Local school superintendents reflect on the start of their first year

As 2017 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on all the changes that took place at local schools over the past year.

The Riverhead News-Review sat down with Aurelia Henriquez, superintendent of the Riverhead School District, and Gerard Poole, superintendent of the Shoreham-Wading River School District, to discuss the past year — the first for both in their district. Following are abbreviated versions of their responses.

News-Review: What were some changes the district had with the administration, faculty and Board of Education this year?

Gerard Poole: We have [four] new board members on the board this past school year, which has created a new Board of Education for the school district. We have had two new school administrators, Mr. Frank Pugliese, the high school principal, and Mr. Ethan Wivietsky, who is our new director of humanities in the school district. The district last spring had quite a few teacher retirements. I believe we had 17 retirements last year in the school district and there were two new positions created — a K-5 psychologist … and the other was the science research position at the high school.

Aurelia Henriquez: This school year, the district welcomed 70 new staff members, including myself: director of STEM Kathleen Scholand, director of fine arts Lauren Lewonka and Aquebogue’s assistant principal, Vanessa Williams.

NR: What new programs for students have been added this year?

GP: The Empowering Minds curriculum is certainly new for our K-5 staff. We have several new extracurriculars, such as the robotics club. They’ll be joining in local competitions for robotics this year. We have women in science and engineering. There’s a new debate club in the school district and an elementary world language sampling club of world languages. I think there’s up to 11 new extracurricular offerings this school year.

AH: In 2017-18, the district’s vision for STEM immersion has been a top priority. Over the past few years, the district has begun to incorporate the planning and implementation of STEM-related opportunities into its educational plan … Additionally, Pulaski Street Elementary School’s newly designed and upgraded science classroom and accompanying shift to a hands-on learning lab program have provided more opportunities for elementary students in the field of STEM. Phillips Avenue Elementary School’s summer enrichment program, which engaged ENL students in ongoing learning through the integration of math in science investigative projects, is indicative of this as well. Additional evidence is noted in the highly regarded physics pathway that for some students begins in eighth grade … We began discussing the importance of increasing lunch and recess. To inspire our students and ensure that they are given every opportunity to excel, by January 2018 all kindergarten students’ lunch/recess period will have expanded by 10 minutes.

NR: I know a lot of districts have been focusing on social emotional wellness this year. What has your school district done this year related to that?

GP: I think it’s incredibly important for all of us to pay attention to students’ mental health and social-emotional well-being in the school district. I know last year the district did some work to really audit what was in place and some places where we could strengthen those programs. An area that was thought to be proactive would be K-5 mental health … There are ongoing workshops, opportunities for students. I think when you get into the upper grades it’s really important to offer students opportunities to learn safety aspects of social media, so that’s an ongoing focus. Social media seems to be an area that leads to a lot of social-emotional sort of mental health issues for students.

AH: The Riverhead Central School District is committed to the ‘whole child’ approach to education. In today’s world, cutting-edge businesses recognize that employees are more productive when their social-emotional and health needs are met. In the same way, we must consider a whole child approach to education. This includes an enriching curriculum, physical activity and opportunities for students to enhance their social skills, as well as increasing academic achievement … the district recently launched Parent University. Each month, there is a different theme.

NR: Have larger national conversations, such as on suicide and immigration reform, been discussed in the districts this year?

GP: I know that Shoreham-Wading River did make parents aware of “13 Reasons Why.” It was on the web page and shared with staff to keep an ear out in the district for any students that had watched it and had questions about it. Certainly, the district took a proactive stance that spring when that came out. I think it’s important for a school district to pay attention to the national news, what is out there and what isn’t … You want to make sure you’re doing everything you can do to make sure you’re protecting the programs that are in place for your students.

AH: At the national level, conversations about anxiety, depression and suicide have affected our decisions to make mindfulness a priority. Many of our schools have begun implementing mindfulness curriculum, meditation, yoga and a variety of strategies to help students do well in school and in life. While some schools had previously implemented these strategies, there has certainly been a paradigm shift in how all schools recognize its importance at all levels.

NR: How would you summarize 2017 and what are you looking forward to in 2018?

GP: On a personal note, it has been an exciting journey this school year, so moving from an assistant superintendent position and transitioning to a position that, for me, is at the pinnacle of a career in education has been really very exciting … The state has new accountability plans submitted to the federal government. So it’ll be interesting to see how both of those things play out in education across the next school year. I am looking forward to continue to deepen my relationships in the school district. I’m looking forward to working with the community and our Board of Education on developing a five-year strategic plan. I’m looking forward to seeing the new bond projects unfold and how they impact students in a positive way in the school district.

AH: As a district, we look forward to building upon the momentum we have established in bringing a “whole child” approach to education to our students.

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