Friday, December 21, 2018

Much to be grateful for heading into 2019

December has been a whirlwind at WCSD! As we approach the holiday break, there is much to be grateful for heading into 2019. 

Although we bid a fond farewell to WES principal Loida Lewinter, I am excited that WJSHS assistant principal Kelly Webster will step into the leadership role at the elementary school. Over the past two years, I have watched with pride as Mrs. Webster has grown into a knowledgeable and capable school leader. She will transition to the elementary school in early January. For those who don’t know her, Mrs. Webster served as a fourth-grade teacher at WES for several years before becoming the assistant principal at the junior-senior high school. While assistant principal, she made instant connections with students and served as an adviser for the Character Education/No Place for Hate program. She also collaborated with teachers and staff to launch a new student-mentoring program this year. I have no doubt junior-senior high school students and staff alike will miss her cheerful and energetic nature, yet I am more than confident she is the perfect choice to lead Watervliet Elementary School. Read more about Mrs. Webster's appointment to WES principal

District awarded prekindergarten grant 

Earlier this month, I learned that our grant application to begin a prekindergarten program for 3-year-old children was approved by the State Education Department. This is exciting news for the district! Having the ability to offer a high-quality early childhood education will prepare children for kindergarten and plant the seeds for success throughout their school years. For this program, our district has partnered with Achievements, a community-based organization that currently operates several prekindergarten programs in the former Maplewood School. The program will serve 14 3-year-olds and is expected to begin in late January. Read more about the new prekindergarten program 

Additional funding for Food is Fuel

Our friend Bill Sheehy of the Watervliet Civic Center recently shared the good news with me that the elementary school’s Food is Fuel program will receive an additional $5,500 thanks to the annual Backpack Heroes campaign. Backpack Heroes is a partnership between CBS 6, Fidelis Care and the Regional Food Bank that raises funds to support the backpack program, which helps alleviate hunger by providing children with backpacks full of nutritious and easy-to-prepare foods each Friday so they have food to eat during the weekend. You may recall that Watervliet Elementary School served as a site for one of the four live telethons hosted by CBS 6 News anchor Liz Bishop in the fall. I thank Fidelis Care, CBS 6 News and the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York for their support of Watervliet’s children. I also applaud Mr. Sheehy for working tirelessly on behalf of the city’s children and securing enough food from Hannaford to provide 30 students at WJSHS with food for the weekend.
Watervliet Civic Center Executive Director Bill Sheehy and 6th grade teacher Nikki LaBoissiere work the phones during the Backpack Heroes telethon at Watervliet Elementary School in October.

Watervliet elementary and district staff, Fidelis Care representatives and CBS 6 News anchor Liz Bishop with the tally of the total amount raised during four Backpack Heroes telethons. 

Making holidays bright

Finally, I thank our student athletes for their community service. A group of fall and winter sports athletes recently visited the Watervliet Senior Center to serve the holiday lunch. It was heartwarming to watch the students interact with the seniors, and I felt a deep sense of pride hearing so many positive comments from the seniors about our students. Great job everyone!

Up next: school budget development begins

Looking ahead to the first few months of the new year, my focus will turn to creating the school budget. Governor Cuomo will deliver his State of the State address and his Executive Budget proposal in January. Using the fiscal data from the Executive Budget as a baseline, school business manager Keith Heid and I will work together to develop a proposed fiscal plan for the 2019-20 school year that is mindful of our commitment to students and the community. The Board of Education will provide input on the budget proposal and will then adopt the plan in April. The district's proposed plan will go before city residents for a public vote on May 21, 2019.

Please enjoy happy, healthy and restful holidays celebrated with family and friends! I wish you all the best for a healthy and successful 2019!

Monday, November 26, 2018

The power of human connection in education

I recently read an article about the 2019 New York State Teacher of the Year in the New York State School Boards Association online newsletter.

After reading it, I shared this inspirational story with the educators in our district because it speaks to the power of human connections and the importance of building relationships and trust with our students.

Alhassan Susso teaches social studies at the International Community High School in the Bronx. The State Education Department chose him as New York’s top educator from a field of 200,000 this fall because of his innovative ideas that have empowered his students to succeed. In addition to teaching his regular classes, Mr. Susso developed a special course that takes place an hour before the school day begins. This course helps his students – most all of whom are immigrants – prepare for their futures by building leadership, communication and fiscal planning skills. Despite some initial skepticism by administrators, Mr. Susso’s before-school program has proven effective for students, as illustrated last year when every student who participated in the course graduated, and 97 percent enrolled in college. Read the NYSED Press Release: 2019 NYS Teacher of the Year

What set Mr. Susso apart is his powerful story of overcoming the odds to achieve success. He emigrated to the United States from a small country in West Africa at the age of 16. He battled a debilitating eye disease that could have left him blind, and the heartbreak of losing his younger sister to an illness after she was denied a visa to the U.S. to receive medical treatment. Rather than allow these circumstances to defeat him, he persevered. After finishing high school, he went on to earn both his bachelor’s and masters’ degrees and pursue a career in education where he has become an advocate for social emotional learning in schools.

