Superintendent's Blog

Shining Brightly During Tough Times

Dear South Orangetown Family,

The COVID-19 outbreak has been stressful and challenging for our families, our staff and our community. I understand and recognize your concerns and am committed to strengthening our home-school partnership. Our teachers have worked tirelessly to create high-quality distance learning lesson plans and are excited to begin once the State Education Department clarifies its expectations to ensure a fair and equitable delivery to all students.

These are confusing and unsettling times. To provide additional clarity and stability for our families, we have developed a list of frequently-asked questions regarding our school closure.

In the days ahead, we will continue to work with our families to ensure that our students are provided with the highest-quality education possible under the circumstances. Posted on each of our schools’ homepages are activities and resources that our teachers thoughtfully developed to keep students engaged in learning while they are at home:

At this point, we anticipate that the current school closure will be extended and plan to launch distance learning after March 30. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit the links above and have your children familiarize themselves with the materials that are available. This preparedness will contribute to their success once distance learning begins.

Our teachers and administrators have done a great job so far in diligently preparing for this new journey. They are excited to teach and our students are eager to learn. However, we must get this process correct before we embark on this distance learning adventure. We are going to be in this together for the long haul and I want to ensure that we are all adequately prepared to deliver and benefit from distance learning. We want this effort to be sustainable in the event that it becomes a long-term effort. 

We, as a school community, are all doing our level-best to protect our students, our families, and ourselves from the threat of COVID-19. Trust is a powerful currency and I know that constant and clear communications will keep us strong. Please bear with us as we all navigate the challenges that lay ahead and I am confident that our collective efforts will provide a healthy and productive experience for our students.

Please take care of yourselves and your loved ones. It’s during difficult times like these that the true character of South Orangetown shines the most brightly.

Coronavirus Information

 

Important Information Regarding COVID-19

On March 5, I participated on a conference call with other area superintendents and representatives from Governor Cuomo’s office and the NYS Department of Health NYSDoH).  The purpose of the conference call was to gain a better understanding of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) disease outbreak. The NYSDoH is the lead agency on matters pertaining to how school employees should or must respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. I am appreciative of the following NYS government officials who provided helpful guidance as part of our discussion: Dr. Elizabeth DuFort, New York State Department of Health, Division of Epidemiology; Adrian Mezzo, New York State Department of Education; Dana Caratenuto, Governor’s Office, Deputy Secretary for Legislative Affairs and Policy; Dan Fuller, Deputy Secretary for Education for Governor Cuomo; and, Mike Mastroianni, Governor Cuomo’s Office.

 Here are the salient points that the officials from Albany shared with the local superintendents:

  • There is currently no uniform guidance to determine how and when schools should close. The NYSDoH and the Governor’s Office agreed to work on a guidance document and make it available to superintendents as quickly as possible.
  • The Governor is aware of the challenges of providing online instruction and the 900/990 instructional hour requirement for schools. It is on their radar and they know that both need to be addressed.
  • The NYSDoH is not currently recommending avoidance of mass gatherings or local trips. This may change with time.
  • The NYSDoH recommends postponing international school trips to Level 2 and 3 countries, defined by the CDC, be postponed. There are five countries on the list. However, this list could grow over time. The link is here.
  • At the time of the call, there were 13 confirmed cases in New York State and they were in New York City and Westchester.
  • If someone is tested for COVID-19 coronavirus, the results take 6-8 hours after the sample is in the lab. The next step is confirmation which will be handled by the NYSDoH.
  • If there is a confirmed case in our district, the NYSDoH will quickly notify the district and work with us to determine the appropriate steps to take.
  • If we are uncertain about a possible case, we should contact the NYSDoH.
  • Many of those currently quarantined in New York State came in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. However, someone who is self-quarantined because they indirectly came in contact with someone who may have come in contact with a confirmed case is considered very low risk.  
  • Someone who lives in a home with a person who is being appropriately quarantined is not considered a contact and may still attend school. If the person quarantined becomes a confirmed case, the NYSDoH will contact the school district.
  • When a case is confirmed, disease detectives trace every minute of the person’s life to determine with whom they had contact. NYSDoH will follow-up with those individuals identified as contacts.
  • The NYSDoH monitors health care workers and they are monitored by their hospitals to determine whether quarantine is necessary. If a health worker is employed in a hospital that has treated a known case, the District does not need to be concerned about the health worker’s children who attend schools. Health care workers appropriately monitored by their employers are considered low-risk. 

The final takeaway from the phone conference is that the New York State Department of Health is the lead agency on this matter. Schools do not have the authority to quarantine and should be careful not to be more restrictive than the public health and medical experts. It is important that we all work together as a community to support each other and stay on top of this in order to minimize the negative impact of this major public health concern.

