“We have a new bell schedule in our high school and middle school,” said Secaucus Superintendent of Schools Robert Presuto. As a result, school periods just got shorter, going from about 50 minutes to 42. Why?
“Our high school and middle school are physically attached,” he said. “Sometimes we need to share faculty and they didn’t have the same schedule.”
Now they do. That’s just one of many changes the students will encounter when they return to school on Wednesday, Sept. 3.
Students in grades 5 and 6 will now be taking a course called STS: Science, Technology, and Society.
“We’re trying to integrate a variety of disciplines,” said Linda Diemer, director of curriculum and instruction. “We can use that time to take a look at current events, let the kids see what is happening in the world today, at the updates in technology. We’re piloting it this year as a way to keep up with the times.”
Diemer explained that the schools are also looking to “semi-departmentalize” grades 5 and 6. “As an elementary teacher you’re expected to have strength in all areas,” she said. “But we want to provide the students in the upper grades with a person who has additional certifications in a certain area. We are going to put students with teachers who have a specific strength in either math or language arts.”
At the middle school level, students currently rotate through seven different “cycles” of six-week classes over the course of the year. New this year is a drama and acting cycle. “We want to pique their interest outside of their major subjects,” said Diemer.
Students report for morning classes only on Sept. 3 to 5, Wednesday to Friday. Then beginning Monday, Sept. 8 it’s back to the regular full-day schedule.
Last year teacher Mike Gehm began offering flip courses and the school hopes to expand upon them going forward, but it takes time to build a library of video lectures so it’s a work in progress. They already use some Khan Academy offerings for math.
Technology as a tool
“One of the things we’re going to do this year,” said Presuto, “is that all the students will get Gmail or Google accounts.”
The intention is to provide kids with a tool that benefits both them and the school. Currently the school provides data storage space to students for their work. “That uses generators, it creates heat, they break down,” said Presuto. With Google accounts, “All of our staff and student will get 30 GB of cloud storage free. I can increase their capacity 60 fold and cost nothing.”
Students will also be able to access their accounts anywhere, unlike today when it is limited to school premises. The town has established an account with the suffix “.sboe.edu” to give it “the look and feel of a Secaucus account,” said Presuto. “Under the hood it’s Google. The fit and finish is us.”
It’s just one step closer to what Presuto envisions as a day in the not-too-distant future when students will bring their own technology to school.
“A lot of districts allow kids to use phones and portable devices,” he said. “Every kid is walking around with potentially more computing power than they used to put men on the moon, and we’re not letting them use it for educational purposes. Why not encourage them to use it correctly?”
Staff and training
A total of 12 new teachers joined the school system this year, mostly as replacements for retirements. “We added an ESL (English as a second language) teacher because we had increased need for ESL at middle school-high school level,” said Diemer. “And a basic skills teacher at the elementary level to provide additional support for students with difficulty in math and language arts.” Both of those positions are new, half-time positions.
Former Learning Disability Teacher Consultant (LDTC) Steve Viggiani has taken the role of Clarendon School principal following the retirement of Pat Cocucci at the end of last year.
New teacher orientation took place last week from Monday to Thursday, with instruction provided on lesson plans, evaluations, the student information system, website creation, anti-bullying, and more.
“The staff reports back next Tuesday,” said Presuto, “which is a change for us. This district used to be closed Tuesday. But because of last year’s weather, we wanted to build an extra day in for potential weather issues.”
Kids will return for half-days on Wednesday through Friday, taking classes in the morning only. Teachers will then be provided with more professional development in the afternoons.
Teacher training will continue over the course of the year with two in-service half-days and two in-service full days when schools are closed. While the students are off those days, teachers will attend sessions.
“The state has handed down a lot of initiatives to us and we are trying to make sure we give a lot of professional development in those areas,” explained Diemer.
Also scheduled are two articulation days. “We know how important collaboration is between the teachers,” said Diemer. “Because we have two elementary schools, we want to make sure that both schools are on the same page in the sense that the curriculum is the same and we collaborate.”
To that end, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) were created as teams within all the schools to discuss any concerns they identify. On articulation days, the teams from the different schools meet to discuss those issues and potential solutions.
“I wish everyone success and I hope they had a great summer,” said Presuto. His advice for students coming back to class this week? “Be ready to hit the ground running.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.