Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Spirit of giving, receiving and presenting (fiscal realities)

Although the temperatures hardly reflect it – being well above normal for early December – the holiday recess is fast approaching! It is the season of giving and once again our students, teachers and staff have stepped up to help make the holidays a little brighter for those in the community who are struggling.

Throughout the month of December, our Junior High Student Council is sponsoring its annual Adopt-an-Angel program for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, while the High School Student Council is collecting food for the local food bank. Teachers and staff from both buildings (WES, WJSHS) have purchased gifts for children of local families in need. In October and November, our teachers and staff donated winter coats and snow gear to be distributed to adults and children through the Coats for the Community program. In “Movember,” several high school teachers and a few students relinquished their razors to grow mustaches and other forms of facial hair – who knew mutton chops and sideburns had become popular again? – to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Thank you to our teachers, staff, students and parents for their kindness and their generosity this holiday season.

It is also the season for receiving, which is why I want to thank the Arsenal Business & Technology Partnership for again making our schools the beneficiary of the Partnership’s annual golf tournament. On Dec. 8, Arsenal Partnership President Peter Gannon presented our district a check for $10,000 that will help support extracurricular opportunities for our students. During the past three years, the Partnership has raised more than $50,000 for after-school programming and I am grateful for the continued support that Mr. Gannon and the Partnership has provided our students and our schools.

‘Tis the season for music

It was my honor and privilege to attend the annual Garnet & Grey Winter Concert performed by junior-senior high school student musicians on Dec. 9, and I look forward to the elementary school’s concert on Dec. 21, which will be performed in the WJSHS auditorium. I applaud Watervliet’s music teachers for sharing their passion and enthusiasm for music with our students every day, and our student musicians, as well, for their effort and dedication to learning the music and practicing the songs, and presenting memorable performances for family, friends, fellow students and staff.

One step forward, two back …

It’s no secret that during the past two years, Watervliet has been at the top or near the top of the list of most fiscally stressed school districts in New York, according to the Office of the State Comptroller. I am pleased to report that this year our fiscal stress rating has been downgraded from severe to moderate. As a result of serious belt tightening – essentially doing much more with less in recent years – we have been able to return a modest level of fiscal stability.

Also, thanks to the efforts of state legislators to increase state aid this year, our school district did not have to make any cuts to staffing or reduce educational programs for the first time in recent memory. But, in a textbook one step forward, two steps back scenario, I fear that we will again struggle with difficult decisions in balancing our budget under the confines of a no-growth tax levy.

That is because Watervliet, like many other school districts across the state, will grapple with the specter of a zero percent, or near zero percent, cap on the increase in property tax levy revenue as we develop our school budget for the 2016-17 school year.  

Some may ask how that can be when the state has a 2 percent tax cap law? The answer is complicated, but suffice to say, the so-called “2 percent tax cap” is not and has never been fixed at 2 percent. The state’s property tax levy limit or “tax cap” is based on a multi-step calculation that restricts the allowable levy growth factor to an increase of 2 percent or the change in the consumer price index — whichever is lower. Because the CPI has moved little in 2015, many districts will face a zero percent increase in local revenue, unless they attempt to exceed the cap, which would require the support of a supermajority (60%). Most school district leaders, up to now, have been reluctant to do that. (Watervliet has stayed within our allowable tax levy cap since the law was enacted.)  

Meanwhile, estimates suggest total school spending – to meet state mandates and contractual obligations – will increase by 2.7 percent. A no-growth tax levy, without a significant state aid increase, would be detrimental to schools and undermine legislators’ past efforts to support public education.

I will be sharing more information on this as our budget development process continues. Until then, please take time this season to enjoy the most precious gift of all—time spent with family and friends.

I wish everyone peace and joy this holiday season.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Meeting of minds on mentoring program

Last month, I was part of a contingent of superintendents and BOCES leaders from the Capital Region invited to the Governor’s Mansion in Albany to meet with Matilda Raffa Cuomo, the Former First Lady of New York to learn more about the state’s new Youth Mentoring Program—an initiative introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2015 State of the State address.

