Local superintendents on 2019 and what the future might hold for schools

The end of the year often signifies a time to reflect on the year’s events — some of which came to light through Southold’s three largest districts: Mattituck, Southold and Greenport. 

These districts have faced an intensifying opt-out movement, a controversial vaccine mandate and school enrollment changes.

The Suffolk Times asked Jill Gierasch, superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, and David Gamberg, shared superintendent of the Southold and Greenport districts, to reflect on what’s happened in each district this year. Following are abbreviated versions of their remarks.

ST: What were some major accomplishments within the district this year?

Jill Gierasch: We expanded the use of district-owned Chromebooks to use during daily classroom instruction and to take home to complete homework assignments and conduct research on school projects for students in grades 5-12. The district introduced 12 new engaging and relevant course offerings at Mattituck-Cutchogue Jr./Sr. High School. Our small engine repair, business law and AP environmental courses have been very popular with our students. The new STEAM Lab at Cutchogue East Elementary School offers students the opportunity to collaborate and problem-solve in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics. We could not be more excited about the elementary literacy initiative, which offers a challenging curriculum designed to raise the quality of reading and writing on all grade levels.

Districtwide security was analyzed and enhanced, which of course is our utmost priority.

David Gamberg: Both districts are involved in some professional development work. It’s something called Action Research, and involves teachers and teacher assistants in both districts. Essentially, its a cohort of people working with an outside consultant to improve. It’s planting the seeds that with each passing year you will see people develop practices and use protocols that will allow them to take the work that they do with students and bring it to a level of research where they can see and use data analysis to determine if this is efficacious.

Beyond [that], we’ve taken a good look at our guidance departments … and I believe we’re strengthening those departments in both Southold and Greenport. We’ve had some staffing changes with oversight of the school garden. There’s the ongoing shared services of administrators, which is in its sixth year.

In Greenport, the volume that is generated through the hydroponics component — the outdoor greenhouse, incorporation of those things into the classroom, like an agriculture course — it’s all really grown — no pun intended. Similarly, the AP Capstone in Greenport, the only one of its kind, has taken shape very nicely … Of course, the bond played a prominent role in the last academic year and even up to the present moment this year. For good reason, that’s been a big focus for us in Greenport.

ST: There has been a lot of parental concern this year about the vaccine mandate. With the potential HPV mandate on the horizon, how does the district plan to work with parents in the future regarding this issue?

JG: We are in the process of reaching out to our local legislators to get involved in this topic. The district has heard from several parents and we feel our elected officials can have the greatest impact knowing there is opposition coming from our school community. As this is a legal issue, we want to encourage parents to reach out to our local legislators to voice their concern.

DG: In Southold, at the last board meeting, a particular family did come and speak about that concern. The board, separate from that, have started to consider how they would like to proceed with these concerns in mind. The issue has not come up in Greenport, however.

ST: This year, Mattituck-Cutchogue added an ENL liaison to increase communication in the schools. What can you tell me about this person’s role in the district?

JG: Our ENL Liaison, Rafael Morais, has been such a gift to our students and their families. Mr. Morais has gone above and beyond by activating a Google telephone number so families have 24/7 access. He has also created an ENL Facebook page where ENL and our Spanish-speaking families can get the latest updates. Mr. Morais also supports families by being a translator between home/school. He has facilitated dialogue between physicians and parents to ensure students were appropriately vaccinated. In addition, he has been a tremendous help keeping us in compliance with our registration process. He has also been in touch with community partners ensuring our families can access the services they may need. His direct contact with children throughout the day ensures students are on track for meeting with success.

ST: Declining enrollment has been a big talking point in the district and in some East End schools. What can you tell me about enrollment in the district(s)?

JG: In 2018-2019, we ended the year with 1,129 students enrolled and currently we have 1,111 students, a difference of 18. Our Class of 2019 had 124 students, while our current enrollment in kindergarten is 66. The difference in graduates vs. kindergarten students is 58, yet we’ve entered 40 new students.

DG: If you look back 50 years, you’ll see the ebbs and flows where it was low, it went up, it went down. We’re in a declining cycle right now. I think Greenport is certainly fairly stable. The numbers definitely say the populations and demographics have changed, but if you look at the districts on the North Fork — not including Riverhead … Southold is definitely down from where it was 10-15 years ago. But I say you have to go back further to see how it may change looking forward. There are a couple of numbers in the elementary schools that are in the 40s and a couple in the 50s. It’s in that stabilizing range but its definitely down from where it was.

ST: Earlier this year, we discussed standardized testing in the district and you said this information is beneficial to track student performance. As the opt-out movement continues, how does the district aim to keep students invested in these tests?

JG: We do believe in the NYS assessments and make every attempt to utilize the data gleaned to inform our curriculum and provide another window into a child’s strengths and areas in need of improvement. We plan on hosting a Parent Night prior to the assessments sharing typical questions provided from previous administrations along with parent reports and the data analysis that follows. We know this information and the dialogue from the forum will assist parents in making an informed decision.

ST: As the opt-out movement continues, how does the district plan to move forward regarding standardized testing?

DG: To the extent that I firmly believe the best indicator of what we want to glean from a student’s ability, or in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, takes place between students and teachers in the classroom. Standardized tests are not the best thermometer to gauge what is going on. … I’m working on writing a piece that recasts what it means to graduate from high school. If we think about standardized testing as being prominent or being a secondary focus … moving forward, what is going to best signify that students are prepared? Is it a series of standardized tests that tell them how they do and therefore how their teachers are doing? Or is it something quite different? I suggest that it’s something quite different in order for us to signify that our graduates are ready.

ST: What changes do you see on the horizon for the district(s)?

JG: Our goal is to continue with the current initiatives, which are aligned with the up-and-coming trends in education and ensures equity for all students. We plan on offering a few more courses in the high school that invite children to explore new areas of interest and prepare them for life and careers beyond graduation. Our STEAM wing at the high school and the Family and Consumer Science room may receive a new … look, pending the roll-out of the budget. We are pleased to have begun conversations with community members to create an internship program. As well, alternative pathways will be explored to provide all students with the educational experience that meets their needs. Finally, all of our students will have the opportunity to engage in 3-D technology experiences though the use of zSpace to bring learning to life outside our classroom walls.

DG: Some will involve my previous question about post-graduation preparedness. I think a lot flows from that. If it remains status quo, I don’t know what to expect. We know VR, artificial technology … all those things are recasting what it means to learn in the 21st century. … Changes on the horizon are tied into whether or not this really becomes something meaningful.

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