North Rockland School District Superintendent is Advancing Bold Educational Initiatives for 2019-2020

By Barry Warner

School Superintendent Ileana Eckert of the North Rockland Central School District.

“It’s been a busy summer because we have had a lot of retirements this year. We had to replace a lot of people and we have been busy hiring. We have been busy with summer camps and summer work. We are piloting new literacy initiatives and as times change being able to write and comprehend text, we are moving toward a new approach,” Superintendent Ileana Eckert told the Rockland County Times. “Two of our schools, Haverstraw (K-2) and West Haverstraw (4-6), started with the Yale Institute emotional intelligence program to regulate students’ feelings so they could learn and manage themselves in school better. Both schools have become leaders in that Yale Project and Stony Point Elementary will join this year as well. We live in a stressful society and we are seeing all the issues around mental health so anything we can do from Kindergarten up to show them we all have emotions but we have to regulate and be able to share what we are feeling with others. They are doing great work in those buildings. We used some of our Title grant money this summer to run a summer camp for some of our students with enrichment activities like kids going outside and planting crops. We worked with the Stony Point Conference Center with sustainable food sources and also with Cornell Cooperative with the farming. We also have done things like graphic design, added mindfulness into the program and drama with parents coming in to see the kids. The feedback from our own staff was so positive we increased the camp session to more students and to three weeks. Camp Adventure been a great thing we have done. Kids that are entering third grade and kids that are coming into sixth grade amounted to 325 students. We wanted to show at that level that learning can be fun. Kids can have choice of what area they want to go into, but it’s done through fun activities and discovery activities and they are learning without knowing that they are learning. Camp Adventure has been extremely successful. Kids also had a field trip to the Museum of Natural History.”

School Superintendent Ileana Eckert and Dr. Kris Felicello, Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services at the new teacher institute.

“We are introducing a lot of STEM activities to grades 4-6,” Superintendent Eckert continued. “Kids are using their hands and minds to create, to code and anticipate problems and fix them before they become problems. Last year, we put in three Stem coordinator positions and the kids want to be in the STEM rooms building things, solving and creating things to convey the curriculum. The cool things about the STEM rooms are using recyclables and taking the bottles and hand towels to build amazing things as well as teaching kids about the responsibility of the environment and hat those items used can be recycled. At the age in grades 4-6, the kids have great imaginations and the stuff they come up with. They are learning coding skills with little robots and the drones, learning engineering applications so fruitful for the students in the future. The kids come to the STEM rooms during lunch and after school to the Makerspace areas. At the 4-6 level we are taking a look at our instructional practices of creative and fun experiences. We are moving up those experiences to Fieldstone, which received a national award as a ‘School to Watch.’ The principal is working with a group of tweens on becoming responsible persons and being good people and doing right by one another. We have consequences for kids who do not do the right thing, but we take a more restorative approach. At the high school we are going through, the middle states process to be accredited again. There have been numerous administrative appointments. At the high school, we have a courtyard area where the kids grew things in boxes and are harvesting produce. We are exploring whether it can be an elective and follow a sustainability type of curriculum and put together a recycling piece of being less wasteful. We have done a lot of work about ‘character-ed’ and citizenship. At the high school, we have done a lot of work based on the Academy of Finance model through the Academy Foundation because students have to do a six-week paid internship. We have an Academy of Engineering that we have developed on our own where kids are guided to take certain courses and come up with a summer project during their junior year, whether it is to take a college course in that area or to shadow a person in that area or to research a job in that area and come back to school and report on it. Once you pick an area you would like to pursue in college, we can target you or provide you with these opportunities. There is a pathway that provides the students with a strong background in that area and get into a college program of their choice. We continue to offer 31 college-level courses at the high school. I am very happy when I hear from parents that the student was able to graduate as a sophomore because of the number of courses that they had. With the cost of college, it is a great thing for parents to save tuition and the same for students who are able to save some time. It allows them to take a double major without staying an extra year or to get out a year earlier, so we are very proud of the work that the high school team has done providing those college opportunities. We still have the NJROTC, which draws in a number of students who have military ambitions and provides leadership opportunities. This summer we had so many students who went to the Navy or FBI leadership academies for a week. It has been an active summer and we are so proud of the work they do. We are heading into our second year with our full-day kindergarten and we think our kids are more ready for first grade. The other thing that is happening this year is that we qualified as a district for the Community Lunch Program for K-6. I am very happy because that means that every student will be able to receive a free lunch or breakfast regardless of the parents’ incomes and it’s a benefit to all parents in the community. Logistically all the students are eating breakfast at the same time whereas lunch periods are spread out. So you have to have 40 percent of direct eligibility by residents receiving some types of social service. Unfortunately, from grades 7-12, we are not at that 40 percent mark. We did a pilot program at Haverstraw and West Haverstraw where the breakfast was served in the classrooms. All of the trash was taken out of the classrooms after the kids finished eating.”

“We have added 30 new teachers and had the marching band playing our fight song outside the administrative offices to welcome them,” Superintendent Eckert said. “Our new teacher institute used to be one day, but there was so much information for the new teachers, so we increased the number of days. We did a scavenger hunt around the district to get them acclimated to their schools, their surroundings and their curriculum. We also used a whole day for teachers to know the new technologies to sign on and use for attendance, the student management system, grading, parent portal and My Learning Plan. We are a Google District too, so we use the Google classroom district platform for delivering instruction and IEP Direct. Last year we started this Leadership Council and we have topics, such as homework that we run by the kids and get their input. They all talked about having 3-4 hours of homework per night. These are kids who are on sports teams, getting home 7-8 o’clock at night, going to sleep at midnight and getting up early in the morning. Two boys a couple of years ago from Farley Elementary School started a petition about homework. We put together two committees of parents, students and staffs of elementary and secondary schools and listened to their concerns and everyone had their voices heard. We said that homework should be thoughtful and the time that the students were spending on homework should be more personalized and to get the students ready for the next class lesson. The homework should be reviewed the next day. We came up with a ‘home learning policy’ for homework where holidays should be home family time and limits should be put on weekend time.”

“We are still working through our Energy Performance contract, which upgrades certain things in our buildings at no cost to our taxpayers,” Superintendent Eckert concluded. “We will be doing some solar on some of our roofs and replacing the big boiler at the high school and we just renovated the science rooms at the annex of the high school. They were the originals from 1975 and they were showing their age. The teachers will be happy to come back to seven new rooms with all new furniture and equipment going in there. That’s been our big project for the summer. Obviously, we are still working through our Smart Schools Bond and we are in Phase 2, which includes adding cameras to our buildings for added security and installing a new visitor management system.”

*Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services Dr. Kris Felicello contributed to this article.