Parents in Aquebogue school are worried and scared about changes coming to their building.
At least a dozen people questioned Superintendent Nancy Carney at last night’s school board meeting about the district’s plan to allow Roanoke Avenue and Phillips Avenue students the option to transfer to Aquebogue School.
Once the meeting was open to comment from the community, Angela Ohlbaum, a parent of a second grader and fourth grader in Aquebogue was first to the mic. She was worried about the increased enrollment in a building in which, just last year, the BOE okayed an extra section of third grade for the 2016-17 school year to reduce class size. Prefacing her remarks by saying she didn’t want anyone the think that Aquebogue parents don’t want students from Phillips or Roanoke, her “biggest concern is class sizes,” Ohlbaum said. “We all know that 20 kids in a class is better than 27 kids in a class.”
Carney said the district has no choice in the matter and took some time to explain to the audience of about 50 attendees that the New York State Education Department deemed Roanoke Avenue, Philips Avenue and Riley Avenue schools “focus” schools in February. The basis of that designation was the standardized test scores of one or more subgroups of students including Limited English Proficiency, Economically Disadvantaged, Students With Disabilities, black students and Hispanic students. In addition, Roanoke and Phillips are also Title 1 schools because they have a substantial population of students receiving free and reduced lunch.
She continued by clarifying that federal law requires school districts with focus schools to allow the students in those schools the option to transfer to non-focus schools that are not Title 1 schools. Since Aquebogue is not a focus school and not a Title 1 school, the district must, by law, allow any student from Roanoke or Phillips who requests it to transfer there.
Ohlbaum responded with questions about space and scheduling services, remarking that “the OT ‘classroom’ is on the stage.” She said she and other parents are afraid because “it’s like preparing for a storm. What if it hits us and hits us hard?”
The lack of space or staff at Aquebogue is not an excuse to deny the students the change in their enrollment, Carney said.
“If we need to open a new section we will. We will do the best thing for every child in the district. That’s all that matters to us,” the superintendent said. If the district has to put in portable classrooms to accommodate the new enrollees, it will, but, she said, there were only a handful of students who have decided to move their enrollment to Aquebogue and that it shouldn’t come to needing new classrooms.
Carney was clearly unhappy with the law requiring the district to re-house the students. “The assessments have already been determined by the feds and the state as assessments that need to be changed and revised to provide more flexibility to students with limited English proficiency and students with disabilities, but none of those changes have come into place yet. It’s one of those things that make no sense. It’s very, very frustrating.”
“What can a parent do?” asked Ohlbaum.
“Write lots and lots of letters,” was Carney’s response. But Carney told the group to keep in mind that the current situation is in flux. “Next year the designations could all change. All the criteria are changing. We’re caught in the middle of being accountable to an old set of criteria and ESSA’s new standards, assessments and accountability,” she said, referring to the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” the 2015 federal law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. “What exists now probably won’t be in effect two years from now,” she said.
“I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to wrap my brain around this issue. It’s very hard knowing that you have to do [things] when they don’t make any sense,” Carney said.
Jim Scudder, another Aquebogue parent wanted to know how long a school could be labeled a focus school and what would happen if the transfers resulted in Aquebogue becoming a focus school, too.
Carney explained schools can petition to come off the focus school list once there’s a 95-percent participation rate in state tests by all the accountability groups and the scores show enough improvement. She said there is no time limit for the label.
“The system will change before the focus tag does,” she remarked. “I think we can all agree that the state really messed up with implementing the testing before there was any proper preparation.”
“Who’s going to pay for the portables if we need them?” Scudder asked.
“The district,” Carney replied. “It’s yet another unfunded mandate.”
Jean Heimroth asked for clarification about how opt-outs affect the focus label.
“If more kids take the test and score proficient then it raises the overall percentage,” Carney said. “Our scores are not reflective of our entire population.”
“So opt-outs don’t directly cause a school to become a focus school?” asked Heimroth. She wondered why Shoreham-Wading River with its overwhelming opt-out rate didn’t have focus schools.
“Sub-groups [on which the state bases the label] have to be 30 students per grade level,” Carney explained. “Many smaller districts don’t have 30 on a grade level, so they can’t be held accountable no matter what their scores are.”
SEPTA representative Virginia Healy agreed with Carney about the fluctuation in the current assessment of schools by the state. “Last year Roanoke was in good standing. This year it’s a focus school. Did anything really change? No. No parent should worry about services to special ed students based on the labels or money,” Healy said. “If our children qualify for services they’re going to get services.”
Several parents offered suggestions to improve the district’s performance. Greg Fischer of Calverton reminded the board members that he’s advocated for a nine-period day. He said Bay Shore schools have similar demographics to Riverhead. According to Fischer, after Bay Shore implemented a nine-period day,the district saw an improvement in its scores. Flanders resident Susan Tocci asked the board to consider using the Princeton Plan, in which neighborhood schools are abolished in favor of schools where classes are based on grade level alone. Her concern is that the district’s schools are segregated by race and economic disparity.
Carney explained that Riverhead is geographically the largest district on Long Island. “We already have children on the bus for an hour,” she said. “The busing becomes a very challenging problem. Long Island schools are among the most segregated schools in the country because the school enrollments are based on where children live,” and the board has had some “serious discussions about it.”
Carney said the district is still trying to cope with all the changes. She repeated that the administration was still learning about the changes and was sharing the information as it was required to. In an email this morning Carney said Christine Tona, the district’s new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, will be attending a meeting in Albany this fall about focus schools.
During the long question-and-answer period, Carney remained unflustered. She repeated several times that she was by nature an optimist and would take the challenges on with the help of the board, the administration and the staff of the buildings.
Her goal, she repeated, is “to do the best, the right thing, for every student in the district.”