On the New Paltz Central School District website, the stated mission for its four schools is “continuous growth and development for all” along with a “commitment to measured excellence.” Sounds good, right? But how does a district move from ideals to action? The guiding principles the district has identified as the means to accomplish the mission are to “focus on learning and success for all; create a cohesive and inclusive culture K-12, across buildings and departments; and empower and create success for disengaged and disenfranchised students.” But what are the specifics?
At this time of reflection, looking back at what’s past and looking forward to the future, we asked Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice – who’s been at the helm of the New Paltz district since 2004 – to discuss what she believes to be the district’s major accomplishments in 2017 and its challenges looking forward.
Looking back at 2017, what do you see as being your district’s major accomplishments this year?
One of our major accomplishments is the growth of our English as a New Language (ENL) program. We’ve increased our teaching staff so that each of our four buildings has a full-time ENL teacher; in this way, our ENL students are learning in both integrated and stand-alone classrooms. Additionally, we’ve instituted an ENL family night. This event is well-attended and last year included several families from the high school.
In keeping with our commitment to our ENL families, last year we began tutorial classes for the parents of our ENL students and instituted the New York State Education Department (NYSED) “Seal of Biliteracy.” The seal is earned by students demonstrating fluency in more than one language, and many of our ENL students earned this distinction upon graduation. The seal honors students’ first language and highlights the skill of biliteracy as students enter college and/or the work force. Finally, our summer academies for our ENL students have been expanded to include both an elementary and high school academy as well as summer writing camps.
Another major accomplishment and something which is in keeping with our mission statement is the identification of non-academic indicators of success. The Board of Education led this initiative, setting a priority on teaching and learning that addresses the whole child. As reported during the State of the District presentation, all four buildings set a goal focused on a non-academic indicator of success.
At the high school, the already robust roster of after-school clubs was expanded in response to student need and student voice. The New Paltz Middle School undertook a year of planning to implement a school-wide campaign to raise awareness around social media, and beginning this year, homeroom was expanded to address current issues related to social media. Lenape administrators and teachers expanded responsive classroom practices to include a monthly school-wide assembly focused on such topics as building community, acts of kindness and respecting each other. And at Duzine, students created a school-wide art project that was presented to the Lenape students, affording Duzine students an opportunity to meet with Lenape students and to visit the Lenape school. This, along with other events, helps to support a smooth transition from one school to another.
Also this year, the Board of Education instituted Indigenous People’s Day and directed a review of the curriculum “to present students, in an age-appropriate manner, with a more complete examination of the history of the Americas, this region and the community in which the school district is situated to reflect the continuing legacy of the Indigenous Peoples and celebrate their heritage and resiliency as part of our shared history.”
To that end, teachers at the elementary level produced units of study that moved students to think about indigenous peoples in a deeper way. For example, Lenape students asked, “Why is my school named Lenape? Where are the Lenape people now?” At the secondary level, the inquiry spanned beyond social studies classes. In macro-economics, students explored demographic statistics in rural New York State and compared the incomes of indigenous peoples to white people. The students then back-mapped the history of the indigenous peoples, the struggles and oppression and evaluated how these experiences have influenced current status.
Finally, our high school was designated a “Reward School” by the State Education Department, for demonstrated reductions in the achievement gap among various student groups.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
In retrospect I would have planned a more robust parent and community engagement component into the planning of the racial equity initiative. As it was initially planned, the community engagement was to inform the community of what the district was doing in regard to creating a K-12 racial equity curriculum, which included piloting professional development. It would have been better to look at the initiative as more than curriculum and instructional and dig deeper into the culture of the district and buildings to address institutional racism. Acknowledging there is institutional racism that affects staff and students is not enough. Nor are the district-wide workshops on bias awareness. The work done by James Childs beyond the level of bias awareness addressed only the instructional staff at some of the buildings. The students and all staff needed to move beyond the awareness stage.
What are the main issues facing your district at this time?
The district has just encountered another tragic loss of a student. We need to heal and ensure that we have the systems in place, the resources available and the skills to recognize when students are in emotional need. The institution of the high school-based Astor Mental Health Clinic last year has helped, but is not enough.
Several incidents of defacing school district property with derogatory racial and religious words and symbols have plagued our secondary schools. There have been more incidents of this sort in the past two to three months than in the past decade. We found ourselves in a reactive mode without established protocols to address the incidents. We have worked to correct this by seeking out and receiving professional assistance from law enforcement, lawyers and equity consultants. Yet, all the protocol and procedures in the world won’t eliminate incidents such as these until we find the root cause and address it.
What are your top priorities for your district in 2018?
Moving forward with the racial equity initiative on multiple fronts is one priority for 2018. Codifying a response protocol to hate and hateful acts is a top priority. The reinstatement of the Diversity Committee and the possibility of including parents on the building-level Diversity Cadres is another step forward. Continuing with the racial equity professional development pilot under the larger umbrella of cultural proficiency will assist us in making decisions about future professional development for all staff. And revising the district’s Action Plan on Racial Equity to include more community engagement and a communications protocol, both of which are paramount.
The New York State Education Department has issued new standards for teaching and learning: “The Next Generation Standards.” Therefore, over the next year, raising awareness of these standards among teachers is very important. Indeed, continued attention to this issue will be needed over the next three years, at which time these learning standards are expected to be operationalized.
At the same time, maintaining our focus on student learning by ensuring that best practices are evident in our classrooms. For example, creating and implementing more interdisciplinary learning opportunities, a focus on inquiry and discovery learning and experiential learning experiences.
Finally, continuing our focus on the whole child by exploring more “non-academic” indicators of success and focusing in on the emotional needs of our students.