Southold board discusses how to teach kids in the 21st century

The Southold school board and district administrators are trying to balance managing the district and its finances with new challenges to prepare students to compete in a global economy.

“In essence, what we have is a very good school,” Superintendent David Gamberg said at Tuesday night’s board of education work session. “Even the best schools need to always strive to improve,” he said.

Having met with school administrators off-site during the summer, he said they set three overarching goals:

• To enhance 21st-century skills, including information technology, critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, communication and collaboration

• To create a culture of inquiry that promotes student intellectual involvement

• To integrate literacy, science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the arts in performance-based tasks that require students to identify and solve problems in innovative and creative ways.

But these broad goals are a starting point for what needs to be an ongoing conversation, Mr. Gamberg said. He proposed creating a leadership advisory team of administrators, board members and others with diverse opinions to weigh in on the challenges.

All administrators needs to be on the team, board member Judi Fouchet said. That would include Mr. Gamberg, secondary school principal William Galati, elementary principal Ellen O’Neill, business manager Steve Harrison, director of pupil personnel services Cindy Allentuck and athletic director Joseph Braico.

“They should be the core,” she said.

In encouraging students to participate in a culture of inquiry, Ms. Fouchet said it’s important that teachers suspend their own opinions about what constitutes a “right” answer and accept that “there are sometimes more than one right answer.” She wants tests to reflect more than just memorization.

The educators agreed that mandated state tests aren’t sufficient to assess student capabilities. Elementary school principal Ellen O’Neill said she’s glad the board and Mr. Gamberg understand that test scores don’t provide a full picture. There are different ways to assess what a student has learned, she said.

Tests need to be dissected more so they’re not simply reduced to raw numbers, Mr. Gamberg said. It’s important to understand what tests might be saying about specific program weaknesses that need to be addressed, he said.

“Elements of testing are good,” the superintendent said. But “when tests are used as weapons,” they cease to be useful, he said.

More planning time for teachers and administrators to work together is critical, Mr. Galati said.

There may be some resistance from teachers used to closing their doors and conducting their own classrooms, Mr. Gamberg said.

To achieve district goals, there has to be greater integration of various subject areas, board president Paulette Ofrias said.

“Number one on the agenda has to be a sense of trust” to encourage collaboration among teachers, Mr. Gamberg said. He challenged administrators not to overburden teachers and to create time to collaborate and work toward a few clearly stated goals.

More communication between elementary and secondary school staff members would enhance the sense that everyone is “on the same team,” Ms. Fouchet said.

There’s a need to focus more on vocational education, Ms. Fouchet said. Too much emphasis exists on getting students into college and on jobs and money, she said.

“There’s a problem with that,” Ms. Fouchet said. The emphasis needs to be on every student fully achieving his or her full potential, she said. For some, that may well be in vocational education that still requires the important elements of critical thinking, inquiring and solving problems, she said.

Those who don’t learn about solving problems often end up having to deal with the board’s newest member, Scott Latham, who is a member of the Southold Police Department. He warned his board colleagues that they need to be explicit with students about discipline and the need for hard work to succeed.

“I don’t think you could ever be too explicit,” he said.

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