Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Remaining thankful in challenging times

I remain thankful to all in our school community who are taking every possible step to stay healthy and safe, which allowed us to keep our buildings open for teaching and learning through the first 10 weeks of school. I am grateful to our teachers and all members of our staff who have been working tirelessly to support children whether you are driving a bus, preparing meals or cleaning and sanitizing our buildings. I am proud of the work we continue to do for every student, every day during unprecedented and unpredictable times.

Last week, we learned of our first in-person COVID-19 positive case that resulted in the Department of Health quarantining an entire classroom. Truth-be-told, I was not at all sure that we would make it past Columbus Day let alone 10 weeks of school before this type of action would be necessary. Later in the week, we were notified of a second positive case, which forced us to move all grades 6-12 classrooms to remote learning because of a staffing shortage that had resulted from mandatory quarantines related to the earlier case.

With COVID-19 infection on the rise in Albany County and the arrival of the holiday season, I remind our families, students, teachers and staff that it remains vitally important for all of us to follow COVID-19 safety protocols that include wearing face coverings, practicing good hygiene, social distancing, and avoiding gatherings of 10 or more people. 

Actions taken outside of school and on the weekends have direct consequences on our ability to keep our schools open and hold in-person instruction safely. Several neighboring school districts have been forced to close for weeks at a time due to parties or other gatherings within the school community that have resulted in positive COVID-19 cases and individuals placed under a mandatory quarantine by local departments of health. 

Prior to reopening our doors in September, it has been our priority to provide the safest learning environment possible for our staff and our students, whether they are learning in-person or remotely. Limiting the size of gatherings outside of school helps lower the potential spread of COVID-19. We continue to make every effort possible to protect the health and safety of our school community and are doing everything within our power to keep our schools open. 

What the Cluster Action Initiative Means for Schools 

With significant numbers of COVID-19 cases cropping up in counties around the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new strategy — the Cluster Action Initiative — to help stop the virus from spreading. Through this initiative, the state monitors and identifies areas where clusters have formed. Once identified, the cluster area is divided into color-coded zones: Red, Orange or Yellow.

Yellow and orange indicate “warning zones.” It is important to note that the color-coded system applies to entire communities, not just schools. Even if a school district does not have any confirmed cases of COVID-19, it may be included in a color-coded zone based on the region’s metrics. 

If trends continue, it is possible that Albany County could be designated a Yellow Zone before too long. While that does not require a mandatory school or district closure, it does require us to comply with specific testing protocols to remain open. 

Schools in yellow zones are required to test 20% of in-person learners and teachers/staff. If our region is designated a Yellow Zone, our goal is to keep schools open. We believe there is no substitute for academic, social and emotional benefits of in-person learning and we are confident the safety protocols we follow in our schools have been effective. 

According to the current state guidelines, there are certain precautionary measures that will become necessary if our region is identified as a Yellow Zone.

School nurses with support from Whitney Young School-Based Health Center staff will test 20% of all in-person staff and students over a two-week period following an announcement that we are in a Yellow Zone. In the case of students, parents/guardians will be asked to complete a consent form prior to testing. There will be no cost for these tests.

  • If the positivity rate of the district is lower than the current positivity rate for the region, no more testing is necessary. 
  • If the positivity rate of the district is higher than the current positivity rate for the region, we will continue to test 20% of in-person learners, faculty and staff on a bi-weekly basis.

I encourage our families, teachers and staff to continue to watch their email and the district website for information and updates. As always, please contact your building principal or the district office with questions.

The best defense: personal responsibility

With cases on the rise, it is especially important to remember that personal responsibility is the best defense for keeping our students safe and keeping our schools open. In the midst of a public health crisis, the actions of a few can cause a ripple effect in the greater community. 

We all must do our part – so please continue to wear your masks properly, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, practice social distancing, avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, get a flu shot and follow all CDC and DOH guidelines in and outside of school.

