Tag Archives: Northgate

What change can we expect to see in our school district and community

First, thanks to Liberty In Bellevue, the League of Women Voters and the North Suburban Chamber of Commerce for hosting another candidate forum on Monday, Oct. 28th. If you weren’t able to attend, you can watch the video online. I was hoping the moderator was going to ask the school board candidates about their vision of the future, similar to the final questions she presented to the council and mayoral candidates. I wanted to briefly touch on how the school district will affect the community, but since we did not get to the question and only had limited time to respond to other questions, I will touch on it now.

I do not believe that you will see a drastic change (improvement or decline) in a school district from year to year but rather small incremental changes over many years that ultimately have a substantial impact on a community. Not only will a school district influence whether or not families move into or out of a community based on its reputation, but a large percentage of graduates will remain in the community, take local jobs, and possibly take leadership positions within the community. It may not seem like much, but if we fight for education and it prevents  a couple students from falling through the cracks, and less students get held back, and maybe one more student gets the opportunity to go to college, and perhaps there is one less teen pregnancy than there would have been, and one less family leaves the district in favor of another school, then the long term benefits will far outweigh the immediate financial savings of cramming 30 kids into a classroom.

To that end we need school leaders that are willing to fight for education. We cannot afford drastic teacher furloughs while awarding our superintendent a raise. We cannot afford to reduce graduation requirements because the school is not appropriately staffed.  We cannot remain silent when people in positions above us make decisions that negatively impact the potential of our children. We simply cannot afford to just say “there is nothing we can do about it”.  We cannot afford to have leaders that refuse to ask questions and do not think for themselves.

I think a little common sense with a bit of passion could give Northgate, Bellevue and Avalon the boost needed to start to turn the tide. Hopefully there are enough other people out there that feel the same way. One way to influence change in your community will be November 5th. Don’t forget to get out and vote!


A Step In The Right Direction

The Northgate School District took a step in the right direction at their board meeting on Monday, September 16, 2013 when they voted to recall a teacher and add a fifth kindergarten class to the district. At recent board meetings there have been a large number of concerned parents that have spoken regarding the large kindergarten class sizes, citing not only research regarding the benefits of smaller class sizes, but various safety and educational concerns that they had personally witnessed while volunteering in the classrooms. It was surely a difficult decision for the school board to make, but fortunately for our kindergarten students they voted in favor of education, going against superintendent Joseph Pasquerilla’s recommendation of adding two aides to assist in four already overcrowded classrooms. School board members Timothy Makatura, Daniel Klicker, Shannon Smithey, Gary Paladin and Dan O’Keefe all voted in favor of adding a fifth kindergarten classroom. Board members Brigitte Jackson and Marita Bartholomew voted against it. Board members Tony Barbarino and Shirl Reinhart were absent as usual.

Although this was a step in the right direction, recent furloughs have the school district currently understaffed. Northgate teacher Tom Michalow presented to the board his class size analysis at the middle school / high school level, stating that the Math and Social Studies departments have been hit the hardest. Below are some of the “highlights” of his analysis.

Department % of students in classes of 25 or more Largest class size
English 25% 30
Science 20% 31
Math 37% 31
Social Studies 43% 34
Computers 67% 29

Mr. Michalow also pointed out that these numbers won’t mean much to you if you think that 25 or more students in a class is appropriate. I haven’t heard any teacher, administrator or board member say that 25 is an appropriate number for class size, however I have heard a couple board members say things such as

“Back when I was in school, I had XX amount of kids in my class”

and

“My child had large class sizes and turned out ok”.

As a parent it’s frustrating to hear that type of response, because as Mr. Michalow puts it, “this isn’t 1985”. The classroom environment is different today. All students are expected to learn and the stakes are higher.

