Mattituck High students get chance to shape policy

Eleven Mattituck High School students are facing a rare opportunity: a chance to help set academic policy at their school.

Last year, students Terrence McKinney, Ryan Messinger, Oliver Orr, Victoria Bonagura, Helen Chen, Zully Perez, Christopher Baglivi, Savanna Campbell, Taleik Flythe, Anna Kowalski and Caroline Keil were all called to the principal’s office. Since they all had a history of leadership and good study skills, they doubted they were being punished. But at the time, they didn’t know how much power they’d been handed.

Late last December and again early this March, the students joined with school administrators and the staff of a group called Communities for Learning in intense meetings at the Suffolk Teacher Center in Wheatley Heights. They told the administrators what they thought the school could do better and asked for help in their plans to change the way they were taught.

For example, sophomore Chris Baglivi, a high honor roll student, spends a lot of time in extra help for chemistry. He’s just one of a handful of students who take advantage of the extra time teachers devote each week to helping kids succeed.

“I wanted to make it more attractive for kids to come to extra help,” he told the Mattituck school board on May 19.

The best way to do that, he discovered, was by changing his peers’ impressions of extra help as a service offered to people who couldn’t keep up to an impression that it was designed instead to help students succeed.

Eighth-grader Ryan Messinger said he wanted to help develop classroom practices that enable kids to master the material using the learning styles that are most comfortable for them.

“I envision a school where student and teacher learning styles interact with each other, where everyone’s individuality is acknowledged and they get to know and utilize unique learning styles,” he said.

Another student, Oliver Orr, documented the entire conference with his video camera and edited a video that was shown to the school board on May 19.

In the video, eighth-grader Terrence McKinney, who worked with Ryan on the learning styles hypothesis, said their plan “adheres to [the school’s] mission statement. It nurtures passion for lifelong learning and creates an environment where students’ learning styles are adhered to.”

The Communities for Learning program uses principles established by the Marzano Research Laboratory, an education research institute in Bloomington, Ind. The students spend between one and three years researching and implementing their plans, which they will continue to develop at a weeklong conference sponsored by Communities for Learning this summer.

The most recent conference also gave the students a chance to see how students in other parts of the state relate to the tools used by their schools. For example, when they met students from a school in the Bronx who were wearing uniforms, they at first tried to empathize by telling those students they were sorry that they couldn’t wear what they wanted. The uniformed students responded by asking the kids from Mattituck how they expected to get jobs if they were sloppily dressed.

School board president Jerry Diffley said that he was “blown away” by the maturity and thought-provoking questions asked by the students, who were nominated for the program by their teachers.

“We should really think about how the board hears what the students have to say,” he said.

Board member Jeff Smith said the students’ work validated the time and effort the school put into its mission statement, which was adopted last fall, to give students the skills they will need to think independently, respect others’ views and be citizens of the world.

“This sort of thing would scare me,” said board member Charles Anderson, who said he wasn’t sure he’d be able to come up with a decent theory if he was in the students’ shoes. “A lot of this stuff is out of the box and different,” he said. “Some of the questions you ask are excellent. Go forward. Don’t be frightened.”

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