I wish everyone a peaceful, safe and healthy Thanksgiving. 🦃

Friday, September 25, 2020

Welcome back students and staff ... at long last

 As we wrap up the second full week of school, I want to share how proud I am of our teachers, staff, students, Watervliet parents and families. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t without obstacles and it wasn’t perfect – but I thank you for taking that leap of faith as we re-opened our schools a little more than two weeks ago. Your patience, support, and flexibility is appreciated more than you know.

After a LONG six months it is rewarding to have students (and teachers!) back in our buildings, and it is encouraging to see them settling almost seamlessly into the school routine, and adjusting well to the new “normal,” which includes the wearing of face coverings/masks.  

A reminder for our students and families to complete and submit the daily health screening/COVID-19 attestation each day before boarding a school bus or entering school buildings. Staff, too, must complete the screening/attestation. We are required to report this data to the New York State Department of Health daily, so your cooperation is extremely important.

The challenges are far from over. We are by no means through the woods with this pandemic. That is why we all – students, families, teachers and staff – must remain vigilant in our prevention efforts. I strongly encourage our students, staff, families and parents to continue to practice frequent hand washing, maintain social distancing (staying at least six feet apart from others), and wear masks outside of the regular school day. Let’s continue to all work together and do all we can to ensure our schools can stay open.

While I am on the subject of health ‒  parents ‒ please make sure your children’s immunizations are up to date! Students who are not immunized cannot attend school either in person or remotely. If you have any questions about immunization requirements for attending school, please consult your child’s doctor, or call our school nurses for information. Also, remember that Whitney Young’s School Based Health Center is available to our students for immunizations. The school based health center is located in the Watervliet Jr.-Sr. High School. Call 518-629-3270 or 518-629-3271 for information.  

One more piece of school health-related news to share: This week, we welcomed our most recent hire, Racheal Thomas who will serve as the new school nurse at Watervliet Jr.-Sr. High School. Racheal is a registered nurse who has engaged in a variety of healthcare roles from urgent care for St. Peter’s Health Partners to nursing supervisor/registered nurse for the New York State Department of Corrections to volunteer experience with Red Cross disaster relief. Welcome Racheal!

Be on the Lookout for Second Teaching & Learning Waiver

About 40% of our students from prekindergarten to grade 12 opted for remote learning when school began on Sept. 9. As we approach the 5-week mark in the first quarter marking period, parents will have an opportunity to rethink their options. Some may decide they want to return to the classroom in-person, while others may want to continue with or opt for remote learning. Please contact your building principal if you have any questions.  A Teaching & Learning Waiver is being distributed to families via One Call Now email and will be posted on the district’s website. If parents are making a change in their child’s status from remote to in-person learning or vice versa, the waiver must be submitted by October 2. After that, remote learners will be bound by their decision until the end of the marking period.

Athletics update

For those of us who follow high school athletics closely, you may be aware that the Colonial Council recently decided to delay the start of many sports traditionally offered in the fall to March 2021. The hiatus includes high contact sports, such as football and volleyball, as well as more moderate impact sports, including soccer and Cross-Country track. While we understand the disappointment felt by our student athletes, we recognize that the health, safety and well-being of our students and coaching staff is the priority. Our Athletics Department will share further news and updates as they become available.

Finally, I have witnessed strength, determination and grit in this school community during the past several months and can say with confidence that we will get through this together and come out stronger. Every student, every day!

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Governor to make decision on re-opening NY schools in early August

I tuned into Governor Cuomo's press conference on Wednesday, as I have done routinely since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the statewide school closures in March. During the briefing, the governor announced that he will make a decision on whether or not to reopen New York schools within the first week of August based on the most recent data. Watervliet, and every other district in New York, will be required to submit a re-opening plan by July 31 to the state for review as the governor prepares to make his decision.

In the meantime, the governor promised that the state would release re-opening guidance for schools next Monday ‒ news that my superintendent colleagues and I have been waiting for since the school year officially ended some three weeks ago. Throughout the past several weeks, I and other district leaders from our area have participated in discussions with Capital Region BOCES about the various challenges re-opening schools in September will present. First and foremost is the health and well-being of our students and staff when and if we are allowed to open our doors in September. Other considerations include transportation logistics, financial impact, K-12 scheduling and the implications of remote learning on special education, technology and access needs, as well as curriculum development and professional training for educators. 

