Board, union partner on education reform

SARANAC LAKE – Labor and management are teaming up in the Saranac Lake Central School District to engage in activism over statewide education reform issues – as long as it’s not being done in the classroom.

Members of the district’s Board of Education and the Saranac Lake Teachers Association have formed a new committee to discuss hot topics surrounding education, like standardized testing and the new Common Core standards. The Educational Vision Committee has met several times in the last few weeks. Its members include school Superintendent Diane Fox, board President Debra Lennon, board members Katie Fischer and Shir Filler, and SLTA co-President Don Carlisto.

“We’ve had two very constructive meetings, very productive meetings,” Carlisto said during a recent school board meeting. “We’ve worked to develop a consensus about the best ways to do activism around these reform agenda topics. We’ve talked a little about partnering where we can to speak with one voice about some of these issues.”

“When there is a hot topic having to do with education, like testing, we’ll have a discussion about it so parents, teachers and community members all know what we’re thinking of and that we’re all on the same page,” Lennon said.

Carlisto said the seeds for this discussion were planted at a March education reform forum held at Petrova Elementary School. The event drew a crowd of more than 80 people, including many parents, teachers and administrators who were frustrated with the growing use of standardized tests, particularly at the elementary school level. Carlisto said that led to a larger, regional education reform panel that was held last week in Plattsburgh.

State Education Commissioner John King is scheduled to be in Schroon Lake on Wednesday for the latest in a series of presentations being held around the state on the new Common Core curriculum.

Anytime new statewide tests or new education standards have come out over the years, there have always been questions about their rigor or appropriateness, Fox said.

“But it’s different somehow right now in education than it’s been in the past,” she said. “I was recently at a conference with superintendents from throughout New York state, and during an question-and-answer session with the commissioner, there were superintendents with many years of experience that said the mood in our communities is unlike anything they have experienced in the past with any other rollout that has come from state ed.”

In describing how the district should react to the changes, Fox referenced the tagline in the ongoing Go Digital or Go Dark campaign to help North Country movie theaters make the switch to digital projection.

“I think the line is, ‘Help us keep the monster at bay,'” she said. “Our school has to really work to focus on the needs of our students and keep these political monsters at bay.”

Fox said the district is implementing the new Common Core standards differently than other schools. Instead of handing out the Common Core teaching modules at the start of the current school year, school officials will be “rolling them out slowly over the spring with some support.

“State ed says we must teach the standards,” she said. “They do not dictate how we do that. That’s our job as professionals is to figure out the best way to do that. We have some very good curriculum that our staff has spent a long time reviewing, purchasing and implementing. The Common Core modules put up by the state are another option so that our staff have choices as to how to meet the curriculum needs of our kids and to meet the standards.”

Carlisto credited Fox and the district’s administrators with providing “a healthy shot of teacher flexibility and autonomy” in implementing the Common Core. He said his union’s members support the idea of providing a common set of high standards for students to aim for, but he questioned the “age appropriateness” of some Common Core elements, such as first graders having to learn about Mesopotamia.

The district has also worked internally to reduce the amount of internal testing students will face this year, Fox said.

“We’ve gone this year to doing more building-wide student learning objectives so we didn’t have as many pre- and post-tests that we really did simply for the fact that it was part of the teacher evaluation system,” she said. “We have tried to cut back on that and make the (tests) we are doing meaningful.”

When it was implemented last year, Fox said the state-mandated teacher and principal evaluation system included 30 different elements and indicators that were negotiated at the district level. She said that proved to be too much.

“So we went through our evaluation system and pulled out those pieces that focus on student engagement, because that’s what we as a district have decided is the key to our students being successful,” she said.

While advocacy about education reform is important, Fox said it can’t take place in the classroom.

“I encourage Don and everybody else to participate outside of the school, in the community, in forums, send your letters, do whatever it is that you feel is passionate to do, but not in the hallways of our buildings and not in our classrooms with our kids,” she said. “We need to keep the pressure off of our kids and keep the focus on engaging them in education.”

“We’ll always maintain, as a teachers association, that it’s going to be important to preserve our right to speak about issues that are related to our working conditions, and our working conditions are our kids’ learning conditions,” Carlisto said. “But we are developing some consensus about how best to do that kind of constructive dialogue and the ways it can be most effective.”

Carlisto said the approach Saranac Lake school officials are taking “is exactly the opposite of what our commissioner of education is doing, which is taking a top-down approach and a dismissive attitude toward the concerns being raised by parents and educators statewide. The commissioner could learn quite a bit about what our leaders locally are doing to make it easier on the entire school community, and better for the entire school community.”

“We’re not just saying no to this,” added board member Terry Tubridy. “We’re saying, ‘Here’s what we should do to make it work,’ not just being naysayers about it.”

While the district’s administration and the teachers’ union hope to speak out more on education reform via this new committee, Tubridy said there may be times when they won’t be on the same page.

“There may be times when we’re going to have to agree to disagree,” Carlisto said.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or