RYE CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT: The Costs, the Measures, and the Facts
In his two years as Rye’s School Superintendent, Dr. Frank Alvarez has had to deal with the fallout from a hazing incident that preceded his arrival, the Tax Cap, a cheating scandal in the elementary schools…
By Robin Jovanovich and Tom McDermott
In his two years as Rye’s School Superintendent, Dr. Frank Alvarez has had to deal with the fallout from a hazing incident that preceded his arrival, the Tax Cap, a cheating scandal in the elementary schools, and the rollout of the Common Core curriculum. Over lunch in his office recently, we discussed educational and fiscal challenges, progress and achievement.
If math is the international language that students will need most to succeed in the global economy, we asked what the Administration and teaching staff are doing to improve math instruction and understanding in middle and high school.
Dr. Alvarez said that based on a report, presented at the October 21 School Board meeting, that “Rye’s scores in middle and upper school are very strong.” He provided the paper with the AP results for July 2014, which show 92 percent of test takers in Calculus BC achieved a score of 4 or higher. (5 is the highest score, 3 is passing.) Ninety-seven percent of Middle School students who took the Common Core Algebra I Regents exam passed; Algebra I is considered a high school-level course, Dr. Alvarez noted. Rye ranks third among peer districts in New York State 8th grade math test results.
To ensure that scores stay high, Dr. Alvarez said, “We are examining the vocabulary our teachers use related to math. It turns out that vocabulary is incredibly important, because the Common Core tests use different vocabulary than that which was traditionally taught in schools.” He continued, “We are evaluating our math teaching units. The District’s existing curricula continue to be reviewed and updated as needed. We are evaluating whether our curricula matches the timeline of the Common Core testing schedule. We need to make sure that we’re teaching what will be tested at the designated grade level.”
Are we all too focused on scores, to the detriment of learning? “Not sure we can get away from test scores,” said Dr. Alvarez. “We don’t want to lose sight of creativity and innovation in the classroom; we’ve heard from elementary school teachers, ‘We’ve lost the dinosaurs once again!’”
Speaking of the elementary schools, Milton students have outperformed Midland and Osborn students on Common Core tests. “The Common Core rollout was too fast. We’ve asked the principals to have data discussion at each school and do an internal analysis.” The Superintendent praised Milton Principal Dr. Joanne Nardone for having deep intellectual discussions with her teachers.
With more and more high school English classes replacing classic literature with contemporary fiction, we were encouraged to learn that at least one classic work, sometimes more, is still being taught at every grade level. Rye Middle School students are reading short stories and fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” “Lord of the Flies,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” On the RHS reading list are Sophocles’ “Antigone” and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 9th grade; sophomores are studying “Macbeth” and “The Taming of the Shrew” (students in AP English are reading “Othello”); and in junior and senior year, the focus shifts to American literature, including “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Great Gatsby.”
“The classics remain an important part of our schools’ curriculum,” said Dr. Alvarez. “We are firmly committed to providing our students with a well-rounded exposure to the finest literature. Additionally, we want students to be introduced to great pieces of contemporary literature, which may be recognized as classics in the future.”
When school reopened this fall, everyone was excited about the new spacious and state-of-the-art Science Wing, which should give the faculty greater opportunity to expand the curricula. So far, they’ve introduced a Project Lead the Way engineering program. Alvarez noted that a lot of RHS students go off to top engineering colleges. He added, “We have four new teachers in the high school and we’re constantly retraining teachers.” We’ll have to wait a while to see if having a new facility greatly improves science instruction.
Rye is known for its excellent public schools and is also known as one of the most expensive places to live in the metropolitan area. Many residents and business owners were upset by the addition of a utility tax, are not in favor of going over the tax cap, and are concerned that potentially two bonds are in the near future.
As the cost of education continues to rise for taxpayers, in great part because of pension and health care benefits, which increased by 1.28% and 4.75%, respectively in the School District last year, we asked the Superintendent what additional cost cuts can be made without great sacrifice.
“Over the last few years, we’ve cut 62 full-time staff positions — 28 of them teachers and 21 teacher’s aides. Meanwhile, enrollment has increased dramatically. From the end of July to the start of school in September, 115 new students, five transferring from private school, were registered.” Dr. Alvarez noted that the District has introduced new technology to reduce the administrative workload.
“We’ve streamlined to the point where further cuts would impact what we can do,” the Superintendent remarked. “State aid is not going up anytime soon. The teacher’s and assistant principal’s contracts are up in June.”