It’s not surprising that the governor would invite Mrs. Cuomo—his mother and a longtime advocate and leader in the area of youth mentoring—to be involved in jump-starting a mentoring program for the state’s most at-risk children. Approximately 30 years ago, at the request of her husband, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, she was instrumental in establishing the New York State Mentoring Program—the nation’s first state-wide, school based, one-to-one mentoring program. Mrs. Cuomo later founded Mentoring USA to further the goals of the New York State Mentoring program. Since its inception, Mentoring USA has expanded nationally and internationally with mentoring affiliates in Italy, Spain, Bulgaria and Latvia.

I listened with great interest as Mrs. Cuomo spoke about the purpose of the state’s new mentoring program, which is to provide career and life guidance to children who are at risk of dropping out of school. She explained that the state—not school districts (sigh of relief)—will be responsible for identifying, training and matching business-based mentors with students from high-needs districts throughout New York. Mrs. Cuomo invited us to express our need for mentoring in schools, as well as discuss the logistics of a program, including how it would work in our schools, or how it might fit with existing student mentoring programs that some schools already have in place.

Since the October meeting, I have been contacted by the mentoring program director for upstate who is interested in working with our district because, as I learned during the meeting, Watervliet participated in the original program initiated by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo three decades ago. The program’s advisory council is seeking local businesses to partner with our schools and recommend individuals to serve as mentors for our students on a weekly basis in a supervised school environment.

The merits of mentoring

Significant research exists that supports the value of mentoring. Consider this: Mentoring has profound positive effects on two early warning signs that a student may be at risk for dropping out of school:

  • High levels of absenteeism (Kennelly & Monrad, 2007)
    • Students who meet regularly with their mentors are 52% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 37% less likely to skip a class. (Public/Private Ventures study of Big Brothers Big Sisters)
  • Recurring behavior problems (Thurlow, Sinclair & Johnson, 2002)
    • Young adults who face an opportunity gap but have a mentor are 55% more likely to be enrolled in college than those who did not have a mentor. (The Mentoring Effect, 2014)

In addition to better school attendance and a better chance of going on to higher education, mentored youth maintain better attitudes toward school. (The Role of Risk, 2013)

To reiterate her belief in mentoring, Mrs. Cuomo shared a story and a picture of a young girl that she had mentored years ago who has since grown, married, graduated from college and has a successful career.

I, too, believe in the power of mentoring having experienced it from both angles. As a new educator in the Hudson City School District, I had a mentor to help me navigate the day-to-day challenges of teaching and to celebrate my successes in the classroom. As a doctoral candidate when I was feeling overwhelmed and questioning if I could succeed in the program, I had a coach who provided consistent encouragement and reminded me on a regular basis that I was more than capable of completing my doctorate. And, I did!

Throughout my years as Watervliet High School principal and even now as superintendent, when mentoring students, I emulate the mentors I have had over the years and always keep in mind that the support of just one caring adult can make a difference for students who are struggling to succeed personally or academically—especially children in high-needs environments.

It was an honor to meet with Mrs. Cuomo and to be asked to provide input from an educator’s perspective about the implementation of the state’s youth mentoring program. If you are interested in volunteering to be a mentor, I encourage you to visit the New York State Youth Mentoring Program website to learn more. All potential mentors will receive extensive training and must submit to a background check. Mentoring students requires commitment, but believe me, helping even one child is the best reward!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

New school year, new Common Core scrutiny

The school year is off to a positive start. In recent weeks, I have had opportunities to visit elementary and secondary classrooms where I have seen teachers demonstrating best practices in instruction and students engaged in learning. In fact, principals in both the elementary and high school buildings report that students and staff have settled into their daily schedules and continue to work hard as we begin the second month of the 2015-2016 school year.

Panel appointed to review Common Core

Speaking of teaching and learning, educators around the state are following with interest recent developments out of Albany regarding Gov. Cuomo’s latest stance on the Common Core standards. The governor has decided to convene yet another task force to review the Common Core standards. The 15-member panel, which thankfully includes a few teachers and school principals, will examine instructional resources and guidance provided by the state, the curricula and the amount of testing in public schools. Any potential changes will be based on the panel’s findings. 

Skeptics say this is a maneuver by a shrewd politician to help reverse sinking approval ratings. From what I have read, several members of the new task force served previously on similar panels that, to my mind, never really offered any substantive recommendations to offset the state’s rushed and flawed implementation of the Common Core standards. 

