Board nixes ‘two-fer’ on Chatham schools upgrade

CHATHAM–Schools Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo addressed a topic last week that has confronted districts around the state–the poor showing by students in grades 3 to 8 on new, statewide English Language Arts and math tests.

At last week’s meeting the school board also discussed the proposed capital project and the possibility of splitting it into two proposals.

The results of this year’s tests were released August 7, leaving administrators and school boards to explain to the public how these state assessments are different than in the past. This is the first year that New York State is basing its assessments on what are called Common Core standards adopted by the state in 2010. Common Core is an initiative designed to raise standards and include more rigor to better prepare students for college and careers.

According to the results, only about 31% of students in the state are at or above proficiency in math and language arts. In a press release, state Education Commissioner John B. King said the results do not portray a decrease in performance by the students, but rather set a new baseline to more accurately measure students going forward.

For each grade from 3 to 8, Chatham ranged between 56% to 78% of its students assessed as performing at below or well below proficiency. However, the district still performed better than Columbia County as a whole.

“It’s the first set of data and we’re going to build from here,” said Ms. Nuciforo.

In order to address the results, she said the district plans to focus on more rigor in its curriculum as well as focusing professional development around the Common Core standards. She said a group of teachers is looking to identify and understand what they and their students need to do differently based on the new results.

“It takes time. The students can’t just turn on a dime,” she said. And she said she’s encouraged when she compares Chatham’s results to those of similar districts.

The proposed capital project was on the agenda because it will go before district voters in a special election November 19.

Due to financial pressures and declining enrollment, the district will be consolidating students into two buildings in the Fall of 2015. In order to accommodate the move, the board is proposing to spend $13.8 million for upgrades primarily to the remaining two schools for additional classrooms, a fitness room, music room, renovations, and increasing the size of the gym at the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School.

At a previous meeting, Board member David O’Connor suggested that the board split the project into two proposals. The second proposal, he said, should include additional seating at the MED gym, the high school music and fitness rooms, and the high school library renovations because he believes the public may view these as “wants” rather than “needs.” But the board’s Facilities Committee has looked over his suggestions and Ms. Nuciforo said the committee determined that each component to the project was necessary and would negatively impact the program if taken out. The committee recommended that the board offer one proposal with all components retained.

Without the seating to the MED gym, the committee’s report said, the school would be unable to hold games or other events and assemblies currently not allowed due to lack of space. Also, the seating is a fraction of the budget at $150,000. The fitness room addition was judged necessary to separate middle school from high school students. The current fitness room is already heavily used and only has a capacity of 15-18 students, said Ms. Nuciforo. A new fitness room will also make way for the current space to be renovated into science classrooms.

The high school music program, said Ms. Nuciforo, lacks the appropriate space right now. The orchestra currently practices on the auditorium stage, which limits the drama club and other activities. She said it would be too difficult to provide space for both music programs when grades 7 and 8 move over. The proposed music addition would make it possible to provide spaces for lessons and performing groups from both programs. She said 69% of students in grades 7-12 participate in the music program, and 17% of them participate in the orchestra.

“We’re talking about a program that impacts a significant number of our students,” she said.

She said that library renovations are necessary for the middle school program, and she outlined what a library media center should have in the 21ct century: one to two instructional spaces, interactive smart boards, ample computer access for research, connectivity, and a comfortable reading space. She said that the 7th and 8th grade programs call for class time in the library for projects. In addition, high school students will need library access for their independent research and collaborative project work, she said.

Mr. O’Connor remained unconvinced. “These are academic programs that we want to do, not that we need to do,” he said, adding that voters should have a choice. Despite his concerns over the number of propositions he said he favors all of the components and believes the public should approve them.

The other board members expressed support for the single ballot proposition.

Board President Melony Spock said the Facilities Committee incorporated a lot of feedback from the community to develop the current plan. Board Vice President James Toteno said the current proposal contained only “needs,” while board member Muriel Faxon said the “wants” were filtered out during the process.

Board member Jennifer Lindberg said that with the new Common Core Assessments adequate learning spaces are needed to “fill the gap.” Craig Simmons, who voted against consolidation in the first place, said that if it’s going to happen, it might as “be all or nothing.”

There will be a town-hall-style meeting September 12 regarding the matter.

Also at the August 13 board meeting the board authorized SEI Design Group to move the pole vault landing pit at a cost not exceeding $27,500. According to Ms. Nuciforo, students and residents have been jumping off the top fence of the bleachers onto the pole vault mats 25 feet below, causing a major health and safety concern. The landing area will be moved away from the bleachers to eliminate the “attractive nuisance.” State aid will reimburse the district for half the cost.




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