winter weather is involved. In the years I have served as superintendent, I know that my decision – no matter what it has been – has not pleased everyone. As a parent or guardian, if you do not feel that it is safe for your child to travel to school, whether walking or riding the bus, I encourage you to use your own best judgment. If you decide it is best to keep your child home, I respect that decision.

I will seldom, if ever, make the decision to delay or close school the day or the night before a snow event is predicted because weather forecasts can be hit or miss. Case in point, I remember several years ago when local meteorologists predicted our area would be hit by a storm with significant snowfall. Based on the forecast, most district leaders in our area decided to close school before the first flakes ever hit the ground, but the big storm never materialized. Although parents were highly critical of the school leaders who made that call, students and staff were thrilled to have the day off!

That said, the decision to close or delay school will typically be made no later than 5:30 a.m. to provide parents, students and staff adequate time to prepare. School closings and delays are communicated through a number of channels, including the district website, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Families can also expect to receive notification by phone, text and email through the district’s One Call Now messaging system. School closing and delay information is also made available on local media, including radio and television stations.

Coats for the Community

Speaking of cold weather, our district is again collecting Coats for the Community. If you have gently used, clean adult or children’s coats to donate, please drop them off to the district office by Monday, Nov. 14. The coats will be delivered to the Watervliet Civic Center for distribution. Call us in the district office at 629-3201, if you have any questions. Your generosity is appreciated!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Student-centric goals to support learning, drive success

This week marks the first full month into the 2016-2017 school year, and it’s good to see that students, teachers and staff alike have settled into their daily routines. In each classroom that I have visited in the weeks since school began, I have witnessed a high level of student engagement and professional behaviors as educators work to build relationships with their students. Moving forward, my hope is that we continue to build on that energy throughout the school year!

Parental support

It has been a busy four weeks, with four Meet the Teacher Nights ‒ from the UPK to grade 6 level and the grades 7-12 level ‒ all of which were very well attended by parents. The administrators, teachers and I were pleased to see such a strong turnout at all grade levels. Research shows that students whose parents are involved do better academically and socially, regardless of income or background, so we welcome and encourage parents to continue to be active partners in your children’s education throughout the year.

District Goals

Members of the Board of Education and I met during the summer to review goals that will continue to guide our priorities and our work as a district through the end of the 2018 school year. These goals help support our mission, which is to inspire, educate and challenge, every student, every day!

As you will see, students are the focus of our four district goals:

  • Students will have the opportunity to challenge themselves socially and intellectually based on their individual needs. 
  • Students will be afforded the opportunity to participate in a rigorous Common Core aligned curriculum.
  • Students, parents, teachers and community members will have the opportunity to support outcomes for student success.
  • Students, parents, teachers and community members will continue to foster a safe, supportive, and positive school climate.

Several programs and new initiatives our district has taken to help reach those goals are outlined in the following paragraphs.

Pivot Program
To provide ninth-graders the skills necessary to successfully complete high school and prepare for the challenges of pursuing a college education or entering the workforce, we offer the Pivot Program. Now in its second year, this grant-funded program extends the school day for all 9th grade students three days a week. In addition to strengthening academic skills, the program introduces students to careers by hosting guest speakers, and a job shadow experience, and students also have opportunities to visit several college campuses throughout the year.

For students who are struggling academically, we have Response to Intervention (RtI), an important educational strategy designed to close achievement gaps and help all students succeed, especially struggling learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. RtI is a process of providing high-quality instruction/intervention matched to student needs that helps prevent small learning challenges from becoming significant obstacles to learning.

Watervliet ExTRA
To provide additional academic support for students in kindergarten through grade 8, the curriculum office has been busy planning the implementation of our new ExTRA program, which begins this first week in October. ExTRA, which stands for Extended Time Raises Achievement, extends learning time and opportunities for kindergarten through grade 8 students by providing academic support and enrichment during the school year and summer months to reinforce classroom instruction, strengthen skills and raise academic achievement in literacy and math. The Watervliet ExTRA program offers a morning academic reading club for grades K-2, as well as after-school academic help and enrichment activities/clubs for grades 3-8. In addition to academic/homework support, the ExTRA program will feature project-based learning activities and clubs like robotics, Odyssey of the Mind, drama, art and intramural sports. Next summer the district will offer a summer academic program for students entering grades K-8. ExTRA is funded by an Extended School Day/School Violence Prevention grant through the New York State Education Department.

Independent Living
We have launched a new Independent Living class this year that will help prepare our special needs students for life after high school. The Independent Living course was created this year to provide Special Education students the skills needed to work towards earning their Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) Commencement Credential. To exit school earning this credential, students must demonstrate achievement of commencement level knowledge and skills relating to the CDOS learning standards in the areas of career development, integrated learning and universal foundation skills.

Operation Graduation
To encourage high school seniors to stay focused and on track for a successful final year of high school we have Operation Graduation, a system that identifies those students who are at risk of not graduating either because of poor attendance, behavioral issues, or low academic achievement. In this program, teachers, administrators and other staff members serve as mentors for at-risk students providing the support they need in and out of the classroom to graduate.

