WESTFIELD, NJ - The Westfield Board of Education meeting on Tuesday evening was an upbeat event including the presentation of a new grade portal system, approval of capital improvement projects to take place during the summer, a special reception for the Rotary Club of Westfield's Charles Philhower Fellowship Award recipient, and several exciting announcements.
Assistant Superintendent O’Neal presented a brief overview of the introductory phase of a long-anticipated grade portal using the Genesis Student Software. The committee that worked on the proposal for this program was divided into sub-committees based on grade levels since it was determined that different grade levels will have different needs and usage of the system.
The system will be used by Grades K to Two to reflect a final summation of how a student has done. In Grades Three to Five, parents will be able to view graded assignments including homework, class participation, tests, etc. The portal will be used to display a snapshot of how a student is doing until the final grades are posted. For this group, teachers will be expected to update their grade books every two weeks and enter graded assignments across all core subjects. For Grades Six to 12, teachers will also be expected to update their grade books every two weeks, but they will be expected to enter a minimum of ten graded assignments per marking period.
Log-in accounts will be given directly to parents who can decide whether or not to share this information with their children. Parents will be encouraged to use this as an additional means of, rather than a substitute for, communication with teachers.
In addition to reviewing their students’ grades, parents will also be able to track attendance patterns. In the high school, for example, attendance will be tracked on a period by period basis. The portal will be piloted in the middle schools within the coming weeks, using only attendance to allow parents to familiarize themselves with the system, and to allow time for any necessary troubleshooting before next year.
Both the Board President, Ms. Walker, and Vice President, Mr. Mattessich, expressed concern about the proposed scope of the portal, suggesting that the system is incomplete as outlined. Ms. Walker expressed frustration upon hearing that this program about which so many were excited is being “rolled out at a minimum.” Mr. Mattessich and Ms. Walker both felt that teachers should be expected to enter all graded assignments and not just a minimum per marking period.
In response, Ms. O’Neal explained that they want to give teachers time to not only learn the system, but become accustomed to using it. Since some teachers still use pencil and paper for grading and are not adept at using all of the technology available to them, the committee did not want to overwhelm the teachers while they learned how to use the portal. She said, as “the eternal optimist” that she believed that teachers would be able to enter all of their grades into the portal by June of 2012. Ms. Walker noted that this would be, “Thirteen months from now!”
Superintendent Dolan said that although it would not be impossible to require teachers to enter all grades by the end of next year since “they do things that are a lot harder,” she doesn’t want the data entry to detract from great teaching. Ms. Clancy also observed that the portal will change the interaction between parents and teachers. She suggested that it was necessary for this to be a slow process for an easier transition since this will be a “change in culture not just for teachers but also for parents and for students as well.”
Other improvements are in the works for the Westfield schools. The facilities team met last Tuesday to prioritize capital improvement projects that can be completed this summer. Projects proposed included some roofing for Edison Intermediate School, a number of paving projects across different schools, more lockers for the high school, and the field at Jefferson Elementary School.
At the Jefferson field, 60 yards of dirt have been placed, with 40 more yards to be placed if needed. The drainage will be evaluated since some problems have been noticed. In addition, the parking situation at the high school will be evaluated. But this and other projects may be put off in order to work more closely with the Town. Ms. Walker described the coordinated effort between the Town and the BOE as being, “in good rhythm” and encouraged Board members to continue to pursue options for collaboration.
The steam boilers, over 45 years old at Roosevelt Intermediate and McKinley Elementary Schools, will also need to be replaced. Ms. Clancy recommended that funds be placed into a reserve account for this project to be completed next spring. The boiler at McKinley was described as being “on its last legs,” but Board members fear that the project could not be completed before October 15th which is when schools must legally supply heat. Due to the process of bidding, and approval by the state, which by themselves take several weeks, it seems that it would be almost impossible to meet the October 15thmark for either boiler replacement.
Another important issue on Tuesday’s agenda was the student activity fee. When the Board approved the fee for the first time last year, it was with the stipulation that the Superintendent would revisit the fee’s guidelines and rates and make a recommendation for the following school year. Dr. Dolan recommended that no changes be made.
Presently, there are two tiers of fees. Tier 1 is a fee of $125 and includes sports, drama, chorus and related extracurricular activities. Tier 2 includes a $60 fee and covers any other activities not covered by Tier 1 for the high school and middle schools. In the elementary schools, Tier 2 activities include participation in such activities as the all-city band and orchestra.
