Bernstein says school board must keep its focus on academics

Between now and Election Day, the Greenwich Post will be running profiles of the six candidates running for four spots on the Board of Education. This is an interview with Peter Bernstein, one of the two candidates endorsed by the Greenwich Republican Town Committee.

 

p1-BOE-Bernstein-10-24“Whether you have kids in the schools or you’re a taxpayer, you should be interested in how the Board of Education is spending its time and its money,” Peter Bernstein told the Post in an interview last week.

As a candidate for one of the two Republican spots up on the board this November, Mr. Bernstein says it’s his aim to get people more involved so they know what’s going on and that the board is listening to the voices of the residents.

An attorney who served as the assistant attorney general for New York state from 2004 to 2006, Mr. Bernstein’s experience isn’t just in the courtroom. He was the president of the Hamilton Avenue School PTA from 2011 to 2013 as well as a member of the district’s School Governance Council. He said this means he can ask the tough questions that need to be asked,  but also that his experience has shown him how people, even if they don’t always agree, working together can get things done, and that’s something the Board of Education needs.

“You need a good mix of people, certainly, but you also need people who can stand to be in the same room together and can cooperate,” Mr. Bernstein said. “You start with the four people from each party and a chair and a vice chair who can bridge the gap, and right now it’s a dynamic that is just not conducive to work getting done.”

Mr. Bernstein didn’t give specific reasons for why he believes that’s the case, but said there were overall issues of determining what the role of the board was and personality differences that have to be addressed. Mr. Bernstein said the most important role of the board remains hiring and supporting the superintendent while providing direction and leadership and acting as a check and balance.

“I feel like we’ve thrown [Superintendent of Schools William McKersie] into a tough role,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Certainly we’ve had our run of superintendents and we appear not to have learned much from our experience, let’s say, in the leadership and direction given to the superintendent. He’s a strong personality and it probably takes someone like that to be successful in this job. But at the same time, the board needs to be clear and concise about what its key priorities are.”

One immediate priority for the board, even before the Nov. 5 election, remains dealing with the racial balance mandates from the state that impact both Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools. The board took steps to try to address overcrowding at New Lebanon earlier this month, but still must file a response plan with the state to the schools being out of balance. The board is expected to vote tonight at a meeting at Eastern Middle School at 7 on a plan that would involve turning North Street School into an open choice school, potentially opening up magnet seats at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon.

However, parents from North Street have shown vocal opposition to this plan, and it remains unclear what the next step will be. Mr. Bernstein says the board should act now and not wait for new members to be sworn in, but he says there hasn’t been enough focus from the board leading to tonight’s meeting about school choice options.

“I don’t think the communities have had a lot of time to think about that and respond in an appreciable way,” Mr. Bernstein said. “We don’t want to just hear from one or two parents on this. We should make sure we hear from the entire community, parents and taxpayers. When we talk about the choice of where we want to send our kids to school, it’s a choice I’ve made. I took advantage of the Hamilton Avenue magnet program for pre-K, and now we’re in our neighborhood school and we’ve made choices. People need to know what’s involved in those choices. If we’re going to talk about opening up schools that have capacity, we need to know how that’s going to affect children in the school. At the end of the day, all of this has to be about academic achievement.”

Mr. Bernstein said academic achievement should be the top priority of every board member, and as a regular at board meetings, he believes that hasn’t gotten the discussion it deserves. He said he wants to see an increased focus on it beyond just hearing monitoring reports from the district and that the board should be careful in paying attention to the implementation of the digital learning program.

“It’s a great program if we can make sure it raises achievement for all and provides that personal instruction that we so need so that students can learn at their pace and their level,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Certainly there are concerns about how we measure its success, so we’re implementing it at two schools at opposite ends of the spectrum [Riverside School and Hamilton Avenue]. We should learn a lot from that and it should be used in determining how we should roll it out. We need to make sure teachers are actively engaged in this and that they will be determining how this is being used in lessons, building out plans and getting students engaged. If we don’t have the teachers’ support then this  just isn’t going to work.”

Mr. Bernstein cites the district’s recent expense to bring Smart Boards into the classroom. He said the board approved the purchase but didn’t make sure the district worked with the teachers to integrate them into the lesson plan. Mr. Bernstein said that can’t be allowed to happen again, especially with such a major capital expense.

And with so much change in academic areas, such as the recent new math program in Greenwich and the implementation of the common core curriculum, Mr. Bernstein said, these programs can’t just be put into place and then “we just hope for the best.” Instead, he said, there needs to be consistency and assurance that best practices are learned and adhered to from school to school and room to room. That means working with teachers in all the schools to make sure the lessons are being taught according to those practices.

“It’s not good if we keep trying to reinvent the wheel all the time,” Mr. Bernstein said. “We can’t throw all of this at once at the teachers. We need to take that into account, because if we can get the teachers on board with what we need to do, it makes it easier for the students to learn from it.”

Mr. Bernstein also called for much more early intervention with young students to help close the achievement gap in town. He said New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue have shown where the challenges are, especially when it comes to language, and that it should be addressed as early as possible.

“Waiting until they take the Connecticut Mastery Test is too late,” Mr. Bernstein said. “We need to do this through pre-K and kindergarten. If students come in from outside the district at a higher grade, the first thing we should be doing is looking at the areas where we need immediate improvement. We’re doing that already through some of the small group instruction, but we can deploy our resources to make sure we maximize what we have to aid those kids.”

This is not something that needs to be done for just a select number of schools, Mr. Bernstein said. He said this has to be done throughout the district.

“We are talking about all students all over town,” Mr. Bernstein said. “We need to move everybody. But in order to move everybody, we need to pay attention to the areas where we’re lagging. We should be continuously monitoring what we’re doing. We can’t just wait for CMT results and say, ‘These are our challenge areas and for this year our school improvement plan will be the following.’ That’s not good enough. It needs to be constant. It needs to be steady and it needs to be something we revisit early and often.”

To do that, Mr. Bernstein said, there has to be a clear plan, monitoring of that plan and a willingness to change what isn’t working. When it comes to evaluating what to do about the future of the district’s magnet programs, particularly at Hamilton Avenue School, Mr. Bernstein said the board needs to be open to all options. There’s been a lot of discussion about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) being brought in, but he said that shouldn’t be the automatic answer.

“The more I learn about STEM the more I wonder if it’s best suited for an elementary school and I’m not so sure,” Mr. Bernstein said. “We could do language immersion or a particular field of study immersion, but it’s got to be something based around the academics. I still haven’t heard one that rings the bell and says, ‘That’s it,’ and I don’t think anyone else in the district has either. We have to be open to all options, and I don’t think we’ve spent a whole lot of time doing that.”

 

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