Year in Education 2018: Q&A with Dr. Aurelia Henriquez, Gerard Poole

North Fork school districts have experienced numerous changes this year after being faced with the closing of Riverhead’s McGann-Mercy High School, a record number of school shootings across the country and continued national concern about student mental health. The Riverhead News-Review spoke with Dr. Aurelia Henriquez, superintendent of Riverhead Central School District, and Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River Central School District, about some of this year’s changes. Following are abbreviated versions of their remarks.

Riverhead News-Review: There’s been a lot of parental concern about student safety in response to the multiple school shootings that occurred earlier this year. In what ways has your district modified or updated security this year?

Aurelia Henriquez: This year the district and the town partnered to provide us with our full-time school resource officer, Byron Perez. Additionally, the district security director, Mr. Culhane, has ensured that building safety plans have been filed with the state. These plans have also been distributed to all local first-responder agencies. The Board of Education authorized the hiring of 10 additional guards — Riverhead High School now has 14 permanent guards, Riverhead Middle School has five, Pulaski has three, and each elementary school has two guards. During Superintendent’s Conference Day, all guards were trained in the Stop the Bleed program from Peconic Bay Medical Center. There was additional training on gang awareness from the Suffolk County Department of Probation and further training provided by the Riverhead Police Department and the Southampton Police Department. The district, Riverhead Town and Riverhead police are working together to roll out the RAVE Panic Button app. Slight upgrades are being made to allow for full functionality of the system, after which it will be rolled out to all staff. Riverhead police have maintained a presence at and around our schools.

Gerard Poole: It’s really hard not to think about last year without sadly thinking of the tragedies that happened in our nation’s schools. The safety and security, it may sound cliche, but it really is our number one priority — it’s at the top of our agendas at all our administrative meetings, building meetings. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done. We’ve done several public presentations on safety and security. I think it’s important to share our best practice with the community so that we can feel, and know, that our students are safe and secure. We’ve worked to strengthen our readiness through training — we’ve had training for our security guards, our instructional support staff, or instructional staff. We’ve changed protocols in the district. We’ve run drills at multiple times to really get them right. We’ve completed relocation drills across the school district as well, among several of the other enhancements, we’ve added a student-swiping photo ID system for our secondary buildings. We added a visitor check-in system this past year through the Raptor system, which scans licenses and keeps track of our visitors. We’ve added an anonymous reporting tool on our webpage for anybody to report a concern. All of our buildings now have a security vestibule and door swipe-in access controls for our staff. 

NR: One major story this year was the closing of McGann-Mercy High School. Does the district have any of these students, and in what ways has this district welcomed them into a new environment?

AH: The district has embraced McGann-Mercy students and their families. We are delighted to make them part of the Riverhead Blue Wave family. As soon as we were notified of the closing, the district held special informational meetings to answer questions of these incoming students and their families. We recognized that they had been through a lot, and we wanted to be as sensitive and understanding as possible. We gave them tours and began to build a trusting relationship with the families.

NR: The Shoreham-Wading River Central School District saw a lot of building modifications this year. Can you sum up some of these changes and the purpose behind them?

GP: I think the overwhelming majority of the capital work completed this year is related to the 2015 Renewal Bond Project. This year was exciting because the two elementary schools went through renovations and additions. We added a cafeteria in Wading River, there was a site work done to improve parking and traffic flow, certain rooms were renovated and replaced — so a lot of work was done in those two buildings. Last year was a new beginning for those two buildings, and I’m really grateful to the community and proud of how those projects came out. But that’s not the only capital work. The middle school renovations, started last summer, are nearly complete. So the main office, the library has been renovated, new gym floors, new bleachers, we’re almost finished with the cafeteria there, and site work was completed there as well with parking. Outside of the bond, at the high school, we installed new gym bleachers and new lockers for students, and auditorium ceiling walls.

NR: There’s been a lot of focus on the North Fork Mental Health Initiative. How has the district worked with this program, and/or in what other ways has this district addressed student mental health?

AH: The Riverhead Central School District is a partner in the initiative. We recognize that we cannot increase student achievement unless we address the social-emotional needs of our students. We also recognize that this is a community-based initiative. Every child deserves to be educated in an environment where they feel safe and supported — where they can thrive educationally, emotionally and socially. The Whole Child Approach to education is what our educators strive for on a daily basis. The RCSD team recognizes that to balance mental health and the diverse needs of all learners, we must continue to establish practices, strengthen ties with local agencies and nonprofits and invest in supporting our teachers. Addressing the latter, our Nov. 6 Superintendent’s Conference Day focused on mental health and wellness. Our schools have embraced mindful breathing and other techniques, which teach our students resiliency and balance. We were successful in extending lunch/recess for our students in grades K-4, recognizing the importance of this time in the daily schedules of our children.

GP: I’m aware of the North Fork Mental Health Initiative, but certainly our students’ social and emotional wellbeing and mental health is a huge priority in this district. Over the last year and this year, we’ve added two school psychologists, we’ve worked on our curriculum to meet the new state standards for mental health. In 2017, we implemented a K-5 curriculum in our elementary schools that’s provided by a school psychologist in the district. We also have a school counselor through the North Shore Youth Council that is available after school at the middle and high school. It’s an opportunity for parents and students to connect with a mental health professional. That’s a new program that’s been going well this year. We have an ongoing system to keep our eyes out and identify students that are in need of help … Over the last school year, we’ve spent quite a lot of time developing a plan for students who are in need, to prevent self-harm, protocols, and our focus on this is ongoing.

NR: What kind of changes to the district do you see on the horizon? What do you feel is most important to tackle next year?

AH: As a district, we are moving ahead together with the Whole Child Approach, which really encompasses all of your questions. The Whole Child Approach includes mental health, safety, a sense of community and academics. I can say with all certainty, that it continues to be an honor to serve this community and advocate for the very best for every child. The teachers and leaders of Riverhead are second to none and we will continue to move toward continuous improvement for all. Our students continue to impress us despite the adversity that many of them face. They are strong and brave and we must always support them in any way we can. Our focus will continue to be increased academic achievement balanced by social-emotional support. The sky is the limit for Riverhead, as long as we all remember that our children are our top priority.

GP: Part of this falls into that the Board of Education and the district are currently undertaking a planning process. We are working on developing a five-year plan to guide us through the next five years to continue student excellence, to maintain our footing in this district. I think that’s an important project for us as a district.

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Photo caption: Dr. Aurelia Henriquez, superintendent of Riverhead Central School District, and Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River Central School District. (Kate Nalepinski photos)