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.