HUNTINGTON – A dozen representatives from the six Gateway member towns attended the School Committee meeting last week in one of the joint scheduled budget meeting for the FY19 budget.
Megan Coburn, elementary principal and Jason Finnie, high school/middle school principal gave presentations on their goals and needs for the next school year. The presentations were shown on a new 75 inch monitor with stand, donated from a vendor who attended the recent regional Tech conference hosted by Gateway for area districts. The equipment, valued at $9,000 had arrived two days late for the conference, and rather than have it shipped back, they donated it to the school, Gateway Superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson said.
Coburn started her presentation with a positive report about the results of the new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) position created last year to supplement classroom teachers with hands-on projects in science. Coburn said in just one year, the schools were able to move a significant number of students (33, 48% of the population) from Needs Improvement to Proficient in science.
A major district focus this year is on addressing the social and emotional needs of the students. “So many students are coming to us with much more going on,” Coburn said. She said there are a large number of students in Gateway on the autism spectrum, and also increasing numbers exhibiting destructive behaviors. She said more students also are struggling making transitions, and unable to focus and concentrate.
“In our society, technology has become such a focus, it replaces the interaction kids are having with each other and with adults,” Coburn said. She suggested looking around in a restaurant at a family, and whether they are talking to each other, or all looking at devices. “We are starting to see kids coming to us lacking those communication skills,” Coburn said, including how to play with other kids at recess and resolving conflicts, which impacts their ability to access education to its full extent.
Coburn said the district goal is preventive rather than reactive, by incorporating strategies into the classroom. She said they were able to save money by tapping into staff resources, including pupil services director Kurt Garivaltis, to develop a social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that they are now implementing. “It’s great to have our own staff develop it,” Coburn said, because they’re on hand to answer questions and provide support to individual students.
For FY19, Coburn said they will implement a focus on literacy district-wide. She said the last time they did this was in FY12. She said during the last five years, they have had a large number of teacher turnovers who did not attend the intensive professional development on literacy offered in 2012.
“There is a need for more staff to be trained in specific reading intervention,” Coburn said. She said for the next 3-5 years, there will be more professional development on specific reading interventions.
Another potential need next year will be a third kindergarten teacher, if class sizes continue to increase in the younger grades. Currently there are 25 students in the two kindergarten classes in Littleville, and 23 in Chester. 25 is the maximum size for kindergarten, which has its own certification requirements, meaning teachers can’t be pulled from other grades unless they have kindergarten certification. Coburn said larger classes are also impacting reading proficiency.
Moving forward, she said she is not asking for anything in addition, unless the population warrants an additional teacher.
Andy Meyers of Chester asked whether a full-day pre-kindergarten would be a solution to get kids on track earlier. Coburn said Gateway’s integrated pre-k is full, for students with identified special needs, but she has met with Garivaltis to talk about a fee-based program alongside the integrated program. She said however there would be a cost to creating it.
Bill Levakis of Blandford asked why there had been such a turnover in teachers, which he said resulted in spending a lot of money on professional development. Coburn said the biggest reason was retirements, but they also lost a group of young teachers who went to higher paying districts in CT. She said she only had to hire two teachers this year, which “was nice.”
Several questions related to the “tragedy” of behavioral needs due to an increasing lack of communication skills. Jason Forgue of Chester asked whether the turnover has impacted the “perceived” need, with younger teachers who don’t have the capability to handle the children.
Coburn said they have a new teacher from Springfield who has “lots of skills.” She said they provide common planning, and support each other and draw on each other’s strengths. Forgue also asked whether the lack of social interaction skills wasn’t universal, and whether the district was looking to other districts for better strategies. Coburn said she was, and is open to new ideas.
HS/MS principal Jason Finnie said that the FY19 budget for the middle school focuses on helping students succeed in their community. He said their decision to maintain a middle school teaming model when the fifth grade was pulled into elementary school has proven beneficial, with 7th-8th grade teachers and 6th grade teachers meeting together every week.
Finnie said the average class size in the middle school is 16-17 students, which allows for more individualized attention. He said they also created a project-based learning 7th period – the last of the day in all three grade levels.
Another strategy they have is using core teachers to teach some specials, including STEM and visual literacy. They also added cultural studies and music in grade 6, language studies in grade 7 and Spanish 1 in grade 7, thanks to a retired teacher coming back as a long-term substitute.
Finnie said the goal for the high school will be to retain a competitive program of studies and focus on reflective practices, due to the upcoming ten-year accreditation. Finnie said the high school offers a “pretty amazing array” of programs for a small school, including art, music, vocational programs and other hands-on classes.
“They’ve done a good job here of supporting the arts; industrial arts and fine arts,” Finnie said.
He said the high school classes are small, in order to meet the needs of the students seeking AP and Honors classes. He said many of the courses offered are “singletons,” which means the only one offered throughout the year. He said often two sections of the same subject, i.e. Wood Tech I Intro and Wood Tech II meet at the same time in the same classroom.
Finnie also said that 87% of the teachers are teaching four different courses out of five classes, which he said is “hard to do. Ideally, I would like them to teach no more than three,” he said, noting that often the subjects are drastically different.
In FY19, the NEASC accreditation process will also take place, with visiting teams of 10 that will observe classes and speak with teachers and families. In preparation for the visits, Finnie said the entire focus of professional development in the high school will be on preparing their own self-study to practice, asking questions such as what are the high school’s strengths, and what are its needs.
Finnie said the benefits of the process will be to provide feedback. In response to a question, he said the costs are “pretty substantial,” and includes a membership fee of $3,750 and a budget for food and hotels for the visiting team. He said they are getting quotes for hotels now, and he anticipates a total cost of $15,000 to $18,000.
“We’ll have a lot more detail on that when we get quotes,” Finnie said.
Finnie said that the high school and middle school are also participating in the district-wide focus on social and emotional issues. The FY19 elementary budget presentation and the FY19 HS/MS presentation are available on the district website at www.grsd.org.
Following the meeting, Gateway Regional Superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson apologized for not providing sufficient time for town responses and dialogue during the lengthy presentations. He proposed that the next school committee meeting on December 13 will also be focused on budgeting, with a brief presentation on special education that will allow time for dialogue and the sharing of ideas regarding issues of concern to everyone.