by Kathleen Duff
"So, it's very unusual," stated Town of Grand Island Supervisor Mary Cooke. She was referring to the back and forth communication that exists between town officials and the Grand Island Board of Education and district administration. The current schedule of joint meetings with the town and school boards stands at a healthy three times per year, a precedent that was set when the Robert W. Christmann was superintendent of schools. Current superintendent, Dr. Teresa Lawrence, has continued to place a priority on the meetings.
"Teresa was very responsive," said Cooke, noting that while Lawrence has just finished her first year at the district helm, that she seems intent on keeping the relationship between town and schools strong. She noted that the relationship benefits the entire Island.
"The school is a hub," Lawrence stated, focusing on what she sees as her charge from the district and board that hired her last year, namely, to keep communication collaborative and transparent. And, good communication between entities such as the town, local businesses, and, most important, parents and students, will help achieve a personal and board of education goal. "We'll do right by children ... with clearly defendable processes."
To facilitate increased communication, Lawrence has overseen a greater use of the Parent Portal, where the home has access to middle school student grades, forms, homework and, yes, any potential problems. High school parents will use a similar tool in the 2014-15 school year. A well-updated Facebook page and personal Twitter account (for anyone to follow the days and thoughts of a superintendent who is also a mother of teenagers) complement fliers sent home in backpacks - the tried and true foundation of home-school communication.
In addition, the cumbersome district Web address, www.k12.ginet.org, will fully transition to www.grandislandschools.org at the start of the new school year, something Lawrence said is more easily recognized and remembered. A smart phone app, with the most necessary information for students, parents and Town of Grand Island residents, will be coming this year as well, downloadable for free through Google Play for Android devices and iTunes for Apple.
Lawrence also believes, "We have a responsibility to the children ..." and also beyond the walls of the school buildings. "We need to allocate time, resources and people to meet district goals ... and board goals." She is particularly proud of this year's Prevention Needs Assessment survey taken by students in grades 6 through 12. The brainchild of the One Island, One Team, One Dream drug initiative, the survey gives information useful to the schools, town and law enforcement on possible risky behaviors going on in the student population. Pastor Dan Stinson heads this collaborative effort. Lawrence, Cooke, parents, administrators and other community members meet every second Tuesday of the month at Veronica E. Connor Middle School to share information and plan programs and strategies to achieve that drug-free goal.
"We have set a focus, and we go for it," Lawrence elaborates, saying that the data from the survey will help the strategy.
Communication facilitates the safety of students in other areas, too. Cooke praised the "Safe Routes to School" grant money in the amount of $200,000 obtained by Assistant Superintendent of Schools Karen Cuddy-Miller in 2013. The Town of Grand Island will also add crosswalks, signage and speed monitoring equipment. Construction of the expanded sidewalk system along Ransom Road and neighboring streets will dovetail with the capital project work happening now during the summer months, an extensive project that Lawrence monitors along with Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Joe Giarrizzo.
Both the superintendent of schools and the town supervisor continue to discuss with the respective boards emergency sheltering plans and what is the best use of school buildings when snow emergencies or other potential disasters threaten the health and safety of the entire town. Cooke said the elementary schools, if need be, could be evacuated to nearby churches - Huth Road School to Island Presbyterian, Kaegebein School to Bible Presbyterian and Charlotte Sidway School to St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church.
During this year's hard winter, town and school officials communicated with each other before schools were closed or delayed. "I get it," remarked Lawrence, regarding how closings impact parents. However, she indicated that decisions were made in concert and with the best possible information. Cooke said that weather, declarations of emergency and bringing in Island employees from their neighboring communities all factor in on decisions to close or delay.
Lawrence and Cooke both said they want to keep communication good among all Grand Island entities. "People tell me the schools are good, "Lawrence said. "We want to capitalize - to improve - on that ... as time goes on."