Like most school superintendents, I believe higher standards are necessary if we expect to prepare students for college and careers in a highly competitive global economy; similarly, I think we all agree that the Common Core implementation process in New York was problematic from the start. There is nothing constructive about a state bureaucracy that mandates testing on new standards without allowing sufficient time for students to adjust to the new material and instructional approaches that teachers are in the midst of applying in the classroom.

Legislation requires districts to revise, adopt new APPR plans

That brings me to the subject of teacher evaluation, officially known as Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Last spring as part of the 2015-16 New York State budget, lawmakers approved new legislation that requires changes to the APPR. The new APPR framework increases the degree to which student performance is weighted in teacher evaluations. 

I am proud of the teachers and administrators in our district who have worked with fidelity to implement the Common Core learning standards at the state’s directive. They are true professionals who are deeply committed to doing what is best for our students. But there are many different factors that impact student performance and achievement, so it is completely unfair to base 50 percent or more of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores that represent a snapshot in time rather than reflect the effort and dedication that our talented and dedicated educators provide for every student, every day.

The task force is expected to make its recommendations by the end of the year. Only time will tell if the skeptics are right; but for now, I remain hopeful that this latest panel will seize the opportunity to make meaningful improvements that will benefit our students and teachers alike.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ready for new school year to begin!

Outside and inside our buildings, I am seeing sure signs that summer is drawing to a close: coaches and students hitting the athletic fields for fall sports practices and a steady trickle of teachers stopping in to organize their classrooms in preparation for the new school year.

Our doors will open and classes will begin at Watervliet City Schools in just two weeks. On Tuesday, Sept. 8, we host our traditional opening day for staff. Then on Wednesday, Sept. 9 we will welcome students from UPK to grade 12 for the 2015-16 school year. The beginning of a new year is full of anticipation and excitement as both students and educators alike have an opportunity to create a positive and productive year of learning, growing and achieving.

As the Watervliet community and our school district begin to move past the unsettling events that unfolded earlier this summer, our students—particularly those at the junior-senior high school—still may be struggling to absorb and make sense of the senseless and troubling circumstances that have impacted the city.

For this reason, it is extremely important during the opening weeks of school and throughout the coming year that we provide an environment in which our students feel safe and cared for in addition to academically inspired and challenged. Upon returning to school, I ask teachers and support staff to consider ways that you can contribute to the positive, educational atmosphere conducive for teaching and learning.

State assessment results

In the meantime, it is equally important to move forward with the task of educating students and ensuring that they are equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary for college and career. With the release of the grades 3-8 New York State assessment results in August, our teachers and building leaders now have the baseline data needed to hit the reset button and begin again to implement instructional practices that help support student growth.

I am proud to report that among Capital Region schools—aside from Menands—our school district had the lowest percentage of students opting out of state tests. According to the State Education Department, on average, “20 percent of eligible test-takers did not have “a recognized, valid reason for not participating.” In communities around the state, these tests have been the source of debate among educators and parents alike. I maintain the low opt-out rate in our district demonstrates the great trust and respect our parents have for our educators.

In the bigger picture, our students’ test scores saw little movement from the year prior. Highlights occurred in grade 5 where 31 percent of students achieved proficiency on the math test, that represents an 11 percent increase from the year before; and in grade 8 where 31 percent of students earned proficient scores on the English language arts exam, an increase of 8 percentage points from 2014.

To better support growth across-the-board, our teachers will continue to work with instructional coaches to implement best practices in the classroom and students who are struggling academically will receive additional support to help them succeed.

Welcome new staff

My administrative team and I are excited to welcome approximately 20 new staff members in 2015-16. We are fortunate to have a talented group of enthusiastic educators and support staff joining us this year. Each promises to bring fresh ideas and innovative instructional strategies to our schools that will complement the experience and skills of our veteran teachers and staff. Some familiar faces will be found in new spaces this year as a few teachers have accepted new grade level assignments within our buildings.

Throughout this coming year, I invite parents to seize every opportunity to become active participants in their children’s education. I strongly encourage parents to be informed about their child’s academic progress by regularly checking the Parent Portal and keeping the lines of communication open with their child’s teachers. Please attend school events and activities with your child as well to show them that their education is important to you.

