New Paltz school superintendents discuss state of their districts, priorities for 2019

Highland Central School District Superintendent Thomas M. Bongiovi. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

As one year comes to an end and another year begins, it’s a time-honored tradition to do a bit of reflection. We recently asked Maria Rice, superintendent of schools in New Paltz, and Thomas Bongiovi, superintendent of schools in Highland, to discuss what they believe the major accomplishments of their districts were in 2018 and speak about what the challenges are looking ahead.

Achievements by New Paltz teachers, prioritizing student mental health

“We are always working to keep students and their learning at the center of everything we do,” says Maria Rice, who has been at the helm of New Paltz Central School District since 2004. But asked to choose an achievement specific to 2018, she cites the New York State Education Department’s recognition of the district’s primary program as being “innovative and in line with researched best practices.” As a result, teachers from Duzine Elementary School were asked to participate in the state’s Early Learning Video Production Project, and their instructional methods are now offered via videotape to other schools as examples of how to achieve best practices.

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“Another accomplishment, that actually began in 2017, was being approved by the New York State Education Department to offer our students the New York State Seal of Biliteracy,” Rice adds. “The Seal of Biliteracy is a formal recognition of students who have attained a high level of proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation, and it recognizes the value of world and home language in our school.”

In order to qualify as an educational institution that may grant the designation, the school must meet the requirements established by a team of high school teachers who designed the framework. Since its implementation, Rice notes, 18 New Paltz High School students have received the distinction, which is noted on their high school diploma or credential. “And what I am proud to report is, in 2018, our teachers have been called upon to mentor other districts as they begin this process. We are very proud of this accomplishment.”

New Paltz Central School District Superintendent Maria Rice.

Completing the capital project in all buildings except the middle school and transportation center addition was also a “huge accomplishment,” according to Rice.

When asked if there was anything she would have done differently, looking back at 2018, the superintendent says she would have liked to focus more on the initiative established by the district to revise the middle level educational program. “The New York State Education Department made some modifications to the program requirements and credits at the middle school in order to provide more flexibility in program and delivery. We established a middle level task force, but were barely able to meet, thereby making us one year behind in our plan. If I could have, I would have created a more solid timeline of action steps, and then stuck to it.”

Issues impacting the district at present include the vaping issue at the high school — and at the middle school, to a lesser extent, says Rice — and the shortage of substitute teachers. With regard to student vaping, she notes, “I am greatly concerned. Though I understand this to be an issue that is not unique to New Paltz, that does not help when you consider the health and welfare of our students. And the other issue, again, as in most districts, is the substitute teacher shortage. We are constantly trying to cover classes when no substitute is available. We are looking at, and have incorporated, a variety of strategies to lessen this problem.”

Top priorities for 2019 include taking additional measures to solve the substitute problem, including building in a number of superintendent conference days to address the mandated and district prioritized staff development sessions. “We want to do this in a way that does not add to the number of days a parent would need to find child care. In order to do this, we have made some of the time during the previously established school recesses, days for staff development. This, among other ways of recruiting substitutes, should assist in being proactive about the substitute shortage.”

But the first priority for the New Paltz Central School District, says Rice, will be to establish a mental health curriculum based on the mental health standards issued by the New York State Education Department (NYSED). “This SED initiative is a welcome response to emerging statistics indicating an increase in mental health and social emotional disorders among students. We will seek to marry the social emotional standards with this initiative.”

There’s much to do in 2019, she concludes, “and one of the obvious priorities is completing the district’s $52.9 million capital project. But by December 2019, the entire project should be completed, and on or under budget.”

For more information about the New Paltz school district, visit http://www.newpaltz.k12.ny.us/.

Prioritizing elementary school reading program, continuing open lines of communication in Highland

“Academically, Highland is in great shape,” says Thomas Bongiovi, superintendent of schools in the Highland Central School District since October of 2017. “We have the highest graduation rate in the county — 95 percent — and we’re very proud of that. It reflects on everyone involved: not just high school teachers, but kindergarten teachers, elementary and middle school teachers, and support staff; food service workers and custodians. It’s a team effort.”

Among Bongiovi’s top priorities for his district is continuing the focus on the elementary school reading and writing program that Highland adopted a few years ago, created by Teachers College, Columbia University. “Reading at the elementary school level is key to students’ future success,” he says. “Students need to be reading on level by second grade or they’ll always be behind.”

Highland has a number of students taking college courses along with their high school classes — several even graduate each year having already earned an associate’s degree along with their diploma — but Bongiovi says the emphasis on that program has left the district short on elective offerings, so he will be looking at increasing electives in Highland and expanding a new STEM program at the high school.

Bongiovi was initially appointed as interim superintendent in Highland following the retirement of former superintendent Deborah Haab. His focus from the start has been on academics and establishing open lines of communication between the district and the community. He has also taken a number of preventative measures to combat the nationwide substance abuse crisis.

Like his counterpart in New Paltz, Bongiovi is concerned about the increased popularity of vaping among students. “But we have the same issues as every other district,” he notes. “I have concerns about some of the trends in society, and I’m not a fan of the decriminalization of marijuana. Schools still take it quite seriously and students are disciplined severely for possession, but out in society it’s a little different.”

One of the drug education initiatives Bongiovi has brought into the Highland schools is the “Too Good for Drugs” nationally accredited program for fourth through eighth graders, crossing the boundaries between elementary and middle school. The ten-week program that began in October just wrapped up, but the anti-drug message will continue in the new year. “I don’t want it to be a one-shot thing when talking about drugs and making healthy choices,” Bongiovi notes. “As a former middle school principal, I know that the middle school years are very important; that’s when students start forming habits.”

The Highland district also just completed its second round of Narcan training, educating faculty and staff in the use of the drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The first stage concentrated on training school nurses, security staff and physical education teachers, Bongiovi says, with the recent efforts focused on training support staff such as bus drivers.

In March, there are plans to bring in a presenter to the middle and high schools to talk about Internet safety. “It’s all about giving students the skills to make healthy choices,” says Bongiovi.

The $17.5 million capital project that began in Highland in 2014 is wrapping up this year and the district is getting ready to send out for bid the $8 million capital project, he adds. “The new project involves a lot of HVAC work and redoing the front circle at the high school to create a better flow of traffic and make it safer for everyone. There is also exterior lighting work to be done at all the buildings; it’s a little dark in places and we want to keep everyone safe.”

In the coming year, Bongiovi says, he plans to continue his efforts to stay in touch with parents and the local community. “Highland is a very friendly, close-knit community and I’m fortunate to be a part of it.” The superintendent attends community events like the “Cops and Coffee” sessions held by Lloyd Police Chief Daniel Waage once a month at Vigneto Café, and makes an appearance at school games and events as often as he can, where he makes a point of having conversations with parents and soliciting their feedback, whether positive or negative; “all communication is good communication,” he says.

Bongiovi will also continue his weekly “Monday Message” for students and parents, delivered by phone every Monday at 5 p.m. Using a light touch and humorous approach, he offers inspiration simply meant to “keep everyone on track, and make the connection between the school and families.” For example, one message was that “talent is great, but hard work will beat out talent every time.” The superintendent challenged students to choose one aspect of hard work where talent plays no part — showing up on time, being a good listener, having a good attitude — and make that a part of their new year’s resolutions.

For more information about the Highland school district, visit https://www.highland-k12.org/.

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