Monday, August 28, 2017

Our challenge: engage every student in learning


The sun is setting earlier, the air is a little crisper, and student athletes have returned to the track and the field for fall sports practices – all signaling that summer’s end is near. I hope you were able to relax, have fun with family and friends, travel and rejuvenate over the summer break, and are now as ready and energized as I am for the start of school!

Summer reading


Summer vacation offers time to catch up on reading, whether it be reading for pleasure or reading to learn. Just as our students were given a reading assignment this summer so was the district’s leadership team. Although students typically get to select which books to read, my administrators and I all read the same book:“Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement” by Eric Jensen.
As any student will tell you, reading assignments do not end after the final word on the last page has been read. There is typically a report or a project associated with the book. Same holds true for my administrative team, whose assignment is to collaborate throughout the school year to develop and present professional learning opportunities for teachers and staff based on the strategies outlined in the book.

The leadership team agrees that this is an important initiative because over the past several years the percentage of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch has grown in our schools. The increase in poverty is not unique to Watervliet. According to a Sept. 2015 report by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission (CDRPC), the number of people living in poverty has risen across the Capital Region, with children making up a majority of the increase.

Poverty and the achievement gap


The same CDRPC report indicates that despite similar attendance rates, students in urban schools lag behind their suburban and rural counterparts with respect to test scores and graduation rates. That is not surprising given the mountains of research on poverty and its effects on learning. I share the data below as two examples of the research:

  • A March 2014 report "Poverty: The Effect on the Whole Child" by Save our Schools, Inc. found that 40 percent of children living in poverty are not prepared for elementary learning.
  • The US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics suggests that by the end of 4th grade, African-American, Hispanic and low-income students are already two years below grade level; and by the time they reach the 12th grade, they have fallen four years behind.
The question becomes, how do we change this? In his book, Jensen, a former middle school teacher, says that to persuade kids who face adversity on a regular basis to graduate, we must keep them in school. To accomplish this, our classrooms need to be relevant, engaging and nurturing places where kids feel safe and respected. The author emphasizes engagement as a key factor in motivating economically disadvantaged kids to stay in school and on track to succeed, while adding that it benefits all students regardless of economic status, as well.

For these reasons, we have chosen to focus professional learning for staff on increasing engagement in our classrooms. All teachers – kindergarten through grade 12 – will have an opportunity to read the book during the school year and participate in small and large group activities and discussions on the themes and strategies described in this book.

As educators, we have the power to make positive differences in the lives of our students. I ask you to challenge yourselves every day by asking, “Am I doing everything in my power to make sure that my students are engaged in learning?”

Free school breakfast/lunch extended to WJSHS students 


We have an opportunity this year to address another known barrier to learning: hunger.

Following the success of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) at the elementary level this past year, we applied for and received approval to expand the CEP to Watervliet Junior/Senior High students beginning in September 2017. That means every student – prekindergarten through high school – will be eligible for free school meals: breakfast and lunch. Students participating in after-school extracurricular programs will also receive afternoon snacks free of charge.

The CEP is a national program, overseen locally by the State Education Department, that allows eligible high-needs schools to serve breakfast and lunch free of charge to all students, regardless of family income. We first implemented the program at the elementary school level, which was successful in raising participation rates for lunch by about 11 percent and breakfast by 27 percent.

The provision, authorized under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, permits eligible schools, like ours, to provide meal service and after-school snacks to all students at no charge. Our district qualified for the CEP based on the number of students who are eligible to be directly certified for free school meals.

I have asked administrators and staff to encourage students to participate in the free school meals program because when students are hungry, they struggle to learn. By offering healthy, well-balanced meals at no charge, we can alleviate the distraction that hunger creates and allow every student, every day to focus on learning.

Welcome back Cannoneers!


Nothing says back-to-school like a Friday night “under the lights!” If you’re ready for some football, I invite you to come out and support Watervliet's varsity football team as they kick off the 2017 season with the first home game on Friday, September 1 at 7:00 p.m. vs. Taconic Hills. Go Cannoneers!

In the meantime, enjoy this final full week of summer vacation! I look forward to welcoming back teachers and staff on Tuesday, Sept. 5, and greeting our students and families for the first day of the 2017-18 school year on Wednesday, Sept. 6.



Monday, June 12, 2017

Best year yet!

WHS seniors on Superhero Day
From the little superheroes marching in the annual WES Halloween parade to the “superhero” seniors marching into their final classes this past week, I am reminded of how exceptionally fast this year has gone by.

As I shared during the most recent Board of Education meeting, I consider this school year to be one of the best in my 12 years in the district, five as superintendent. The administrative team has been working so cohesively and consistently toward achieving our long-term goals. In particular, the work accomplished to implement Response to Intervention (RtI) at the elementary and secondary grades has been remarkable. RtI uses a tiered approach to identifying and supporting students with learning and behavioral needs through routine screening and high-quality instruction to reinforce academic and social development. The administrative team’s efforts to introduce the extended day or ExTRA program also has been extraordinary. This grant-funded initiative is helping increase academic achievement for struggling students in grades K-8 through before- and after-school support, enrichment activities and a summer learning program.

