New Paltz and Highland school superintendents discuss their respective districts

School district 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 controversial mandated assessment tests that many students have opted out of. Budgeting under the two percent tax cap limitation is a delicate matter, balancing the needs of the students with the financial burden on taxpayers while lobbying legislators to get school funding restored to former levels. And both superintendents have capital projects in the works to improve and repair the aged facilities in their respective districts, with the work slated to be in progress for years to come.

The year 2016 saw a case of mumps confirmed at the high school in New Paltz with a probable case of mumps now at the middle school, following on the heels of a mumps epidemic at the college. The Highland district is dealing with air quality issues in their buildings and too-high quantities of lead were found in the drinking water. But along with the trials and tribulations comes the good stuff, the achievements of students and the satisfaction of sending them on their way to — hopefully — rewarding and satisfying lives as adults.

Superintendents Rice and Haab both recently spoke with New Paltz Times to discuss what the year 2016 brought to their respective districts and where they believe the challenges for 2017 lie.

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New Paltz Central School District Superintendent Maria Rice. (photos by Lauren Thomas)

Maria Rice

Maria Rice has been superintendent of the New Paltz Central School District since 2004. Her current contract, approved in 2013, extends her tenure through June 30, 2018.

 

What is the main issue facing your district next year?

The ongoing issue we face is having teacher and principal evaluations connected to student achievement on the New York State assessments. We have had a significant percentage of our students refuse to take the state tests, and therefore have data that is not helpful for programmatic decision-making, let alone getting an accurate evaluation score for staff. And the teachers in New Paltz are so much more than a score; they are professionals whose focus is on student learning as well as the social, emotional and developmental aspects of each student.

 

What specific plans do you have to address this issue?

We will continue to observe our teachers to ensure that quality instruction is taking place, monitor both academic and non-academic indicators from a variety of other sources, rather than state assessments, and hold ourselves accountable based on how true we are to our district’s core intelligence and the evidence of goal achievement, as stated in the district’s annual State of the District report.

 

How is the capital project progressing?

It will be an exciting challenge beginning the next school year at the middle school with the capital project work that begins in the summer of 2017 scheduled for completion by December 2018. It will be a balancing act, as we will have students in the building as the contractors are constructing the new addition to the building. Once the addition is completed, students will move to those classrooms while the renovation work on the infrastructure is completed in the other parts of the existing building. Our key focus will be ensuring the safety of the students and staff during construction while maintaining quality educational experiences for students, so that learning is not interrupted.

 

Looking back at 2016, what do you see as your district’s major accomplishments?

Last year was a most challenging year due to the tragic death of one of our students. I believe the way in which our staff and community pulled together to support the youth in our schools was amazing. I don’t know if that’s considered an accomplishment, but it is noteworthy.

Seven contracts were negotiated and settled during the last school year, with the eighth settled in August. This is quite an accomplishment.

Also, working with the Board of Education to begin the conversation and subsequent goal-setting for looking at non-academic success indicators. We pride ourselves on focusing on “the whole child,” and it was time that we began to identify what that means and what metrics might be used to see if we are successfully fulfilling this aspect of our district’s educational program. I’m very proud of the fact that our students have empowered themselves to speak up on subjects that are important to them. I receive e-mails and telephone calls from students about a variety of issues, but one of the proudest moments is when a student has the confidence to stand up in a public meeting and address the board and me about a subject that is near and dear to them. That, to me, is an indicator of success… that we are really teaching our students to be responsible, ethical, contributing and participating members of our community.

 

Is there anything you would have done differently this past year?

The “start time” initiative was — and is — an important priority for the Board of Education. The research is pretty clear that a number of factors lead to chronic sleep loss in our older students, including biological changes in their circadian rhythms, social factors and academic demands. I believe the research, or I wouldn’t have worked with Barbara Clinton, the high school principal, almost a decade ago to change the start times for secondary students by a half hour.

After reaching out to the stakeholders, the start time for the high school was changed from 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., the latest start time in the county. Providing that changing the start time doesn’t negatively impact opportunities for students, I’m still open to the concept. Last year the administrative team presented one possible scenario of how later start times might be implemented. If I were to change anything, I would have met with staff in each building prior to the administrative team presentation to discuss the research, to make it clear why the board wanted to explore later start times for secondary students.

 

What else is the district working on for next year?

We are committed to addressing institutional racism through professional development and holding ourselves accountable for not just acknowledging our own biases, but being able to recognize racism when we see it. Racism will not cease to exist until white people recognize it and refuse to accept it.