Above all, while it is important that we exercise an abundance of caution, it is even more important that we do not respond to the COVID-19 outbreak with an overabundance of fear. Please call our local health department about any rumors you may be hearing. If you are uncertain about a possible case and have questions, reach out to the Rockland County Health Department at 845-364-2512 or the New York State Office of Public Health at 518-473-0771. In addition, the NYSDoH has established a Novel Coronavirus information hotline for the public: 1-888-364-3065.

Contemporary Learning Spaces at SOCSD

Community members frequently stop me to chat about our facilities and learning spaces. We have made some significant capital improvements over the past two summers and I am pleased to report that most of the feedback has been positive, and I am reminded that there are always improvements to be made. Some folks have suggested that we “do more” in order to promote equity, access, and opportunity on all of our campuses and on a scale that better meets the needs of our students and society. With this in mind, our District-wide Facilities Committee has been meeting with our architects to consider facilities improvements on all of our campuses. On February 27, 2020, our Board of Education will meet with our governance team and architects to explore imaginative possibilities to make improvements to our learning environments.

The SOCSD governance team will consider the research of architects Randall Fielding and Prakash Nair as a framework for developing a scope of work to support modern learning. In their book, The Language of School Design (2005), Nair and Fielding categorize school facilities design patterns according to six groupings. These six groupings provide a framework for understanding the types of projects that will best serve our students and will be considered when designing and planning future capital project upgrades. These are:

  1. Parts of the Whole: These are spaces in a school building that serve a particular function such as learning studios and casual eating areas. Other spaces are fitness/wellness centers and labs. Of course, classrooms and performance spaces are also included in this category. At SOCSD we believe that the “learning is in the doing” and this state is frequently achieved by getting students out from behind their desks.
  2. Spatial Quality: Projects that consider spatial quality as part of the design process emphasize characteristics such as flexibility and transparency. At SOCSD, we have recently accomplished this through furniture and equipment upgrades, but understand that the buildings themselves need to be renovated to support these improvements. These improvements include dispersed technology, indoor/outdoor connectivity, and variety (spaces that are non-standardized are symptomatic of an innovative mindset).  
  3. Brain-Based: Patterns in this category deal with the design of spaces that stimulate the brain in ways that are beneficial to learning and overall human development. These designs address the manner in which spaces can be adapted to multiple intelligences and are figuratively described as watering-holes, caves, and campfires.  While we don’t have any formal examples of these types of spaces at SOCSD, we are excited at exploring brain-based learning environments in our schools.
  4. High Performance: Our teaching staff (and learning community) has expressed a desire to use our facilities as a “3D Textbook” which considers topics such as sustainability, recycling, energy performance. Director of Facilities Jack Rallo has initiated a student co-curricular program that addresses energy performance issues in our buildings and has tremendous curricular implications.  In this category, we will also consider how air quality (natural ventilation), color and full-spectrum lighting impact climate, and student/staff performance.
  5. Community Connected: One of our slogans at SOCSD is “Together We Can” which reflects our aim to integrate the community at-large into everything that we do. This is especially important for both practical and symbolic purposes. Practically speaking, these buildings are publicly-owned assets and are a manifestation of our communal talents.  We want our students to be inspired and guided by the expertise and generosity of our multifaceted community. Symbolically speaking, our facilities are the hearth of our community for alumni and non-alumni alike. This is where we nurture our children’s growth and make our voices heard concerning our aspirations for them. Our schools, therefore, represent our commitment to something greater than ourselves and it is only natural that we (children and children-at-heart) respond to the iconic features of the physical campuses. I recently facilitated a guided tour of Tappan Zee High School for the TZHS Class of 1967 and was amazed at how each alumnus connected to the physical attributes of the building (upon seeing the TZHS stage, one alumna spontaneously broke into song and performed a musical number from the high school play in which she was cast when she was as a student in the late 1960’s). Welcoming entryways create a powerful first impression, but every subsequent space has a story to tell and the impact on our students can be profound and immeasurable.
  6. Higher Order: This category “brings-it-all-together” since it synchronizes the functionality of multiple subpatterns. For example, we recently met with representatives of the Tappan Zee High School staff to consider capital improvements to our high school facility. I was impressed by science teacher Jim Keelty, who provided a conceptual sketch of an “applied science wing” which could be an integrated space for multiple academic disciplines. An example of such design patterns can be viewed at the Designshare.com website. Above all, safety and security features are a top-priority and integrated in all designs.

Our aim is to move away from stand-alone, factory-model classroom designs, and transform our learning spaces districtwide to “Elevate, Engage, and Inspire” our students. Our ability to evolve and adapt with the needs of our changing society will require the contributions and commitments from all of our stakeholders. In the days and weeks to come, I look forward to hearing more from our community on this topic and am excited to share our progress. 

