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Notes from the Superintendent

Welcome to "Notes from the Superintendent," an online newsletter to the community from Superintendent Neil O'Brien. To receive these notes from the Superintendent as they come out, please click here.

 

Nov. 17, 2017

Dear Friends,

This past Tuesday was a special day for the school board. As part of School Board Appreciation Month celebrations, we invited board members to spend a day with the staff and students.

Many years ago, I was apprehensive about having the school board come into school for the day. I know I should never feel this way, but in all honesty, we were not always functioning at a level that would demonstrate a sense of pride or accomplishment.

This past Tuesday was a smashing success and I barely spent any time with board members during the day. My lack of time with them was not a sign of disinterest, but rather a confidence that the staff, students and principals would shine. The board saw everything because our staff welcomed them into classrooms, meetings, and administrative assignments. They opened their classrooms without hesitation, which is again a great sign that we are proud of our work.

The board reported back that they were amazed and heartened to see the work the staff was engaged in to help individual students. While we have staff and student presentations at board of education meetings, there is no way these presentations can truly demonstrate the work to its fullest extent. The board also saw some moments that were away from the classroom that showed that we are in a very good place as it relates to school climate, student interactions and nontraditional learning. What I mean from nontraditional learning is the fact they were able to see students use technology to engage in their studies without direct instruction from a teacher, but rather in a supportive environment where they could work at their own pace.

This isn't the first time the board of education has visited the school to walk the hallways, come into classrooms to see instruction and to spend time talking with students and staff. We have done it many times over the years. The visits give us both an opportunity to take stock and pride on the great improvements that have occurred over the years. It also reengages the school board in a desire for further growth and improvement.

The success we have enjoyed over the past decade or so is due to the fact we have had a school board that has the courage and conviction to lead and work as a team with the staff and administration.

School board celebration festivities are really an opportunity to say thank you for their time and commitment. What better way to do so this by having them enjoy a day in the life of Port Byron School District.

Peace,
Neil

 

Nov. 9, 2017

Dear Friends,

There are magical moments that make me appreciate the wonderful people who have worked and supported Port Byron for decades. One of those moments occurred this past week when I took two special men out to breakfast at New Hope Mills on York Street.

The two men are Ron Crowell and Gino Alberici. They were teachers in the classroom and on the football field for decades at Port Byron. Their lessons transcended curriculum in business or social studies, but rather life and living. They have long since retired from teaching (early 90s). While their time in the classrooms or the sports fields of Port Byron might have passed, their love of our students and community has not. In addition, the lessons they taught still resonate in the boys of yesterday who are the fathers of our students today. I have been there many times when parents share with me the magical moments they had as students at Port Byron in the 1980s. They speak with reverence of how Ron and Gino shaped their lives and gave them the fortitude and guidance, which have enabled them to be positive citizens along with loving fathers and husbands.

The breakfast was an opportunity to say thank you and to plan another time for us as a community to celebrate. The 'thank you' is because Gino has been quietly donating money to Port Byron to support its students. (Don't tell him I wrote about it because he does not want a spotlight shone upon it. He just wants to give back to a place that made his life whole.)

The other part is to plan to celebrate once again both men for their efforts in bringing pride and swagger to Port Byron. With a little luck, both gentlemen will continue to have a strong bill of health in September, when we will rededicate the field to Gino and press box to Ron at our new stadium.

As I said, a morning breakfast with these two gentlemen is truly a treat. They represent the rich tradition we have at Port Byron. Never forget the special people who worked tirelessly on your behalf.

Peace,
Neil

 

Nov. 3, 2017

Dear Friends,

I am off to Albany on Sunday once again to continue my efforts to find a solution to our lottery issue.

The lottery issue is one I raised several years ago after we had a $42 million winner in our district. At the time, when I raised the issue, some community members questioned or, more honestly, had doubts that a winning lottery ticket could impact school finances. Well, we are now heading into the budget year, which will incorporate the winnings into our community income for the purposes of calculating state aid. We will likely lose close to a half of a million dollars unless we have some legislative solution.

