Superintendent of Nyack Public Schools is Advancing a Bold Educational Agenda for 2019-2020

By Barry Warner

A new school year is an opportunity for a fresh start, and September sets the tone to accomplish primary goals. Superintendent of Schools, Dr. James J. Montesano, knows that the most important job of the school district is to make sure students are learning and achieving at high levels.

“I did a whole strategic plan several years ago and we gave a lot of thought to two central questions with our Board of Education and Leadership team, plus a survey of our community at large,” Dr. Montesano told the Rockland County Times. “The first question was, ‘How well were we meeting the needs of our kids in what we know is an increasingly complex world?’ Some studies suggest that 65% of the jobs don’t even exist that our kindergartners will be moving toward over time. When our kids use a smart phone, it is content driven. It’s not what kids know, but it’s what can you do with what you know? That shapes a lot of the work we are doing in the district.”

“Our district is the most diverse in all of Rockland,” he continued. “We embrace diversity, based on race and ethnicity, that comes with challenges. There’s a vast economic divide, plus social and economic circumstances, that our students come from that enter into our schools. We are looking at and studying data and we recognize that whether we look at students in advanced placement classes and honors classes, students are feeling the impact of our code of conduct and discipline policies. What students are being referred to Special Education in the district and who is graduating on time after the four years, from start to finish? We have similar data across this country that it can be very predictable based upon the circumstances of family conditions based on race, ethnicity and affluence. There’s a predictor force. Our focus has really been, ‘How do we create a learning environment or a culture in our school of safe, nurturing places where kids can come to us and truly maximize their potential’? The greater human tragedy is for a child that falls short of that goodness that every child has. So what we need to do as a school district is create that type of learning environment and ensure that our kids come out of it with those competencies that are relevant to help them navigate the complex world they are going into.”

“We created this profile of the Nyack High School graduate with seven core competencies,” Dr. Montesano continued. “They include: Content mastery, Critical thinking, Collaborate- work well with others, Communicate effectively, be Compassionate and have empathy for others and Cultural awareness that really shapes our pedagogy in the classrooms. The Learner Active Technology Infused Classroom (LATIC) creates more real-world problem-based learning. It is very student-centered. When you walk into our classrooms, you are not going to see the teacher at the front of the room. Our teachers are meeting with different groups getting them ready to solve a variety of problems. Kids are collaborating, thinking critically and doing all the things we want. What we are trying to do is instill a sense of passion for learning. We want our kids to be lifelong learners and so learning has to be a joyful enterprise. That said, we have created courses so that our kids in the high school can study aerospace engineering and music composition using computers to write their own music. They are involved with principles of engineering where they are solving problems and thinking critically. We have to be cognizant of a nurturing environment, so we are rolling out a social-emotional learning (SEL) K-12 curriculum.”

“We are also adding two full-time guidance counselors at the elementary level,” Dr. Montesano continued. “It is in response to a new state regulation to ensure that every student has access to a counselor. We see a higher incident rate of teenage clinical depression and substance abuse. It is a manifestation of overall anxiety and stress that we lay on kids. If you are not paying attention to the softer skills, such as letting the brain develop, plus concepts of self advocacy and positive relationships, then how do I deal with stress and anxiety? We use mindfulness as part of the SEL program. In addition, next year we are setting up offices in collaboration with the Mental Health Association of Westchester, so we will have full-time access to mental health office in our middle school and high school for our families. We are really concerned about the whole child, not just the academic piece, but the physical and emotional well-being of kids. The Nyack Basics Program is expanding and we want our community to be interested in each child from ‘cradle to careers.’ We believe that 80% of brain development happens during the first three years of life. Any child that can speak a language by the age of three is capable of any school task that we put before them. The Nyack Basics is intended to ensure parents are working with kids to move forward. The National Program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is designed so that kids have the opportunity to reach that maximum potential and we know, when we look at our advanced placement classes and honors classes, we see more white kids have access to those classes and AVID provides more proportionality. Next year, we are starting with grade seven and expanding to grade ten to help kids with their academic skills and organizational skills so they are ready and able to take on higher level.

“What do I need to do after receiving a bad mark to get myself back on track?” Dr. Montesano continued. “I am proud of a Dual Enrollment program at the high school that provided students with the opportunity to take courses and get college credit. Last year we had 200 students that amassed 1,400 college credits. It gives the students confidence and they can transfer the credits into a college and go in as a sophomore, so I’m excited about that. We’re trying to create a culture of student-centered learning, but we want it to be equitable. We want the kids to feel that they are capable of high levels of achievement. We are spending a lot of time on institutional racism that is going on in our buildings and understanding what implicit bias means in terms of these micro-aggressions. We make assumptions about people plus the blind spots that people have. We have had over 150 staff and board members attend a workshop that addresses these kinds of issues. So we’re trying to look at ourselves. One of the directors we added was a Director of Equity Inclusion and Innovation to develop curricula of how history is being presented. We have a district equity plan that is trying to address these and it’s all about believing that each child has that ability to reach a maximum potential. Our graduation rates have increased. We have a robust athletic program and we run 27 different sports. The district is offering an option to juniors and seniors, who are varsity sports participants with good academic records, to opt-out of phys-ed during their seasons and in exchange dedicate those periods to their academic studies.”

“Facility enhancements involve constructing security vestibules in all of our buildings. All of our school doors are locked. You will be buzzed in to a first set of doors and be met by security personnel who will ask for identification. There is bullet resistant glass on doors in front of our buildings. The second set of doors will be locked in the vestibule. There will be a security window in the lobby area where the identification will be checked to allow entry into the building. We will be converting all our libraries into ‘global learning commons.’ It provides more flexible spaces, which allow teachers to come down with their classes where there are glass garage door features that come down while individual kids can still do their research by themselves. To close the digital divide, grades 3-6 and grade 9 were given Chrome Books this year, and next year grades 7 and 10-11 will receive them. For many kids, it will be the first device they will have had in their hands. We will have a help desk for students and teachers staffed by students with expertise in technology. We completed an energy audit to determine how we can reduce our carbon footprint and energy costs. The Energy Performance Agreement with the State will involve a $4.5 million investment to Install solar panels on all of our new school roofs in addition to LED lighting. I am excited that there is an educational component, where kids can learn about solar energy.”