To continue moving in the right direction, our school district must place education as its top priority and our parents need to make sure they follow through and help them when\where possible. We need to stay informed with what is happening in our district, and also with what is happening at the state and national levels. Here are a few places to start:


Projected Kindergarten Class Size at Northgate

The last few days I was hoping to post an update to my previous blog post. I wanted to write about how I brought up my concerns regarding the teachers not being prepared for the school year due to the shuffling of positions and poor timing. I wanted to say that I appreciated that superintendent Dr. Pasquerilla at least addressed my concerns at the school board meeting on 8/19/2013, stating that the teacher shuffling was due to the checkboard furloughs per an agreement with the teachers’ union*, and that the district could not take action on final teacher furloughs/recalls/assignments before August 1, also per an agreement with the union*. I wanted to say that while I was concerned with class size, my daughter is very bright and will do just fine attending Bellevue Elementary.

Then I received word that as of today, 8/23/2013, the projected kindergarten class sizes are 29-30 students per classroom at Bellevue and 27-28 students per classroom at Avalon. I called Dr. Pasquerilla and spoke with him regarding these numbers. He said that while they are planning as if they are going to have that many kindergarten students, some of the applications were incomplete and it is likely that those numbers are actually lower come Monday (when classes start). He said that he has a plan although would not go into specific details regarding his plan. He said that he wanted to monitor class size the first week of school and then make a decision on how to proceed.

While I understand that months in advance you cannot predict how many kids are going to enroll in kindergarten, I feel like Dr. Pasquerilla and the school board could have planned better. Perhaps they shouldn’t have furloughed elementary school teachers when we’ve seen an increase in elementary enrollment in recent years. Instead of planning for maxed out classrooms, perhaps they should have initially planned for more manageable classroom sizes, and then an increase in kindergarten enrollment would have been, well…more manageable. Assistant to the Superintendent Ms. Lattari estimated that we can expect 8-10 students enroll in kindergarten after the start of the school year based on previous years, which means kindergarten class sizes could start rising into the low 30s. Now we are being reactive instead of proactive, and it is going to add another layer of difficulty on our teachers, parents, and…oh yeah, students.

* The agreement is between the school district and the teachers’ union. Let’s not place all the blame on the teachers’ union, because the district accepted that agreement.


Thinking of Sending My Daughter to Avalon* (and some other thoughts)

Before I get into why I am considering sending my daughter to Avalon for kindergaten, I would like to share some concerns. As of the 8/12 school board meeting there were still teaching positions that hadn’t been settled and the first day of class is on 8/26. ONLY TWO WEEKS until school starts and there are teachers that are still unsure whether or not they will be called back, and if so, for which positions! And I don’t think everything will be finalized until next Monday 8/19. Regardless of when everything is finalized, it means that there will be some teachers that will have LESS THAN TWO WEEKS to prepare their curriculum for the year. If that doesn’t seem ridiculous, there are likely to be some scenarios where there are teachers that must learn / follow a new curriculum (due to the adoption of the common core), to teach unfamiliar classes that they are being forced to teach (even if they haven’t taught in years) and now they have LESS THAN TWO WEEKS to figure everything out. More on this in a moment.

Today marked the last day of Kindergarten screenings and I was told that there were a total of 101 kids screened. At the last school board meeting I asked how many kids could be expected to register after the first day of school and I was told maybe 8-10 based on previous years. So that means we can reasonably expect about 110 kids to be in the kindergarten class next year. Given an even distribution of students between the two schools, that would mean two classes would have 27 students and two classes would have 28 students. That is certainly higher than I would like, is almost double the PSEA recommendations, and is higher than the recommendations of another nearby school district. I failed to ask a very important question at the school board meeting. What is the break down of kindergarten students be between the two schools? I was told Monday that they were working hard to get a good distribution of students, and I was told today that they don’t have those final numbers because the class lists are not yet finalized. However, my gut feeling is that it is not going to be perfectly even and I expect Bellevue elementary to have somewhat larger kindergarten class sizes than Avalon (this is not fact…yet, it is just a feeling).