The ironic part of the story comes from the recent $105 million winner from Homer. Before it was announced, I was approached by intermediaries about the issue. Lottery winnings are a time for celebration, but also a time for concern for schools. Personally, I am hoping the New York State Gaming Commission will take a proactive position to forestall this issue from occurring again. Lottery is supposed to help schools, but I guess the commission doesn't read newspapers.

Outside of lottery issue, I will lead superintendents from around the state on a host of other issues critical to education. The continuing issues of school aid formulas and how they are not fair or fully funded will be a primary issue for us to work on. In particular, school districts like Port Byron or Auburn are not funded to the amount they should be by law. Port Byron is short changed by $1.4 million a year. This is accomplished by distorting the aid formulas every year.

Besides school aid, we will work on many other issues that impact students and schools across the state. Every year for the past decade, I have gone to Albany to work on these issues with colleagues from around the state. I am thankful for the opportunity and also the ability to have access to decision makers in the legislative and executive branches of state government.

Hopefully, these relationships will provide relief for Port Byron taxpayers this upcoming budget year due to our luck in winning a lottery jackpot.

Peace,
Neil

 

Oct. 27, 2017

Dear Friends,

It is hard to believe, but next week will be the beginning of the winter season. While the weather still seems a tad bit too warm to be talking about my dreaded four letter word, "snow", I can assure you that we are working to prepare for the inevitable.

Before we talk about winter, I feel it is necessary to take a step back and remark that this could have been our last fall playing football and field hockey on the grass fields located behind the building. We will not know for sure until this spring, but it is possible that both sports, along with soccer from our merged teams with Union Springs, could be playing in our new stadium in September. In order for this to happen, the state education department will need to complete its approval process for the project by December. In addition, we will need to have successful bids in February.

The reason I say we have entered the new season is in terms of sports and the behind-the-scenes work we do in preparation each year. Girls modified volleyball practice started this past week and varsity winter sports are set to start soon. We also have played our last outdoor games and meets at Port Byron. The other signs that we are switching over to the new season is the fact that letters are going out to parents in the elementary school in regards to our after-school program.

The work behind the scenes includes annual tasks like winterizing the outdoor bathrooms inside the sports boosters building. We also have completed some work on our boilers, which will hopefully ensure a heating season without any interruptions. We have multiple boilers, which gives a margin for issues in case we have a minor problem in the winter. We also have completed some additional projects while the weather was warm and dry this fall. We have painted the lines in our parking lots and crosswalks to enhance safety for an instance.

The other work that we have done is to update our emergency phone systems by testing both the parent and staff lists. At the upcoming board meeting we will approve a contract with the Town of Mentz for providing some salt and plowing to augment our own crew's work. Sometimes, I am not sure people realize the stress winter can put on our maintenance staff. We operate a school facility that welcomes community use. One of the costs of being open for the community is a never-ending need to clear parking lots and sidewalks. Our facility is open seven days a week in the winter. We have the fitness center opening at 5:00 in the morning and most nights have games, practices and other activities until 9 or 10 p.m. As a matter of fact, we are experimenting with a "C" shift in the winter on weekdays for some of our cleaning crew, therefore becoming 24 hours a day for the work week.

While we prepare for the worst, I will always pray for the best. No snow except for Christmas Day!

Peace,
Neil

 

Oct. 20, 2017

Dear Friends,

Once in a while when I am writing to you, I will switch hats and wear my parent hat instead of my superintendent hat.

I am a child of the 20th century. My education and training was designed for me to be successful in the previous century. I have spent the last two decades trying to keep ahead of the rapid changes found in society and more importantly the economy. In some ways, I am a visitor in the 21st century.

My hope and desires for my children is to be successful in the very different economy and world of today. This is where my father hat and superintendent hat come together. Both of my daughters will be in college next fall. My eldest daughter, Maggie, will be working on her graduate degree at Columbia University in New York City. My youngest, Caitlin, has been spending the last several weeks finishing up applications for college. In both cases, I feel fortunate to have children who have taken advantage of the educational program and great teachers we have at Port Byron to prepare them for opportunities to attend some of the best colleges and universities in the country.