A key part of Mr. Susso’s story for me was when he credited his success to the support of a teacher in high school whose encouragement made him feel safe and secure, and allowed him to thrive.

His story reminded me of our English as a New Language (ENL) students. Last spring, I listened as they shared the struggles they have had to overcome to get here. Some are refugees from war torn countries who have seen and lived through unspeakable tragedy. I also think of the challenges that many of our students face every day: hunger, broken homes, poverty, addiction.

It’s quite possible that we have an Alhassan Susso or two in our midst! That is why it is so important— and I will continue to remind teachers and staff every day — that the support of just one caring adult can make a world of difference for students who are struggling to succeed personally or academically.

We must practice patience, have empathy, and continue to set clear expectations that will empower students to believe in themselves and the value of education.

Search underway for new principal 

It is with mixed emotions that I share this other news: Elementary school principal Loida Lewinter has decided to step down from her position in January to spend more time raising her family. Mrs. Lewinter has been an outstanding school leader, who first served as the assistant principal at Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School before becoming the elementary principal in the 2016-17 school year. On behalf of the Board of Education, our faculty and staff, I wish Mrs. Lewinter all the best and hope she knows how much her leadership will be missed. Read Mrs. Lewinter’s Letter to Watervliet Families

In the meantime, we have started the process for finding a new elementary principal, which includes considering qualified internal candidates. I can assure you that our priority is to hire the best fit for the elementary principal position — one who will inspire, educate and challenge every student, every day.

Holiday reminder

With Thanksgiving now behind us, it is important for all of us to remain mindful that although the December holidays are an exciting time for most of us, that is not always the case for our student population. For many of our students, the holidays can be a time filled with great uncertainty and anxiety. As a result, some students may act out. I want to remind you that the best gift you can give them is your patience and compassion.

Thank you all in advance for caring about our students and recognizing how this can be a challenging time of year for them.

Finally, please be sure to mark your calendars for these upcoming December events:

  • Saturday, Dec. 1 – WES PTA Breakfast with Santa, 8:00 a.m.
  • Monday, Dec. 3 – WHS Student Council Holiday Food Drive kicks off, runs through Dec. 15
    Jr. High Student Council Adopt an Angel, runs through Dec. 21
  • Wednesday, Dec. 5 – WJSHS Garnet & Grey Winter Concert, 6:30 p.m., Jr. High Student Council Cookie Bake-Off Sale, 6:00-8:00 p.m.
  • Thursday, Dec. 6 – Capital Region BOCES Pathways in Technology Early College High School (PTECH) Open House for Grade 8 Students/Parents, 5:30 & 7:00 p.m., WJSHS
  • Saturday, Dec. 8 – City of Watervliet Tree Lighting, 5:00-6:30 p.m., Veteran's Park
  • Wednesday, Dec. 12 – WES Winter Concert, 6:30 p.m.
  • Friday, Dec. 14 – WES Holiday Movie Night, 6:00 p.m.
  • Monday, Dec. 24 – Wednesday, Jan. 2, Holiday Recess
Please remember during the holiday season to focus on the positive, and enjoy the most precious gift of all—time spent with family and friends. Happy, healthy, peaceful holidays to all.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Attendance is mission critical to student success

We are about over a month into the new school year now and students and staff have settled nicely into the daily routine.

A top priority in our learning community is to make sure that our students have what they need so they can stay focused on learning. As educators in a small urban district with high needs, we are committed to taking steps to overcome the barriers to learning that persist for many of our students.

That said, in order for students to learn, grow and succeed academically, it is important that they consistently attend school, and arrive in their classrooms on time every day. While our district’s average daily attendance looks good on paper – hovering in the 94-95 percent range ‒ my administrative team and I have been taking a deeper look at individual student attendance and are noticing a troubling trend. More than 40 students in the junior-senior high school have missed three or more school days since the school year began ‒ just five short weeks ago. If this continues, it is a given that some of these students will be categorized as chronically absent, and this may jeopardize their ability to graduate or be promoted to the next grade level.

