District officials outline plan for improvement at Tecler hearing

School district officials met with parents at a public hearing held Thursday to discuss William B. Tecler Elementary School’s status as a struggling school that has been placed in receivership by the state. According to Robert Mark, director of elementary instruction for the Greater Amsterdam School District, Tecler had previously been identified as a priority school by the state, and was given the new status following a reclassification of terms earlier this year. The hearing was held at Tecler School and was attended approximately 15 parents in addition to several other school staff members.

Under receivership guidelines, the district superintendent is named the receiver and is given a period of 2 years to improve performance. After the 2 years have elapsed there are three possible outcomes: the school may be granted a continuation with the superintendent as receiver, the struggling school designation may be removed, or if improvements are not made the school may go into external receivership.

By placing a school in receivership, the state is looking for improvements in areas such as governance, school leadership and staffing, collective bargaining agreements, parent and community engagement, social and emotional developmental health of students, district support, and fiscal resources.

In order to promote change, the superintendent is given certain “vested powers,” some of which Mark said have already been exercised through grants which have gone toward initiatives such as professional development for staff. The receiver may also expand the school day or year, which Mark said has been done by offering extended learning time through programs such as summer school or after school programs. There is also the ability to create or change school programs and curriculum, something which Mark said the district has also done.

The receiver also has the ability to review and make changes to the school budget, request changes to collective bargaining agreements, and supersede a decision made by the Board of Education pertaining to the turnaround effort.

Additional powers that Mark said would be unlikely to be used include requiring all staff to reapply for their positions, converting the school to a charter school, and converting the school to a community school which would involve offering services that would otherwise be unavailable to students in the community, such as dentists or therapists.

The superintendent must implement a state approved Comprehensive Education Plan or Department-Approved Intervention Model, something Mark said had previously been created and which was currently being reviewed.

The district must also create a Community Engagement Team which must include the school principal, parents and guardians, teachers, and school staff members. The purpose of the team is to make recommendations for improvement to the school and to gather public input through community engagement.

According to Superintendent Thomas Perillo, a Comprehensive Plan Team consisting of these elements had previously been established through grant funding that would serve in this capacity, although changes or additions could be made to membership. The team was formed using a portion of a $4 million grant that the district received for school improvement.

The Community Engagement Team is also responsible for identifying 5 areas for improvement, with the state identifying 5 additional areas.

Mark said that Ira Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner of New York State Education Department, had indicated that the improvements that Tecler had been making prior to entering into this newly created status were consistent with what the state was looking for.

Regarding Tecler‘s performance, Mark added, “The scores are not where any of us feel that they should be. We’re very fortunate that we have made some real progress in the assessments and some of the gains that we are looking for, but we know that we’re not where we want to be yet. And that is the whole point of this, is to work together to get to that.”

When asked what specific improvements the state and the school district were seeking, Mark said that one thing the state is looking for is students taking and doing well on assessments. He noted that while some parents may not be in favor of state assessments they are important for a school in this designation, and for the district to make use of the data to identify areas for improvement.

He said that the district is looking for “The safety and the comfort level of students in the building. Safety to be able to speak in class and feel comfortable communicating and interacting, feeling welcome. All of those things that build a school that supports learning, because there is a lot more to learning than just sitting and reading a book, or taking a test.” He noted that the state shares this commitment to social and emotional change, as well as increasing parent involvement in the building.

When asked why Tecler was the only school in the district in this position, one reason that Mark gave was the actual design of the building. He said, “It’s a really unusual layout of a building with temporary walls and sections with no doors from when this building was an open concept, it was built back in the 70s. It’s a distraction, it can be a challenge. When the district submitted their proposal for the school improvement grant, they wrote in $250,000 to change the building layout, which the state did not approve.”

Another area was a lack of a unified teaching model, something which Mark said the district has worked to bring from building to building, independent from the rollout of the Common Core. According to Mark, this enables teachers in the district to work together to develop the best teaching methods, rather than being left on their own. This also encourages the use of new models and new approaches to teaching which Mark said have played into the improvements that Tecler has seen thus far.

Some parents expressed concerns over state testing,  that teaching to the test lacks educational value, and that the tests are too long for younger students. Superintendent Perillo responded by saying that the Commissioner of Schools has asked that he remind parents that state testing is compulsory under federal law, but that she is hearing the complaints from parents.

Perillo said that the commissioner is responding to complaints by considering shortening the length of the test, rolling out a new initiative to have students opt in to testing rather than opting out. Mark pointed out that the district does testing all the time to see how students are doing. He also noted that by using practice tests teachers are able to identify areas where students are struggling in order to focus on the standards that students are missing.

By identifying areas where students are struggling, Tecler is able to offer targeted support, breaking students up into smaller groups to focus on specific areas. While it is important for young students to learn test taking skills, Mark said that preparing for state testing is not the school’s primary concern.

Some parents expressed concerns over the fact that they were unable to help their children complete their homework under the new Common Core Curriculum. Mark explained that the district received grant funding for teachers to support parents through math and reading events.

He said, “It often times involves getting children and their parents together and I’d like to see using those more for, I don’t want to say instructional, but more to clarify the approach.”

He explained that previously students could be confused when different teachers taught the same subject through different methods. Under the Common Core, their teachers are showing students four different ways to solve the same problem giving students a deeper understanding of how something works, enabling them to do more later on.

However, this can create a barrier for parents who learned by different methods when they were in school. Mark said that another solution is to host family nights in order to give parents an overview of how their children are being taught. Tecler also offers extended learning time for students who need help through after school tutoring, with homework being one area of focus.

Ultimately the district is open to and interested in hearing from parents. Superintendent Perillo said, “If anyone has any suggestions please feel free to reach out to Rob or myself, or anyone in the building.”

He went on to say, “We have great folks and a great parent population here at Tecler and we are doing great things. The board passed a resolution last year because Tecler showed the most significant gains across all grade levels on state tests last year. That was a board resolution and I can honestly tell you that does not happen very often. So kudos to the students and staff and all the parents, because you are doing a wonderful job here.”

Ashley Onyon

Ashley Onyon is a graduate of the journalism program at SUNY Albany. She has contributed articles to The Mohawk Valley Independent and the annual journal Upstream.