Riverhead Central School District Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez and board of education president Greg Meyer outlined the goals for the district at the Flanders Riverside Northampton Community Association monthly meeting this week, and acknowledged the challenges the district faces regarding the focus school designations and the need to build better ways to communicate with the Latino community.
Henriquez, who was appointed superintendent this year to replace Nancy Carney, who retired in August, said that after a careful evaluation, the district wants to improve and highlight the programs that will help parents, staff and students better understand what happens in the district and how to stay informed.
“It’s about providing positive information to all of the members of the community and highlight the wonderful things we do,” she said.
1- Rebrand Riverhead
Henriquez said that communication was key and the rebranding part of this goal didn’t necessarily mean changing anything, but to better deliver information from the district to the community.
New changes adopted to achieve this goal are: new e-newsletter called “Dr. H” that comes out every month, highlighting community pride and service; the development of programs that foster student development of 21st century skills for future leadership; a commitment to global learning; creation of hashtag campaigns such as #thisisRiverhead, which Henriquez said was very successful; and videos on their Facebook page.
“We know this is the way to share the positive things our students do.”
2- Increase graduation rates and improve college preparedness
Henriquez said that this goal depended on focusing on the current data they have.
“By mining the data we can identify students who need help early on,” she said.
She said that middle school students generally need a lot of support, and they want to understand why a 9th grader who did well in 4th grade is falling behind, for example.
In addition, she said that they have put in place programs and support systems from pre-K trough 12th grade and that sometimes a different lens might be needed to help students make it successfully to the graduation line.
One of those programs is “Parent University,” a new program to connect local parents with community resources and to provide educational seminars on the unique challenges confronting parents today.
This month, Henriquez said the “university” will focus on the social and emotional needs of the students and in December, the focus will be technology in the district.
3- Increase student participation
The goal is for all student to participate in either co-curricula and extra curricula programs, accelerated programs and vocational programs.
“When students in a school have a strong fine arts program for example, the graduation rates are higher,” she said.
She emphasized that need to keep a connection with the community and said her “door has always open.”
Henriquez also said that they had just finished an ENL and bilingual program review and that will help them set long term goals and understand their weaknesses and strengths better, especially since currently about 48 percent of the student population is Latino, she said. In pre-K, about 60 percent is Latino.
“We have to advocate for the rights of all students and speak on their behalf,” she said.
Henriquez, who was an assistant superintendent at the Brentwood Union Free School District since 2007, said she understands well the innerworkings of a diverse district and she said her goal is to create bridges that foster communication.
“One of our big, lofty goals is to see our diversity here as a strength and to realize our children get along wonderfully,” she said. “There’s so much we can learn from that.”
Despite some pushback from some in the community at large, by providing district information in both Spanish and English, Henriquez said that it would help improve the schools as a whole.
“We’re also starting an interfaith roundtable and hopefully we will be able to get all groups of children through their priest, pastor, imam, etc,” she said.
Another thorny issue that was discussed was that of the designation as a focus district by the State Education Department this year, where all but one of the schools—Aquebogue Elementary School— were designated as a “focus school.”
“Some parents are pulling their kids out of “focus schools” and putting them in Aquebogue because of the designation and that is just moving the stress from one place to another,” said Butterfly Effect Project founder Tia Fulford.
Susan Tocci, a Flanders resident, complained that the designation hurt their property values and that the current system creates segregation in the school district by race and poverty levels.
“Some schools are almost all white, while others are almost all Black or Latino,” Tocci said while comparing Phillips Avenue School to Riley Avenue School.
Fulford acknowledged the racial disparity among schools, but she also said “that kids were listening and watching and by focusing on the negativity” they could get discouraged.
“We have to support each other and support our children no matter their ethnicity,” she said. “If we invest in our community, we invest in our kids and therefore they will be better at school too.”
Tocci also advocated for the Princeton Plan—a method where all students go to one school together at the elementary level and then move up to another for middle school and then high school—as a way to improve the “focus school” designation and “save tax dollars across the board,” she said.
Meyer said that the Princeton plan worked for smaller districts, but it wouldn’t work in Riverhead because of the size of the district.
“We cover a 100 square miles. We are one of the biggest on Long Island property-wise,” said Meyer.
Meyer, Henriquez and the FRNCA members agreed that sharing information and having conversations with the community was vital.
“It begins by all of us being here tonight,” Henriquez said. “We have to unite,” she said.
“For years it was easy for us to sit back and say ‘you know when are our meetings are and you should come.’ That idea has been thrown out by the wayside,” said Meyer. “That is why we are here now. We can educate and be more clear about things if we engage more,” he said.
Meyer said that they “would love to come back to a FRNCA meeting around February.”