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POB Board of Education Debates Project Challenge

While many topics were covered at the June 21 Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District Board of Education meeting, the hot topic of the night- and the subject that compelled several parents to speak their minds during the public participation segment- was Project Challenge, the district’s program for gifted children. Both board members and parents expressed concern that the now half-day program for third and fourth graders- down from a full day in previous years- does not provide enough enrichment for gifted children.

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Jill Gierasch explained that the Project Challenge Committee, made up of parents, teachers, and administrators, is reviewing the screening tools currently being used for the program. According to Gierasch, the increasing enrollment numbers for each grade suggest that the test children take for Project Challenge needs improvement because the children who test into the program at higher grades seem to primarily do so due to increased familiarity with the test, not the high IQ that the test is supposed to select for. “The test itself is probably not the best method,” said Gierasch.

Furthermore, after performing a statistical analysis of Project Challenge students, the committee learned athat teacher feedback- and not IQ- was the best indicator of how much a child would achieve in Project Challenge, making the prospect of prioritizing test scores over other factors increasingly dubious. Gierasch said that the entry process is being revamped, but the new process is still a work in progress, to be finished in the fall.

Vice President Gary Bettan questioned the enrollment percentage of Project Challenge, which in the case of one class is as high as 20 percent. Superintendent Gerard W. Dempsey, Jr. agreed that a true “gifted” program would only include the top 3-5 percent of students, however many districts now have more inclusive programs. There was a general consensus among the board members that the target population of the program would need to be better defined in the future, however Dempsey did point out that the limitations of the IQ tests, which the board had just discussed, would make a more exclusive program difficult to properly test for, even if the district were so inclined. Virtually everyone present agreed that it was an extraordinarily complex issue with many potential interpretations.

During public participation, Holly Ash, president of the Project Challenge Parent Association, expressed the association’s dissatisfaction with the current state of the program, saying that they were “extremely concerned that the children will again have to settle for less.” Ash told the board the easiest solution was to re-instate a third Project Challenge staffer, which would hopefully allow the program to return to strictly full-day status.

In contrast, Peter Sala of Old Bethpage suggested keeping staffing levels the same, but making the program more exclusive in order to keep enrollment manageable by the current staff: “Let’s make it a truly gifted program,” he said. Sala said that he would accept the risk of his own child not making the cut, because raising the bar for entry seemed to him to be the most sensible, resource-wise option available. Many other parents expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of the program, most of whom expressed agreement with Ash’s recommendation.

In an interesting turn, Dempsey revealed during the Superintendent’s Announcements that someone from Newsweek had contacted the district to inform them that they would be on the magazine’s annual “Best High Schools” list, only POBJFKHS does not in fact appear on the final list. According to outgoing board president Lori Weinstein’s calculations, POBJFKHS should have placed #403 on the list. The district is still in the process of determining the reason for the school’s omission from Newsweek’s famous (and somewhat notorious) list. Dempsey commented that of the top 100 schools, very few of them were public schools like POBJFKHS.

Dempsey also acknowledged the recent meeting between Senator Hannon and a team of Mattlin Middle School children on the topic of cyberbullying, saying “Those were very proud moments for anybody associated with this school district, to hear how they spoke to him…what was most interesting was how they really engaged him in dialogue, including challenging him.”

Two retirement incentives proposed by the state were also broached, however due to the use of printouts listing the names and salaries of individual staff members, it was discussed primarily during executive session. Dempsey explained that the board decided not to go through with either of the proposed incentives because the incentives were meant for districts that have laid off a lot of teachers due to a loss in state aid, a category POB does not fall into.

Gierasch gave a presentation on the progress made towards reaching several district-wide goals, including improved data analysis, increasing the use of several technologies, and many writing goals. Gierasch reported that the district is currently testing a type of educational software called the Castle Learning Pilot for grades 5-12, for which the district is receiving a discount. Gierasch said that the goal of the implementation of the pilot was to “utilize 21st century web-based online resources to support student instructional activities both inside and outside the classroom.”

During public participation, noted community member and recent school board candidate Stefanie Nelkens questioned the implementation of the Castle software in order to determine whether or not it was being used as a replacement for traditional pencil-and-paper classroom instruction, particularly in math. Both Gierasch and Dempsey said that the district is still piloting Castle, and while they are not sure how and to what extent the district will continue to utilize it, they don’t see it as a potential replacement for traditional instruction. No one on the board claimed to have a large degree of familiarity with the contents of the program.

It was also retiree recognition night, and several principals took to the microphone to honor the district’s seven retirees: Administrators Mr. Tom Sena, associate principal, POBJFKHS and Mrs. Roberta Silver, math chairperson, POBJFKHS; Ms. Linda Shevitz, guidance counselor, POBJFKHS; Special Education Aides Laura Losapio, Stratford Road Elementary School and Carela Liguori, POB Middle School; and school monitors Josephine McCloskey, Stratford Road Elementary School, and Rose Tantillo of POB Middle School. Principal McNamara commented that Tantillo deserved a Purple Heart for her 37 years of cafeteria service.

The board also said their goodbyes to board president Lori Weinstein, who did not run for re-election to the board this May. Bettan presented Weinstein with flowers and a plaque. “It’s volunteers like Lori Weinstein that help make POB the great district that we are,” he said.

“As a colleague, as a former PTA member, and as a member of this community, there are no words to say thank you for the difference that you have made in our children’s lives. Thank you Lori, and I hope you’ll be around for all of us to still give good advice, because you do have a lot of wisdom,” added trustee Evy Rothman.

In addition Alex, the student council representative to the board, for the 2009-2010 school year said goodbye to the school board with a poem; Weinstein presented the student with a gift.