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A look inside the Sullivan West Central School District

SCHOOL SCENE A Special Supplement to the Sullivan County Democrat






Creating an emotional ‘climate change’ in classrooms and hallways STORY AND PHOTOS BY KATHY DALEY

“good, fine,” regardless of how your life is really going. This year, the Ruler roll-out for adults is slow, planned and strategic, say team members.


he little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.” So said the brilliant painter Vincent Van Gogh, whose difficulty managing his own feelings is legendary. But recognizing one’s emotional reactions is the first step toward managing them in a healthy way, say teams of adults at Sullivan West Elementary School in Jeffersonville and at the High School in Lake Huntington. “The question is, how well can we manage our feelings,” said High School Principal Mark Plescia. “How can we manage the stress of everyday life. How easy is it to talk about what we’re going through?” Both schools have begun the serious process of ensuring a healthy emotional climate in the classrooms, hallways and cafeterias by enhancing “emotional intelligence” in students and staff. They are doing it by means of RULER, a Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence program that focuses on five skills of emotional intelligence: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating emotions.

PRESSURES ON KIDS This year the adults in the District are doing the learning. Next year, the students will take on RULER. But why is the program needed? “There are many stresses today for students,” said Plescia. “Anxiety, depression. They often know someone who suffers from substance abuse. Then there’s social media, with all sorts of messages that can confuse kids, and with the bullying that takes place. It’s constant. There’s no shut off.”


A new program called RULER focuses on emotional learning for adults and students and uses a Mood Meter to help recognize and understand specific feelings. Heading Sullivan West High School’s efforts are, front row, teacher Jenna Sayers and Principal Mark Plescia, back row, teacher Charlotte Schwartz and social worker Rachel Van Tuyl. Teacher Charlotte Schwartz said the idea is “to open up conversation so students can feel safe sharing them emotions – we meet them where they’re at.” Along with Plescia, the high school's RULER implementation team includes school Schwartz, social worker Rachel Van Tuyl and teachers Diane Hahn and Jenna Sayers. The RULER team at Sullivan West Elementary includes Assistant Principal Kevin Carbone with teachers Michele Brockner and Sandy Ahnstrom; school psychologist Sheri Parucki; and school counselor Amanda Mall. Even at the kindergarten through sixth grade school, “students are coming in with more trauma, more social-emotional needs,” recounted Mall. In schools everywhere, today's kids tend to expect instant gratification. And they

lack coping skills. The result is that one student with problems can affect learning for the whole class. The RULER program is one of the few “emotional intelligence” programs that empowers adults to study their own emotions and reactions as well as students. “RULER is top down,” said Parucki. “We are working on ourselves as well.” First they face the reality that most people are not versed in recognizing and then being able to talk about feelings. It's not socially appropriate to show emotions. It's uncool to cry. Parucki noted that, even for adults in our culture, when someone says “How are you?” the expected reaction is to say,

During conference days and at specific “two-hour delayed opening” days, staff learn about emotional intelligence. They meet up with such RULER tools as the “mood meter” that represents how one might be feeling: angry, scared, anxious, calm, tranquil, relaxed, happy, excited, curious, sad, disappointed, lonely. The mood meter is tool for developing greater self-awareness and awareness of others. Another tool is the schools' creation of a charter, which will be a collaborative document that helps them to establish supportive and productive learning environments. The school communities, adults and children both, describe in the charter how they want to feel at school, the behaviors that foster those feelings, and the guidelines for preventing and managing unwanted feelings and conflict. RULER offers coaches that support the District and on-line videos, lessons and family workshops. Special Education teacher Jenna Sayers says she is already connecting with her students about checking in on where they are on the mood meter. “That allows me to gauge how ready they are to learn,” she said. “And they are being able to identify their emotions a little better.” Indeed, said Mark Plescia at the high school, “the goal is to give students a stronger understanding of self so they can develop into healthier people.”