Finally, many thanks to our custodial staff for their hard work this summer and all they have done to get our buildings ready for a successful first day of school on September 9.

I look forward to a rewarding school year and to sharing in the academic and personal accomplishments of our students and our educators. Enjoy these final weeks of summer vacation!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Moving past broken trust … to begin healing

The events of the past few weeks involving the Watervliet Police Department have been difficult and challenging for the school district, for our school families and for the community as a whole. The unsettling news of broken trust and alleged criminal activity has shaken our confidence in those who are sworn to protect and serve the community and uphold the law.

As I said from the outset, the charges against Joshua Spratt, a Watervliet police officer and the district’s former School Resource Officer, are deeply upsetting, and if true, are an egregious and unforgivable betrayal of the trust we all placed in him. As the superintendent of schools, I have taken personally the events that have unfolded in recent weeks because our families entrust educators with the safety and well-being of their children. I want to reiterate and to reassure our students, our parents and our staff that district officials followed proper procedure by reporting to Mr. Spratt’s superiors at the Watervliet Police Department the rumor that began circulating about his interactions with students.

This alarming incident has been a learning experience for us all, and that is why on opening day for staff this year, I have invited state law enforcement to speak to faculty and staff and review the appropriate protocol for reporting an allegation, however implausible it may seem, when the safety of our students is involved.

In the meantime, the investigation into Mr. Spratt and other members of the Watervliet Police Department is ongoing. District officials and I remain in contact with the Albany County District Attorney’s Office and the New York State Police. We have and we will continue to fully comply with the law enforcement agencies conducting the investigation.

I strongly encourage parents, students and/or staff who have concerns to contact me at any time. I again remind parents, students, staff and community members who may have information that may be relevant to the case to contact State Police investigators at 518-782-3211.

With classes starting in a few short weeks, our focus is to move past this troubling incident and help our students begin the new school year on a positive note.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

SY 2014-15: recap

Here we are again – at the end of another school year – preparing to celebrate the accomplishments and successes of our students.

Before that happens, high school students must get through Regents week and final exams, which begin next week. I remind students that these exams can often make or break your final grade, so it is especially important to remain focused on preparing for your exams, and take advantage of the remaining review classes teachers are offering during this final week of classes.

Here are some important dates to have marked on your calendar for June:

  • The Class of 2015 Commencement will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 25 in the Harry Tucker gymnasium at Watervliet High School. 
  • Our Grade 6 Graduation is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 24 in the Watervliet Jr.-Sr. High School auditorium.
  • On Tuesday, June 23, our kindergarten students will participate in Moving Up Day at the elementary school with ceremonies at 9:15 a.m. for Mrs. Minnick, Mrs. Pontore and Mrs. Shufelt’s classes, followed at 10:15 a.m. by Ms. Taylor and Mrs. Cioffi’s classes.
  • The Universal Prekindergarten program will celebrate on Monday, June 22 with two ceremonies at Watervliet Elementary School; the first at 9 a.m., and the second at 10 a.m.

2014-15 year in review

As the 2014-15 school year wraps up in a few short weeks, now is a good time to reflect on some of the highlights from these past 10 months.

In August, before the official start of the 2014-15 school year, our district as part of consortium of 12 schools and BOCES, was awarded a Teaching is the Core grant. With this state grant, a team of Watervliet educators and administrators reviewed our testing practices in an effort to identify and improve assessments. Educators participated in professional development on creating more authentic assessments and the review team worked to develop an action plan that will allow us to begin to implement improved performance-based assessments that can be used to measure student learning.

In September, we welcomed assistant principal Loida Lewinter to Watervliet Junior-Senior High School. Mrs. Lewinter hit the ground running this first year and has been an excellent addition to our leadership team. The Character Education and No Place for Hate programs have flourished under her leadership. Principal Groat handed the reins of the Kids of Character program to Mrs. Lewinter and I'm proud to say that this year, 89 students overall were recognized as Kids of Character.

One of my favorite and lasting memories of this year – and of my tenure as superintendent so far – was seeing 1,500 high school football fans, community members, invited guests, and sports media personnel gather at the Watervliet Jr.-Sr. High School campus to celebrate the grand opening of our new athletic field and track during the first home football game of the season last September. I will forever remember the excitement and the pride that event brought to our students and to our community on a very memorable Friday night under “the lights.” View pictures

Also in the fall, the elementary school hosted its first Dads Take Your Child to School Day, while high school juniors and seniors explored their post-secondary options when the College Caravan, a mobile college fair, made a stop at WJSHS.

