North Fork school districts have experienced numerous changes this year after being faced with the closing of Riverhead’s Bishop McGann-Mercy High School, a record number of school shootings across the country and continued national concern about student mental health. The Suffolk Times spoke with Jill Gierasch, superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, and David Gamberg, shared superintendent of the Southold and Greenport districts, about some of this year’s changes. Following are abbreviated versions of their remarks.
The Suffolk Times: What kind of administrative changes has your district seen during the academic year?
Jill Gierasch: Over the academic year, with regard to coursework, we’re spending more time looking at our course offerings, specifically at the secondary level. We’re proposing to talk about adding statistics, AP environmental, business courses — the virtual enterprise course is our only business class at the moment. We’re currently looking at our coursework and seeing if students can access college credit by partnering with Farmingdale or Syracuse. We instituted an Engineering Club this year, too, after students expressed interest. We’re trying to advance foreign language into our elementary schools so by the time those students reach high school, they’re more prepared.
David Gamberg: In Greenport, we have maintained our staff … there’s the shared superintendent, the shared business official, the shared plans and facilities administrator and the shared technology director. The net result is financial savings to Greenport and to Southold. We have various aspects of the formula that divide the personnel. We’re always looking and reviewing that. We save a minimum of $175,000 per district as a result of sharing those positions.
ST: There’s been a lot of parental concern about student safety in response to the multiple school shootings that occurred this year. In what ways has your district modified or updated security this year?
JG: Earlier this year, we completed a vulnerability assessment. A security audit was brought in and a retired police officer performed a four-hour walkthrough audit with our head of security, Mr. Wormuth. In the audit, a suggestion was for our people to be vetted and wearing badges that clearly identify who they are. We’re also considering a new internal communication system for security. We’ve installed the Raptor system in all our buildings, except the administrative building, and we’ve been working with Southold to utilize the RAVE app. We’ll discuss this further at the Dec. 20 board meeting, but the high school and elementary school will see new security guards, that’s four or five security guards in each building.
DG: Things are becoming more secure in terms of hiring security guards in both districts. Really, being very cognizant about people coming in and out of the building. … Each district is working vigorously in terms of practice drills to make sure students are prepared in the event of an emergency situation. We work with staff members and outside groups to help give us guidance on procedures and protocols and how to respond in a crisis. There’s always a lot of material and suggestions from outside the school community. There’s a lot of very close work with Southold Town police — we do evacuation drills, always have them on site and have regular safety committee meetings in both districts.
ST: Is your district partnered with the North Fork Behavioral Health Initiative? In what other ways are you working to address student mental health?
JG: We’ve worked with the North Fork coalition and we certainly have participated in recent meetings with other districts as well. We had the Family Service League come in and speak to our counselors and teach them to bring more information out to families. It’s one thing for the school to make referrals, but how do we get that information out to the greater community?
Some of the other things we’re doing are starting at the elementary school level. It’s not just about high school. We’ve established morning meetings, really, it’s 20 to 25 minutes of community-building. It’s focusing on social connections and creating a safe environment. It addresses “If students struggled with something at home, are they prepared to come into school the next morning?” So it’s a place for them to free those worries. We’ve also been sitting down with our guidance counselors. … Another thing is Mission B — our mindfulness and yoga curriculum, has been taught this year. They’re including some of those concepts in the elementary and middle school. Were not following some of the lessons directly, but we’re using the concepts in class from the Mission B curriculum. We are continuously engaging with kids with anxiety-reducing techniques. We’ve really been focusing on vertical alignment, and connecting the dots between all of those programs — looking more big-picture.
DG: This runs a gamut in terms of curriculum work we need to do with teachers and students so that they become aware, destigmatizing those kind of things. We live in an anxiety-filled society and different people of all ages and backgrounds will react to those stimuli in different ways. We have to be very sensitive to watching our students, that they’re not experiencing events that interfere with their learning. … We got to do a lot of work with our staff professional development-wise. We have advisory programs in both districts, which are very much a part of what we need to do, because the reality is, when you’re talking about a couple hundred students … you need to divide and conquer. You need to have your professional mental health staff, your psychologists and social workers, guidance counselors, but you also need teachers who receive additional training, who notice when something’s not right with a student, and they bring it to our attention.
ST: One major story this year was the closing of McGann-Mercy High School. Does your district have any of these students, and in what ways has the district welcomed them into a new environment?
JG: We have some Mercy students at the high school. [Principal] Petretti and I just spoke with a student in the hallway and asked for his feedback and he told us he’s felt very accepted. … We knew some of these students from athletic clubs. … We have a New Student Club, and while I’m not sure all the Mercy students are involved, it’s open for them to have a comfortable space.
DG: It’s an ongoing thing, whether it’s the building administration — that would be the elementary school principal, the high school principal, or the teachers and support staff — this is one of the benefits of having a small school community. You have very direct access to seeing and engaging with and checking in on students. You’re not lost in a high school of 2,000 students or a big elementary school. It’s just one elementary school in Greenport, and it’s even smaller there since it’s one collective building.
ST: What changes do you see on the horizon for the district? What do you feel is most important to address next year?
JG: Communication engagement is one of the things we want to focus on. We want to make some changes to our website, and make it more current and parent-friendly. The district is doing a lot of great things, and we want to put that on the front page. We want parents and the greater community to know some of things going on in the district, and we’re working on starting a regular district newsletter, too. Really, we want to improve social media engagement between teachers and students, so they have that social connection. Also, we need to pay attention to our capital reserve. I can predict some kind of attention to security — doors, door locks, and some of the other things in the capital reserve fund – but that will be at upcoming meetings. The culture and diversity committee also met last year and we have about 35 people on that committee … I’m excited to see where that goes. We want to make sure we’re meeting the needs of all students. We’re just excited for what lies ahead for students and community partners. The children really are our future, and we need to do everything in our power to continue their success.
DG: We always have to maintain, well, I don’t want to say a dual-focus, because there’s an inherent problem with separating academics and other [subjects]. I’m a strong believer that they’re all intertwined … Whether it’s the social/emotional issues, the sense of belonging, a sense of care and concern … Students should feel very welcomed in our schools in the same degree that we work on academic achievement and other parts of the whole student. … Every student needs to be challenged by learning by doing and being asked, “So, what do you think about that?” It’s thinking with your brain, and doing with your hands. On the horizon, I want to blend those two worlds more than we have already. I want to bring some of the opportunities at Southold to Greenport, and work with what we have, and add where we need to add, like internships, working with the school garden and a program for students to build and make things.
ST: What were some major accomplishments within the district this year?
JG: I think one of the other things I’d like to highlight is merging partnerships with Southold and Greenport. We recently met and just talked about how, when things are maybe financially difficult, and how we’re pairing up, like with our girls soccer team. We’re making sure that our students stay competitive, and involved, and consider what they have and make sure we give those opportunities to students.
DG: I don’t know if it’s a matter of “major” as much as it’s the work we need to do on a day-to-day basis, big and small, that build relationships between student and school. We’re very fortunate that we have caring staff in both districts, and that goes a long way to motivate our students to do their best. … We want to encourage play in younger students and we’re looking at bringing some additional club opportunities to students, like chess and [drama] clubs, which will provide outlets for children.
Photo caption: David Gamberg and Jill Gierasch. (Kate Nalepinski photos)