Regents Board member: Kids need a reason to like school — or else

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Roger Tilles reads poetry with teacher Cheryle Amara's fourth grade class at Southold Elementary School Friday.

School board members and administrators from across the North Fork and Shelter Island had a chance to air their concerns about the state of public education in a sit-down meeting with a state Board of Regents member Friday morning.

Next school year marks the first time school districts will have to keep their tax levy increases in their budgets below 2 percent from the current year. And while school cuts were of concern to attendees at the forum at Southold High School, most of the educators in the room seemed more concerned by the ever-increasing emphasis on standardized tests.

Representatives from the Southold, Riverhead, Greenport, Shelter Island, Oysterponds, New Suffolk and Mattituck-Cutchogue school districts attended the forum, which was facilitated by Gary Bixhorn of Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Of particular concern to the local educators was a new statewide teacher assessment formula that relies heavily on student performance on standardized tests, which takes effect this year.

“I believe it was an attempt by people, maybe well-meaning, maybe not, who lived in urban districts,” said Board of Regents member Roger Tilles. ” They were looking at problems in New York City, getting rid of bad teachers.”

Those assessments were drafted after the state received $700 million in federal aid through a U.S. Department of Education program called Race To The Top.

“Race To The Top and many mandates we have are made for urban areas,” he added. “They are costly and counterproductive to the other 760 some-odd districts in the state.”

Mr. Tilles believes Race To The Top, in addition to the No Child Left Behind law, were designed to support proponents of a voucher system for charter schools.

“Half the schools in the country are not meeting annual performance standards. I do think that was intentional,” he said. “Once you have schools that don’t meet that threshold, you move toward more charter schools. Bigger states are moving toward vouchers. I think that was the rationale behind it.”

Many educators present said Race To The Top requirements are also creating severe financial burdens for their districts, which receive tiny sums to implement standardized tests that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to grade and send data to the state.

Mattituck-Cutchogue, for example, received just over $13,000 in Race To The Top funding.

“In the time I’ve been on the school board, I’ve seen this metamorphosis to what I call education by evaluation,” said Mattituck-Cutchogue’s board president, Jerry Diffley. “We’re getting further and further away from educating children. The state fails to recognize the expense that goes into the evaluation process.”

Riverhead’s Pulaski Street School principal, David Densieski, said his students are barely able to deal with the upheaval the bad economy has created in their own lives, and his district is cutting back on guidance counselors. The last thing his district can afford, both from an educational and fiscal perspective, he said, is new tests.

“I have children and families in daily crisis who need support,” he said. “Coming to school and being tested is the last thing on their minds.”

Mr. Tilles said he agrees with the educators’ perspectives, but he is a minority on the Board of Regents.

Mr. Tilles, who lives in Great Neck, said he is the only member of the 17-member Board of Regents who currently has children attending public schools. He’s also retired from his former profession as a lawyer and said he spends a lot of time in the field meeting with educators and finding out how the Regents’ decisions affect them.

At many of the districts he visits, he asks to read poetry to fourth graders. Invariably, he said, the students are excited to learn and recite the verses with him. But when he goes to speak to ninth graders in the same schools, he said, he can’t believe how differently they feel about their education.

“The kids are totally bored and there’s no interactivity,” he said. “What happens to kids is they fall off a cliff. There’s nothing wrong with the kids. That’s one thing that becomes so apparant.”

Riverhead superintendent Nancy Carney agreed. She said she wished she could show Board of Regents members the scenes in her classrooms when young students start crying because they have to take tests.

“How do I bring that joy and love from the elementary to the high school level?” she asked.

Mr. Tilles said he did see some hope when he visited chorus students in Central Islip, where most of the ninth grade classes he visited were filled with bored students. When he visited them, the chorus was practicing for a trip to the Mozart Festival in Salzburg, Austria. Every single student in the class told him they were planning to go to college.

“I asked, ‘Why you and not your peers?’” he said. “They said, ‘because we love singing and our teacher makes us do our work [in other classes] if we want to be in chorus.’”

“It’s not rocket science,” he continued. “We’re taking out the things kids want to go to school for. In New York City one quarter of the schools have art or music teachers and only 50 percent of the students graduate from high school.”

Mr. Tilles urged all the educators present to talk to state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who chairs the senate education committee, about their concerns.

“I am in the minority on the Regents,” he said. “The Regents’ task is to close the gap between high and low performing schools…. We’re closing the gap by bringing the top down instead of bringing the bottom up.”

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