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Why do we teach? New-to-district professionals take on the topic STORY AND PHOTOS BY KATHY DALEY


e’re really excited about this great group of teachers,” said Sullivan West High School Principal Mark Plescia. “They are enthusiastic, highly intelligent, great at making relationships and working with kids.” In September, the High School welcomed six teachers new to the school. Now, three months later, they share thoughts on what propelled them into teaching and what they value about Sullivan West. Paddy McCarthy, seventh and ninth grade science and biology Why do I teach? It’s the influence on people’s lives, on society as a whole. As a Paddy McCarthy teacher, you can influence hundreds of students’ lives, having a direct impact, and that’s what I wanted. And I like it when I’m in

Dunkin Donuts and a student comes up to me to say “You’re my eighth grade science teacher!” Kevin Moller, eighth, ninth and tenth grade social studies Both my parents were high school teachers and I grew up thinking “that’s Kevin Moller enough for one family!” Then I had one of the best teachers I’d ever experienced. He was an AP English teacher. He got me excited about learning and could foster good debates that were relevant to who we were as 17- and 18-yearolds. Carissa Coppola, special education and social studies, grades seven, eight and eleven I always wanted to make an impact. I started out in nurs- Carissa Coppola ing, but I got a con-

cussion and couldn’t look at blood! I fell in love with student teaching right away. I love it when, in my classroom, a student will get something that they didn’t get yesterday. Or when a parent says “my son loves having you as a teacher.” Caitlin Logan, seventh and eighth grade English I’ve always has an interest in social justice and equity issues. I loved reading Caitlin Logan and thinking deeply about things. I had a teacher, growing up in Ellenville, who cared about what we thought and what we said. (Later) I worked in New York City in a charter school. Here, kids are friendly and open to building relationships with teachers. In seventh grade, we’re reading “A Long Walk to Water” about two lost boys in the Sudan. In eighth grade, we’re staring a unit on the Holocaust, reading “The Boy In the Striped Pajamas.”

Rachel Van Tuyl, high school and middle school social worker I love the sense of community here and the way the school supports successes. Rachel Van Tuyl Students come in with a lot baggage, and I want to be always there for them as a listener. Sullivan County in general has to offer to help out with kid’s needs and that’s really important. Sharon McKay, seventh and eighth grade English This is my first year of teaching, I went into financial management first, and then had a great stu- Sharon McKay dent teaching experience at my college in New Jersey. It’s been very exciting here. Students want to participate in the classroom. They have their own thoughts and opinions and the interaction is very positive.

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Student council offers elementary school kids ‘a seat at the table’ STORY AND PHOTO BY KATHY DALEY


ometimes you need a kid's perspective on things,” said Gracyn Halloran. Gracyn should know. A sixth grader, she serves along with 18 others on the elementary school's brand new Student Council, planning events and projects and serving as the voice of the student body. Typically, a student council shares ideas, interests and concerns with the principal and teachers. A Student Council offers children “a seat at the table and a louder voice in the things that make up their school,” said Principal Rod McLaughlin. “The experience of being a leader and serving a body of constituents helps mature and grow a young person,” McLaughlin said. “They discover what it is to be responsible not just for themselves but also for others' wellbeing.” Already, he said, Student Council members “are learning what it is like to work within a bureaucracy, how to fol-

Four of 19 students on the new Student Council along with advisor Wendy Kraack, a teacher, are Max Blumenthal, Meghan Kelly, Sammy Hellerer and Gracyn Halloran. In addition to planning events that contribute to school spirit, the Student Council serves as the voice of the student body.

low a good idea through the layers of approval, how to brainstorm and work around snags and ultimately the good feeling of having made a positive impact and difference in the lives of their classmates.” At the beginning of the school year, some 40 students from fourth through sixth grade expressed interest in serving on the council. “First, the students completed an

application to be added to the ballot,” said teacher Wendy Kraack, Student Council advisor. “Each wrote a paragraph describing why they would be good representatives for our school. They campaigned by making posters and sharing their ideas for improving the school.” “Students will serve for the school year,” said Kraack. “This is mainly student-led, so the topics they decide to