The preparation and opportunities my daughters have enjoyed will simply be keys to open a proverbial door to enter the new century. In order for my daughters or any child from Port Byron to enjoy the bounty found in this century, they will need more than keys, but also a burning desire to be lifelong learners who are willing to adapt to the constant changing economy that requires its employees to learn new skills. To this end, this is why we are in the process of changing how we instruct our students. The days of the three R's (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) are of a distant past. Today, our students walk around with computers in hand. They are learning the 5 C's of the 21st century: Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration, Cooperation and Communication. These are the skills we want to teach beyond the old fashion three R’s.

The question I have for myself as a dad - and one that I think you should have for your children - is how we can assist them so they can be successful in both school and life. I can only dream and hope that my two daughters work and live in communities that are vibrant and that they get to experience opportunities that my parents and I never had.

Peace,
Neil

 

Oct. 13, 2017

Dear Friends,

As I write this week's eNews, I am reminded of the late comedian, George Carlin who when I was a child had a famous routine featuring "the seven dirty words that you couldn’t say on television." I think there was an eighth four-letter-word that couldn't be spoken, too. The word was lice.

The reaction and dread that people have with head lice is understandable. It is a parasite that wreaks havoc because once introduced it's often difficult to remove from a household. When I was a child, a student suspected to be carrying active head lice, or louse eggs (nits) would be removed from school immediately. It was called the "no nit" policy. The student could not return until they went through several lice removal steps at home and the house was deloused. Lice or nits were treated in similar fashion to a communicable disease where a person was to be immediately quarantined.

Over the past decade or so, the federal government and the state education department have been pushing schools to end the age-old "no nit" policies. As a matter of fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states on their website:

- Students diagnosed with live head lice do not need to be sent home early from school; they can go home at the end of the day, be treated, and return to class after appropriate treatment has begun. Nits may persist after treatment, but successful treatment should kill crawling lice.

- Head lice can be a nuisance but they have not been shown to spread disease. Personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home or school has nothing to do with getting head lice.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) advocate that "no-nit" policies should be discontinued. "No-nit" policies that require a child to be free of nits before they can return to schools should be discontinued for the following reasons:

- Many nits are more than a quarter-inch from the scalp. Such nits are usually not viable and very unlikely to hatch to become crawling lice, or may in fact be empty shells, also known as 'casings.'

- Nits are cemented to hair shafts and are very unlikely to be transferred successfully to other people.

- The burden of unnecessary absenteeism to the students, families and communities far outweighs the risks associated with head lice.

- Misdiagnosis of nits is very common during nit checks conducted by nonmedical personnel.

I am writing about this topic because the district over the years has shifted its policy to meet this new thinking. If and when an issue like head lice surfaces, our school nurses and social workers will assist the affected families so that the issue is not only eliminated, but also prevented from spreading to other students.

While a nuisance, head lice do not pose a public health risk. A healthy child will not be excluded from school due to an active case of head lice or the presence of nits. Children identified by the school nurse as having an active infestation of head lice will be sent home at the end of the day and their parents will be informed by the school nurse of their condition and advised to begin treatment.

If you have questions about lice or are in need of assistance, please contact our school nurses. Working together we can make lice a manageable nuisance.

Peace,
Neil

 

Oct. 6, 2017

Dear Friends,

This past Wednesday we had a busload of students from the West building travel to New York City to attend either a Broadway musical or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In some ways, I consider this to be one the best field trips we offer each year.

The trip is extremely popular for our students. Tickets sell out literally in minutes. Our students jump at the opportunity to enjoy the arts in New York City, along with some sightseeing and dinner in midtown Manhattan. The popularity alone of the opportunity to enjoy the arts in New York City makes me happy and thrilled as an educator.

On another note, I am excited because we are able to take advantage of state aid and grants to make the trip extremely affordable for our students. As a matter of fact, the price of admission to the museum or the Broadway show was completely absorbed by the school district. The fact our students can experience the culture of New York City for so little money is beyond noteworthy.

