Aquebogue students on the last day of school in 2015. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Angry parents reproved the Board of Education Tuesday night about the focus school designations and Riverhead’s unmitigated compliance with state standardized testing requirements.

The meeting grew animated during the open comment period, with several members of the audience peppering Superintendent Nancy Carney with critical comments related to potential focus school designations for the next school year and the Riverhead administration’s reluctance to actively oppose state standardized testing requirements.

Carney said she would continue to write letters to the state protesting the regulations which “really make no sense,” she said. “We will continue saying it makes no sense and hope that the regulations change.”

Rosemary Pearce Photo: April Pokorny
Rosemary Pearce. Photo: April Pokorny

Rosemary Pearce, a parent of two Riverhead graduates, said she was disappointed the “district waited until two weeks before the start of school to notify parents of their ability to change [their children’s] schools.”

Carney responded that the district was still learning all about the mandates and needed the time to fulfill state requirements and “figure out everything to the best of our ability.” Carney reassured Pearce that next year, should the focus school issue arise, the notifications would go out in the spring.

Pearce said she is “extremely upset” by the state and federal authorities having set up the standardized tests which translate into a “test and punish system” and Riverhead’s strict compliance with the regulations. She angrily declared she would like to see “this board of education and this administration work stronger to push back on the issue.”

To applause from the audience, Pearce said she would like to see the board follow the lead of other districts who are resisting the state testing regulations. She named Patchogue-Medford district which, she said, recently wrote a resolution in support of “learning for the whole child.”

“You have residents in this district who are fed up with this test and punish system designed to fail our students, our teachers and our schools,” Pearce said. She maintains her children received great educations in Riverhead Schools, and she is greatly angered, she said, by the district’s following the state education mandates blindly instead of “pushing back and engaging the community to push back as well.”

Pearce said she doubted the focus schools would ever be able to have the label removed under the current state regulations. “I do not think, that by trying to follow the mandates of the state ed department, you are going to have any success in getting off the [focus schools] list in two years. Especially if the numbers of ENL students increase,” she said.

Allyson Brodsky-Matwey Photo: April Pokorny
Allyson Brodsky-Matwey. Photo: April Pokorny

“The state is not listening to parents, they’re not listening to teachers. It’s just getting worse and worse” agreed Yolanda Thompson, an Aquebogue parent.

Carney countered by inviting residents into classrooms to “see the great learning that is really going on in the classrooms.” In addition, she says she and other superintendents are advocating for flexibility in the testing, but that the state and federal government move very slowly. In the meantime, “we do what is right for kids while we live within the system we have to live within.”

Allyson Brodsky-Matwey, of Wading River, began her time at the podium by describing the ways that Patchogue-Medford’s superintendent, Michael Hynes, informs parents of their rights to opt out of testing including letters and YouTube videos in both English and Spanish. She agrees with Pearce’s opinion that Riverhead needs to resist the state mandates actively.

She asked board members to respond to the charter school principal’s “scathing” op-ed in the News-Review about the school district.

Koukounas replied that “he has his right to his opinion and we stand by our programs.”

Brodsky-Matwey responded with, “I can only say positive things about my experiences in Riverhead School District and when I read an article like that it kind of turns my stomach.

Tara Stewart-Jacobs Photo: April Pokorny
Tara Stewart-Jacobs. Photo: April Pokorny

Aquebogue parent Tara Stewart-Jacobs went back and forth with the superintendent about class size.

Stewart-Jacobs said she was unhappy with her kindergarten daughter’s class increasing to 24 children because three new students transferred there as a result of the focus school designations.

“What’s going to happen next year, if you put the word out [about school choice] earlier?” she said. “I know that the cap is 27 for kindergarten, but I think our children deserve better.”

Carney replied that class sizes were generally comparable throughout the district. Aquebogue had some of the lower class sizes in the district, so, “in a sense, [the transfers] helped to even class sizes out,” she said. “Fortunately, we are in good shape in the district on a K-4 level. We’re happy that it worked out.”

“No. No. I don’t think we should be happy with 24 kindergarteners in a classroom,” countered Stewart-Jacobs. “That’s a lot of small children in one classroom,” she said.

“We can’t provide better for our children? This is it? As long as it’s under the cap it’s good enough?” Stewart-Jacobs asked.

“I completely understand where you want class size to be, but it’s where we are as a district right now with our increasing enrollment,” Carney answered. “Enrollment changes every year.”

When Jacobs questioned where the funds for the extra second-grade teacher came from, Carney explained that contingency funds are built into the school budget annually for just such possibilities.

Pearce returned to the podium to ask Carney if Commissioner MaryEllen Elia had answered her letter. Carney said a response had come, not from Elia, but from Ira Schwartz, who works for Elia, saying the testing and the regulations are “basically federal mandates and out of the state’s hands.”

That resulted in a snigger from Pearce, who replied, “It’s like a Catch-22. It is. And it should be recognized as such.” Applause followed her final statement: “That’s the big problem here. We really need to push back. We really need to refuse testing. We need to refuse testing for all of our children in grades 3 through 8 whenever we can.”

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