A study by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium found that students who missed two to four days in September were five times more likely than those who missed fewer than two days to be chronically absent for the year. Chronic absence is defined as missing at least 10 percent – or 18 days – of school over the course of an academic year for any reason. This includes both excused and unexcused absences.

According to the Children’s Aid Society, chronic absence is associated with low academic achievement, and is a strong indicator that those students may eventually drop out of school. It also undermines teaching and learning for all students when teachers must redirect their attention to meet the needs of chronically absent children once they return to school.

Here are some other sobering facts about the impact of absenteeism on students and learning:
  • Students with lower preschool attendance have lower kindergarten readiness scores (University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research).
  • Students who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read proficiently in third grade (Applied Survey Research & Attendance Works, April 2011).
  • By 6th grade, chronic absence becomes a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school (Baltimore Education Research Consortium).
  • 9th grade attendance is a better graduation predictor than 8th grade test scores (University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research).
  • Students who live in communities with high levels of poverty are four times more likely to be chronically absent than others often for reasons beyond their control, such as unstable housing, unreliable transportation and a lack of access to health care (The National Center for Children in Poverty).
In an effort to reduce absenteeism and remove other barriers to learning, we have started a school mentoring program for all students in grades 7-12. Every teacher, administrator and most instructional support staff have been assigned two to three students to build personal relationships with and provide positive supports that will help our students feel more connected to school.

Although the mentor program just started, already WJSHS Assistant Principal Kelly Webster reports that it is making a difference. She says:
“There have been several instances this week of staff contacting me when they heard their mentee may be in trouble, or need assistance in school or outside at home. Together we have been able to solve several problems, help get students the supplies they need and more. Our staff continues to amaze and inspire me. I thank them for their dedication to our students. The impact of this program in such a short time has been phenomenal.” 

WYH School Based Health Center up and running

Poor health or undiagnosed conditions can also create barriers to learning for students living in poverty. Lack of adequate health care often may cause students to miss school. As mentioned in my previous blogs, we now have a school-based health center that is up and running at Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School. The new health center is a partnership between our school district and Whitney Young Health that provides services on site to students in our schools. School-based health services include primary medical care, dental care, mental/behavioral health, and health education and promotion. Students can be treated for common illnesses such as the flu or strep throat, or chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes. It is open to every student in the district from kindergarten through grade 12, but to be eligible to receive services parents must complete a registration packet for their child(ren). I strongly encourage parents to take advantage of this program. Download an application packet

Backpack Heroes returns to WES 

Another well-known barrier to learning is hunger. When students come to school hungry, they cannot fully focus on or engage in learning. All of our students receive breakfast, lunch and an after-school snack at no charge through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). We also offer the Food is Fuel backpack program that provides our elementary students a bag full of food each weekend of the school year. 

I thank everyone who assisted with the Backpack Heroes Phone-a-thon on Oct. 4 at Watervliet Elementary School. Members of the PTA, WSSA, WTA, WAA, the Board of Education and the community joined Liz Bishop from CBS 6 News and representatives from Fidelis Care to raise money for the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern NY. Our youth cheerleaders also contributed to the effort with an on-air cheer encouraging everyone watching to donate.

Our Food is Fuel program assists more than 60 elementary students and their families by providing a bag full of food every Friday to help alleviate hunger for children over the weekend. Last year, we were able to feed 70 families through this program. Because we received less funding this year, the success of the Backpack Heroes Phone-a-thon is even more critical as we try to make up that loss of funding and provide a Food is Fuel backpack to all students who need it.


Finally, October is National Principals Month. I greatly appreciate our school principals and assistant principals – Ryan Groat, Loida Lewinter, Kelly Webster, David Wareing and Michael Foust – for their leadership and their commitment to and support for students and staff alike. I am proud to work alongside such dedicated leaders. Please join me in thanking them for all they do for every student, every day!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Welcome Back!

Hard to imagine that summer vacation is winding down, particularly with the 90-degree weather that we are experiencing this final week! I hope everyone has enjoyed the summer and has had a chance to relax, rejuvenate and have some fun in anticipation of the upcoming school year.

I am eager to welcome back our teachers and staff, and most especially our students, as I begin my seventh year leading the Watervliet schools.

I recently read an interesting article on equity, a word that seems to have risen to the top of the lexicon for many educational leaders these days. In the article, Jonathan Raymond —  the author and former superintendent of a large urban school district in California —  asks an important question: "Do we even know what equity really means?"

The author defines equity and equality, and then explores the difference between the two. In the article, Raymond explains that equality is simply the ability to treat everyone the same way, but that equity demands more — it requires empathy. He goes on to say that equity can only be achieved when we put every child first, not just the academically proficient child, the well-behaved child, or the child with helicopter parents — but every child.