The staff who go each year and endure the bus ride that starts at 4 a.m.and does not end until after midnight also need to be part of the remarkable story. We are blessed with passionate teachers who want our students to have educational experiences outside of the classroom. They are willing to go beyond the school day or classroom to ensure our students have the best learning opportunities. Our students have not just viewed art in New York City, but also Rome, Italy and Barcelona, Spain in the past year, too! This could only happen with staff willing and wanting to give our students the best education.

In the end, we want technology, field trips and a talented teaching staff to instill in our students an appreciation and desire to go beyond the geographic limits of the district to explore the diversity and fine arts found in cultural centers in the United States and the world.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 29, 2017

Dear Friends,

What a great day we had today. Television cameras, happy and excited students along with tons of school pride. This all occurred before the sun rises in the east.

Channel 9 News' morning show broadcasted live from our high school today as part of their "Friday Morning Lights" series. The opportunity to showcase our students and programs was a very special treat. This is especially true for a small rural school district in the Syracuse television market.

We are thankful to be asked and always try to assist news outlets to the best of our ability. We do this when the news is good, but also when the story is not-so-good, too. As a recipient of the public's trust, we try to make sure that we use all the tools available to share the news of the district in an honest and forthright manner. I believe this effort is rewarded because we develop great working relationships with the media. Therefore, when they look for help on a story or a school to highlight we seem to get called more often than the size of our district would dictate.

I know that reporters and editors read our weekly eNews, Facebook posts, and tweets. This constant stream of information does provide them with ideas for stories and instills a thought to use our school and students in an upcoming story. In addition, we respond to press requests during off hours. We operate pretty much on 24/7 basis in providing information to stakeholders and the press using social media platforms and email.

It is days like today that garner collective smiles from adults and students alike. We all love to have our individual school work on the refrigerator and I would suggest being on television as the highlighted school district would be similar for an organization.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 22, 2017

Dear Friends,

The upcoming capital project that residents approved in August 2016 has some features that will enhance the facility as a community center. One of the features that has been discussed is the inclusion of a series of generators, which would power the facility using natural gas in the event the buildings lose electricity. This will allow the facility to become a Red Cross shelter during a disaster. It will also allow us to remain open during a school day if there is a power interruption.

On the back side of the project are additional items that will help us in our goal to open up the facility and infrastructure for the community to enjoy. The sports complex will have lights, Internet access and security cameras. The lights and security cameras will allow the facility to be used during the evenings for school and community events. The Internet access points will continue our efforts to make the facility a community asset. Every day our public wireless is opened up for the community to enjoy after the elementary school day is over. The high-speed Internet students and staff use during the day should be a community asset and not just a school one.

One of the other items that we have been making progress on throughout the past several years is changing our lock system from keys to electronics. One reason is community-based. By having the cameras and door locks, we generally have a facility that can be left open with little adult supervision. This gives us the change to have community activities on nights and Saturdays. Many schools have to limit access because the fear of theft and vandalism.

The other feature of the electronic locks is the ability to put the facility into a lock down mode instantaneously. I, along with the administrative team, have an app on our iPhones that locks all the electronic doors. The doors can only be opened by administrators unless released by the app. This feature has been promoted as the best way for a school to go into a lock down when a dangerous perpetrator is in the facility. It is our plan to have all doors to be fitted with electronics by the time we conclude the upcoming project.

Port Byron Schools' transformation into Port Byron Community School and Center is a process that will continue for years to come. The upcoming project is just another step in that direction.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 15, 2017

Dear Friends,
One of the many items that surfaced during this year's school board retreat was a request for me to discuss in great detail at Board of Education meetings specific areas of operation or programming. The reason for this request comes from two different perspectives. One, of course, is the long tenure of my time as superintendent. Many things just happen because it has become part of the fabric of the district during my time as superintendent. It is just good practice to give a review of areas that are settled to ensure they are still meeting our needs. The other reason is the fact our school board has several news members and they wish to have as much practical knowledge as those who have served on the board for almost two decades. Therefore, reviewing areas to ensure they meet our needs and mission statement along with a desire for newer school boards to learn about areas of the district in greater detail have led me to pick several areas to examine this year.