That brings me back to my original concerns. Not only have teachers not had much time to prepare, many are taking positions that are very unfamiliar to them. I would feel a lot better about that if they were making career choices on their own, but in this case they are forced between taking a new position offered to them, or unemployment. I will give two examples to highlight my point, but I want to be clear that in no way am I judging any teachers’ performance or potential, just highlighting the craziness of the situation our school district has found itself in. I have heard that it is likely that the librarian will be teaching kindergarten and the Dean of Students will be teaching second grade. These are two examples of people who are well into their careers, who haven’t taught full time in a classroom in many years (or ever for all I know), and are being forced into making significant career moves that they wouldn’t have necessarily chosen for themselves. Now take someone who hasn’t taught in a very long time (or ever for all I know) and assign them a classroom two weeks before school starts and throw in a new curriculum and some shaky morale for good measure. And in the case of the kindergarten teacher-to-be, assign her a classroom with a *minimum* of 27 students (probably more). Again I have nothing against these teachers, rather I am saying that our school district has continued to put our teachers in very difficult positions. And there are other examples of similar stories, but let’s move on.

Why are my wife and I considering sending our daughter to Avalon? Well first, I feel that Avalon will have smaller class sizes. And second, we feel more comfortable with the Avalon kindergarten teachers (again, these are our personal preferences due to our own experience and research and how we think the teachers are going to be placed). I think the district will welcome our daughter to Avalon because it will help with the distribution of students between schools, especially if the alternative is a school outside the Northgate School District. I will know more about this Monday if/when everything is finalized.

One last brief thought. According to superintendent Dr. Joseph Pasquerilla’s contract, he should have had his review and possible salary increase by now (depending on the results of his review). However I have not heard anything about such matters in the past few school board meetings. I would be interested to know the status of any such proceedings, especially in light of our current situation which began with the illegal furlough of teachers due to budget concerns.


Casting Of Lots

Yesterday it was finally decided which candidates will appear on the Democratic ballot for School Director in the upcoming November election. I had previously tied current school board member Daniel Klicker for the fourth and final spot on the Democratic ballot and I thought it may be helpful to describe the selection process that occurred because of the tie.

  1. Certification of results. After the election the results get certified. I am not sure what all is involved in the certification but I assume it means the Allegheny County Division of Elections reviews the results and blesses them. This did not occur until a few weeks after the primary election.
  2. Casting of lots. Once the results were certified, a letter was mailed to Dan and myself notifying us of the tie and that a casting of lots would occur the following week to determine who would appear on the ballot. Dan and I then went to the County Office Building where we were presented with a leather container containing 51 stones, numbered 1-51. We were to select a stone, and note the number, and then place the stone back into the container. The highest number would win and in the event of a tie, we would repeat the process. Since my name appeared first on the ledger, I selected the first stone which was number 24. Dan selected stone number 22.

Therefore your Democratic and Republican candidates for School Director in the upcoming November election are as follows:

Democrat:
Bryan Johnston
Jennifer McWilliams
Amy Joy Robinson
Lisa Saylor

Republican:
Dan Klicker
Jennifer McWilliams
Amy Joy Robinson
Lisa Saylor


Know The Issues

In the coming weeks I would like to dig a little deeper and write a few posts regarding what I believe to be the key issues facing the Northgate School District. It is possible that in the November election, voters may have different choices when it comes to electing Northgate’s next school directors* and I think that it is imperative that those voters be aware of the issues and know where the candidates stand on those issues. Below are six topics that I believe are extremely important and have stood out to me in the last five months.

School Finances

Financially times are tough for Northgate, especially with the state cuts to public education funding and the ~$700K bond payment that Northgate is stuck with for the next several years. What is the current administration doing to try and solve these issues and what are some of the ideas of the school board candidates? As I wrote recently, school board member Gary Paladin indicated that taxes are likely to be raised in the near future.

Education and the PA Common Core Standards

Governor Corbett has ordered a delay in implementing the PA Common Core Standards. Northgate is currently changing its curriculum to align with those standards. How will this affect our students and our teachers? What, if any, financial consequences could this have? Additionally, how can we focus on giving students a quality education and avoid teaching solely to take tests. With the reduction in teachers and course offerings, how are we going to engage students and challenge them academically?

Special Needs

Special needs students cost the school district more money than typically developing students. Because of this, I fear that they will be given the minimum support required by law instead of what they need to grow and succeed. We have already seen this by the attempt of the current superintendent and school board to furlough 10 teacher aides, only to later reduce that number when they realized that the IEPs of several students required that they have aides in the classroom. How are larger class sizes and less course offerings going to affect students with special needs and what can we do to accommodate them?

Safety

Because of the era in which we live, school safety is vitally important. Those who work in our schools or make policies that affect our schools should always be thinking about safety. What, if any, safety issues need addressed? Do the school board candidates have any ideas on what can be done to improve school safety?

Communication and Transparency

I have seen a noticeable improvement in the communication between the school board and the general public over the last five months. The administration has been more responsive to questions and concerns, and at times has provided meaningful background information to those in attendance at school board meetings when voting on various proposals or talking about specific issues. Of course, like most things, there is always room for improvement. I am still irritated that those behind the teacher furloughs can’t give a reasonable explanation at how they settled on their final number of 23 teachers. I also think there are other ways we can improve communication in our district and I hope the communication committee will continue to address those issues.

Leaders and Followers

Specifically looking at the members of school board, we need leaders not followers. I believe that there are many people on our school board that care deeply about the students, care deeply about education and work tirelessly to make Northgate a great school district. I also feel that there are members on the board who will easily follow others rather than ask questions and work to form their own opinions. We desperately need more of the former. While this is easy to say, it is difficult to achieve because of course everyone cares and wants Northgate to succeed. However, how many people in jail believe they are innocent? How many employees believe that they are underpaid? Ok, maybe those are silly questions but the fact is many people will say they want to make a difference and believe that they will but who will actually put in the work to make that happen?  My point is, we NEED leaders who are informed, who are not afraid to ask questions, who are not afraid to speak up, and who are willing and eager to put in the hard work to continue to make Northgate a better district. I think there are such individuals already on school board, but we could use a lot more.

*The unofficial results from the recent primary election report that the candidates for school board on the Republican ballot will be Lisa Saylor, Amy Joy Robinson, Dan Klicker and Jennifer McWilliams. Lisa, Amy and Jennifer will also appear on the Democratic ballot however there was a tie between myself and Dan Klicker. One of us will be chosen (I believe by coin flip) to appear on the Democratic ballot. There is also the chance for independent candidates as well as write ins (options that I may pursue if I lose the coin flip).


Fall Sport Options

I was a bit surprised to learn at a recent school board meeting that the board had previously voted to not allow students to participate in multiple fall sports. I had no idea that this policy was already in place. I think one thing that makes Northgate a great school is being small and allowing students to participate in as many activities as possible. When I was in highschool I had the opportunity to participate in football and marching band at the same time, as did many others. There were also individuals who participated in cheerleading and marching band and I assume there were other crossover activities as well. If I were forced to make a choice when I was a student, I would have chosen football over band. But then I wouldn’t have had all the great experiences that I had when being a part of the marching band for 5 years in high school (performing in front of various audiences, taking trips with the band, making new friends, serving as drum major), I most likely wouldn’t have went on to perform in wind ensemble in college (taking more interest in music, performing more difficult pieces, receiving a more well rounded education), and I probably wouldn’t have the same musical interests and appreciation for the arts that I have today. I always appreciated Northgate for allowing me to have such opportunities because I knew at other schools I would have had to choose one activity and possibly risk being cut or forced to serve a lesser role. I hope the school board will reconsider their previous decision and allow students to participate in as many activities as they wish. I’ve always felt it is what makes Northgate stand out among other schools and is something I hope to address in the future.