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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 4, 2009

Cell phones and iPods not an entitlement
School to rein in use of electronic devices

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Cell phones and iPods are as ubiquitous in schools today as slates and chalk were in a much earlier era.

School policies are often playing catch-up with the ever-evolving development of electronic devices as text-messaging has replaced note-passing in class.

At its June 9 meeting, the Guilderland School Board will discuss a proposal for a policy regulating student use of electronic devices. It says “age-appropriate procedures” have been developed for each school building. Exceptions are made for emergencies.

At the high school level, the proposal says, the intent of the policy is two-fold. First, it says, the intent is “to change the perspective of students from one of cell phones and iPods being something to which they are entitled to something that they may be allowed to use at appropriate times and in appropriate situations.”

Secondly, it says, teachers should be reassured that “they do, indeed, have the right to confiscate anything that they deem as being disruptive or distracting to the education process...”

Unlike at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, which has passed a policy because it just got cell service (see related story), the Guilderland High School cabinet first implemented its policy in September of 2007.

Electronic devices at Guilderland High School are not to be used during class unless deemed appropriate for instruction and authorized by staff but they may be used before and after school, during time between classes, and during lunch periods.

Further, students may not use video or still photographic devices unless authorized. Such devices are seen as disruptive and a risk to academic integrity and personal privacy, the proposal says.

On first violation, a device may be confiscated and returned to the student at the end of the day. Subsequent offenses may result in disciplinary action or the device being returned only to a parent or guardian.

At Farnsworth Middle School, which serves sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, devices including radios, headsets, beepers, CD players, MP3 players, personal digital assistants, and digital cameras are seen as “disruptions to the learning process” and are prohibited during the school day. They are to be put in book bags before entering school and locked in lockers during the school day. Any devices found outside a book bag are confiscated.

Cell-phone use or display is also prohibited during the instructional day. Cell phones must be turned off and secured.

Policies at the elementary level are determined by each of the five schools.

“It is a building-specific policy,” said board President Richard Weisz, “Not one size fits all.”

Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt asked if there would be an attempt to bring the policies at the elementary schools together.

Superintendent John McGuire said there was “a bit of a pull between uniformity of practice and shared decision-making at the cabinets,” which are made up of administrators and staff at each school.

Other business

In other business at its May meetings, the school board:

— Heard three fervent pleas at the May 12 meeting for changes in the $85 million budget, but did not discuss or make any changes. The comments were made the night of the state-required budget hearing, which comes after the board has already debated and adopted its budget proposal.

Bob Haines called eliminating the school nurse at Saint Madeleine Sophie “a great injustice to my fellow Guilderland taxpayers.” He pointed out that the families who send their children to parochial schools bear the burden of paying for their education, thereby saving Guilderland taxpayers substantial sums.

He asked to have the nurse post reinstated and concluded, “You will forever live with the consequences of doing nothing.”

Anne-Marie Doyle, the mother of four Guilderland students, said she was “extremely distressed” over cuts in special education. Her seventh-grader with Asperger’s syndrome — a disorder in which people have severe difficulties understanding how to interact socially — is “exceptionally bright,” she said. The staff at Guilderland Elementary School “bent over backwards” for him and students like him, she said, foiling predictions that he may never speak. He is now a skilled reader as well.

The transition to middle school, she said, was helped by a program that fosters a “unique environment” for bright kids who don’t relate well to their peers, allowing them a quiet place to de-stress.

“It is nothing short of a tragedy to take a program that is doing so much good and cut it,” she said. “This is not a population that deserves or can afford” such a cut.

A father of a student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) said he agreed with Doyle; his son, too, had benefited from the program. If you cut half the program, the other half will be burdened, he told the board;

— Heard official results at the May 26 meeting on the May 19 election when voters passed the $85 million budget for next year and, in a five-way race for three school board seats, gave the most votes to Julia Cuneo, a native making her first run for the board, while returning incumbents Denise Eisele and Richard Weisz to their seats.

“It’s so heartening to everyone...when the community supports our work,” said Superintendent McGuire. He also said, “Congratulations and/or condolences to you, Julie Cuneo.”

Cuneo sat at the board’s table at the May 26 meeting but won’t be a voting member until the reorganizational meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on July 6.

The board has had just eight members since Hy Dubowsky died in March.

At the May 12 meeting, the board had discussed swearing in the highest non-incumbent vote-getter right away, a practice it has followed in the past, but decided against it after Eisele raised concerns that candidate Elijah Sharma, a Guilderland High School senior, wouldn’t keep confidences raised in executive session;

— Appointed Beverly Cotton as the probationary math and science instructional administrator at Farnsworth Middle School, effective July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2012 at an annual salary of $79,000.

She replaces Demian Singleton, who became the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction. Singleton called the search for Cotton “exhaustive.”

“I’m very excited to be here,” said Cotton;

—  Approved an agreement with the United States Department of the Army for groundwater testing and monitoring under the Formerly Used Defense Site program.