Thanks to a Target literacy grant, the elementary school launched a successful book-reading Breakfast Club for kindergarten through grade 2 students. The Breakfast Club has helped shape an appreciation of reading and build literacy skills for our youngest learners who met once a week throughout the school year to start the day off reading books and enjoying a healthy breakfast.

The Arsenal Partnership presented our district with a $25,000 donation from its annual golf tournament. The donation helped us restore many of the extracurricular programs that had been eliminated from the budget due to fiscal limitations. I am grateful to the Arsenal Partnership for making our district the beneficiary of its golf tournament for the past two years and for the support of local businesses and individuals who sponsored the event and/or donated prizes. My hope is that these partnerships can grow in coming years so that we can continue to offer our students a high-quality and well-rounded education. Read more

The Watervliet Athletic Hall of Fame welcomed nine new members during its seventh annual Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in October. View video tribute

Twenty high school students were selected to be trained for and serve as members of Watervliet’s Youth Court – which wrapped up its second year a few weeks ago. Youth Court is the city’s alternative to criminal and family court for young offenders ages 10-18 who have committed first-time, low-level criminal offenses in the community.

In November, 30-plus Watervliet students joined their peers from neighboring schools for Project VOICE—a national movement that celebrates and inspires youth self-expression through Spoken Word Poetry—at the Troy Music Hall. Read more

Third-grade students received free reference books from the Watervliet Elks as part of the national Dictionary Project, a program that provides dictionaries to students to use at school and at home. Educators view third grade as the dividing line between learning to read and reading to learn, which is why the dictionaries are gifted each year to our third grade classes. Read more

During the elementary school’s annual Food Drive, students and staff collected nearly 1,400 non-perishable food items that were donated to the local food pantry in time for distribution to economically disadvantaged families in time for the holiday season.

Over the winter, SED released a report indicating that graduation rates across the state had increased. According to the data, Watervliet High School’s graduation rate was 78 percent for 2014 — a 12 percentage point increase from the 2013 graduation rate of 66 percent. Read more

Varsity wrestlers paid tribute to 20 teachers and staff members during the team’s annual Teacher Appreciation Night.

A team of students from the high school participated in the Annual STOP (Students Together Opposing Prejudice) Conference at Siena College in January and engaged in activities, discussions and action planning around issues of prejudice, tolerance and respect. Read more

In February, 25 WES fourth-graders participated in an enrichment program called the Help Yourself Academy at the Sage College campus in downtown Troy. The after-school program sponsored by the Esteves School of Education offered students an opportunity to build skills in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) through fun, hands-on projects. Read more

Speaking of science, WHS chemistry teacher Victoria Eddy-Helenek was named a New York State Master Teacher in February. She joins 550 teachers from across the state who have been selected for this program that recognizes educators for their dedication to providing the most innovative STEM education to students, their commitment to professional growth and their enthusiasm for sharing successful practices with their colleagues. Congratulations to Ms. Eddy-Helenek! Read more

In late February, Watervliet High School student Theresa DeChairo and I were invited to speak at a regional forum on public education advocating for our schools. The forum, hosted by Colonie High School, was attended by more than 1,000 stakeholders from dozens of area school districts for what has become an annual regional call to action on the fiscal and educational crisis that public schools face. Read more

In March, our school and district administrators jumped into the world of social media – specifically the ‘Twittersphere.’ Since then, they have been ‘tweeting’ out pictures and information on a daily basis about school events. If you don’t already—please follow them on Twitter! Read more

Two words made May memorable: Bubble Soccer. Nine teams comprised of students and staff competed in our first Bubble Soccer Tourney at the junior-senior high school — a fun and fierce fund-raiser presented by the Character Education/No Place for Hate programs. After a hard-fought competition, our teachers narrowly defeated our administrators. I’m already looking forward to a rematch next year. View pictures

On May 19, voters approved our 2015-16 Watervliet school budget by a margin of 66 percent. Next year’s fiscal plan preserves our academic programs and maintains staff. I thank everyone who participated in the school budget vote and Board of Education election, and I am grateful to the community for its continued support of our schools despite ongoing fiscal struggles. Read more

Our school’s National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society inducted 21 new members and 31 new members, respectively, during ceremonies in May. Congratulations to all those students for putting in the effort and their families for the support provided at home.