Like others in the region and across the country, our school district continues to study the latest guidance and protocols issued by the CDC and review best practices outlined in plans developed by educational leaders in other states as we prepare our own plan for re-opening our schools in the fall. My administrative team has put their critical skills to the test brainstorming various scenarios and what these would mean for our students and school community.

I echo the sentiments expressed by Governor Cuomo Wednesday when he said that to definitively declare that schools WILL BE OPEN in September would be negligent and reckless given the unpredictability of this virus. Prior to opening, it is imperative that we have a solid plan in place that protects the safety and well-being of children and adults.

In addition, the governor indicated, and I tend to agree, that the data in New York needs to show no spike in the virus, especially following the Labor Day holiday weekend when our school year traditionally begins. The governor cautioned that if the number of cases does spike, the state will re-evaluate and could decide to close schools in a region and/or require districts to tweak re-opening plans depending on the specific situation.

Ideally, we want to return in the fall and be able to teach and learn in an environment that is safe and comfortable for all our students and staff; but realistically, I recognize this is a heavy lift that will require enormous consideration and a multi-pronged approach.

We will continue to communicate about our plans throughout the summer. I welcome any ideas or constructive feedback on re-opening schools that you have to offer. Please send emails to lcaplan@vlietschools.org, or post a comment in the box at the end of this blog.

Governor Cuomo’s timeline for school re-opening plans/decisions

July 13: Finalized guidance issued by the state
July 31: Schools required to submit reopening plans
August 1-7: Decision made on whether to reopen, based on data.

Training video among safety protocols required for staff returning this summer

As our staff returns to work this summer, we are introducing a few required protocols. All staff who work in any capacity at school facilities must complete an online COVID-19 safety training video. To successfully complete the training, staff member must watch the 30-minute training video, which outlines safety practices to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Visit the Staff Resources web page to watch the safety video

Then, employees must complete and submit the All Employee COVID-19 Safety and Reopening Training Quiz and registration form. Visit the Staff Resources web page to access the registration form/Take the quiz

Self-Screening & Attestation mandatory for staff and visitors to the schools

Additionally, from this point forward all employees and guest visitors must complete a self-screening and attestation application before entering the buildings. The website https://entry.neric.org/watervliet can be saved to the home screen of a smart phone to essentially become an “app.” After completing the form, the phone’s screen will either turn green, giving visual permission to the health screening monitor that the individual may enter the buildings, or red indicating the person be denied access to the buildings.

Face masks, social distancing the new norm

All employees returning to work and visitors to our buildings will be required to wear face coverings when in common areas of the schools (hallways, entrances/exits, shared offices, etc.), when they will be in contact with others, or when it is reasonable to assume they will be in contact with others.

Face masks must fully cover the nose and mouth. Non-district issued face coverings are appropriate if they meet the required criteria. The district will supply a face covering for employees who do not have one.

Employees and visitors are also reminded to maintain a distance of at least six (6) feet from each other. Where social distancing is not possible, face coverings are a MUST! Also employees should practice social distancing when entering or exiting the building.

Board of Education leaders chosen for 2020-21 school year

Just want to congratulate board members Amanda Cavanaugh and Sheri Senecal on receiving unanimous approval during our July meeting to serve as president and vice president, respectively for 2020-21. Also, a warm welcome to new board member Tim Delisle who was elected to his first term in June. Looking forward to a successful school year and working in collaboration with the board!

I wish our students, teachers, staff and school community a peaceful, relaxing summer. Be sure to spend plenty of time outdoors and unplug from devices as much as possible. Most importantly, stay healthy and safe!

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

A very different end to the school year

Much to catch up on

You may have noticed that I have been away from my blog for several weeks. Not intentionally, but because – and this seems counter intuitive – I have been busier than ever since Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down schools in mid-March in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in New York.