At last night’s Board of Education meeting, I chose the BOCES classrooms located at Port Byron. Throughout our facility, we have four such classrooms that serve special education students from Port Byron and surrounding school districts. The fact we have these classrooms comes from our commitment we made to BOCES to have a continuum of programing for students from kindergarten to graduation who have various disabilities. This means the students can stay in our district their entire 13 years as a student even if they do not physically live in the district.

Not all school districts house BOCES special education classrooms. We have become one of the districts because we believe it is in the interests of all of our students. First of all, we have Port Byron students being taught in these BOCES classrooms. They are fortunate to be able to go to their "local" school and receive an education from a BOCES teacher and related services. As indicated above, the student from surrounding areas can also have the feel of being a "local" student since Port Byron is the only school district they may ever attend.

Our students in general education also benefit from having BOCES classes located here, too. They learn many life lessons by having classes side by side with students with disabilities. Personally, I think one of the best moments of last school year was the crowning of the king and queen at the junior prom. The queen was a very special student who actually lives in Weedsport, but has been with us for years in our BOCES classrooms. The fact our juniors selected her to be queen of the court at the prom demonstrated our kids were learning a lot more at school than the three "R"s.

On the operational side of the equation, these BOCES students, by law, should be taught in the least restrictive environment, which is at a public school and not at a BOCES center. We receive a nominal $5,000 payment for each class we house. This hasn’t changed in two decades. The teachers and support staff work for BOCES and not Port Byron. We provide general classroom opportunities for the students to learn along with the other services found in a school district.

In reviewing the program, I shared that we are proud and happy to be one of the BOCES centers for inclusion. It provides educational benefits for students with disabilities and the rest of the student body. We are also proud of the fact that BOCES employees have also shared that we are considered one of the best centers in the area. We work very hard to include BOCES employees into the fabric of the district. We do not separate them in a way to make them feel like they are guests or outsiders. The downside is the money. We, along with several of the other districts in the BOCES who have the preponderance of these classrooms housed in our districts, have raised the issue that rent should be more commensurate with the costs.

The benefits outweigh the costs for students inside and outside the BOCES classes. Some of the lessons in life could not be taught without our "special" students.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 8, 2017

Dear Friends,

For the past 13 years, the weekly eNews has been sent to parents and community members to share news about the district and its two schools. The purpose of sending this weekly update is twofold. One is to provide general news such as events or activities that are occurring in the schools. The second purpose is to inform stakeholders on issues impacting education, the district or the community. We try to blend the two to keep the eNews fresh and interesting.

In keeping with the eNews' missions, I am happy to report we had a great start to the school year. Big news items included distributing Chromebooks in the West building, which was highlighted on WSYR (Channel 9), and the football win in the Carrier Dome created very positive feelings in the district to start the school year. The positive feelings were also felt inside the school district due to the fact the staff had put forth tremendous time and energy to ensure students would have a great start to the school year. One example would be Labor Day. Two dozen or so staff members were at work on Labor Day. Coming to work on a day off demonstrates a remarkable commitment to our students and the district. We are truly blessed with a staff that is incredibly talented and hard working. On behalf of the students, parents, and of course the district, I wish to say thank you!

The other part of the weekly eNews is to inform. This week, I would like to share our enrollment numbers for the new year. We have 875 students in K-12 with an additional 53 students in UPK. The reason we separate the two numbers is because UPK is paid for by a grant from New York state. The students in the program are not included in any of our school aid formulas.

The fact we will be below 900 students is not a surprise, but does remind us of the trends that we have been discussing for the past decade. The declining enrollment will continue until it reaches a total enrollment number in the range of 760 or students. We can predict this due to the fact that most of the elementary school grades are in the range of 50-70 students. As a matter of fact, we have quite a few of the early grade levels in the low 50s. On the other hand, the junior and senior classes in the high school are around 90 students per class. This should give you a sense of the changes that are still to come.

