The Principals of the five elementary schools and Scarsdale Assistant Superintendent Lynne Shain took center stage at the Board of Education meeting on Monday night December 9 to present a review of the elementary school program in the district. This presentation is one of a series of special reports that have been presented at Board of Education meetings in preparation for school budget discussions for 2014-15. The Principals reviewed the curriculum, program elements and staffing to give an overview of activities at the five schools, explain what's now being done and the associated costs.
It was an impressive review of many of the elements of the elementary program and it can be viewed on the Scarsdale Schools website on the Video on Demand page here or read the highlights of the presentations below.
Shain explained that the highly professional staff, small class sizes, student support, emphasis on basic skills plus interdisciplinary programs and critical and creative problem solving all contribute to a successful K-8 program that allows students to excel in high school and beyond. In response to new federal and state requirements to teach the core curriculum the district has made modest modifications to the curriculum where needed.
Discussing the new full-day kindergarten program, Heathcote Principal Maria Styles said that full days have allowed for longer periods of instruction and an assessment of the longer days found that feedback has been positive. She explained that many kindergarten classes include 4,5 and 6 year-olds with a range of reading skills. Using a balanced literacy program, the program focuses on building reading and writing skills. The DRA, or developmental reading assessment allows teachers to track individual student progress.
Scott Houseknecht of the Edgewood School explained that the Singapore Math program, developed by the Ministry of Education in Singapore, had been adopted by the Scarsdale School District six years ago. The program teaches young children to understand numbers through the use of pictures and manipulatives and includes fewer math topics that are covered in depth so that students can master math basics and learn to use math skills for thinking logically and solving problems.
The science and social studies curricula were reviewed by Duncan Wilson of Fox Meadow. Though science education used to be about teaching facts, it is now more student-centered and helps students develop thinking and problem-solving skills. They learn to pose and answer questions, use real world data and to present their findings. For example, in the school's garden, children formulate questions about seed growth and record their observations as the plants grow. The social studies program begins with understanding family, traditions and community and extends to the study of Native Americans, Colonial era, immigration, the Constitution and local government. Fifth graders undertake self-directed inquiry projects when they complete their elementary school years with the Capstone Research Project.
Jerry Young of Greenacres discussed the balance of the program including Spanish, the arts and physical education. Instruction in Spanish now begins in first grade and language instruction is included in speech, dance, music and art. Children begin by learning to count and by fifth grade are communicating ideas and reading news from the Spanish-speaking world. A study of the program found that children who were introduced to Spanish early performed better in the later grades.
Instruction in musical instruments begins in third grade and by grades 4 and 5 500 students are participating in band or orchestra. The music program also includes visits to the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center and performances by visiting artists at the schools. Art classes not only help children build fine motor skills and coordination but teach them to take risks, think creatively and problem solve. The physical education curriculum teaches basic movement in grades K-2 and skills and fitness in grades 3 through 5. The program imparts the importance of lifelong physical activity.
Discussing technology, Quaker Ridge's Robyn Lane said, "It's a constant race to stay on top of new developments. There are talented and skilled computer teachers in each of the five buildings and their roles continue to evolve. They do everything from tech support to classroom instruction. Using computers, students can compose, connect, collaborate and publish for an audience beyond the refrigerator door. With Chrome books and Google apps they video chat across schools, learn to program and are consumers as well as producers."
The presentation then turned to staffing. There are currently only two helping teachers for the district's elementary schools, one for science and one for math, down from six helping teachers in 2008. Helping teachers provide pedagogical support and ensure consistency across district schools. Shain said the schools work to achieve a balance between providing consistency while permitting individual teachers customize the material for their classrooms. Shain also said that Scarsdale has developed common assessments by level that differ from the state's standardized tests. These assessments are embedded in the curriculum and do not require special testing days to administer.
In response to concerns about security at the schools, all schools are locked during the school day with limited exit and entry. New door locks have been installed that allow classrooms to be locked from the inside and procedures for lockdowns have been formulated.
What does all of this cost? Staffing and programming drive elementary schools costs. Class sizes for grades K-2 are limited to 22 students, with a maximum of 24 students in grades 3–5. School psychologists, nurses, learning resource teachers, speech, hearing, and occupational therapists, ESL teachers and staff for special education, provide additional student support. In response to questions about the "Teacher in Charge" position at each of the five elementary schools, Shain explained that many responsibilities are shared between the Principals and the Teachers-in-Charge, though there are key functions performed by the Teachers-in-Charge.
While Principals deal with external relations with the district and parents, provide school-wide leadership and vision, propose programs and justify and allocate resources, and resolve significant issues, the teachers-in-charge focus on the day-to day. Some of their responsibilities include:
- Dad to day support
- Management of operations
- Resolution of friction between children, teachers and parents
- Supporting children,
- Meeting with individual or groups of children for small group work
- Advanced or remedial academic support
- Supervising lunchtime activities and after-school clubs
- Assisting the principal
- Touring new families
- Day to support for PTA committees
- Supporting teachers and the principal
- Evaluating teachers as part of the APPR directive
- Serving as a second set of eyes for teacher performance
- Reviewing assessments
- Working with teacher aids
- Arranging coverage when teachers are out of class
- Supervising student arrival and dismissal
- School security
Shain concluded the presentation by saying that "Our children's future, the spark of their learning and imagination, begins in the earliest grades of elementary school. The journey begins with the building blocks of an early education. In that regard, these building blocks are strong and form the foundation from which emanates nationally impressive results."
During the question and answer period following the presentation, Shain was asked what was needed for the elementary schools if funds became available. She replied, "We are concerned with helping our struggling learners. We need learning resource teachers to diagnose and help students learn new strategies. Currently the number of learning resource teachers is determined by enrollment, but perhaps the number should be determined by need."