Recognizing school leaders

Finally, October is National Principals’ Month! As a former principal and assistant principal, I am acutely aware of the challenges and the rewards inherent in this job. I appreciate our school leaders for their hard work and their tireless efforts on behalf of our students and our school community. Our principals are dedicated instructional leaders who value and encourage ongoing professional growth for our teachers, believe strongly in high academic standards and are committed to creating a supportive and responsive learning environment for our students.

My sincere thanks to these five individuals for their time, their talents and their dedication: principals Ryan Groat and Loida Lewinter, and assistant principals Kelly Webster, Michael Foust and David Wareing. They truly embody a school culture that inspires, challenges and educates every student, every day!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Great expectations for new school year!

The days are becoming shorter, the temperatures are starting to cool, and student athletes have returned for fall sports practices – all signs that summer is inevitably coming to an end. These eight weeks seem to fly by more quickly with each passing year. It seems like yesterday we were celebrating as the Class of 2016 graduated, and now here we are – preparing to greet the Class of 2029 next week as we welcome back all students and staff to school!

I hope you were able to relax, have fun with family and friends, travel, read a good book and rejuvenate for September during the summer break, and are now as ready and energized as I am for the start of school!

State test scores reveal some progress in math, little movement in ELA scores

Over the summer, the New York State Department of Education (SED) released the results of the grades 3-8 English language arts (ELA) and math state tests that students took in the spring. The Times Union published an article recently analyzing the results among schools in our region. Not surprisingly, small, urban districts, like Watervliet, were among the schools with the lower scores and the least improvement. See SED website for complete state assessment data

It is important to remember that state assessments are not the “be all, end all” measure of student success. The tests are one measure that educators can use to identify which skills students have mastered and other skills that require additional time and effort to learn. Despite showing some progress – our elementary math scores were up – as a whole, our results indicate that student performance on these tests remains below state averages for proficiency in ELA and math. While I know the 2016 test results are not reflective of the hard work and dedication of our teachers and staff, the lack of tangible growth in our scores represents a need for improvement district-wide. We must continue to identify and embrace instructional practices that are showing results and build on them. At the same time, we must recognize and discard ineffective strategies because to continue repeating practices that fail to engage students in learning, and yet somehow expect favorable results, is simply not acceptable. Our students deserve better.

I believe that educating children is one of the most important (if not the most important) responsibility we have as a society. I also believe wholeheartedly that teaching is the most noble of professions. My expectations for the coming school year are that we will work smarter, harder and even more collaboratively than we have since I first joined the district as high school principal 12 years ago. All of our students have the ability to learn and must be given every opportunity to succeed.

Our most important task is supporting their success. We can do that by prioritizing students’ needs in the decisions we make and committing to delivering a rigorous education and relevant experiences that will prepare all Watervliet students for college or for the workforce. I expect everyone – teachers, teaching assistants, bus drivers, support staff, food service workers, administrators – to bring their A-game for every student, every day. If you commit to inspiring, educating and challenging every student, every day – they will be engaged, they will learn and they will achieve.

Sharing responsibility for student success

To be successful, students need support from both home and school. A strong partnership between schools, parents and families can make a positive difference in a child’s education. I strongly encourage parents to be involved in your children’s education from day one of prekindergarten through the day your child takes his or her final Regents exam in high school. I invite parents to reach out to your children’s teachers, building principals or myself to let us know how we can best help you. If you are not currently registered for an account on the Parent Portal, please sign up for one today. The portal offers parents online access to a secure site with personalized information about their children’s academic program and progress, including class schedules, assignments, attendance, report cards and more.

Administrative changes find familiar faces in different roles

I am excited to introduce some key administrative changes at both buildings and the district level this year.
All three changes involve promotions from within our school district ranks. Loida Lewinter has stepped into the role of elementary principal after serving as the assistant principal at the junior/senior high school for the past two years. Two former teachers have moved out of their classrooms and into leadership roles, as well. Fourth-grade teacher Kelly Webster is now the assistant principal of the junior/senior high school, while grade 6 teacher Don Stevens has taken the position of Director of Literacy and Universal Prekindergarten. I am confident these changes will make for an engaging and productive year and as we move forward

Our district will welcome a number of new teachers and staff members this year, following the retirement of several veteran teachers last year. My message to new teachers and to experienced educators is the same:
We are all responsible for setting the tone for the school year. We can and we must set higher expectations and standards for behavior and academics in our classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and athletic facilities. I remind newer teachers to keep up with your certification requirements and commit to working hard to achieve tenure. Never be afraid to ask for help if or when you need it.

My sincere thanks to our maintenance staff for the work they have done this summer inside and outside of our schools to prepare the buildings and grounds for a successful first day of school on September 7.

Lastly, I want to express that it is truly an honor for me to welcome back our students and their families as another school year is set to begin. On behalf of Watervliet’s teachers, staff and administrators, we look forward to a successful and rewarding school year for all.