The District has advised parents that any family who cannot afford these fees may speak with a coach, activity advisor, or the Superintendent’s office to receive help. Mr. Slater said that he felt it was important to continue to reiterate this message for families, because it was noted during a PTSO meeting that many students wrote on a survey that they would have liked to participate in activities but could not afford it.
The parent community has been supportive of the activity fee, and several have made additional donations to support those families who found it difficult to pay these fees. The form developed for the fee includes a line for donations, and Dr. Dolan stated, that it has been, “heartening to see how many donations were made.”
The Superintendent also noted that forms have been improved to address minor problems that were noted throughout the year, and that she also hopes to have this process automated for payments potentially by the beginning of next school year.
Among the personnel issues discussed, was a new three year contract for custodial staff. The District and The Westfield Support Staff Association have been in negotiations since last June, and both sides have come to what Ms. Clancy described as a “fair and balanced outcome.” The contracts will be retroactive as of June, 2010 and will allow for a 2% salary increase, which falls within the tax levy cap. Health benefits will also change and will include an increase in contributions for premiums, co-pays and doctor fees.
During discussion of personnel items, Board Member Kurstedt suggested that the Board look at the number of counselors at Roosevelt Intermediate School. She noted that she was glad that Edison Intermediate School would be getting a new counselor but is concerned that according to the current budget projections for next year, the ratio of students to counselors will be 266 to 1 at Edison, including the new hire; and about 360 to 1 at Roosevelt.
Dr. Dolan replied that unfortunately, “There are a number of things that have been cut,” including counselors, but stressed that not all of the areas can be addressed right now. Mr. Slater noted, however, that in a survey done at the middle school level wherein teachers and students were able to express the needs and problems in the schools, bullying was found to be a recurring theme; and discussions have begun about the need to hire another counselor in order to address this problem.
Dr. Dolan also spoke about a proposal that would allow teachers to sign up for graduate courses provided through the Kean University Diversity Council on the subject of the Holocaust and Prejudice Reduction. The courses would be free to the teachers who volunteered to participate but would count towards graduate credit. It would also include a full day trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. for which teachers would receive the day off. This was approved unanimously by the Board.
A special reception was held before the general meeting was called to order to honor the Westfield Rotary Club Charles Philhower Fellowship Award recipient, Ms. Diane Eisen. Ms. Eisen received the award at the Rotary Club on May 3rd to recognize that she is an outstanding elementary level teacher. A special education teacher at Tamaques Elementary School, she has taught for 32 years and began working in the Westfield Public School system in 1992. In addition to the gifts and praise Ms. Eisen received from colleagues, parents, and several of her students, she was also honored with a special video. Eisen joked about her early days as a teacher and noted, “Because of the hard days, I really have come to appreciate my job here in Westfield.” She thanked her colleagues, Principal Cullen, her students and their families. Ms. Walker expressed that it was a pleasure to experience watching Ms. Eisen with her students “even for a few moments.”
In Fine arts news, in addition to a high school art exhibit that will take place on Wednesday and Thursday of this week to display student work, a tenth grader has been invited to appear at Carnegie Hall. The High School Chorus has also been invited to perform at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center on May 29th.
The schools have received other significant honors for their musical and theater programs. Westfield High School has received twenty awards and nominations for its theatrical productions. Among these, the 2011 production of Sweeny Todd has received nominations for best overall musical production and outstanding leading performances, among others, in the 2011 Rising Star Awards. The fall production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream also received awards from Montclair State University.
A sixth grader has received the Raoul Wallenberg Award in the amount of $500 for being a dedicated volunteer. The young lady has volunteered with children with special needs and homeless children over the last several years. She also selflessly requested that in lieu of gifts for her previous birthday, money be donated for a swimming event to benefit some of the children with whom she works.
A number of retirements were also announced. Three teachers, two lunch aides/Para professionals and the secretary to the superintendent are retiring. Together, they have provided over 190 years of service to the Westfield School District. One fifth grade teacher, Mr. Arthur Vice, who began his career in the Westfield Public Schools 42 years ago, can remember receiving a prototype of an Apple computer before they were released to the public.
Among those commemorated for their service, is Sharon Ramsey, the secretary who has served three Superintendents, including Dr. Dolan, who joked about Ms. Ramsey’s long service to the District, “The stories she could tell.” Referring to her as the “go to person of the district,” Dr. Dolan expressed that Ms. Ramsey will “be missed by the District” and “personally by me.”