I shared the article, Equity is Empathy in Action, with teachers and staff, and I would encourage everyone to read this powerful piece. Read: Equity is Empathy in Action

Here in district, we have had a productive, busy and exciting summer integrating new opportunities for students – some that I believe will help address the issues of equity.

School-Based Health Center opens at WJSHS

The Whitney Young School-Based Health Center at Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School has been approved by the state Department of Health and is officially up and running for the school year!

This new partnership between our school district and Whitney Young Health will help ensure the basic healthcare needs of our students are met. Having a school-based health program on-site will provide access to quality health care for students of all backgrounds. From an educator’s perspective, any steps we can take to improve children’s health and that will help reduce the time that students spend away from the classroom is a positive endeavor.

The Whitney Young school-based health center is located in the nurse’s office on the first floor of the junior-senior high school. Health services will be available to any student enrolled in the district who has submitted the required paperwork. Visit the Whitney Young Health website to download a health questionnaire and parental consent and enrollment packets. Parents, please be sure to return the completed forms to the main office of your child’s school.

We look forward to working with our Watervliet families in an effort to keep students healthy and in school.

WHS site of new PTECH East Campus 

Thirteen of our district’s incoming ninth-graders participated in a week-long Summer Bridge program that kicked off the new Capital Region Pathways in Technology Early High School (P-TECH) program.

Our students are part of the inaugural class of the Capital Region P-TECH, a four- to six-year program (grades 9-14) focused on engaging students in hands-on, project-based learning to be successful in careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Students who successfully complete the program can simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in the growing field of information technology at no cost to them or their families

During the summer bridge program, incoming students had an opportunity to get to know their classmates, meet the school’s business and education partners, and take an active role in developing the new school’s culture at the two PTECH sites: Watervliet Junior-Senior High School (P-TECH’s East Campus) and Mohonasen High School (P-TECH’s West Campus).

The new P-TECH High School partners area schools with Schenectady County Community College, Hudson Valley Community College and area and national businesses. It is funded through a New York State Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) grant. PTECH graduates are often first in line for a job with industry partners in the growing field of information technology.

Other support programs continue

The Watervliet ExTRA program extends the school day for elementary and junior high school students in need of additional academic support. The ExTRA program offers after-school homework help and enrichment activities designed to build upon and reinforce classroom instruction, improve student learning and raise academic achievement in literacy and math. Enrichment opportunities feature STEM robotics, drama and art.This program is made possible with funding from a New York State Education Department Extended School Day/School Violence Prevention grant.

Pivot is another grant-funded program that is exclusively for ninth-grade students. It provides the foundational skills necessary for students to successfully complete high school and better prepare for the challenges of pursuing a college education or entering the workforce. PIVOT is an academic, credit-bearing course required for all grade 9 students.

We will also continue with the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) this school year that allows us to provide school meals – breakfast and lunch – at no charge to every student, regardless of income.  Our Food is Fuel partnership with the Watervliet Civic Center will also continues to provide elementary students with a backpack of food to take home for the weekend and on holiday breaks.

Summer retreat brings changes

During our administrative retreat this summer, our team engaged in a thoughtful and serious conversation about academic performance over the last few years, as well as our goals and initiatives moving forward. As a result, some changes in roles and responsibilities have occurred.

Kirsten DeMento has become the Director of Educational Programs and Accountability, as well as the Director of our Universal Prekindergarten program. Don Stevens now serves in the capacity of the Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Development.

Change is rarely easy, but, I truly believe the changes made will serve our students better, especially those in need of additional academic support.

Speaking of change, at the end of last year and over the summer, some long-time teachers and staff members retired, while others moved on to new challenges and opportunities. All the best to our retirees: Alice Bulmer, Kelly Creaser, Dennis Robinson, Lori Sand and Jennifer Swyer. In the meantime, we welcome a strong group of talented new educators and support staff this year.

I also want to recognize our maintenance staff for the time and energy they put in these last few weeks to get our buildings and classrooms ready for the return of students and staff. Thank you!

To our new and our returning students — remember it's a brand new year, everyone begins with a clean slate — I encourage you to make the most of the opportunities that are offered.

Enjoy this final weekend of summer vacation! I look forward to welcoming back teachers and staff on Tuesday, Sept. 4, and greeting our students and families for the first day of the 2018-19 school year on Wednesday, Sept. 5.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Year-end opportunities, events abound

The warmer temperatures and sunnier days is a reminder that summer break is not far away. That said, we still have a few weeks of classes left to get through before the fourth quarter comes to a close, so I remind students and staff alike to make the most of the time that remains and finish the 2017-18 school year strong.