Much of these past 10 weeks I have likened to drinking from a fire hose – trying to navigate the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has completely changed the way we operate both as a school community and also as a society.

My leadership team and I have dedicated countless hours (one day I sat in on nine Zoom meetings, has to be a record!) to planning, organizing and communicating in response to executive orders that closed our schools for two-week increments at first – and then finally on May 1 – the Governor announced that all schools would remain closed through the end of the academic year.

The announcement came on a Friday afternoon, but the full weight of that edict really didn’t hit me until the following Monday when I walked into the high school building and the halls and classrooms were dead silent. Not a soul – adult or child – in sight. I know that I am not alone in feeling this emptiness, as I have heard from many Watervliet educators who tell me they miss being in the classrooms and miss their students terribly.

Learning at home

Throughout the closure, schools have been required to provide continuity of instruction for all of our students. We had to develop a learning plan and submit it to the State Education Department for approval. Remote learning is at the center of our plan. Since March, we have provided 900 laptops to students so they have access to online learning at home. I know this hasn’t been an easy transition for anyone involved: not students, not teachers and certainly not parents who, in many cases, have had to take on the role of teacher for their kids in addition to other responsibilities. My sincere thanks to our teachers, parents and families for your efforts to engage students in learning during these uniquely challenging times. Everyone has adapted to this new environment and made it work – and we are grateful for your partnership, your patience and your perseverance.
In addition to the academic piece, it has been important for us to try our best to meet the social-emotional and mental health needs of our students who may be struggling with stress and anxiety due to this new paradigm. I am especially proud of our school support team of social workers, counselors, and other support professionals who jumped into action to connect with families and offer assistance.

Feeding children

As we approach the 20,000 meal mark, I have one word for our food service workers: Amazing! Our food service staff has worked non-stop to prepare nearly 2,000 meals – breakfast and lunch – per week since our schools closed to make sure no child in our community is without food. Our bus drivers deliver meals to dedicated stops throughout the city to better meet the needs of families. Our Food is Fuel backpack program also continues to provide non-perishable food items to students and families to alleviate food insecurity during the weekends.

Silver lining

If there is a silver lining to this very dark cloud, it is that all of us have really pulled together as a community. #VlietNeverGivesUp is more than a hashtag, it has become a mantra. Board member Amanda Cavanaugh and teacher Meg Fronzek spearheaded the #VlietNeverGivesUp campaign early on in the statewide shutdown to support not only our students and families, but our local businesses, as well. This dynamic duo raised thousands of dollars through t-shirt sales and used the proceeds to buy gift cards to local businesses. The gift cards were then distributed to students and families to provide meals and help keep our local businesses afloat, given the mandated closure.

Amanda and Meg also organized a pop-up food pantry that operates three days per week out of Watervliet Elementary School. Families may stop by Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays to pick up food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, books and other necessities. Donations are always welcome!

Graduation for Class of 2020

My heart is heavy for our students who have had their lives disrupted, turned upside down because of circumstances that are fully beyond anyone’s control. I especially feel for the Class of 2020, whose final year of high school should be about celebrating milestones and making memories, rather than questioning if, how and when they will be able to move on to the next chapter in their life, be it college or careers.

Earlier this month, we delivered graduate lawn signs to members of our Class of 2020. It was bittersweet, but so worth the laughter and the tears to honor our soon-to-be graduates in a way that has been a longstanding tradition in our district.
The celebration doesn’t stop with the signs. Our class advisers and administrators are busy putting the finishing touches on plans to celebrate the Class of 2020 with a ceremony. It will look much differently than commencements of years’ past because we are required to follow the Governor’s executive orders, as well as Albany County Department of Health guidelines, to adhere to social distancing protocols and other practices to protect the health and safety of everyone involved. I would just ask that students, parents, families, teachers and staff keep this in mind as we roll out the plan for a non-traditional commencement that we anticipate will take place on June 17.

Moving Up Ceremonies

Parents, families, teachers and staff will be invited to participate in upcoming virtual Moving Up ceremonies for Prekindergarten and Grade 6 students.

