Tuesday, December 12, 2017

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The Survivor Tree That Tells Stories’ Offers Lesson on 9/11

The regular monthly meeting of the Secaucus Board of Education was held Thursday evening, September 21, at Huber Street School. The meeting was the first one held since school began on September 7. One board trustee was absent, namely Joseph Lewis. A cadre of teachers, principals, and administrators filled the multipurpose room of the elementary school. In addition, parents, other residents, and several school board candidates were in the audience. Interim Superintendent of Schools Kenneth Knops introduced Pre-K teacher Erica Spinelli to the district. The teacher was hired at an earlier meeting by the board, but she was unable to attend that meeting. Another new hire of the board was present Thursday evening. Raymond Dorso was hired as interim special services director, a position held by the newly-retired Susan Smahl. Dorso remarked that he was eager to assume his duties and that he anticipated forging a strong bond with not only students, but with their parents as well. Pre-K teacher Spinelli poign-antly stated that she “cried all the way home [fifty minutes]” following her hiring. Both she and Dorso thanked the school board for the opportunity to work in the Secaucus district.

Director of Curriculum, Dr. Daniela Riser, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the PARCC testing results for the last school year. She compared results from 2015 and 2016 with the 2017 results. In some instances, results had noticeably improved, and in others, remained stable. A large improvement was in the number of students who did not opt out of taking the PARCC tests. In 2015, 21 Clarendon students opted out; in 2016, 19 opted out, and in 2017, only 5 chose not to participate. Forty Huber Street School pupils opted out in 2015; in 2016, there were 18, and in 2016, only five. In Secaucus Middle School in 2015, 51 students refused to take the test; in 2016, the number came down drastically with only 7 opting out, and in 2016, only four students chose not to participate. In 2015, a whopping 286 Secaucus High School students opted out of PARCC testing; in 2016, the number came down to 31, and in 2016, only three students opted out. Board Vice President Ruby Pantoliano praised Dr. Riser on her presentation. “It was easy to understand,” she told the educator.

Principal Dr. Bob Berckes advised the board that Secaucus High School was ranked 71 out of 511 districts in New Jersey by “U.S. News & World Report.” Berckes presented a plaque commemorating the achievement to Superintendent Knops. Both elementary school principals—Steve Viggiani at Clarendon and Linda Wilhelm at Huber Street—reported that separate back-to-school nights were held for the parents of kindergartners, and that each school held similar nights for the parents of first through fifth grade students. Dr. Berckes noted that the high school’s back-to-school night had the largest turnout ever. Parent Cory Robinson, who has three sons in three different schools—Clarendon, Middle School, High School—praised the respective principals for the wonderful back-to-school nights that he and his wife Colette attended. Ken Knops noted there were eight back-to-school nights held in the district.

School board president Jack McStowe offered that the good rating the high school received from “U.S. News & World Report” was a direct result of the excellent education Secaucus students receiving starting in kindergarten and continuing through twelfth grade.

Middle School Principal Rob Valente reported that his school’s “Week of Respect” would commence on October 2 with a different theme for each day of the week. The principal distributed a handout to the audience that explained “The Survivor Tree That Tells Stories” workshop designed by teachers Doug DePice, Melissa Dargan Heintjes, and Amanda Jones Wargocki that was featured at Rutgers University on May 10. The workshop, subtitled An Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning About 9/11, was presented by the Secaucus teachers at the New Jersey Council for Social Studies for Elementary School Social Studies Teachers in May. The theme was, “Teaching Time, Place and Citizenship.” The Middle School teachers focused on the Callery pear tree that survived the 9/11 attack in 2001, and on a new and creative way to teach students who were not even born in 2001 the history and significance of the day sixteen years ago that changed our country and world. Art teacher Doug DePice said that he and his colleagues “put their heart and soul into it” in order to educate a generation of young people who are not connected to the events that transpired in 2001. He noted that the Latin word for education is educere which is defined as “to draw out,” and that’s what he and Heintjes and Wargocki aspired to accomplish. “This is a new millennium,” DePice offered. “We need to develop critical and creative thinkers.” Melissa Heintjes, also an art teacher, commented that Secaucus is a wonderful, small town. She noted a Callery tree was purchased and planted by the town on school grounds, and thanked the mayor, town council, and DPW for their efforts with the tree. An American flag that flew atop Freedom Tower was donated by the Port Authority of NY & NJ to the school. Amanda Wargocki’s husband, Mark, a PA police officer, and another PA office, delivered the flag to the school. The flag was displayed in a commemorative wooden flag holder at the meeting. DePice, Heintjes, and Wargocki received certificates of achievement from the school board. (See related article and photo on Page 11.)

Cory Robinson, who planned on speaking about the ice hockey program he campaigned for at the last two meetings (see related article on Page 8), first addressed the board and audience about the back-to-school nights (see remarks above) and the Middle School’s 9/11 curriculum. He remarked that after reading the 9/11 SMS handout and listening to Principal Valente and the trio of teachers involved in the innovative 9/11 lesson, he felt compelled to tell an anecdote about a school district in Texas. Cory explained he had a friend, a colleague who taught social studies in Fair Lawn and Morris Knolls, who had retired to Texas. The man, a Vietnam War veteran, asked Cory if the Secaucus schools taught about 9/11 and commemorated the day because the district in Texas he was associated with apparently totally ignored the historic day. Cory referred to the “The Survivor Tree That Tells Stories” curriculum as a “critical piece of education.” “Great job” he told the teaching trio.

A number of board trustees praised the 9/11 curriculum and the teachers that created it. Sharon Dellafave called it “a dynamic lesson,” while Joan Cali was effusive with her praise, calling it “an amazing, moving, wonderful story.” Lou Giele remarked that the lesson was “unique,” and “the best I’ve seen,” while Kathy Huber O’Connell noted “it’s [9/11] so raw for us [in the metropolitan area].” She added, “We have to remind the children who weren’t there, who weren’t born then.”

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