The junior-senior high school offers Regents review classes to ensure that students are well prepared. I encourage students to attend the review classes and to seek extra help from teachers if you need it. A schedule of review classes is available on the high school’s web page.

Help wanted for the noblest profession

Teacher Appreciation Day/Week was celebrated earlier this month. I again thank our educators for inspiring, educating and challenging every student, every day! Teaching is the noblest profession there is, and I am proud to work with such a dedicated and talented team. Being an educator can seem thankless at times, but it is important to remember that we all have the potential to make a difference in a child’s life, and that is a gift.

Unfortunately, fewer of us are choosing to pursue careers in education. Across the country, there is a growing teacher shortage, especially in areas like math, science, special education and languages. Teaching can be a demanding job, but it is also one of the most rewarding.

That is why I encourage readers of my blog who may be considering a career change, or are in college but are undecided about a major – if you like working with young people, and want a career that puts your skills and talents to meaningful use – please attend a teacher recruitment event on Wednesday, June 13 from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. at Shenendehowa High School. Longtime Watervliet music teacher Terry Bradway, one of our very best educators who is an inspiration to her students and her colleagues, will join other teachers from several Capital Region schools as a panelist and in small-group breakout sessions to speak about why a career in education has been the right career choice for them – and could be for you, too. Representatives from local colleges and universities and BOCES certification specialists also will be available to provide guidance about the teacher certification process. Please share this information with others and take advantage of this great opportunity! Event details here

Thanks for supporting education

On behalf of the Board of Education and myself, I again thank everyone who took time to participate in the school budget vote and Board of Education election on May 15. With a final tally of 226 yes votes to 77 no votes, our budget passed by about a 75 percent margin. I am grateful for the continued community support of our schools.

Congratulations to Heather Soroka on her re-election to the school board, and to Amanda Cavanaugh for being elected to your first term on the Board of Education. Of the four candidates running, Heather and Amanda received the highest number of votes, respectively. I look forward to continuing to work with Heather, and welcoming Amanda when she begins her term in July.

I thank our outgoing board member Jeff Shellenberger for his service to the community and our students. I wish him all the best!

Mark Your Calendar 

As we head into the final stretch of the school year, please remember to mark your calendars for the following year-end events:
  • Thursday, May 24 Spring Sports Awards Night, 6:00 p.m.
  • Monday, May 28 – Memorial Day, No School
  • Tuesday, May 29 - No School
  • Tuesday, June 5 – Early Release for Students, Staff Development
  • Wednesday, June 6 – Elementary Spring Concert, 6:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 7 - Senior Athlete Recognition Night, 6:00 p.m. 
  • Saturday, June 9 - Hudson River Communities Relay for Life, noon to midnight, WJSHS
  • Tuesday-Thursday, June 12-14: Regents Exams
  • Thursday, June 14 - WES Field Day
  • Thursday, June 14 - Board of Education meeting, 6:00 p.m., WJSHS conference room
  • Friday, June 15 - Regents Rating Day, WES Early Release, Staff Development
  • Monday-Thursday, June 18-21 - Regents Exams
  • Tuesday, June 19 – UPK Celebration, 9:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m.
  • Wednesday, June 20 – Grade 6 Graduation, 9:30 a.m.
  • Thursday, June 21 – Class of 2018 Commencement, 6:00 p.m.

Friday, May 11, 2018

School budget vote is May 15

Next week, the Watervliet community will vote on the district's proposed 27.4 million school budget for the 2018-19 school year. Eligible voters will cast their ballots on Tuesday, May 15 from 11 a.m to 8 p.m. at one of two polling locations, the Watervliet Elementary School or the Watervliet Elks Club.

Also on the May 15 ballot, community members will elect two of the four candidates who are running for open seats on the Board of Education. The candidates include incumbent and current vice president Heather Soroka, and newcomers Amanda Cavanaugh, Theresa DeChiaro and Shawn Smeltzer. Board member Jeff Shellenberger, who will complete his term on the school board in June, decided not to run for re-election this year. I thank him for his service to our students, our staff and our community during his time on the board. He will be greatly missed.

About the budget

Our budget proposal for next year maintains all current academic programs and extracurricular opportunities for students. Spending will increase 2.69 percent, or $719,000 more compared to the current year, while the tax levy will increase 2.03 percent, which is below the district’s limit allowed under the state’s tax “cap” formula.

We continue to remain conservative in our approach to budgeting, after putting much effort over the past few years working successfully to restore the district’s fiscal health. As a high-needs, low-wealth district that relies heavily on state aid, we are mindful that a downturn in the economy or an unanticipated emergency or unavoidable expense (think roof repair or boiler replacement) can jeopardize our financial stability. 