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cover are voted on by the members.” Currently, Council members are working on a powerpoint that illustrates the value of school-related personnel such as janitors, cafeteria staff, office workers and bus drivers. A celebratory lunch for these hard-working people was set for Nov. 19 at the elementary school. Another Student Council project will be the purchase and display of a 20 foot by 10 foot Sullivan West banner in the lobby of the school. The students are also lobbying for a sixth grade student lounge, that is, a classroom that would convert to a quiet place to study or to relax. “Spending time in the student lounge would be a privilege,” said Student Council member Max Blumenthal. “If you had good behavior, you would be allowed to go. It would be like a study hall, a place to do work quietly or relax in comfortable chairs like a recliner or a beanbag chair.” “Students would have to clean up after themselves in the Student Lounge, so that it always looks good,” Max added.

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At high school, savvy students help teachers with technology STORY AND PHOTOS BY KATHY DALEY

Efraim Martinez Sullivan West High School Senior | for video chat and voice calls between computers and mobile devices. Microsoft Sway is used to create presentations. “It’s really cool,” said Martinez. “It makes the school day a lot more fun, getting involved with teachers and students.” It’s no great secret that, for some teachers, their students know more about technology than they do. “This gives students a chance to be helpers, to teach,” agrees Daniel Parisi, the high school's Instructional Technology Facilitator. Parisi taught social studies at Sullivan West for 11

years before taking on the new post this year. “It looks good on college applications, and the students can go on and be trainers,” said Parisi. Bulldog Bytes teens routinely help with Schoology, a kindergarten through 12th grade learning management system that serves as an on-line extension of the teacher’s classroom. The program allows teachers to instruct, grade and communicate with students via the computer. Announcements, special dates, pictures, newsletters, discussions, lessons, videos are all part of the pack-

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t wasn’t that long ago, recalled Sullivan West High School senior Efraim Martinez, when pen and paper were the expected tools for classroom learning. “Everything had to be handwritten in eighth and ninth grade,” he said. “Being a part of that time, I like the idea of helping to implement more technology.” Martinez and nine other students are volunteering in a new high school program called Bulldog Bytes. During free periods, they meet in a renovated classroom dedicated to the project. From there, they fan out across the school, helping teachers who need assistance with technology tools or programs. “I might be fixing something in wifi or helping teachers use Skype or Sway,” said Martinez. Skype allows

‘It makes the school day a lot more fun, getting involved with teachers and students.’



age. Kids in Bulldog Bytes go on to create video tutorials for classrooms by means of a wireless digital work station in the program’s headquarters. The HoverCam Pilot 3 can project, type and create tutorial demonstrations and videos, all on a stand that can be moved around the room. (Check out the students’ video on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at their YouTube channel at AmaE.) Eighth grader Landon Volpe, a Bulldog Bytes member, is creating a presentation during his free third periods that, hopefully, will convince the superintendent of schools and Board of Education to offer e-sports as a new extracurricular activity. The organized, multi-player video game competitions often played before spectators are big in schools, with tournaments organized around the school year. For some kids, says Volpe, “video is one of the few things we actually talk about.” All the Bytes brainstorming takes place in a room that looks more like a trendy Starbucks. No traditional edu-

cational setting, the Bytes headquarters leans toward creativity, innovation and collegiality – and it was designed by students. “We didn’t want the strict rows and desks and uncomfortable seating of the regular classroom,” said tenth grader Camille Licursi. “We jumped on the chance to redesign it, to make it more modern.” To promote creativity and conversation, the room that’s centered on technology also features a calm, inviting area with circular rug, comfortable bucket chairs that face one another and flameless candles on a low table. All the work had to pass muster with the powers that be. Superintendent of Schools Stephen Walker gave the plans a thumbs up. “We want to make the learning environment for kids reflect where they do their best work,” he said. “At home, kids work in a comfortable chair or lying on the floor, and our school wants to reflect that.” As for Licursi, “I’d like to design other classrooms, “ she said. “I really like design as a hobby. Our generation is good at figuring things out.”


In a new program called Bulldog Bytes, student Efraim Martinez and the high school’s Instructional Technology Facilitator Daniel Parisi work on a video about algebra.