Our district completed an in-depth review and analysis this year of our special education program with assistance from CASDA, the Center for School Improvement at the University of Albany's School of Education. Much credit to Special Education Director of Programs and Pupil Services Janelle Yanni and her staff for the intense work they have done to reflect on what has been working, while also resolving to make changes that will better support learning for our special needs students.

I am especially proud of first-year administrators, UPK and Literacy Director Don Stevens and WJSHS Assistant Principal Kelly Webster, who have brought a new energy and enthusiasm to our buildings.

Board of Education transitions

Dr. Caplan with Mike Hartkern and Mark Scully
During our final Board of Education meeting of the 2016-17 school year, we recognized outgoing Board President Mark Scully and board member Mike Hartkern for their service to our schools, students and community.

Mark has served on the school board for the past 15 years and during his tenure, he has been rock solid. He has seen the district through a series of building projects that have vastly improved our buildings and facilities, and never shied away from making tough decisions when called for during challenging fiscal times. Mark is the consummate gentleman, educational supporter, advocate for children, staff and our schools. He is epitome of all a school board president should be. I, personally, will miss his leadership and his friendship.

I also wish nothing but the best to Mike Hartkern who served one term (three years) on the board. With two young sons attending WES, I am certain that he will remain highly engaged in our schools and community.

In July, I look forward to welcoming and working with two new board members, Steve Hoffman and Mary Beth Whited who won election in May, as we continue to move the district forward.

Congratulations Class of 2017

The end of the school year is such a bittersweet time. In fewer than two weeks, we will bid farewell to group of about 100 students who we have been educating, inspiring and challenging for the past 13 years of their lives. As the Class of 2017 prepares to move on from Watervliet High School, I wish them all the best in the next chapter, whether that be college, the workforce, or the military. The WHS commencement begins promptly at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 22 in the Harry Tucker gymnasium.

Speaking of our soon-to-be graduates, it is with much pride that I recognize Evan Tambolleo and Brianna Johnson for earning top honors as valedictorian and salutatorian of the Class of 2017, respectively. Evan is graduating with a 98.9 grade point average and plans to study industrial engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) this fall. Brianna, who is graduating with a grade point average of 96.5, plans to attend Johns Hopkins University to study biomedical engineering/pre-med. Both students are National Honor Society officers and were involved in a number of extracurricular activities throughout their school careers. I have no doubt they will be highly successful in their future endeavors!

Farewell to our retiring educators, staff members

Lastly, I thank this year’s retirees for their years of service to the district and commitment to our students. Congratulations and best wishes to WHS social studies teachers Bryan Satterlee and John Grill, WHS art teacher Beverly Lavick; WES teachers Kathi Grill and Mary Sennett; and WES teaching assistants Julia King, Tess Newbury and Karen Corey.

To our students, teachers and 10-month staffers, please enjoy a relaxing, safe and fun summer! We will do this all again starting in September.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Thank you for your support

I thank everyone in the community who took the time to vote on Tuesday, May 16. Our 2017-2018 school district budget passed overwhelmingly. I also thank all who assisted in creating our budget and participated in the process. It was a pleasant surprise to see that voter turnout was up this year, as well.

It was exciting to see such interest paid to the two open seats on our  Board of Education. Four candidates ran for the board, and the two who received the highest number of votes were elected. Those two individuals are Steven Hoffman and Mary Beth Whited. I look forward to working with both when they begin serving their terms in July.

I again thank our outgoing board members Mark Scully and Michael Hartkern for their service to the community and our students. I wish the best to both of them!

As we head into the final stretch of the 2016-17 school year, please remember to mark your calendars for the following year-end events:

  • Monday, May 29 – Memorial Day, No School
  • Thursday, June 1 – Senior Athlete Recognition Night, 6 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 3 – Hudson River Communities Relay for Life, noon to midnight, WJSHS
  • Thursday, June 6 – Elementary Spring Concert, 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 8, Board of Education meeting, 6 p.m., WJSHS conference room
  • Monday, June 12 – Last day of regular classes at Watervliet High School
  • Tuesday, June 13 – Regents exams begin
  • Friday, June 16 – WES Field Day
  • Monday, June 19 through Thursday, June 22 – WES early dismissals
  • Tuesday, June 20 – UPK Celebration, 9 a.m., 10 a.m.
  • Wednesday, June 21 – Grade 6 Graduation, 9:30 a.m.
  • Thursday, June 22 – Class of 2017 Commencement, 6 p.m.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Annual school budget vote and board election is May 16

Tuesday, May 16 is the annual school budget vote and Board of Education election. Every resident in the community 18 and older has the right to express their voice in the funding and the elected leadership of our school district. Whether you have voted before or you are a first-time voter – I encourage all eligible voters to head to the polls between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 16.

District residents can vote at one of two polling sites in the city depending on which neighborhood you call home: the Watervliet Elks Lodge or Watervliet Elementary School. Voting information is available here.