Prekindergarten Moving Up Live via YouTube is scheduled to take place on Monday, June 15, with four ceremonies that will take place starting at 9 a.m. and proceed each half-hour by classroom. UPK Director Kirsten DeMento will share details with our prekindergarten families.

The Grade 6 celebration will be on Tuesday, June 16 at 9 a.m. Watervliet Elementary Principal Kelly Webster will share more information directly with grade 6 families about the ceremony that will be livestreamed via YouTube.

More information is posted on our district website

Questions swirl about reopening of schools in September

Inquiring minds want to know if we will return to school in the traditional sense in the fall. Even though this school year isn’t quite finished, we are beginning to consider what education in our schools may look like for our students, teachers and staff come September. Planning to reopen schools is in the very preliminary stages and is subject to change in time as we receive more guidance from state and federal agencies (Center for Disease Control) about guidelines that must be met before teachers or students return to school. We have formed a task force to identify best practices for how we can re-imagine education for September that will consider logistics such as adhering to social distancing protocols, wearing face coverings, and developing more effective disinfecting and cleaning procedures. We will continue to communicate about this moving forward throughout the summer. I welcome any ideas or constructive feedback on reopening schools that you would like to share with me and our task force. Please send me an email at lcaplan@vlietschools.org, or post a comment in the box at the end of this blog.

Final thoughts

I have a few final thoughts to share about current events unrelated to COVID-19. My heart is heavy and my mind is racing for the burden that black and brown communities everywhere are shouldering right now following the tragic and callous death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis last week. I cannot pretend to fully understand the disenfranchisement that black and brown people have experienced over the course of history.  What I do know is that I feel outrage by the violence that took place in our country this weekend, following peaceful protests that were organized, strategic, and purposeful. People of all races must refuse to be silent and vow to confront racism when we see it. We must put our words into action … our students’ lives depend on it. Please read my message to the Watervliet community

I leave you with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Where do you stand? …

Please be safe, stay strong and take good care of each other!

Friday, February 14, 2020

Capital project gets the green light; school budget development begins

I want to thank community members who came out to vote on our recent capital project referendum. District residents gave the green light to the $9.9 million capital project on Feb. 4 with a supermajority vote (more than 60%), which is required of small city school districts. Despite the low turnout, a total of 198 votes were cast, I am grateful that we had the support needed to be able to move forward with this essential work and repairs that will make our buildings safer, healthier and run more efficiently.

With the capital project vote now behind us, the district leadership team and I have turned our focus to developing next year’s school budget. As in years past, we will be seeking the support of state legislators to increase funding for K-12 education as they hammer out an agreement on the state budget. In mid-January, the governor presented his executive budget proposal, which signaled the start of the state budget process for the legislature. April 1 is the deadline to reach a state budget deal. Once that is approved, we will receive conclusive information on the amount of state aid we can expect and finalize our 2020-21 school budget proposal. The public will have the opportunity to vote on the school budget on Tuesday, May 19.

The governor’s proposal includes an $826 million increase in overall education funding for the 2020-21 school year, which is a 3 percent increase from the current year’s budget. While this sounds like a significant increase, keep in mind there are approximately 700 school districts across New York that share in the allocation of state aid.

The aid proposed by the governor falls far short of the $2 billion increase recommended by the New York State Board of Regents for the 2020-21 year; and also, the $2.1 billion increase the Educational Conference Board (ECB) has declared is necessary to allow schools to maintain current services and expand opportunities and support for students. (The ECB is a coalition of six leading educational organizations that represents parents, classroom teachers, school-related professionals, building administrators, superintendents and school boards from around the state.)

In his executive budget address, the governor highlighted more “equity” between wealthy districts and poorer districts as a major priority. As the leader of a small urban district, equity is a concept that I continue to fight for, given that we have limited resources and serve many students who live in poverty. The governor has also committed to continue the state’s investment in prekindergarten and after school programs, which I wholeheartedly support because these programs directly benefit our students and families.