Tenth grader Camille Licursi helped redesign a classroom into the comfortable, collegial headquarters of the Bulldog Bytes project.

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Where student choices, interests ambitions take center stage POWER TO THE STUDENT


hen the Sullivan West Superintendent of Schools talks about “student voice” he's not necessarily referring to kids in the choir. Rather, “We want students involved in decision-making,” Stephen Walker explains. “After all, they are the consumers of what we're trying to produce.” And student voice leads to student leadership: “When kids feel a part of decision making, they come to school, perform better and achieve more,” the superintendent said. “Leadership is an ability that can be honed. Our theme is to make sure that student interests are at the forefront of what we want to accomplish.” At the high school, eighth grader Landon Volpe is a member of Bulldog Bytes, a new student group that assists teachers with technology issues.

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On the light side of encouraging “student voice” is a colorful display in the high school's parking lot. Seniors were given the opportunity to use their parking spaces to exhibit who they are. Thirty seniors designed and painted their spots in ways that expressed their own personalities. Then there are the students who sit on the hiring committee for the District. “They were there for the interviews and for the demonstration lessons in the classroom that (the interviewees) performed,” said Walker. Students then gave their feedback to the committee. When the District wished to take another look at its academic eligibility requirements for athletes in sports, students were part of the planning process. And an impressive new program for kids and classrooms is reaping




rewards. Named Bulldog Bytes (bulldog, after the District's mascot, and bytes, after the unit of data in computer systems), the program invites technologically adept kids to use their skills to advance computer learning in the classrooms and to help out when something in the system breaks down. â&#x20AC;&#x153;They're our own geek squad,â&#x20AC;? said Walker, referring to the Best Buy computer experts that offer advice and assistance to customers. The program has captured the interest of 10 students so far, who gladly plumb their own technological prowess for the good of the school.

CREATING CLIMATE FOR LEARNING Still, it's no secret that many of today's kids come to school with emotional baggage. â&#x20AC;&#x153;When you're anxious, upset, hungry, you can't do high level thinking,â&#x20AC;? said Walker. â&#x20AC;&#x153;We see an ongoing need to help with the pressures they have to deal with and bring to school every day.â&#x20AC;? A multi-year roll out of the nationally recognized program called RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotion) has teachers and staff working on the fundamental tools for enhancing

their own and student ability to regulate emotions and empathize with others. Throughout the District, three school social workers assist with mental health concerns and behavioral worries, consulting with teachers, parents, and administrators. Even critters join in the work of taming the stresses of life. Therapy dogs, known to help kids learn to read and even boost test scores and attendance, wag their tails and calm down classrooms each week. â&#x20AC;&#x153;The high school students came to us to ask for a therapy dog like the elementary school has,â&#x20AC;? explained Walker. So floppy-eared Keeper helps older students handle the pressures of the teenage years, while Spark works the younger grades. Finally, said Walker, the District has plans to boost its roster of electives, teams and clubs with, perhaps, an agriculture elective, or robotics, or coding games and game development. â&#x20AC;&#x153;There are kids who might not want to sing in the choir or play on an athletic team,â&#x20AC;? stressed Walker, â&#x20AC;&#x153;and that's who weâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;re trying to reach. We want to celebrate every kid for what they're interested in.â&#x20AC;?



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Listen to new teachers and principal on serving at school STORY AND PHOTO BY KATHY DALEY


good teacher inspires, builds confidence and opens minds. Sullivan West Elementary School welcomed four new teachers this year, and they appear to be doing just that. Here’s the teachers’ takes on their first few months, and their principal's impression of them. Marisa Robertson, general music teacher and chorus director I’m from Orange County and taught in Rockland County. I’ve always loved music and loved working with kids. I just loved student teaching and thought to myself, ‘This is really it!’ Teaching here is great. It’s like a big family. I get nothing but support and encouragement from the administration, faculty and Staff, and the kids are great.

