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Long Island valedictorians sound off on Common Core

From left, Long Island high school valedictorians Rebecca

From left, Long Island high school valedictorians Rebecca Cheng, Vincent Coghill and Emily Linko were among the top students who shared their views on Common Core.

Educators, parents and politicians are constantly speaking out about the Common Core learning standards that most states in the country including New York have adopted. But what do some of Long Island's smartest students think about the controversial initiative?

Newsday asked valedictorians from the Class of 2015 to weigh in on the debate. Some admitted that they weren't informed enough about Common Core or didn't have any exposure to the new curriculum to have an opinion on the matter. But for those who did, they had plenty to say.

"Simply, I think the Common Core is absolutely terrible," Harshil Garg, Bethpage High School's 2015 valedictorian, said. "It suppresses freedom and boxes children into a systematic way of thinking."

Garg said he was concerned that the standards actually stifle innovation and discourage exploration.

"Kids are special, because they color outside the lines, and think outside the box, no matter how preposterous their ideas may seem," he said. "To restrain that inventiveness at such an early age destroys the spark to explore."

Some of the valedictorians drew from their experiences with younger students who have been more directly impacted by the implementation of Common Core.

"I tutor a few elementary and middle school aged students and the transition has been pretty hard on them," said Emily Linko, valedictorian of Hauppauge High School's Class of 2015. "All the effects I've seen have been negative."

Another tutor, Rebecca Cheng, Smithtown High School West's valedictorian, said she does see the purpose and potential benefit of Common Core, but is still against it.

"It closes your mind and forces kids to think in one particular way," said Cheng, who tutors third and fifth graders. "There isn't just one way to solve a problem, and it almost hinders the ability to solve a problem on your own."

Kacie Candela, a private math tutor and valedictorian of H. Frank Carey High School, said the curriculum itself is good, but the roll out was botched.

"You can't build a building without a solid foundation, and students just don't have the knowledge base to do well," Candela said. "Schools should have adopted it gradually."

Watching his 6-year-old brother embrace the new standards, Vincent Coghill, Massapequa High School's valedictorian, said he, too, can see a positive side to the Common Core's approach to learning.

"I've seen him solve math problems in so many different ways, but it seems as though he has a better understanding of what is being taught," he said.

Still, Coghill said he opposes the initiative, because he feels "uncomfortable" with federal government intervention into education, which he said should remain a "state priority."

Hailey Wagner, Bellport High School's valedictorian, agreed with Coghill, saying the federal government has no business dealing with a state matter like education.

And Alex Boss, valedictorian of Rockville Centre's South Side High School, said politicians should stay out of the process altogether, stating: "Education should be left to teachers and parents, not legislators."

Central Islip High School valedictorian Radiyyah Hussein finds herself somewhere in the middle of the debate.

"I like the fact that it is challenging and forces children in school to do more critical thinking," she said. " ... However, I don't like how much agonizing work has to go into solving simple problems or questions."

She added, "If we want a more progressive world, we need ways for kids to figure things out in an easier and quicker fashion."  

Tyler Fenton, valedictorian of Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, had smiliar thoughts, acknowledging that students learn in their owns ways and also at their own pace.

Fenton said it's "unrealistic" and "unfair" to hold everyone accountable to the same standards, and trying to causes "unnecessary stress and anxiety among kids."

And Natalie Korba, valedictorian of Walter G. O' Connell Copiague High School's graduating class, said Common Core just puts too much emphasis on exams.

"Teachers are being unfairly judged on student performance and students are suffering as they are crushed under the pressure of standardized testing," she said.

Korda added, "School should be about learning life skills and gaining knowledge, not about learning how to take a test."

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