More about the budget proposal


The proposed 2017-18 budget totals $26.7 million and increases overall spending by 2.0 percent, which is $530,000 more than the current-year budget. Under the proposed plan, the tax levy increases by 0.7 percent, which is slightly lower than the district’s allowable tax levy under the state’s tax cap law.

Fiscally, we have turned the corner. Our district is no longer listed among the most fiscally stressed in the state according to the comptroller’s office. For the third consecutive year, I am pleased to say that we are presenting a sound fiscal plan that makes no cuts to programs or staffing and allows us to address the growing needs of our students. The proposed budget will help optimize the learning environment by providing resources to reinforce instructional support for special education students; strengthen support for struggling learners; increase the number of spots available for students to attend BOCES Career & Technical programs; and maintain extracurricular and athletic opportunities for students. In fact, we are restoring modified sports programs previously eliminated due to budgetary challenges.

I encourage you to learn as much about the proposed budget as possible and make an informed decision on May 16. Visit the district's budget web page and read the budget newsletter, which you should have received in the mail recently. A copy is also available here.

The complete budget document is available for residents to view in the main office of each school, the district office or at the Watervliet Public Library.

Speaking of the library, on this year’s ballot voters will see a separate proposition for a library tax to support the city’s public library. I remind you that this proposition is completely separate from the school budget. For more information, visit the Watervliet Public Library website.

Four candidates run in Board of Education election


Also, on Tuesday, May 16, voters will choose from four candidates to fill two open seats on the Board of Education. The candidates include Christine Sutherland, Steven Hoffman, Shawn Smeltzer and Mary Beth Whited. You can meet all four individuals -- all are first-time candidates for the board – on Tuesday, May 9 prior to the annual public budget hearing at 6 p.m.

I wish the best to our current board members Mark Scully and Michael Hartkern who have chosen not to seek re-election. I thank them both for their service to the school district and to the community.

It will be especially difficult to say good-bye to longtime board member, Mark Scully, in June. A lifelong resident of the city and a graduate of our schools, he has served on the board for the past 15 years, holding the office of president since 2009. I was high school principal when Mr. Scully handed his two sons their diplomas when they graduated from Watervliet High School many years ago. I thank Mr. Scully for his time and his support of this district and our students. In recent years, the board has had to make decisions that were not always easy, but Mr. Scully has always acted in the best interests of the community and children. I appreciate his encouragement, his leadership and his friendship.

I also thank Mr. Hartkern for his time and his commitment throughout his term on the board. He, too, is a graduate of Watervliet schools. I am sure we will continue to see Mr. Hartken at school events with his two boys, Nathan and Andrew, who attend Watervliet Elementary School.

Serving on the Board of Education requires an investment of time and energy. Board members serve three-year terms member with no pay and are responsible for policies and regulations governing public education in the district. The role is for those who truly value serving their community, as Mr. Scully and Mr. Hartkern have done admirably.

Tenure granted to six district educators

Six educators were recognized during the Board meeting in April for earning tenure. Congratulations to WES Principal Loida Lewinter, English as New Language (ENL) teacher Rebecca Young, reading teacher Theresa Pelton, science teacher Jaclynne Bishop, and speech therapists Jen Donovan and Kaleigh McGrouty. Thank you for inspiring, educating and challenging every student, every day!

Mark your calendars for year-end events

I am excited to share some important upcoming dates and events scheduled for the final weeks of school:

  • Wednesday, May 10 – Grade 6 Transition Night, 6 p.m., WJSHS
  • Thursday, May 11 – National Honor Society Induction Ceremony, 7 p.m., WJSHS
  • Thursday, May 11 – WES Drama Club performance, 6:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, May 13 – WHS Junior/Senior Prom, 7-11 p.m., Walk-through, 6 p.m.
  • Monday, May 15 – Grandparents & Special Persons Night, 6-7:30 p.m., WES
  • Tuesday, May 16 – School Budget Vote, Board of Education Election, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Thursday, May 18 – Garnet & Grey Spring Concert, 6:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, May 23 – National Junior Honor Society Induction Ceremony, 6 p.m., WJSHS
  • Thursday, May 25 – Spring Sports Awards Night, 6 p.m.
  • Monday, May 29 – Memorial Day No School
  • Thursday, June 1 – Senior Athlete Recognition Night, 6 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 6 – Elementary Spring Concert, 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 8, Board of Education meeting, 6 p.m., WJSHS
  • Monday, June 12 – last day of regular classes Watervliet High School
  • Tuesday, June 13 – Regents Exams begin
  • Friday, June 16 – WES Field Day
  • Monday, June 19 through Thursday, June 22 – WES Half Days
  • Tuesday, June 20 – UPK celebration, 9 a.m., 10 a.m.
  • Wednesday, June21 – Grade 6 Graduation, 9:30 a.m.
  • Thursday, June 22 – Class of 2017 Commencement, 6 p.m.

Again, please make time to vote on Tuesday, May 16 -- and encourage your friends, family members and neighbors to do the same -- because every vote matters.

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.