It is with pride that I recognize Rachel Grigg and Mary Jo DeStefano for earning top honors as valedictorian and salutatorian of the Class of 2015, respectively. Rachel plans to attend Drexel University in Philadelphia where she will study research science, while Mary Jo will pursue a degree in criminal justice at Cazenovia College in Central New York. Read more

When 40 percent of the top students in a graduating class are siblings — like in our Class of 2015 — it deserves recognition. The Jones quadruplets – Alison, Nicholas, Elizabeth, and Rebecca Jones rank third, fifth, seventh and tenth in the class, respectively, and have a combined cumulative grade point average of 93.75 percent. Read more

I speak on behalf of the faculty, staff and administrators when I congratulate all of our graduates as each moves forward with the next stage of their lives, whether that means first grade, the junior high school or pursuing college and careers!

Finally, I sincerely thank this year’s retirees for their years of service to the district and commitment to our students. Congratulations and best wishes to: WHS special education teacher Theresa Buchanan, WHS social worker Frances McKee-Decrescenzo, WHS science teacher Frank Parisi, WES custodian Charles Rorie, WES teaching assistant Deborah Shevy, and WES guidance counselor Robert Strang.

To our returning students, educators and staff, please enjoy a safe, relaxing and fun summer vacation! I look forward to welcoming you back in September.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Thank a teacher (or teachers!)

This week, May 4-8, is National Teacher Appreciation Week. As a community and as a nation, we celebrate educators this week. Growing up, I looked forward to going to school every day, and was fortunate to have many good teachers who inspired me.

Education has gone through dramatic changes during the past several years and our teachers have risen to the challenges. I am incredibly proud of the work I see taking place every day in our pre-K through 12th grade classrooms. The commitment of our teachers often reaches above and beyond the classroom as many of our educators serve as coaches, mentors and class advisors. My administrative team and I recognize there is no harder working and dedicated group of professionals than our Watervliet teachers, and I am grateful to lead a team of educators who do everything possible to inspire, challenge and educate every student, every day.

Speaking of extraordinary educators, our district – especially the elementary school – is extremely proud of grade 3 teacher Jennifer Hoefer who recently received an invitation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to participate in a one week educational summit (all expenses paid!) in Seattle, Washington this summer. Mrs. Hoefer is the first teacher in the state (outside New York City) to receive this opportunity! Congratulations!

Top 10 students

I also want to recognize our exceptional students. The high school recently named the Top 10 scholars of the Class of 2015! Congratulations to valedictorian Rachel Grigg and salutatorian Mary Jo DeStefano, as well as Alison Jones, Justyn McHarg, Nicholas Jones, Syeda Kaneez Fatima, Elizabeth Jones, Bridget Hogan, Victor Dobrovlskiy and Rebecca Jones who round out the Top 10. Setting this group apart from any of our previous Top 10 is the fact that 40 percent of this year’s top students are siblings. Having quadruplets in any graduating class is special enough, but it’s even more unique because all four made it to the Top 10. Congratulations to the Joneses: Ali, Becky, Beth and Nick.

In addition, Beth Jones recently signed her letter of intent to play softball for The College of Saint Rose for the next four years. The three-sport athlete and Top 10 student plans to study education and one day become a teacher and coach.

Facilities generating rentals

While on the subject of athletics, our track and field, gymnasium and refurbished auditorium have been generating revenues for the district. In the past few months, our district has collected more than $15,000 in facility rental fees. The installation of the field and auditorium renovations was approved by district residents in December 2011, as part of a capital project that was paid for with state building aid and Qualified School Construction Bonds at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Possible extended day program

In other news, our school district has applied for a multi-year grant through the Belle Jar Foundation that would extend the school day by one hour per day, Monday through Thursday for Watervliet’s grade 9 students. My administrative team and I believe that with an extended program, we can provide the help many of our students need to successfully transition to high school and prepare for the academic demands of college and competitive job market. During the extended program, ninth-graders will have an opportunity to strengthen their English and math skills and build 21st century learning skills including time management, teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving and more. Our grant application is currently under review. Stay tuned, we should hear in the next several weeks if our application is successful.