Fielding, R. (2006). Best Practice in Action: Six Essential Elements that Define Educational Facility Design.  CEFPI Planner.  Retrieved from http://www.designshare.com/images/SixEssentialElementsIllustrated.pdf

Finding our North Star

As a nation, we are committed to compulsory education for children because we see value in providing a meaningful academic experience for all.  This sense of value goes beyond mere compliance with compulsory education laws due to our perception of schools’ role in making our society a better place.  A few weeks ago, I surveyed our stakeholders (parents, students, staff, and community members) to determine the three words or terms that represent aspirational goals which each stakeholder believes should be at the heart of our school district’s mission. The results of the survey illustrated our shared desire to develop our children into individuals who possess a strong sense of character and who are intellectually curious.  The purpose of gaining this insight into the aspirations of our community was to develop our “North Star” as a point of common allegiance to a set of shared values. Here are some of the concepts and ideals that our stakeholders identified as aspirational values that are worthy of our commitments as a school district:  

  • A respectful learning environment for self and others;
  • Students who have a sense of perseverance and who are responsible for their success;
  • Kindness and compassion for others;
  • A climate wherein all students feel secure and are safe;
  • A community where all are inspired to learn and grow;
  • A curriculum that stresses civic values in addition to mastery of academic content;
  • Inclusivity and equity for all learners;
  • Integrity and honesty in the face of challenging or difficult situations

These concepts guided our school district leaders towards the development of a values-focused mission.  Based on the feedback we received from the survey, our next step was to connect the values of our community to our aspirational vision which will be:

  • To deliver the highest quality education;
  • To develop well-rounded students;
  • To foster a community based upon respect, responsibility, caring and citizenship;
  • To encourage diversity of ideas that is inclusive of different backgrounds and cultures;
  • To provide a safe and nurturing environment where every student can work toward his or her full potential.

The third step towards developing our SOCSD Mission Statement, or “North Star”, involved bringing this feedback to our Extended Leadership Team (XLT) who drafted and developed value-propositions, or very rough drafts of possible mission statements.  Our XLT is a group of instructional leaders (teachers and administrators) from all four SOCSD schools who were tasked with expressing the values of our community by drafting well-articulated statements of student success. After our XLT meeting on January 15, we had six draft mission statements that captured the spirit and intent that was articulated in the responses to our survey.  Ultimately, we should only have one mission statement for our school district, so our next step was to identify and understand the themes and guideposts that were expressed by our XLT.   

The fourth step in the process of finding our North Star was to have our Board of Education review the community’s feedback along with the value-propositions that were drafted by the XLT.  At our January 23 Board of Education Workshop, the Board of Education trustees and several administrators analyzed the work of our stakeholder groups in order to identify themes and to develop an initial draft of our mission statement.  To this end, our SOCSD Board of Education identified the following themes:

  • High expectations / challenging curriculum;
  • Future readiness and forward thinking students;
  • Civics minded curriculum with an emphasis on “respect” as a civic value;
  • Personalized learning for all students making every attempt to customize learning experiences for students based on interests and student choice;
  • Equitable access to resources and opportunities in order that each child may reach his/her fullest potential

At the close of our Board of Education Workshop on January 23, the five themes listed above brought us one step closer to clarifying our North Star.  Based upon our interpretation and understanding of the values and beliefs held by our stakeholders we are finalizing our official mission statement. This mission statement will be a powerful tool by which our school district can both achieve and measure student growth and readiness.  We will accomplish this by elevating, engaging, and inspiring all students to succeed now and in the future and are committed to providing unique and differentiated experiences that ensure all students achieve their fullest potential. The Board of Education expects to formally adopt our SOCSD Mission Statement at an upcoming Board of Education meeting and wishes to thank all of those who contributed to this process.  

Happy New Year, 2020!

Happy 2020!  Did you make any resolutions? I always do, but the funny thing about my annual goal-setting process (a.k.a resolutions) is that my new goals are often just a recalibration of the goals that I already have in place.  Here’s why: Because my resolutions take more than one year to achieve. My resolutions really look more like “healthy habits.” These healthy habits fit into a long range plan that may require several years to accomplish those established goals.  Back in 2017, I wrote a blog that considered how our school district sets goals and what steps we take to ensure that we achieve those goals.