To that end, we continue to explore cost-effective ways to provide new and relevant learning opportunities for students, such as the coding class that we will offer high school students next year. We also recognize that not all students are served well in a traditional classroom setting, so we have increased the number of spots that will be available next year for students to enroll in the BOCES Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. We will continue to send our at-risk students to the BOCES Pathways Academy, a new alternative education program, as long as it yields positive results for our struggling learners. While we pay up front to send our students to these types of programs, it is important to remember that it would be more costly for us to implement and sustain similar programs on our own, and we receive aid reimbursement the following year.

New PTECH to launch in September

Speaking of new learning opportunities, I am excited to be able to officially announce that our district is a primary partner in a new Capital Region Pathways in Technology Early College High School (PTECH) program that will be housed at Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School starting in September.

Our PTECH venture, which includes the Capital Region BOCES, the Mohonasen school district, Hudson Valley and Schenectady County community colleges and several local businesses, is one of six partnerships to receive a PTECH grant from the state this year. Through the new PTECH program, students will be able to earn their Regents diploma and an associate’s degree in information technology and cyber security free of charge from either Hudson Valley or Schenectady County Community College in four to six years. After successfully completing the program, graduates can choose to enter the workforce in the lucrative and growing tech fields, or continue their education at a four-year college.

The new PTECH is open to incoming ninth grade students from Watervliet and neighboring school districts within the Capital Region BOCES area. An informational meeting for parents and students held on April 24 was well attended, which makes me optimistic for the start of this great opportunity for our students!

Celebrating the Top 10 and tenure

I recognize the Top 10 scholars of the Class of 2018, including valedictorian Bethany Livsey, salutatorian Meghan Murray, Maria Baughn, Patrick Ethier, Sheila Caminiti, Angela Keefer, Haadia Faheem, Hosnieh Nazari, Alexis Wilson and Parisa Nori. Best wishes for much success in the future!

I celebrate our varsity wrestling team for their hard work, grit and skill. Under Coach Dennis Lane, the Cannoneers were the Class C Runner Up with a league record of 7-1. The team had 26 wins – the most in a season – and won five consecutive tournaments. Two of our wrestlers – senior Connor Lyons and junior Sterling Spoon – qualified for the state tournament at the Times Union Center and Coach Lane was named Class C Coach of the Year. Congratulations on another stellar season!
I recognize and congratulate the following educators for earning tenure this year and for their commitment every day to the students of our district: Michaeleen Backus, Kelly Bariteau, Amanda Ciampi, Jessica Diamond and Wendy Ryan. I am also proud to announce that Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Michael Foust also earned tenure.

Again, I encourage you to vote on Tuesday, May 15 – and invite your family, neighbors and friends to join you at the polls because every vote matters!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Simulation drives home sad reality

The loud BANG of gunfire resonated through the hallways of a mostly deserted Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School over spring break. Although I knew it was a drill, the sound was chilling just the same.

The Watervliet Police Department took advantage of a student- and staff-free building to practice active-shooter training earlier this week. It was slightly unnerving, but completely understandable, to be greeted at the main door by law enforcement officers asking to search our bags as part of a routine check and wanding us before we entered the building the morning of the training. 

Chief Spain and his officers offered several of us the opportunity to observe a few different active shooter scenarios that they practiced as part of their training. While we watched the scenarios unfold from a secure area, the blast of gunfire, the ping of empty shell cases hitting the floor, and the smell of gunpowder filled the hallway. Hearing the call over the radio of “shots fired at Watervliet High School” turned my blood cold and made my mind race. My hope is that the WPD will never need to put this particular training to the test at our schools, or anywhere in our community for that matter. Knowing, however, that our law enforcement officials and first responders are taking actions to prepare as best they can for unthinkable situations does offer a level of reassurance. 

Proactive as opposed to reactive

After the observation, Chief Spain joined us in the conference room to discuss the training and answers our questions. One thing on which we all agree if our goal is to prevent these types of senseless, horrific and violent acts, is that we must be proactive rather than reactive.

While we practice a variety of drills with our students and staff throughout the year to assess and reassess our emergency procedures and safety protocols, it is equally as important to build and encourage a culture of acceptance and respect in our schools. Part of how we can achieve this is through our Character Education programs: No Place for Hate at the grades 7-12 level, and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) at the elementary school. Both of these programs focus on creating a more positive, welcoming climate in our schools.

The No Place for Hate initiative creates a safer learning environment for all by increasing tolerance and understanding and reducing bullying, name-calling and expressions of prejudice in schools. Our students participate in No Place for Hate activities throughout the year, such as Mix-It-Up Lunch and the annual STOP (Students Together Opposing Prejudice) conference at Siena College.