Finally, this week please remember to thank a teacher past or present. It will make their day!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Protect the Promise

The following is an opinion piece that I wrote and submitted to the Times Union. It was published in the Wednesday, March 11th edition of the newspaper. I have been pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback I have since received, and for that reason, I am again sharing through this blog my personal thoughts on the promise of public education.

Protecting the promise: the power of public education

My story is simple, uncomplicated, and a reflection of the profound impact education has had on my life.

I was born in Coventry, RI to a mother with a high school diploma and a father with a 4 year business degree.  My paternal grandfather emigrated from Russia and although he spoke the language, it was very difficult to understand his thick accent.  I am the middle child and was raised in a household where you finished what you started, returned what you borrowed, respected adults and valued education.

I had no idea we were poor because I didn’t know any different.  My family ate dinner together every night, I had clothes on my back and a roof over my head.  The only indication I had that I was “different” was when I moved to NY in 2nd grade and  the visceral feeling that ran through my blood when my teacher  asked that anyone who qualified for free lunch raise their hand so she could complete the lunch count.  Few hands were raised, but my classmates always turned to look and see whose hand went up.  My family’s income did not inhibit my parents from attending every extracurricular event I participated in, every report card and awards night my school held and parent/teacher meetings.

Some of my fondest memories are those from high school where I participated in YAC (Youth Against Cancer), softball, ski and yearbook club.  I loved high school and was an above average student.  My time was never spent worrying if my district’s state aid would dry up and my extracurricular clubs would be abolished.  I never had trouble getting extra help from teachers because our class sizes were very reasonable.  I had no knowledge of who the governor of NYS was because it wasn’t important to me and I did not have a clue what the superintendent in my school district did all day long.

I knew my parents’ expectations were that I was going to college after high school and I needed to bring home respectable grades in all subject areas.  Homework had to be completed before going outside to play and there were consequences for not doing your best in school.  NYS protected the promise to students who attended public education.  State aid was adequately and equitably distributed and students were assessed and tested throughout their public school careers by the state as well as their teachers.

I became an educator because I believed I had the tools to enhance children’s lives.  I knew public education was the “great equalizer” and had the power to transform the future of our youth.  Education is an investment in one’s future and I am living proof of that.  Through my hard work and education, my salary no longer would qualify me for free lunch.

I tasked myself with the charge of giving back to my community and to children.  I taught for 11 years in the same school district I graduated from.  My family still lives in that district and my niece is a freshmen in the same high school I attended.  The difference is her class sizes are larger and her opportunities are fewer.  Teachers are equally qualified to prepare children to be productive members of society, much like when I was in school, however resources are scarce and governmental support is limited.  Children go through the public school system one time in their lives.  They never have a second opportunity to build up their resumes if the opportunities are simply not there.  We are doing a disservice to our children when limited resources stifle their ability to acquire the necessary skills to compete in the 21st Century. 

As a public school educator, it is my job to ensure I protect the promise to the children in my district and make sure they graduate with a high school diploma that allows them to compete in the global economy.  There is no better investment than a child’s education as it is the key to unlock the door of opportunity. 

Your thoughts

I see great learning potential as well as academic success and personal achievement every day in our schools. But, I’m interested to hear your perspective about what public education in Watervliet schools has meant to you. I invite parents, grandparents, students, teachers, administrators, and community members to send us your stories and share your thoughts on the power of public education to transform lives.

Success stories can be sent to me directly at or e-mailed to our district's communications specialist: Thank you!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Is end of GEA near? Could be, if we act now!

The Legislature has a real opportunity this year to fully end the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), a measure initiated by the state that has diverted more than $9 billion in aid from schools across New York since it was first introduced in 2010.

Since that time, the GEA has essentially siphoned more than $4 million in aid from our school district—leaving us with significant budget deficits to overcome, but more importantly, cheating our students of the educational opportunities they deserve.

Both of our elected state representatives are on board with recently proposed bi-partisan legislation (Assembly bill A.2271 and Senate bill S.2743) that, if approved by both houses, would bring about a permanent end to the GEA. I commend Assemblyman John McDonald and Senator Neil Breslin for taking action and co-sponsoring this important legislation and have written letters to both encouraging them to continue fighting the good fight for our schools and for public education, in general. 