The SOCSD Board of Education and I work collaboratively, to establish expectations for ourselves and our students that reflect the aspirations of our community and society as a whole.  Like any “resolution” it is important to have a plan to achieve goals, monitor progress, and analyze our progress. At each of our Board of Education Meetings, throughout the year, we do just that. So…Here are my New Year’s Resolutions (er…umm, goals) for the year:

Students will meet or exceed their building’s annual performance targets at all four schools (Focus Area A)

    • Target: Graduation Rates (TZHS) will improve in accordance with ESSA performance targets.
    • Target: College, Career, and Civic Readiness will improve in accordance with ESSA performance targets. Incentive participation in high-level coursework and grade-appropriate action steps.
    • Target: Academic Readiness will improve in accordance with ESSA performance targets (SOMS forecasting model).  Academic Readiness is a function of student achievement and academic progress.

Collaboratively review, revise and enhance practices that guide the district’s efforts to recruit, evaluate and retain high-quality staff members (Focus Area B)

    • Target: Collaboratively update district-wide APPR plan, implement performance reviews for probationary teachers and standardize evaluation protocols for administrative team.
    • Target: Increase clarity of certified hiring process through establishing recruitment flowchart and corresponding guidelines, while drawing upon district data to direct staff diversification.
    • Target: Conduct look back of SOCSD staff attendance data, based upon NCTQ Attendance Study (2013), as a means to determine next steps.

Increase the quality of the digital presence for SOCSD. (Focus Area C)

    • Target: Website platform review and implementation
    • Target: Student Management System/Parent Portal review and implementation
    • Target: Improved data management and analytics

All schools will achieve their student engagement targets in the areas of attendance, discipline, and overall school climate (Focus Area D)

    • Target: Chronic absenteeism will decrease in accordance with ESSA performance targets.
    • Target: The number of students with multiple discipline referrals will decrease in accordance with ESSA performance targets.
    • Target: The School District “Climate Data” will improve in accordance with ESSA performance targets.

Equity, Access, Opportunity for ALL students (Focus Area E)

    • Target: The “District Comprehensive Master Plan” will provide a systemic, diagnostic tool for strategic deployment of capital resources in order to meet the future needs of the SOCSD academic program.
    • Target: In compliance with ESSA, the District will advance educational equity in all four schools by ensuring that all students have equitable access to the highest quality educational opportunities, rigorous coursework, services, and supports in schools that effectively provide instruction to prepare all students for success in college, career, and citizenship.
    • Target: The District Comprehensive Safety Plan will provide an integrated approach to ensure the social-emotional, physical, developmental well-being, and environmental safety of all students, staff, and community members.

Merchants of Hope 2020

As the new year approaches, I would like to wish everyone in the South Orangetown Community a happy and healthy holiday season!  This past year was a period of intense growth that was the function of our commitment to building a culture of excellence. After we return from our winter recess this January, we will rededicate ourselves towards reaching every student by making them feel cared for and empowered.  In 2020, we will continue to make relationship-building our top priority because positive relationships are the currencies upon which a culture of excellence is built.

This is the season when many of our families celebrate the importance of joy, peace, hope and love.  These are not unfamiliar concepts in our school culture and I am challenging each of our employees at SOCSD to be, what Jimmy Casas refers to as “merchants of hope” for all students.  In his book, Culturize, Jimmy Casas suggests that we educators can evoke positive responses from our students and build a productive school culture by:

  1. Bringing our best to work every day, whatever our best may be that day. Be grateful that we get the opportunity to make a positive impact on a child every day!
  2. Giving two minutes of our time to one student and one staff member every day. Be intentional with our time and then follow up with a quick word or note. The small things can make all the difference.
  3. Being empathetic. Taking the time to understand, share, and be sensitive to another person’s feelings is critical in building a culture of trust.  Every student and staff member will face some sort of challenge at one time or another.
  4. Valuing the mistakes of others. Risk takers are born here. If we make a mistake, own it, apologize, and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  5. Modeling forgiveness – if we want to be effective leaders, we must be willing to sincerely accept an apology and move on. Believe that most people’s intentions are good.
  6. Understanding that we will not always see immediate results when working with kids. Be patient and think long-term. Many are just testing a system which has failed them many times over long before we came into the picture.
  7. Having high standards for all kids every day. Do not make excuses for kids based on race, socio-economic class, environment or poor parenting, etc. Believe in all kids all of the time (it also helps if you love them all of the time too!)
  8. Acknowledging inappropriate behavior of kids. By not doing so we are sending a message that they are not worth it or we have given up. If we hesitate to correct poor behavior based on their response to us, we have become part of the problem.
  9. Not being negative. Constant complaining and being negative about kids, staff, work environment, etc. without offering a solution says more about us than it does about those who we are complaining about.  Bring positive energy every day.
  10. Taking time to smile/laugh and encourage others to have fun. When it is no longer fun to go to work, it is time to do something else.

Again, here’s wishing all of our families, friends, staff, and students a joyous holiday season (filled with hope, peace, and love)…I am looking forward to seeing everyone back after the winter recess well-rested and ready to learn!

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