The PBIS approach helps to create and maintain a positive school climate through teaching, modeling and recognizing positive, appropriate behavior in our elementary school. PBIS focuses on three core values: be respectful, be responsible and be safe. Students are expected to practice these values in the classroom, the cafeteria, on the playground and other school settings.

In addition to character education, our focus on mental health training and awareness will continue for our staff. We also are partnering with the Whitney Young Health Center to bring substance abuse and mental health counseling on-site in our schools next year.

I regularly remind teachers and staff to never underestimate the importance of your presence both inside and outside of your classrooms and work areas. Having adults they can trust and rely on helps students build stronger connections to their schools. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the sense of belonging or being connected to school is particularly important for young people who are at increased risk for feeling alienated or isolated.

In my previous blog post about school safety, I emphasized that if you see something, say something. As clichรฉd as it may sound, both Chief Spain and I agree that this is crucial for maintaining safe and secure schools and communities. 

I appreciate the cooperative relationship that we continue to build with the Watervliet Police. Our collaborative efforts will only make our buildings safer for students and staff.

An update on school budget development 

On another note, the New York State Legislature recently passed its state budget, which contains some additional state aid for schools beyond what the governor had proposed in his Executive Budget in January. With that news, school business manager Mr. Heid and I currently are working with the rest of my administrative team to put the finishing touches on our school budget proposal for next year. The Board of Education will review, and then adopt, the proposed 2018-19 school budget during its meeting on Thursday, April 19. Following that, Watervliet residents (18 and older) will have an opportunity to vote on the proposed school budget on Tuesday, May 15 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

In the meantime, I invite you to join us and learn more about the budget process during the WES PTA meeting on Tuesday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. in the school cafeteria, and at our annual Budget Breakfast workshop on Saturday, April 14 at 9:00 a.m. in the administrative conference room at WJSHS. Also, please attend our public budget hearing on Tuesday, May 8 at 6:00 p.m., one week before the school budget vote and Board of Education election.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Reflecting on tragedy and student safety

It has been just over a week since the unimaginable tragedy occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. My heart is heavy thinking of the 17 lives that were lost and the many other lives that in a blink of an eye, have been forever changed. At the same time, I can only hope that we never experience this kind of grief first hand.

As a country, we mourn the victims of this senseless act. Still, as we struggle to process this tragic event, we call on state and federal leaders to have the courage to seek meaningful solutions and take bold action to prevent tragedies like Parkland and Sandy Hook, from repeating time and again.

As we prepare to welcome students back on Monday, February 26, I want to assure you that as a district, we take the responsibility of protecting the children in our care very seriously. We are always assessing and reassessing our safety policies, procedures and protocols; however, in the wake of the recent Florida school shooting, we reflect even deeper on our safety practices as we strive to be proactive as opposed to reactive.

The following are some of the measures our district currently has in place intended to keep our students safe and facilities secure:

  • All doors in both buildings are locked at all times.  
  • Both buildings have a single, secure point of access during school hours and all visitors are "buzzed in" through a secure vestibule where they must present an ID, as well as sign a visitor's log and obtain a badge.  
  • Both buildings are equipped with internal and external surveillance cameras, which are monitored via computer.  
  • District and building-wide school emergency response plans are provided to staff members.
  • Numerous safety drills are practiced throughout the school year.  The Watervliet Police and Watervliet Fire Departments participate in many of our safety drills to remain familiar with the layout of both schools.  
  • Teachers and staff are required to wear identification badges during the school day.  
  • Before being hired, all employees are fingerprinted and background checks are conducted by the New York State Education Department.  
  • The WPD periodically conducts active shooter trainings in our buildings at times when students and staff are on vacation. Law enforcement also has representation at our Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Committee meetings.  
  • We have increased our mental health trainings, and will be introducing substance abuse/mental health counseling to our campus beginning next year.  
  • The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) is a component of school safety. Each building has a DASA coordinator, and any child or adult who feels bullied or threatened is strongly encouraged to report these incidents to the DASA coordinators for investigation. 

Lastly, in recent months Police Chief Mark Spain and I along with my administrative team began steps toward restoring a cooperative partnership between his department and our schools. To that end, Officer Chris Toleman, who has been with the WPD for four years and served in the Mechanicville PD before that, is working as a liaison between the police department and our schools.

In an effort to develop proactive and positive relationships with our students and staff, Officer Toleman will visit our schools as his schedule allows, and introduce himself to students and staff. I want to emphasize that Officer Toleman is not serving in the capacity of a School Resource Officer. He is not stationed in our school buildings, nor does he participate in any disciplinary actions or de-escalation efforts with students.

