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 clich├ęd 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.