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The Riverhead Central School District is looking to combine social and emotional development with academics as a way to foster student success, according to a report presented by Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez during a school board meeting Tuesday night.

The district — again deemed a focus district in June by the New York State Education Department — has been falling short on its academic goals for the last three years.

Henriquez and others in the district set out to find out why and how they can fix it. The first step, to identify “who we are currently” so a plan could be developed to tackle the challenges ahead and improve the district’s performance, she said.

The results they found after looking at the data — a collaborative effort between Henriquez and the heads of all major academic departments — reveal a diverse, economically disadvantaged and academically underperforming Riverhead student population — compared to other students in New York State.

Henriquez said that by looking at students as a “whole” they were able to discern that a key component was missing, that of the social and emotional development of a student, which research shows plays a critical role in academic performance.

In order to integrate that social-emotional aspect into the district, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Christine Tona identified three key priorities the district wants to focus on this year: early childhood programs that balance cognitive and literacy skills with social-emotional development; a greater commitment to address mental health problems in young children by establishing clear policy and by practicing linkage with other agencies; and investment in professional development of teachers and other staff.

According to a 2018 Long Island Index report cited in the presentation, children under 18 living in Riverhead and neighboring hamlets to the south have a poverty level between 41 and 83 percent. Also, Riverhead Central School District has the largest population of agricultural migrant students in all of New York state in grades K-12.

Currently, the district student population is 50 percent Latino (which includes U.S.-born and immigrant Latinos) 36 percent white and 10 percent black, Henriquez said.

Overall, the levels of poverty in the Riverhead school district, combined with other issues children may experience, translate into a higher risk of going through adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which “literally wreaks havoc on the mind and body,” said Henriquez.

The superintendent said that research shows that ACEs in children at critically and sensitive developmental periods—which include many types of trauma in varying degrees — directly affect brain development.

This in turn can lead to a wide range of problems including poor school and work performance, chronic disease, psychiatric disorders, obesity, crime and more.

“We have to listen to the plight of our students, embrace partnerships, that’s what’s going to make the difference,” Tona said.

The academic goals for 2018-2019, Tona said, include increasing the academic outcomes in grades K-8 for all students by 5 percent, based on their performance on the state assessments; meeting the Measure of Interim Progress as identified by the NYS Education Department; maintaining a minimum of 80 percent graduation rate for all high school students, as well as increase the graduation rate of identified subgroups by three percent; and finally, increasing the student performance on Suffolk Count Community College academic assessments by 3 percent in this school year.

Currently, data showed Riverhead students underperforming New York students in the New York state assessment tests in math and English language arts.

In mathematics from the four levels students are placed at after they complete the state assessment (one being the lowest and four the highest,) 52 percent of Riverhead students grades 3-8 are in level one, compared to 31 percent of students in New York state. At the other end of the spectrum, seven percent of students are in level four, or proficient, in Riverhead, compared to 20 percent in New York State.

Similarly, in ELA, 46 percent of Riverhead students are at level one in ELA testing and four percent are at level four, compared to New York state’s 24 percent at level one and 17 percent at level four.

However, the most troubling by far, is the data revealed for special education students in regards to ELA and Math assessments.

“Students with disabilities are not doing well,” said director of pupil personnel Eileen Manitta.

About 86 percent of Riverhead’s special education students were placed at level one, compared to 65 percent of New York State students. Only one percent of Riverhead’s students with disabilities were placed at level four, compared to five percent of students statewide.

Manitta said ”too many kids are in restrictive environments,” there are “too many suspensions,” and that race and ethnicity play a role since black and Latino kids are disproportionately more affected when it comes to suspensions, classifications and restrictive settings.

“We are on a quest with teachers and administrators,” she said. “Our students are more than test scores… we are looking at the whole child, their social-emotional, academic and behavioral needs and creating a multi-tiered system of support.”

Manitta also said that self-advocacy, more inclusivity, research-based instructional teaching and learning strategies that support students with learning disabilities and family participation are key to improve results for this group.

For English language learners, the report shows that although overall results have slightly improved every year, at an individual level the story is somewhat different, according to data presented by Liz Scaduto, director of English as a new language.

Of the 474 students who took the New York State English as a second language achievement test, only about half, or 229 students, advanced one level or more, while 225 students remained static at the same level and 20 students decreased their level.

Manitta attributed this to changes to the curriculum, different models of instruction and a state test that she said is more “challenging every year.”

Aquebogue resident Angela Ohlbaum, who has children in Pulaski and Aquebogue schools, said that she was “appalled and outraged at the results of the report.”

“As a district we are failing at every level, we have had a huge decline in learning over the last three years even though we have all these resources,” she said in an interview. “I look forward to the changes of the superintendent and I really hope that she really turns it around here.”

“This report is really eye-opening and I don’t think parents know the crisis we are in as a community and as a school,” she said.

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria