BY BARRY WARNER
“It has been a busy summer,” began School Superintendent Ileana Eckert to the Rockland County Times, “Our biggest thing obviously is transitioning to full-day kindergarten for all our children. It has been a long wish of ours.”
“The extra funding came from the Governor this year and for the next three years,” she continued. “We’re busy hiring teachers, teacher assistants and retrofitting rooms. Originally we thought we were going to have to add on, but we did a serious walk-through of our three K-3 grade buildings. By retrofitting some rooms, moving some walls and converting office space back to classrooms, we just fit. We’re not going into the expense of a capital project if we don’t have to. Full-day kindergarten is on the way and furniture has been ordered. If the need for more space increases, we may have to take the Neary building back or add portable space to our existing three schools, which is the cheaper way to go. We have almost completed all of our hiring, as all of the teaching positions are covered and are now working on teacher assistant interviews. We have had about 41 retirements this year, therefore we had to replace a lot of teachers. We went out early to get strong people from a good pool of candidates.”
“Security obviously is on everybody’s mind,” Eckert went on. “It’s a very complex issue because it has to do with mental health issues. Sometimes we have children in first and second grade having serious mental health issues. Parents are trying to do the right thing to find help for their kids. Try to find a child psychologist around here, they just don’t exist, they’re few and far between. People have to go to Westchester or the city, and if they find good providers, many times they don’t take health insurance, so people have to pay cash and get little reimbursement. Even if parents are trying to do the right thing, it is prohibitive because of cost. Very few families have $200-$300 of disposable funds out-of-pocket for an hour of treatment per week. It’s an issue close to my heart because mental health is real and affects so many families. It can cause havoc in a family and we’re seeing kids with a lot of issues. If I was asked how to solve the problem, I would hire more providers internally so kids that were experiencing issues would be seen by someone without having to worry about insurance.”
“One of the things we have done is to hire an additional psychologist in the district, plus an additional school counselor. Right now our K-3 grade buildings have a social worker that they share with the 4-6 grade building, so we have a social worker between each of the sister schools,” Eckert continued. “We have one between Stony Point E.S. and Farley E.S., one between Haverstraw E.S. and West Haverstraw E.S. and one between Thiells E.S. and Willow Grove E.S. Each 4-6 grade school will have a school counselor full-time. We’ve added support staff to work more closely with our families to have a little more support in mental health.
“New York State has a new mandate as of September 1 that mental health will be a unit taught through K-12,” Eckert said. “Today we’re meeting with the Director of Physical Education to view the modules being released by the state. Not every child takes health classes, so it will be integrated through Phys Ed as all children take Phys Ed where issues in mental health will be addressed. Our best weapon is to be alert. Know who your kids are talking to on the internet and who they’re hanging out with. If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, don’t keep it to yourself—report it right away so we have a better chance of dealing with the issues. When kids are hurting there may be no way out but to shoot up a school building or commit suicide.”
“We’re taking a lot of money from the Smart Schools Bond Act, where the governor set aside 2 billion dollars statewide, and we received about 5 million dollars. During the first wave, we increased our infrastructure so all our wiring and switch capacity can take on more. In the second phase, all of our buildings will be covered by cameras, as all of our cameras are aging. The high school put in cameras 12 years ago, so we’re replacing older cameras and increasing a number of cameras in the district. In our third phase, we’re replacing our monitors at the front door with security guards who have law enforcement or military experience. We have created a man-trap or double entry foyer in each of our buildings. Visitors can come into a little foyer and then ring the bell and stay out of the elements. Protocols will be changing so visitors will be asked ‘who are you here to see’ giving staff time to check on the appointment, so each person coming into the building has a reason to be there. We continue to work with our police departments so every practice lockdown they perform gives us feedback to train our staff and kids. We also received additional funding of $253,000 from Assemblyman Zebrowski to make sure every door locks. We went to a training session that was done by FEMA and the Safety Division of New York State and they mentioned that a shooter never breached a locked door. Shooters go for easy access because they know they have five minutes before the police arrive. I spoke to the head of Buildings and Grounds to check the open spaces like the cafeteria and I want to make sure that every door has a working lock.”
“With my Assistant Superintendent Kris Felicello, we have started a Leadership Club to hear from the students about the Lockdown Drill,” Eckert said. “They felt that they were ‘sitting ducks’ and it occurred to me that with the new protocols, just don’t sit, but fight. High school students should barricade and fight if they have to if that person comes in. They should throw anything they can to distract a shooter to limit casualties. We’re blessed to have two police departments from Haverstraw and Stony Point that work well with our staff and will train our high schoolers and middle schoolers. The elementary school teachers will watch out for the younger children. We’re developing a brochure with the police departments to give out to parents in September that outlines what the types of lockdowns are and what parents can do in the event of emergency situations.”
“We ran our first STEAM Camp (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math) for two weeks during the summer at the 4-6 grade Willow Grove School. It was an enriching full-day experience for the children from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. that incorporated breakfast and lunch. The camp program which included science and nature activities plus drama was well-received,” Superintendent Eckert concluded.