Another priority outlined in the governor’s executive budget proposal, however, causes great concern for all school districts: consolidating and/or slowing the growth of certain reimbursements to schools. Under the governor’s plan expense-based aids, including BOCES programs and services, software, hardware, textbook and library purchases, and supplemental public excess cost (reimbursements for certain expenses associated with students with disabilities), would be consolidated – this will make budgeting for certain expenses significantly more challenging. His plan would also place a cap on growth in future reimbursements for student transportation, based on an inflation factor and enrollment growth, and create a new tier of reimbursement levels for school construction projects (fortunately, this would not apply to our recently approved capital project).

As always, I encourage community members to be involved and informed as we develop our school budget. Please attend our March Board of Education meeting for an update from our Assemblyman John McDonald on the state budget process and his thoughts on the legislature’s position on state aid for our schools.

Finally, a shout out to an amazing tradition at Watervliet Jr.-Sr. High School: Singing Valentines courtesy of the phenomenal Delta Force and our awesome music teacher Terry Bradway. Thank you for performing throughout our school and making Valentine's Day special for students and staff alike.

To our students, teachers, staff and families – I hope you have a relaxing and fun February break! 

Friday, December 20, 2019

Holiday Thoughts: It Takes A Village

This month and throughout the first half of this school year, I find myself using the hashtag #ItTakesAVillage in many of my tweets (I hope you are following me on Twitter). This well-known African proverb essentially means that it is the responsibility of an entire community to look out for and support children so that they experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment.

When I think of our community, and the acts of kindness and generosity from our students, staff and families, especially around this special time of year, I am truly humbled. The spirit of “It Takes a Village” is demonstrated daily in our schools. Recently, we collected snow boots and jackets to provide to students who lack warm winter wear. In October, Spanish teacher Meg Fronczek started a Crocs and Socks campaign after noticing students coming into school on rainy days with wet sneakers and socks. Many of our teachers and support staff stepped up donating hundreds of pairs of socks and Crocs so now our students have access to dry socks and a pair of comfortable Crocs they can borrow during the school day, giving their socks and sneakers or shoes a chance to dry before the walk home.
This December, both our schools (WES, WJSHS) again participated in adopt-a family efforts to purchase gifts for children of local families in need and help make their holidays brighter. Through the adopt-a-family at WJSHS, 45 children from the Watervliet Housing Authority received two to three presents each (toys and clothing) delivered by Santa and Mrs. Claus a week before the holiday. Meanwhile, a total of 40 children were provided gifts between the school and community adopt-a-family effort at Watervliet Elementary School. My sincere thanks to our teachers and staff for their continued support that brings smiles to the faces of some of our neediest students and their siblings.

I tweeted about the many good deeds performed by our students as they gave back to their community throughout December:

WHS students serve holiday lunch at Watervliet Senior Center
The Cannoneer Chorus sings at Watervliet Senior Center
WES student ambassadors deliver holiday beauty to residents of Watervliet Housing
WES students collect pajamas for Unity House

Looking ahead to 2020: Capital Project Vote

Earlier this month, the Board of Education voted on a resolution that would authorize $9.99 million in capital improvements for Watervliet Jr.-Sr. High School and Watervliet Elementary School. District residents will have an opportunity to vote on the referendum Tuesday, February 4.

Unlike our last facilities improvements that included big-ticket, highly-visible improvements like the turf field and the track, the project we are proposing now is best described as “no-frills” because it addresses the district’s most immediate facilities needs, as identified in the latest building condition survey: aging infrastructure, and health and safety improvements.

A building condition survey is a thorough inspection conducted by a team made up of at least one architect or engineer and certain district staff. The State Education Department requires all school districts in the state to submit a building condition survey every five years to collect information on the district's infrastructure and prioritize facility needs district-wide. The data collected helps district officials assess current conditions of program spaces and major building systems to prioritize the most essential repairs and restorations.

From January through June, a Facilities Advisory Committee that included school leaders, teachers, maintenance staff, school board members, students and parents, met with our district’s architectural consultants to take a deeper dive into our facility and maintenance needs and make recommendations to present to the Board. Factors considered by the committee included protecting the health and safety of students, staff and school visitors; systems and equipment that have reached or are near the end-of-life expectancy; deteriorating building components; and the ability to service or repair outdated equipment.

