Changes await students and teachers in Highland, New Paltz

The buses were ready to roll for the first day of school. (photo by Mookie Forcella)

This week, students in Highland and New Paltz return to the classrooms for another year of lessons, textbooks and tests. But 2012-2013 will be a year of many changes — teachers and principals will get new performance evaluations, and students will learn in a different way with the implementation of the federal Common Core standards.

Despite the challenges, our public schools’ superintendents are also hopeful about the year — that the worst, most painful cuts might soon be behind them and that the work of educating children can continue.

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Highland’s situation

Parents and students probably won’t notice much different with the actual school buildings in Highland this year — no new building projects or renovations occurred. Highland Superintendent Deborah Haab said that she and the staff were looking forward to the students returning.

Students who can expect the most changes will be those attending Highland Middle School and Highland High School. Some small adjustments were made to the start and end times for both schools as well.

“They can also expect to see some new faces — at the middle school and high school we have newly hired staff and also staff that will be teaching in both the middle school and the high school this year,” Haab said.

Parents curious about when the buses will run should check out the district calendar, which was recently mailed out to houses in the district.

Despite budget cuts that were necessary to get to a 2 percent tax levy budget, Highland’s students will have some new opportunities this year. Teachers are looking to enhance the student experience with the resources at hand and to improve learning.

Highland high schoolers will have a chance to learn about a whole different way of life. “We are working on a partnership with a high school in China, which we anticipate will lead to new learning opportunities,” she said.

Challenges in the Highland Central School District are similar to the ones facing schools throughout New York State. Worries about the budget — and what funding Albany will actually provide to students — still continues. With finances tight for taxpayers, any fluctuation at the capital can bring uncertainty at home.

“Considering the current economic climate, the level of concern in this area has reached new heights,” Haab said.

For Highland, the implementation of the Common Core standards and the new teacher and principal reviews are a challenge — albeit one the superintendent thinks they can handle.

Annual Professional Performance Reviews — the new teacher and principal evaluations — were designed to hold educators accountable, but are seen by some as an unfunded mandate. Principals now have the added burden of conducting teacher reviews. Assistant superintendents have the added burden of reviewing principals.

Superintendent Haab said she hopes the worst is behind the district. “During the budget process for this current school year our efforts were focused on retaining existing programs,” she said. “We are hopeful that resources for program restoration and growth will be available in the 2013-2014 school year.”

Haab said her goals for this year will be to successfully implement the new APPR system, to continue working with the staff to provide high-quality education for all students, and to continue working with our struggling students. She also would like to see the school board revisit and review long-term goals for the district.

As for where the district might need to do better this year, Haab said she’d thought they could spend more time addressing infrastructure needs at the schools. She also wants to push to close “the achievement gap for our students with disabilities.”

 

Navigating education in New Paltz

Students in New Paltz — in all grades but first and kindergarten — will now have larger classrooms with more students per class. While no changes to the buildings were made, New Paltz’s schools have upgraded their technology over the summer by increasing wireless Internet access in all four buildings and updating the operating systems on all the computers.

Superintendent Maria Rice said she thought much what students and parents would notice is the change in lessons mandated by the Common Core standards. This year all students, from kindergarten to senior year, can expect a totally reworked literacy and English language curriculum — as well as a new take on math.

What those changed lessons won’t alter is how New Paltz teachers teach, Rice said.

“We will continue to teach for understanding as our major way in which we will prepare our students for the new state assessments,” she said. “Our students will be taught to gather information from disparate sources and make sense of it by understanding and objectively evaluating that information.”

Now that every school building has its own garden, New Paltz’s students can expect to spend more time outdoors learning the lessons that come from nature itself. Also technology at the schools continues to expand — even beyond that wireless Net upgrade. Students will begin to transition to digital textbooks.

New Paltz’s smartest and most motivated high schoolers will also get some extra opportunities as well.

“We are slowly expanding our high school program to include more internships for seniors, attendance at local community colleges to fulfill dual credit (college and high school) and maintained a significant number of advanced placement opportunities,” she said.

As for what hopeful signs 2012-2013 holds, Rice pointed to the dedication and volunteerism of the many groups who’ve held fundraisers to bring back special programs meant to be cut.

“Many of the extra-curricular activities that were cut from the district budget have been reinstated through the generosity of community members, parents and staff,” Rice said. For instance, at the middle school alone parents helped restore the Rock & Soul Club, Art Club, the student literary magazine Reflections, and the All-County Band and Chorus.

Like Haab, Rice too hopes that the economic picture will brighten. “We are hoping that the fiscal situation will improve and that we will not have to continue to reduce our staff and cut our programs.”

Those teacher-principal professional reviews and the Common Core standards will also be a challenge for New Paltz, along with finances. However, the superintendent said that, despite the mandates, she wanted to keep the focus who New Paltz is as a school system and what they do best.

“Understanding is not so much a destination as it is a point along a continuum. The ability to memorize facts doesn’t necessarily imply understanding of a concept,” she said. “For example, students can memorize geometry formulas, but they may not be able to apply them to the real world.”

One goal for the year is to complete a comprehensive facilities plan, which will spell out what will happen with the school buildings into the future. Doing so will mean answering hard questions — like if the district will keep all four school buildings and fix them.

Superintendent Rice said that the district could improve its performance by continuing its focus on educational programs and seeking out “more cost-effective ways to provide a true 21st century education for our students.”

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