Student complains about backpack rule
By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
The Grand Island Board of Education filled a vacant assistant principal position Monday by making an interim appointment permanent.
At its monthly meeting Monday at the Professional Development Room in Grand Island High School, the board appointed Max Pikula to the position of assistant principal at Veronica Connor Middle School. Pikula filled in as interim assistant principal over the last six weeks in place of Danielle Watkins, who resigned effective Nov. 21.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Graham said Hawkins took on a position in another district.
Graham read a letter at the meeting from Connor Middle School Principal John Fitzpatrick praising Pikula. Fitzpatrick said Pikula has worked over 16 years in the Grand Island Central School District as a special education teacher at Kaegebein Elementary School.
Fitzpatrick wrote, "At Kaegebein, he established himself as a teacher-leader who consistently valued people and doing what was right. This commitment to integrity affected all of his students and staff members alike, because he treats everyone with respect and dignity. He values building positive relationships and modeling a team approach when overcoming obstacles.
"We were very fortunate to be able to work with Mr. Pikula over the last six weeks as he filled in as our interim assistant principal. He was visible in all areas of the school building and placed student needs first. It is his philosophy to empower both students and teachers, and provide them with the necessary assistance to help them achieve their goals. This dedication will serve our middle school well, especially at a time when students are beginning to establish their own value systems.
"Finally, he is willing to go above and beyond what is expected of him to maintain a team approach."
The board also appointed Nina Marranca as the new full-time nurse at Connor Middle School. According to Fitzpatrick, Marranca is a registered nurse who worked at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and has been a substitute nurse at the middle school.
"Mrs. Marranca has a wonderful and caring personality (and) is able to manage the case load at the middle school level. We look forward to having her as an integral member on our team," Fitzpatrick wrote in an email to parents.
Teachers at Sidway Elementary School briefed the Board of Education on the district's Reading Recovery program.
Sidway Principal Denise Dunbar thanked the board for its ongoing support of the program, which is in its ninth year at Sidway. Dunbar said the expectation at Sidway is that every single student who walks through the doors becomes a reader and writer.
"I myself am so glad and so proud that we have Reading Recovery to offer our students," Dunbar said, before she introduced teachers Kari Campas, Joanne Johnson, Alicia Szyprowski and Stephanie Powers.
Reading Recovery is a reading intervention program that has teachers work one-to-one with struggling and first-grade students in 30-minute daily lessons. The lessons are individualized and focus on specific needs, with Reading Recovery teachers working closely with classroom teacher and parents.
Powers presented data for 2015-16, saying 81 percent of Sidway students who completed the program met grade-level reading expectations, surpassing the national average of 73 percent. Szyprowski said the teachers receive development training in the program three times a year with access to a network of trained Reading Recovery teachers.
Johnson reported on the positive parental feedback the program has received, noting that a cornerstone of the Reading Recovery program is the partnership with parents, who are involved in nightly reading with their child.
School board president Lisa Pyc, who has first-hand knowledge, said Reading Recovery is a great program, as two of her children went through it.
"My kids are great readers now," Pyc said.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, a Grand Island High School student complained about the school's rule on backpacks.
Sophia Castillo, a senior and National Honor Society member at Grand Island High School, called herself a "non-rulebreaker," but complained she was receiving a disciplinary referral for violating the school's rule against carrying backpacks in the hallways or in class. Adhering to the rule is difficult for students like her, she explained, who take multiple Advanced Placement classes with college-level textbooks and numerous supplies. Having only four minutes of passing time prevents her from going to her locker between each class, she said.
"I need a backpack. I'm allowed to carry a purse or a messenger bag, which I've seen on a lot of the students are bigger than my backpack," Castillo said. "What bothers me the most is I haven't heard a reason, and I keep asking, why this is a rule and why I'm going to be given my first disciplinary referral for this?"
"I really would just like to be able to carry my supplies from class to class, or at least I'd like a logical reason, because I haven't heard one yet, and I don't think it's fair," Castillo said.
GIHS Principal Michael Lauria said after the meeting the administration is not changing the rules anytime soon, despite negative feedback. "Same policy as it's always been."
He said students are still allowed to carry laptop bags or drawstring bags. Students can bring backpacks to school, but they are supposed to be kept in the locker and students aren't allowed to take them from class to class.
"A lot of it has to do with school safety and advice we've gotten from law enforcement and the school resource officers in lockdown drills, so it's really a school safety issue," Lauria said.
The district conducted lock-down drills this week, saying in an email to parents they are "part of the required practice for emergencies for all NYS schools."
"Clearly, the first thing is for the students to speak with the principal," Graham said of the matter. "That would be our expectation, that students who are opposed or have conflicting concerns can speak to the principal about those concerns."
Castillo's comments were applauded by other students in attendance at the meeting. Asked if the rule was unpopular with the student body, Graham said, "Any type of change needs to be communicated. Students need to understand why that change has occurred, and I'm confident that Mr. Lauria will be able to communicate the important aspects of this rule change to the student body.
"Don't forget we have an entire code of conduct that has many expectations and rules that students follow every day," Graham said.
Trustee Rich D'Agostino thanked Castillo "for having the courage to come here and speak with us." Assistant Superintendent for Finance Robert McDow praised Castillo and told her "Keep fighting for your backpack."
•Connor Middle School student ambassador Isabel Buckingham reported the Connor Family Fun Night held Dec. 9 went well. The event included a book fair, cakes in a cakewalk fundraiser; business vendors ("So you could do some early Christmas shopping") and a main fundraiser, a Chiavetta's chicken barbecue.
"This month has been very busy for JV DECA," Buckingham said, noting a large contingent of the business club volunteered at the Grand Island Cooperative Nursery School Christmas party, while others held a recent fundraiser for the less fortunate in Buffalo.
Buckingham said she hopes to have great news next month after 10 VCMS students take part in DECA regionals hosted at Grand Island Jan. 8.
The next event at VCMS is an eighth-grade dance Jan. 27; upcoming Christmas in-school assembly Dec. 22, which Buckingham called "a school favorite."
Grand Island High School Student Council representative Madisyn Pezzino said Student Council and DECA students are participating in a canned food drive for the Neighbors Foundation. Pezzino said Student Council members went around Island neighborhoods hanging signs on the doors asking for donations, and the following week stopped by for pickup.
"This is one of the many ways Grand Island High School gives back to our community," Pezzino said, adding the Life Skills class at GIHS is also giving back by donating money and toys for Hearts for the Homeless.
Pezzino told the board the school's choral program students have just returned from Florida where they sang at Walt Disney World Resort in the Candlelight Processional.
In Other News
•Pyc noted Grand Island's Colin Bellinger was selected the Harkness Program Student of the Month for October.
•In the superintendent's report, Graham told the board the district has received its water testing results from the high school and middle school. There were 419 water samples tested at GIHS and VCMS, with 43 showing lead levels above 15 parts per million, he said.
"All of those sources have been taken out of service and each one will be remediated and tested."
The Grand Island Board of Education will next meet Monday, Jan. 9 and 23, and hold a joint meeting with the Grand Island Town Board Monday, Jan. 30.
Board of Education meetings air on Time Warner Cable Channel 22 at 8:30 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.
Board of Education Trustees