An old Army depot, now largely occupied by the Northeastern Industrial Park, was located next to the current high school and bus facility sites. Refuse from the depot was found on district property during the construction of the new bus facility. Cleanup was completed in 2003. Since then, said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, the government has been monitoring the groundwater. He stressed that the district does not use the groundwater on the high school grounds for drinking; it gets its water through the town’s municipal system;

— Heard from Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Lin Severance about changes from the state on tenured positions. Guilderland has allowed employees to take a leave of absence to try new things, for example, when a young teacher wants to try an administrative opportunity, she said.

Recently, the state has allowed districts to give teachers who become information officers or who work in staff development to maintain seniority in their prior teaching assignment. So, if their positions were abolished, they would go back to the classroom, bumping the classroom teachers, she said.

This was relevant to two staff members who had requested leaves of absence — Nancy Brumer, an Altamont Elementary teacher, requesting an extension of her professional leave through June 30, 2010 to continue as staff developer for the district, and MaryHelen Collen, a special-education teacher at Farnsworth Middle School, requesting an extension of her professional leave for 2009-10 because she is on assignment as data coordinator;

— Honored 19 employees who are retiring this year. Both the school board president and the superintendent called the event “bittersweet.”

Superintendent McGuire called the varied workers “part of our extended family” and said children’s lives were better because of their contributions.

Severance said the 19 workers had dedicated a combined 459 years to education, 407 of them at Guilderland.

“Thank you very much for you many years of service,” she said;

— Heard from school board member Gloria Towle-Hilt that students and staff at the middle school are working diligently to raise funds to help Kier Aspin’s mother. Aspin is a seventh-grade social studies teacher at the school. Her mother had an accident while visiting Egypt, Towle-Hilt said, and is in a coma. Money is needed to bring her home. An account has been set up at the Citizens’ Bank in Delmar, she said;

— Enthusiastically approved a new club named Science Days in which high school students will serve as mentors to elementary school students to get them interested in science. The Guilderland club is a local chapter of a national organization;

— Heard that the four houses at Farnsworth Middle School competed to see which could recycle the most by Earth Day. The school collected 2,200 batteries, 58 cell phones, and 80 pieces of clothing; Hiawatha House was the winner;

— Learned that Guilderland High School finished ninth in the state in Math League out of 206 schools. Participating students were Marc Apicella, Greg Barber, Franki Cerio, Jessica Chu, Yiyi Chu, Joseph Fremante, Julia Fremante, Chen Gong, Jadvinder Khalsa, Brian Kowalski, Michael Lamparski, Brandon Leggiero, Lily Li, Cassie Lin, Sharon Lin, Alex Metzger, Sophie Minas, Zagreb Mukerjee, Erich Reimer, Kyungduk Rho, Noah Rubin, Elizabeth Simon, Matthew Simon, Ved Tanaude, and Yipu Wang;

— Heard that Noreen Benton, high school English teacher, received the 2009 Excellence in Part-Time Teaching Award from the University at Albany School of Education;

— Heard congratulations for Yipu Wang who won the third round of the American Mathematics Competition. Two test sessions of four-and-a-half hours each were based on three questions.

“I’ve taken that long on lots of math questions,” quipped McGuire;

— Heard from McGuire that Amy Zurlo, the district’s public information officer, won a top award from the National Association of School Communication Specialists for the work she did organizing the community forum on the budget in January;

— Heard from McGuire that the Guilderland girls’ varsity lacrosse team was ranked as high as first in the state and fifth in the nation. “That’s pretty thin air when you get up that high,” he said;

— Heard from Sanders that Joy Pierle is retiring after 40 years of “excellent work” for the district, maintaining accounts.

As a Guilderland graduate, he said, Pierle has spent 53 years with the district. She graduated on June 22 and started working for the district eight days later.

“Are we going to be able to survive without her?” asked Weisz;

— Heard from Eisele that the high school yearbook is “gorgeous.” She particularly praised the inclusion of a write-up on Hy Dubowsky. “I was so pleased and actually very touched,” said Eisele;

— Learned that Robert Whiteman, a teacher of gifted and talented students at Westmere Elementary School, won the Children’s Literature Connection Micki Nevett Sparkler Award, named in honor of the late Westmere Elementary librarian;

— Heard congratulations for all of the high school’s spring sports teams for qualifying for the Scholar-Athlete Award — boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, softball, baseball, boys’ and girls’ track and field, and boys’ tennis.

To qualify, each team has to maintain a 90 percent team average or above;

— Heard congratulations for Debbie Escobar, Farnsworth Middle School enrichment teacher, who received the New York State Society of Professional Engineers Contribution to Education Award for her coaching of students in the Mathcounts and Future City programs; and

— Heard congratulations for Justina Liu, who won a $500 grant from the GE Volunteers’ annual seventh-grade essay contest on making a difference in the community. She will use the money to fund art activities at the Center for Disability Services.

Kate Corcoran and Alex Sokaris were also school nominees.

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