The decline in enrollment has been a conversation in the eNews over the past decade, along with being front and center in the strategic planning of the school board. We have been working on many fronts to make sure that programming and opportunities for students does not diminish with smaller enrollment figures. In addition, we have been successful to plan our finances and staffing levels well ahead of time to minimize negative consequences from the declines in enrollment.

If you have a topic that you think would be interesting to discuss in the eNews, drop Ms. Podolak, Mr. Jorgensen or myself an email. We are always looking to find new material.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 1, 2017

Dear Friends,
The district's continuous commitment to finding ways to improve for its students and community members has led to changes every year, and this year is no different.

One of our biggest changes already in place this school year has to do with school supplies. For several reasons, we are in the process of eliminating many traditional supplies that are often included on supply lists and purchased by families.

The biggest reason, of course, is to address the fact that many families are facing challenging times and we need to find additional ways to support them. The district already provides necessities like food and dental care for many of our students, along with academic support like free Advanced Placement courses and Cayuga County Community College accredited classes for students who qualify and computers for students to take home. Eliminating the need to purchase some school supplies is just another positive step in the direction of providing greater support for our students and families.

The other reason is economics. We have a new resource from the state that allows us to buy the supplies at wholesale prices. Elmer’s 4 oz. glue is 50 to 60 cents at local stores on special sale this week. We buy it for 33 cents. Savings like this means that we are spending a fraction of what families would be spending for supplies. It just good economics for us to do it. The reality is that we have been buying some of these items anyway due to the fact that not all students would come with them on the first day of school. Purchasing such items has not taken away from how we support our supplies for teachers or programs.

In the end, it is just another step in the right direction for our students and community. Sometimes they are baby steps, but the goal is always to keep finding new ways to improve the learning experiences for our students and to support families in the process.

Peace,
Neil

 

August 22, 2017

Dear Friends,

September marks the start of a new journey for students and educators. It is a time to begin anew with energy and enthusiasm at the opportunities to learn and grow.

Personally, this will be my 30th year working in public schools and my 14th as Port Byron CSD superintendent of schools. Even with the long tenure of time, I still feel the rush of excitement and anticipation for the new year. It will be a watershed year for me due to the fact my last child, Caitlin, will graduate this spring. Therefore, this September is a beginning for me, but next June will be an ending in more ways than one.

The upcoming school year has some exciting new initiatives that represent our commitment to continue to finds ways to help our students become successful citizens in the 21st Century. The most obvious is our 1:1 program in the West building. Every student will have Chromebook computer to assist in their learning at school and home. In order for us to integrate the technology into instruction, our teachers have been working with Michael Dingman, a technology integration specialist from the Central New York Regional Information Center (CNYRIC) this summer.

The hiring of two social workers, one for each building, also demonstrates our commitment to helping students and families outside of the classroom. The greatest teaching and technology will not make a difference if students and families are over-burdened with social, emotional or financial issues. It is our goal to make better connections with the service providers located in Cayuga County so that we can assist families and students.

Outside of the big and apparent changes are many subtle behind-the-scenes work that is as important to ensuring student success. We recently launched some significant new curriculum work in the high school that takes advantages of Gates Foundation funding through a partnership with a charter school organization in New York City. As a matter of fact, a team of our teachers went to New York City this summer to work with some of the trainers and fellow teachers.

During the coming weeks, Mrs. Podolak, Mr. Jorgensen and I will discuss in our eNews columns the many educational, operational and personnel changes the district is experiencing this school year. In addition, please make sure you "like" our Facebook page (facebook.com/PortByronCSD) and follow us on Twitter (@PortByronCSD) to receive district updates and building information.

The district calendars are in the mail and should arrive in the next couple of days. The calendar is filled with great information to assist you throughout the year. West student schedules will be in the mail later this week and will be available online in the SchoolTool portal late Wednesday afternoon.

I look forward to welcoming everyone to the first day of school.

Peace,
Neil