Mahopac Schools Ready for the New Year

Mike Cazzari dribbes down the Mahopac High basketball court, which has since undergone a makeover. Credits: Deena Bell

MAHOPAC N.Y. — When the doors open to Mahopac schools for the first day of the school year on Tuesday, Sept. 6, students will discover some exciting new changes: cosmetic, academic and technological.

Students at the high school will notice that one of the most prominent physical changes is in the gymnasium where the court floor has gotten a complete makeover.

“The floor has been resurfaced and there is a new logo,” said Ron Clamser, assistant superintendent for business. “The floor was more than 15 years old and it was pretty tired. It will look brand new—classy and professional looking.”

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A section of bleachers that were awkwardly placed when the room was first constructed have been removed.

The gym floor in the middle school has also been refurbished.

Additionally, the walls and floors of the hallways in the high school and middle school have gotten facelifts: cracked tiles have been replaced; dry wall repaired and a fresh coat of paint applied.

Students will also notice some changes in the high school cafeteria. The tables have changed.

“We now have round tables in the cafeteria instead long tables like in an institution,” Clamser said. “We are moving away from schools looking like an institution. It’s more socially driven; more student-friendly.”

The whole idea is to create an atmosphere that is more conducive to learning.

“We need to allow for an environment where kids are more comfortable and maximize their experience,” said Dr. Greg Stowell, assistant superintendent for pupil personal services.

Toward that end, an outdoor dining space is also being created at the high school thanks to an $11,000 donation from the Yearbook Club

“We are creating an environment of what is expected at a collegiate level,” said School Superintendent Dr. Dennis Creedon. “When we respect them, they rise to the occasion. There has been a 79 percent decrease in student discipline and altercations over the past eight years.”

But many of the changes students will discover this year are not just of the cosmetic nature, but also academic and the philosophical approach to instruction.

“Traditionally curriculum has not been all the exciting for generations of students,” said Dr. Adam Pease, assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction and professional development. “One of the neat things that is happening now is that curriculum is much more student-centered; student friendly. We will be teaching reading and writing through topics that are engaging for kids. We are trying much harder to make the content and skills more relevant. How do you make it exciting…pick a topic that is exciting to the kids. There is a shift to the more relevant and practical.”

Pease said the new approach to teaching will be reflected in the way classrooms are configured. Gone are the days of rooms filled with well-ordered rows of desks and chairs.

“Kids don’t want to just sit and watch anymore and sit in neat rows,” he explained. “Classrooms will look less traditional.  There are not many classrooms left in the district where kids sit in rows most of the time.”

Pease said it’s not just the curriculum and what’s in it that’s changing, but how it’s delivered, which is why classroom ergonomics have been rethought.

“It’s how you deliver the curriculum—the walls, the type of furniture you are sitting in,” he said. “We are looking at more flexible module furniture.  Today, teachers change the configuration [of the desks] all the time with three or four desk arrangements in a 45 minute period and we need to keep up with that. All desks aren’t rectangular any more. There is a whole new market of educational furniture.”

The district recently purchased three new chairs with fabric that have an exercise ball built into them.

“You have to balance while you do your work,” Pease said. “Research shows that some students do better with that. We are trying to be very strategic about it and just buy a couple and see how they work. But we don’t want to be stuck in a traditional rut.”

Technology will continue to play a larger role in the learning process. It’s no longer just an entity in and of itself. It’s woven into the way teachers teach and is as important of a tool as chalk and a blackboard once were.

“All of our teachers have been issued Chrome Books (a small, lightweight laptop),” Pease said. “[It is for] building lesson plans collaboratively [for teachers] who aren’t necessarily in the same space together. They can develop lesson plans and unit plans; push the envelope to improve our effectiveness professionally. Once we get our teachers comfortable, they can get our students comfortable. The idea is to get technology integrated seamlessly in the instruction process.

“Technology used to be an event,” Pease continued. “The class would go into the computer lab on a Friday and do a project. Now technology is embedded throughout the instruction. Now the kids will pull out their Chrome Books or laptops and do a project collaboratively online on a particular subject. Students and parents will see much more of that.”

Stowell, who oversees the district’s technology, said the district has upgraded the technological capabilities at the high school, which will enable teachers and students to better use those Chrome Books and other devices.

“We will have new wireless access points at the high school with 10 gigs of bandwidth which will help with access during instructional time,” Stowell said. “We have new fiber going to the building. The wiring is done; the access points are done. We have rewired the entire high school and will have everything done by the first day.”

Much of the project was paid for by the state’s Smart School bond, though the district paid for the wiring and staff installed it.

“It will be a major shift. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes thoughtful long-term strategic planning. We had a good blueprint in how to get there,” Stowell said.

Creedon said the improved bandwidth will have a major impact right away.

“Before, if you had three classrooms on Chrome Books at the same time the system would get clogged,” the superintendent said. “Now almost everyone in the whole building can get on and get total access.”

“Went from one-lane highway to a 10-lane highway,” Stowell added.

As far as the curriculum itself, parents and students will discover some changes and new additions to the programs and course list.

“We have redesigned the reading and writing ELA programs in the elementary schools,” Pease said. “In K-5 you will see a more modern, richer, more rigorous writing program. It needed to be beefed up a little bit.

“You will see a big push for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math),” he added. “We have two new STEAM teachers at the middle school.”

Also, when it comes to industrial arts, these are not your father’s shop classes any more.

“We wanted to teach the kids an introduction to robotics, coding and electronics,” Pease said. “It’s a traditional version of what our parents may remember as shop class. That has gone. I remember building bird houses and little wood projects. Now we teach kids how to program a robot…a simple small robot car.”

Creedon said there’s a practical reason behind teaching such skills in the 21st century.

“It’s about innovation and entrepreneurship,” he said. “It’s so kids can find a problem and think of an application to solve the problem.”

There is also a litany of new classes that will be available to students this year that include:

•             History of the Hudson Valley (social studies)

•             Acting, comedy and improvisation

•             AP literature

•             Consumer math (skills needed for things like mortgages, balancing checkbooks, etc)

•             Digital studio art

•             Design and concept – two wheel vehicles

Stowell notes that the district will continue with its Falls Academy this year, housed at the former Mahopac Falls Elementary School. The project began last January and in its half-year of existence, it’s been a resounding success.

Falls Academy is a collaboration with BOCES and designed to aid students who struggle in the traditional school environment.

“It’s a therapeutic middle school were the teaching environment, known as dialectic behavior therapy, [provides] affective personal skills,” he said. “It’s a less black and white thinking. Students demonstrate grit and resiliency and by the time they graduate they will be able to manage stressors of the world.”

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