The final project scope includes such items as roof replacement at both buildings; replacing elevators at the elementary school and renovating the high school elevator; heating and ventilation systems work; and drainage at the elementary school playground. Visit our website for more information on the project scope

State building aid would cover 95 percent of the cost of the proposed capital project. The remaining 5 percent of the project would be funded through a 1.06% increase in the overall property tax levy, based on the current tax cap data for the district.

We invite you to learn more about the proposed capital project at two presentations scheduled for January 7, 2020 and January 16, 2020 at Watervliet Elementary School. I encourage you to attend and ask questions to make an informed decision when you vote in February.

School Budget Development

Also, in January we will be diving into the 2020-21 school budget development process. The Capital Region BOCES Superintendents’ Legislative Committee, which I help lead with Niskayuna’s superintendent of schools, met recently with NYS Senator Shelly B. Mayer, who chairs the State Senate Education Committee, to discuss foundation aid formula and other educational priorities. This is ahead of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State, which he will deliver in early January. My administrative team and I will pay close attention to that address for information that will guide our budget development for the coming school year. The state reportedly is facing a $6 billion budget gap, so we will have to wait and see how that impacts school aid.

Happy holidays to all!

I hope you will take time this holiday season to reflect upon the positive aspects of your lives, and enjoy the most precious gift of all—time spent with family and friends. May you all enjoy a relaxing and peaceful holiday season.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Conversations provide opportunities to raise awareness, promote healing

After nearly three decades in education, I was certain that I had experienced all the aha moments I was ever going to have. A few weeks ago, however, I found myself sitting in a circle discussion with high school students, staff and community members that turned out to be one of the most powerful experiences of my career.

As the conversation progressed, the diverse group of students began to open up and share some of their most personal stories. Each student spoke about some type of trauma – in some cases, a combination of adversities – that have had a profound impact on them.

I don’t often get emotional, but was literally brought to tears as I listened to the conversations. Happy tears because I was so proud of their courage and honesty, and sad tears because it was heartbreaking to hear some of the awful experiences these children have lived through and/or witnessed in their short lives.

Understanding adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is critical to the work we do as educators. ACEs are defined as traumatic events such as violence, abuse, or neglect that children experience throughout their young lives. Growing up in an environment with substance abuse, mental health problems, or instability due to parental separation or incarceration of a parent, sibling, or other close family member can undermine a child’s sense of safety and stability. Abuse, neglect and household dysfunction can happen anywhere; and sadly, for many of our students, it is a reality. It's important for us to understand how these experiences impact a student’s well-being and their ability to learn.

Children who have experienced trauma often think and act differently. More often than not, learning can be a big struggle for them. Once trauma is identified as the source of negative or destructive behavior, however, we can adapt our approach to better support students in school.

As a school community, we continue to raise our own awareness of the impact of ACES on our students. We have participated in trainings to learn more about trauma-informed practices in our classrooms. My hope is that the more teachers and staff understand our students’ experiences, the more we can assist in meeting their needs and support them in being successful.

Since that initial conversation in September, students and staff members have gathered in smaller groups to discuss the challenges, the concerns and the struggles our young people face. They have had the courage to address topics that are routinely avoided in conversation, including race, diversity, poverty, and sexual identity.

These conversations are one component of our district’s strategic goal to support students in a safe and positive school environment. Students with traumatic backgrounds benefit from restorative practices, such as these circle discussions, rather than punitive approaches to discipline. To quote a restorative justice coordinator from the New York City Department of Education: “Relying solely on punishment leaves out the important and healing lessons that students of trauma so desperately need.”

Through these discussions, I have learned how incredibly brave our students are, and the reality of how harsh and cruel this world can be to young people. At the same time, I am inspired by their resilience and their determination as they show up for school every day. Which is why we owe it to our students to do whatever it takes to create a safe and supportive learning environment for every student, every day.