120,000 LI students return to class in a time of change

Kindergarteners assemble in the school gym during their Kindergarteners assemble in the school gym during their first day of classes at Francis Hegarty School in Island Park. (Sept. 3, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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More than 120,000 Long Island students returned Tuesday to public schools that are grappling with new national academic standards, increased state testing requirements and stiffer teacher job evaluations.

In Carle Place, state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. defended the state's tests and teacher ratings in a morning appearance before about 100 faculty members and answered questions from an often skeptical audience.

A growing number of local districts, meanwhile, are launching the 2013-14 academic year with added college-level courses in their high schools and other expanded services. The additions are aided, in many cases, by a $112.7-million boost in state financial assistance across the region.

The Wantagh district opened schools Tuesday with its first-ever full-day kindergarten classes for about 190 youngsters. The opening leaves only eight of 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties with half-day kindergarten.

At Wantagh's Forest Lake Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Lynn Adams surveyed her classroom, where 17 students had settled down for their first 61/2-hour session. Adams had spent more than five days before Tuesday's opening advising new teachers and decorating her room in bright primary colors of red, yellow, blue and green.

"It's like a dream come true," Adams said, referring to the full-day class time.

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The 14-year classroom veteran acknowledged, however, that the state's new testing and evaluation initiatives are putting pressure on teachers and students alike.

"No one would have a problem with checking on what teachers are doing," said Adams, 46. "But this does trickle down to the kids."

Thirty-three local districts opened Tuesday, and another 23 start classes Wednesday or later this week. The remaining 68 systems open next week.

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The Francis X. Hegarty Elementary School in Island Park had special reason to celebrate. Tuesday marked the first class sessions there since last October, when the school was struck by a seawater surge from superstorm Sandy.

District residents had approved a $5 million bond issue to help put the school back in shape.

"It feels great," said Toni Egan, parent of a second-grader.

Physical education teacher Annie Neglia became misty-eyed when she talked about the impact of the storm on her students and their families. Many residents still are rebuilding homes.

"We are back," Neglia said.

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Classes also resumed in Glen Cove, where district officials have begun administrative proceedings against faculty members in connection with alleged grade-fixing. At least 18 teachers at the district's Landing and Connolly elementary schools were believed to have improperly coached students on 2012 state tests, sources familiar with the cases have told Newsday.

On Tuesday, Glen Cove's new superintendent, Maria Rianna, greeted parents and students at the Connolly school with a "good morning" and told a reporter that parents had not asked about the alleged grade-fixing.

"I think we're just moving forward," she said.In Albany, state education officials are well aware of growing resistance to their academic initiatives among many of the Island's teachers and parents. Last spring's testing was marked by boycotts from scattered groups of parents throughout the region, whose children opted out of tests.

King, the education commissioner, appearing before Carle Place educators at a two-day district conference, said the state's move to incorporate new national Common Core standards into lessons would better prepare students for colleges and careers by emphasizing "key areas of content, knowledge, as well as key skills" such as reading, writing and math.

The Common Core, which has been adopted by 45 states including New York, is generally acknowledged to be more rigorous than standards used by individual states in the past. State tests are being revised to reflect the Common Core, and student scores from those tests are being used to evaluate teachers' job performance.

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Several Carle Place teachers told King Tuesday that they embrace the Common Core itself but object to certain aspects of state tests, including their length -- up to 90 minutes at a stretch for a total of 41/2 hours over three days.

In contrast, tests in Massachusetts, the nation's highest-achieving state, take no more than 45 minutes in a single session, or a combined three hours, 45 minutes over three days.

"The thing that disappoints us all is the focus on standardized testing," said Leslie Rubinstein, the social studies chairwoman at Carle Place High School.

King said the current time allotted for testing in New York State was a reaction to past complaints that tests did not give students enough time for completion.

"There's no easy answer on the time issue," he said.

Scores on state tests given in April plunged because Albany revised questions and adjusted passing cutoff scores to align results more closely with those on federal assessments. As a result, thousands of Island parents whose children always passed such tests in the past soon will receive official notices that those same students fell short of "proficiency" level this time.

Mark Nocero, superintendent of Eastport-South Manor Schools, where 4,000 students returned to classes Tuesday, said he expects the state notices to go out "any day now."

The schools chief recently emailed parents, telling them that he, like many of his colleagues, believes the new assessments "were prematurely administered before students could be effectively instructed in the more challenging standards."

With Joie Tyrrell

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