It remains important for teachers, staff, parents, students and community members to work toward a common goal of keeping our schools safe. The adage “if you see something, say something” could not be more important in today’s world, and could be a determining factor in preventing future tragedies. Please do not hesitate to report any threats of violence against our students or schools, or questionable behaviors that you hear about or see on social media to school leaders and law enforcement.

In the meantime, please know that we will continue to work every day to maintain a safe, positive environment for all of our students. As always, I encourage you to reach out to your child’s building principal or contact me directly if you have any questions or concerns.

Resources for helping children cope with trauma

The following links are resources to help reassure students who are troubled by this tragedy or are feeling anxious about returning to school in light of the extensive media coverage of this horrific event. Please be sure to let children know that they can talk to their school counselors or social workers at any time, if they feel the need.

Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

National PTA School Safety resources

Monday, January 29, 2018

Will we be able to sustain the progress?

In recent years, increases in state aid and a conscientious approach to budgeting have given our district the ability to restore people, programs and services. In addition, grant funding has allowed us to create more opportunities for our students, including the ExTRA after-school program and Grade 9 Pivot program. The steady progress we have made could hang in the balance given that the state has an estimated $4 billion budget gap to close and uncertainties about federal funding exist, including the as-yet unknown effects of the recently enacted federal tax reforms.

2018-19 Executive Budget proposal: WCSD state funding increase just shy of 2 percent 

In mid-January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo presented his executive state budget proposal, which includes a $769 million increase in overall school funding for the 2018-19 school year.

Under the governor’s proposed state fiscal plan, Watervliet would receive an additional $144,263 (1.2 percent increase) in Foundation Aid for the 2018-19 school year. Foundation Aid is the main source for funding day-to-day school operations.We also would receive state funding to reimburse expenditures including transportation and BOCES services for which the district has already paid. After factoring in the expense-based and other aid categories (prekindergarten, building aid), our overall funding increase from the state next year would total about $336,000, or 1.8 percent.

The executive budget proposal also designates funding for community schools, after-school programs, teacher development and school breakfast initiatives. Similar to other categorical aids, the state earmarks this funding for specific uses.

The perspective of the state’s leading education groups

The education funding proposed by the governor once again falls short of the increases recommended by both the state Board of Regents and the Educational Conference Board (ECB), a coalition of the state’s major education groups. The Regents called for a $1.6 billion increase in Foundation Aid that includes funding for targeted priorities, such as increased support for English Language Learners. Read the SED memo

Meanwhile, the ECB recommended an increase of $2 billion in state Foundation Aid for the 2018-19 school year; estimating that an increase of $1.5 billion alone would be necessary for schools to continue to provide current programs and services. Read ECB’s position paper

Mark your calendars for upcoming budget work sessions 

During the coming weeks as we develop our 2018-19 school budget proposal, our district leadership team will be analyzing current programs and services, prioritizing academic needs in our schools, and identifying ways to balance our budget given rising costs, which include contractual increases in salaries and changes in pension rates. Throughout the process, we hope to gather feedback from you our community. We plan to schedule at least three budget work sessions, the first one in March, before the Board of Education adopts the proposed budget in April. The dates of these meetings and presentations are as follows:

  • Thursday, March 8:  Board of Education meeting:  Budget Presentation (Workshop #1) - WJSHS Conference Room, 6:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday, April 10:  PTA meeting:  Workshop #2 - WES cafeteria, 6:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, April 14:  Budget Breakfast (Workshop #3) - WJSHS Conference Room, 9:00 a.m.

I do not want to sound any alarm bells just yet, as the release of the governor’s executive budget proposal is only the beginning of state budget negotiations. During the next several weeks, both houses of the State Legislature will analyze and deliberate the governor’s proposal and set priorities before a final state budget is adopted by the April 1 deadline. If the past is any indicator, budget bills presented by the Assembly and the Senate have traditionally included additional funding for schools. I have invited Assemblyman John McDonald to our Board of Education meeting on Thursday, Feb. 8 to provide an update on the state budget process and share his insight into the school funding picture.

One final thought: Both the Board of Regents and the ECB continue to advocate for the state to fully fund the Foundation Aid Formula, which was designed to ensure that all school districts receive adequate funding. Enacted in 2007, the phase-in of this formula was put on indefinite hold as the state and the country weathered a deep economic recession. The State Council of School Superintendents estimates that as a result of the lapse in implementing the formula, many school districts across the state continue to be under-funded, including our district to the tune of $3 million.