We are going to create a racial equity curriculum in grades K-12 to be integrated into our social studies and/or English language arts curriculum. This project will begin in January 2017 and continue into next year and beyond. We want to do this right, so we have representatives from each of the elementary grade levels and grade level or departments at the secondary level. These representatives will be instrumental in beginning the work on the curriculum and ensuring there is alignment with the standards as well as a K-12 continuum. These representatives are responsible for going back to those they represent, where the curriculum work will either be designed or edited. We want all teachers responsible for teaching the material to have a voice in its development. As the curriculum is completed, we will pilot it, review and revise as needed.

 

Highland Central School District Superintendent Deborah Haab.

Deborah Haab

Deborah Haab has been superintendent in the Highland Central School District since March of 2009. Last year the Board of Education approved a three-year extension of her contract through June of 2019.

 

What are the main issues facing your district next year?

Operating within the tax cap continues to be challenging. In the early years of the most recent recession, Highland reduced program offerings along with reductions made in other areas. We would like to restore programs, as well as introduce new offerings to our students, but it is very difficult to do so when the tax cap is actually less than two percent. We are sensitive to increasing the tax burden on our community and continue to strive for a balance that meets the needs of our students and our community.

 

What specifically will you do to address that?

Over the last few years, we have successfully lobbied for additional funding from our state senator and assemblyman. Although the Gap Elimination Adjustment no longer exists, an appropriate level of state funding for public education continues to be problematic. We will continue our lobbying efforts for additional funding as well as for a state aid formula that decreases reliance on property taxes.

 

Is there anything you would have done differently this past year?

We continue to look for more ways to communicate with the Highland community, and for ways to increase community engagement with the school district.

 

How is the capital project progressing?

After a lengthy approval process, we are excited that the building project work is underway. Site work at all three buildings commenced over the summer, and we’re preparing to bid another phase of the project in January and February. That work includes secure vestibules, security cameras and new communication systems and is scheduled to begin in the late spring and summer.

 

Looking back at 2016, what do you see as your district’s major accomplishments?

We are proud of the work that our staff continues to do integrating technology as part of their instructional strategies. We are also excited about implementing the Teachers’ College Readers’ Workshop program in our elementary school. This program is designed to cultivate independent readers at an early age, which will support greater success in all of their subsequent coursework.

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Other points of pride include the dramatic changes our middle school instructional staff have made to their teaching methods, especially in math and science. Flipped learning is being widely used in math, reshaping the classroom from a lecture-environment to one where deep-level thinking and learning is thriving. The new model provides students with the ability to move at their own pace, and gives teachers more flexibility to meet students’ individual learning needs.

In science, students are flourishing with inquiry-based learning. In grade six science, one teacher has removed traditional desks from the classroom, replacing them with open space to conduct experiments. She has replaced traditional school tools with various science kits that allow students to “learn by doing.” Students are engaged and excited.

We are also very proud to have received a second year of grant funding for our new Introduction to Mid-Eastern Culture course. Last year, the district received one of only 23 grants nationwide awarded as part of the Teachers of Critical Languages Program (implemented by the American Councils for International Education and funded by the U.S. Dept. of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs). The second year of funding provides all grade six students with the opportunity to take the class and creates an additional path of study for current grade seven students who want to continue their learning in that area.

For the second year in a row, Highland High School was recognized by the Washington Post on its America’s Most Challenging High Schools list, a designation that comes from the high level of participation the school has in Advanced Placement (AP) courses. This designation represents the commitment of our faculty and administration to student achievement and the school’s approach to giving all students opportunities to succeed. The high school was also recognized this year in Newsweek‘s “Beating the Odds” list, which seeks to identify schools that do an excellent job of preparing their students for college while also overcoming the obstacles posed by students at an economic disadvantage.

The high school also supports several experiences for students to compete against their peers in a larger arena. A dozen students in the Model United Nations Club travelled to Montreal to participate in a conference, where one of our students, Kirti Shenoy, was recognized as an honorable mention delegate. A group of 15 Model U.N. students also travelled to Bard College for competition, where three of our students were recognized: Sai Golkunda as an outstanding delegate; Cola Wilk, honorable mention; and Sam Considine for verbal commendation. I could not be prouder of the accomplishments of these students and their teachers for the success they achieved this past year while representing our school and community in several competitions.

And sometimes giving students the opportunity to excel means providing them with an alternate educational environment for half of the school day to gain career training at the Ulster BOCES Career & Technical Center. Two Highland students from the BOCES culinary program were part of a five-member team that placed first among more than 115 high school competitors from across New York State in the prestigious 2016 ProStart competition. The Highland students, Dante Fauci and Karina Rendon, and their teammates, moved on to represent New York State in the National ProStart competition this summer.

We are also very fortunate to have strong partners in our community who are committed to increasing students’ opportunities. I am very proud of our Highland Education Foundation and Highland Music Boosters — relatively new organizations that have achieved much success in their efforts to support the students in the district — as well as the continued strength and devotion of the PTAs in each of the school buildings, who provide enrichment and other opportunities for our students.