From the outside looking in, it seems like 2015 was a transitional year for both the New Paltz and the Highland school districts. After all the drama of putting capital projects up for a vote in 2014 and succeeding in both cases — Highland in October of that year and New Paltz voters approving their plans in a second vote taken in March of 2015 — construction has yet to begin in any meaningful way, with design plans for both projects still awaiting final approval from the overburdened state Education Department.
Phase one of major construction is anticipated to begin in both districts in 2016, but in the meantime, each carries on with business as usual. Schools superintendents Deborah Haab in Highland and Maria Rice in New Paltz continue to be faced with the challenges wrought by implementation of the Common Core standards and the mandated tests that nearly half of the students in Highland and close to three-quarters of the students in New Paltz opted out of. But with the changing of the guard in Albany — new Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia having replaced John King in July of 2015 — change is certain; it’s just not certain yet exactly what form those changes will take.
Also in transition is the role that state test scores will play in future teacher evaluations; the state Board of Regents just voted in mid-December in favor of a four-year moratorium on using the test results as a component in a teacher’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), a reversal of Governor Cuomo’s previously taken stand on the issue and the legislature’s vote earlier this year to increase the weight of test scores in evaluations.
Superintendents Rice and Haab both recently spoke with New Paltz Times to discuss what the year 2015 brought to their respective districts and where they believe the challenges for 2016 lie.
Deborah Haab has been Highland Central School District schools superintendent since March of 2009. The Board of Education recently approved a three-year extension of her contract through June of 2019.
What are the main issues facing your district next year?
Certainly the capital project; making sure that we have an on-time, under-budget result with high-quality work. It’s the first large project we’ve done in quite some time, and we’re not addressing all the capital needs of the district in this project, so we’re looking for a successful completion so that when we go back to the community at a later date to let them know then, that it’s time to do more of that work that was on our list, that we’ll be able to say this all went well and the community got what they expected.
Like other districts, we’re very concerned about the tax levy limit; it has the potential for being nearly flat this year. We don’t yet know exactly what it will be, but it probably won’t even be one percent. We’ll be okay if our Gap Elimination Adjustment is taken care of. I know everybody is tired of hearing me say this, but we still have $711,619 that’s being withheld in our state aid; that’s a big number for us. The possibility of having the low levy limit and still not getting all of our state aid back would really set us back in terms of the progress we’ve made over the last few years keeping and restoring some programs. So that’s very concerning. We’ll probably proceed similarly to what we did last year; we’ll have a plan A and a plan B. Plan A is with whatever levy limit that we have and getting state aid, and we’ll have to have a Plan B for the worst case scenario.
And, again, like every other district in New York State, now that the Regents have taken some temporary steps with the APPR, we don’t know what that means yet. There are a lot of things that are unknown, but it seems to be more so in this particular school year looking ahead than in some past years. We’ll wait for clarification on what that all means in terms of our teacher evaluation system, and in the meantime, we are proceeding with the plan that we currently have in place.
What are your top priorities for 2016?
Students are the priority; we’ll continue to keep that as our guiding statement as we look at anything that we’re making decisions on. Because large or small, all of the decisions we make end up having some impact on what we’re able to provide for our students.
The budget process is going to be a priority; depending on what challenges we’re faced with, that’s the financial expression of our educational program. The two go hand-in-hand. The capital project is a priority, making sure that we keep that, as best we can, on time and on budget.
And we have a behavior intervention specialist that we’ve added to our staff this year, so providing that support for our students continues to be a priority as well, making sure that we can help them be successful. In addition to being there to support the kids, she’s also doing some research looking back at students who are struggling today to see, what did it look like for them earlier in their school career? That will help us try to identify where the interventions might have been more effective; not that we didn’t have any interventions in effect then, but now we have a defined staff member to look at that.
I think just continuing to support our staff, our students and our families is a priority, to provide our students with the skills that they’re going to need to be successful. And that seems to keep evolving and changing; it’s kind of a cliché, at this point in time, but our students are getting ready for jobs that don’t exist yet. We have to help them become resourceful and critical thinkers and problem-solvers and not just be able to reiterate dates and facts and figures. They need to have the ability to look at a problem or a challenge and draw upon what they know about problem-solving.
Looking back at 2015, what do you see as your district’s major accomplishments?
We’re very excited about the direction we’re going in instructionally; the blended learning that we’re seeing really taking root in the district. What many of our teachers are doing is posting the lesson before class so the students can watch it first at home. Earlier this month, one of our middle school math teachers, Thomas Truscello, was a speaker at our Rotary Club meeting. He did a presentation to the group [about new instructional methods] and it was so well received. There were comments like, ‘I wish my classes had been structured like that when I was taking math,’ and ‘I would have learned better if I had had the opportunity to see the material ahead of time.’ They were all very impressed to see some of the things that we’re doing in our district.
We’re also working in each building on how we can incorporate coding into our instructional program. We’re trying to make some adjustments and changes to keep up with what we’re hearing our students need to have, and we did have some feedback from recent graduates that programming would have been helpful to them now in their college coursework. Given that feedback, we’re looking at how we can pull that into our curriculum more. And I’m working with the [Highland] Educational Foundation on their annual fundraiser, the SnowBall coming up in February, and this year the funds will go toward purchasing robotics kits for each of the buildings so that our students can get some of that experience.
What are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of the work that our staff did and continues to do in learning how to use the devices that our students are so familiar with, and seizing the opportunities to turn those into instructional tools. I’m proud of the willingness and eagerness and the courage that our teachers are showing in trying new things, and trying to meet the students where they are in terms of what they use every day to communicate. And I don’t mean just our newer teachers; we have some more experienced, veteran teachers who are willing to step out of their comfort zone and to learn new things because our children need them to be able to do that. And I’m very proud of them for that.
Is there anything you would have done differently this past year?
With the way the world works today, in some instances, we could be using the communication tools and resources at our disposal sooner, and/or differently. Moving forward we are making a concerted effort to keep that in mind when dealing with a situation. We’re always looking to improve the communication, and in some cases, could we have done it better? Yes. But sometimes people know things before we do; kids are texting their parents, for example, sometimes even before we know about something.
What are you personally looking forward to?
The board is supporting my continuing in the district as superintendent, and that’s very personally and professionally rewarding for me.
I’d like to spend more time in the classrooms with the students and the staff; that’s always a challenge, especially when you get into budget season, but it does certainly help keep that connection strong, to remind us that we’re here for the students and to do our best to prepare them for the future.
I’d like to continue to support the work of our teachers and all of our staff, and support the parents. We’ve done some parent information nights and I’d like to see us do some more of those, so that we can help them help their kids.
I have four grandchildren that I love spending time with; my two oldest granddaughters are both in kindergarten, and they’re a good gauge for me. They’re my compass sometimes. When I’m with them, I can see what they know and what they know how to do, and that’s when I come back and think, how are we going to make sure that we’re providing all of these children with the skills that they’re going to need by the time they leave high school? There is so much ahead for our children and we want to get it right. We want to get it right, and how do we do that?