At the Elementary School in Jeffersonville, Marisa Robertson, Miranda Yoli, Linnea Schumacher, above, and Jessie LaCascia, not pictured, are teachers new to the District as of this past September.

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Sullivan West Elementary. She has the voice of an angel and is able to grab and focus the attention of any group she is with, whether preschoolers or middle-schoolers. Miranda Yoli, fifth grade English Language Arts and social studies: I graduated from Liberty High School in 2014, and I’ve always worked with kids. At first, I worked in child psychology, subbing and tutoring. But I started feeling the need to be in a school. I feel I’m made for this. From Principal Rod McLaughlin: Ms. Yoli is an energetic, creative and hardworking young woman who commands her fifth grade classroom

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by preparing engaging and rigorous lessons each day. Miranda’s students love and respect her, which is wonderful to see in a first-year teacher. Linnea Schumacher, physical education teacher: I graduated from Jeff-Youngsville School in 2001, and taught in Arlington Central School District in Dutchess County and in Florida in math. I always loved sports and physical education. I feel I can particularly help kids who don’t feel confident and who might be nervous or embarrassed. I love working with the child who is waiting to be discovered. From Principal Rod McLaughlin: Ms. Schumacher brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to her position with our Physical Education department. Her strong but caring personality combined with her background in physical training makes her a true asset and blessing to our program. Jessie LaCascia (not pictured), special education; from Principal Rod McLaughlin: Ms. LaCascia brings a warm, nurturing heart for students and a well-developed skill set to her position as a special education teacher in our primary grades. Honing her skills as a teacher on the east end of Long Island, she fits in perfectly with her experienced colleagues here. She has gained the respect of our faculty and is showing herself to be a master teacher in her own right.

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From California to East Coast, Sullivan West kids race to learn STORY AND PHOTO BY KATHY DALEY


tudents at Sullivan West Elementary are racing across the country to see which grade – kindergarten through sixth grade – travels the farthest across the United States. Of course, they’re not touring by plane, train or automobile. Instead, the wind at their feet are the number of individual lessons they pass in math and English Language Arts. “It’s a motivational tool to increase their learning,” said Sue Mullally. She and colleague Dawn Sedlack are academic intervention support teachers, helping students in math. The duo came up with mounting a map in the hallway to boost student excitement over learning new things. The big, bright poster of the sprawling U.S., right outside the classroom of Mullally and Sedlack, has grade levels competing, with each lesson passed allowing their class’s marker to move two miles to the east. With the classes starting off in California, some of them are now in Arkansas or honing in on

Students Alex Jimenez, Gianni Huggler, Barbara Woss and Mya McCosco are just a few of the fascinated students who 'make their way' across the nation by ace-ing their math and English lessons. Each lesson passed moves their class's marker 2 miles closer to the East Coast of the U.S.

Indiana. Key to the whole campaign is a program called i-Ready, which has been in operation at the school for seven years. An online diagnostic and learning tool for both gifted students who want to learn more and students struggling in either math or ELA, the i-Ready pro-

gram personalizes learning to meet a student where she or he is at. A diagnostic test determines the level of each student, “and then it generates specific lessons for students to help build skills,” said Sedlack. Children’s progress is monitored throughout the school year with les-

sons continually boosting learning based upon their gains. The interactive program includes colorful comic book characters and games that make learning fun and keep students engaged as they learn. Lessons might include work on long division, for example, or on phonics, that is, the sounds that groups of letters make when spoken. Or an older student might learn about the legendary King Arthur. Now, when a student scores a passing grade on a particular lesson, that success is logged along with others in the class. The teacher adds up the successes and the marker moves across the map. A visual representation for how each class scores has the school abuzz. “Every morning there are kids at the map, looking to see how their class is doing,” said Mullally. A prize yet to be determined will cap the project. One possibility might be a hot cocoa feast in the school’s outdoor learning area – a fitting end for the tired, happy travelers.


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Sullivan West Central School District School Scene 2019  

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Sullivan West Central School District. Read about all they have going on...

Sullivan West Central School District School Scene 2019  

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Sullivan West Central School District. Read about all they have going on...