Now I am asking the community to keep this momentum to end the GEA moving forward. Please send a letter, an email or even call Assemblyman McDonald and Senator Breslin and urge them to continue working diligently for the passage of Assembly bill A.2271 and Senate bill S.2743 during the 2015 Legislative Session. Their contact information can be found here.

The more legislators hear from us – their constituents – the better the chances they will make the GEA a priority issue this legislative session!


From ending the GEA to beginning the school budget process

This is typically the time of year when we begin in earnest to crunch the numbers and develop a school budget proposal to present for a public vote in May. Only this year, for the first time that anyone in education can recall, district leaders and boards of education are beginning this important process without having all the necessary numbers.

Historically, the state issues what are known as “state aid runs” or projections for the amount of state funding that school districts should reasonably expect to receive. The aid runs are traditionally provided soon after the governor presents his Executive Budget proposal in January. In an unprecedented move, however, the state’s Division of Budget announced that it will not release aid projections until the Legislature passes the education reform agenda outlined in the governor’s budget presentation. This unfairly places school districts in the crosshairs of a political power struggle and further complicates the already challenging process of developing a balanced and responsible budget.

Not only does withholding this critical information create an impediment to crafting a sound fiscal plan, but it is also a disservice to our communities as it hinders the open communication and transparency that needs to occur throughout the budget development process.

WHS student to speak at regional forum on public education

Finally, I encourage teachers, staff members, parents, students and community members—anyone invested in the future of public education—to attend the upcoming regional forum “SAVE OUR SCHOOLS: Quality Opportunities for Public School Children” on Thursday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at Colonie Central High School.  View a copy of the Feb. 26 event agenda

I have been asked to discuss school funding at this event and Watervliet High School senior Theresa DeChiaro also has been invited to serve as a panelist speaking on behalf of public school students about the undeniable effects inequitable and inadequate state funding have made on educational opportunities in our schools.

I am extremely proud of Theresa for serving on this panel and being a voice for students here and throughout the Capital Region, and I look forward to having Watervliet community members attend the forum and help support our message.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Vliet listed on state fiscal stress report

Last year around this same time, the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) released its fiscal stress report for school districts and municipalities. You may recall that Watervliet was at the top of the school list.

I recently received the OSC’s fiscal stress report for 2014, and the district is once again on the list with a score of 80 percent, meaning Watervliet is a district in “significant fiscal stress." (Our score for 2013 was 88.3 percent.)

I have blogged about our fiscal stress many times – most recently in November after the comptroller’s office released its fiscal stress audit of district finances.

As is often the case with these types of government reports, this most recent report does not reflect the entire story. It neglects to mention, for example, that by tightening our belts and aligning recurring costs and revenues, the district has eliminated 80 percent of our deficit in one year. We have pursued cost-saving measures, such as shared service agreements with the City of Watervliet for trash removal and a summer school program with the Cohoes City School District, and we will continue to seek opportunities to reduce costs.

Question of revenue

It also fails to explain that ours is not a spending problem, but rather a revenue issue. Our schools are receiving less state aid than we have in the past. The Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) has diverted billions of dollars in aid from schools—Watervliet has lost approximately $4 million to the GEA—all so that the state could eliminate its budget deficits.

Meanwhile, it is our students who suffer the consequences. Without sufficient resources, our district has cut teachers and support staff, resulting in larger class sizes in some cases. We have had to eliminate most all extracurricular opportunities—programs that often motivate students to come to school. Thankfully many of these opportunities have been restored, but only through the generosity of the Arsenal Partnership and local donations.

Another significant problem continues to be the lack of equity in the way state funding is distributed, which disproportionately affects high needs districts. In Watervliet, 65 percent of our students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. We are a high needs district. State funding formulas should take into account community needs and resources, but that is not the case.

At the same time, the state imposed tax levy cap, which limits the amount of revenue districts can collect through property taxes, has made schools even more dependent on state aid. And so, we are caught in a vicious cycle with no escape hatch.

Deprived of adequate resources, it becomes increasingly difficult to meet our basic mission of educating, inspiring and challenging every student, every day.