Rebuilding Trust in New York

Rebuilding Trust in New York

Following a financial scandal a decade ago, this district bounced back stronger than ever.

Just 20 miles from Manhattan sits the community of Roslyn Heights, N.Y., where its 3,300 students are among the best and brightest, consistently scoring above county, state, and national averages on standardized tests and College Board exams. In the last few years, the Roslyn (N.Y.) Public Schools implemented the latest technology and exposed students to world culture. 

Roslyn’s new programs come less than a decade after the district was rocked by a financial scandal. In 2004, former superintendent Frank Tassone, former assistant superintendent Pamela Gluckin, and four others were charged with embezzling more than $11 million from the district between 1996 and 2004. Those involved were later convicted and served jail time. The now well-respected district would not have been possible without a new army of dedicated parents and communitymembers who led the district from chaos to top achievement. 

Starting with a New Board

Before the scandal broke, Meryl Waxman Ben-Levy, who in 2004 was a parent of two children in the district, recalled seeing and hearing “things that just didn’t look right” throughout the district, such as the poor state of some school buildings: a leaky roof over the high school cafeteria, and garbage and broken glass bottles strewn on the athletic fields. Prior to being charged, she says, Tassone skipped budget meetings and couldn’t answer questions about where the money was going.

The confusion following the scandal led Ben-Levy to step forward into the fray. “When you’re raising a family, you want the best education for your kids,” she says. Ben-Levy was elected to Roslyn’s board of education in the spring of 2005, and now serves as its president.

Change therefore started with the new board of education, and people who would never have thought of running before. “We started putting everything back together little by little,” Ben-Levy says.

“Everything was in need of everything.” The new board reworked the K12 curriculum, which Ben-Levy says had not been updated in several years. “It was not to say that teaching and learning was not going on, but there was no process, no systemic review, and no real understanding from a global perspective about what we were doing,” she says.

Strengthening Communication

To aid in putting the pieces together again, Dan Brenner, formerly a school principal in Yorktown, N.Y., was hired as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in 2005. “We spent a lot of time repairing the reputation of the district and gaining the level of trust that now exists for the schools, by getting to know people in the community and indicating that we would do anything in our power to make things right,” says Brenner, who is now superintendent.

Communication was key to earning that trust. There were long board meetings open to the community, vetting every new project and every item in the budget publicly.

Just updating the district’s web page provided better communication. While also saving the district $70,000 by eliminating paper and mailing costs, the web page’s parent portal also helped strengthen communication with parents. Brenner says all letters, notices, and district information are posted online, and student information such as class schedules are updated in the parent portal. 

Since 2004, the Roslyn district has also flourished with new programs and renovations. The physical issues that Ben-Levy saw in 2004 have since been repaired, replaced, and eliminated. The athletic fields have a new, clean synthetic turf field, and the high school cafeteria has become a modern “user-friendly” space with Wi-Fi and additional seating. And regular maintenance in all school buildings takes precedence as doors, windows, roofs, and floors are tended to.

The iPad Leap

Roslyn also implemented wireless in all district schools and offce buildings. And in late 2010, the year the iPad was released to the market, the district was one of the first in the nation to have a 1:1 iPad program in several high school classes. After an article about the program appeared in The New York Times in January 2011, Brenner received calls from school leaders from all over the world asking how they did it. “We were one of the first to pilot an iPad program, back when everyone thought the iPad was cool, but didn’t know exactly what to do with it, and Apple had not figured out that there was a huge market in education,” he says. 

The district had several goals in using iPads, including enhancing studentteacher communication, promoting learning inside and outside the classroom, reducing textbook costs, and going paperless initially in the high school, Brenner says. The district saved more than $7,000 the first year, and $11,000 each additional year. Professional development was also important, as teacher training was done in-house, with weekly meetings a yearbefore every ninth grader received an iPad. Now the district has a fully-trained staff and gives iPads to incoming freshmen.

Roslyn High School classes use the app iAnnotate, which allows students to take notes and highlight texts during class, Brenner says. The iPad also allows students to send teachers their assignments digitally, and teachers can grade and send them back the same way.

Reading Unites Students

Ben-Levy says she is most proud of the summer reading program where Roslyn’s middle school students read the same book, which is integrated and infused across the curriculum and worked into appropriate classes for the following school year. In 2011, the book “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park was chosen, based on the true story of a young  man’s journey across Africa during political conflict, and highlights the struggles of families in Sudan. Ben-Levy says the book inspired students to raise more than $15,000, with bake sales and fundraisers, to build a well for a Sudanese village in 2012, where children used to walk long distances to get clean water. 

“It’s more than just reading a book, it’s about what you get out of it,” she says. “Students donated their birthday money and allowances, and I was proud that our middle schools were able to come together to make a difference.”

International Opportunities

The district has also brought international opportunities to its high school students, as Brenner recently spearheaded a Chinese foreign exchange program that promotes intercultural learning. “The Board of Education was exploring ways to expose kids to foreign cultures and I believed China was the place to go,” Brenner says. “Because of China’s growth economically and the need for the U.S. to understand that China is an economic force to be reckoned with, it made sense for our kids to have those opportunities.”

In January, Roslyn High School hosted 25 Chinese students and their teachers, who sat in on classes and were guided around the school by Roslyn students, who in turn plan to travel to Beijing in July for the first Roslyn China Summer Experience. For 15 days, Brenner says, Roslyn students will study Mandarin, Chinese culture, and music at a Beijing high school in the morning, and spend afternoons sightseeing. This foreign exchange program also coincides with the offering of Mandarin classes to students and its adult education program.

According to Brenner and Ben-Levy, while multiple changes have been made to Roslyn Public Schools over the last decade, there is much more to be done. “The community has high expectations for its schools and if we do something well, we have a community to support us,” Brenner says. “I think they recognize we’re doing good stuff, are trying to be user-friendly, and are working really hard on communicating.”

“It’s so exciting to see where we’ve come and it shows what is possible when you have passion,” Ben-Levy says. “I’ll do anything for our children; I want them to succeed, and want to see teaching and learning at its highest level in our schools. A door closed in 2004 and a window opened with a fresh breeze, but now we’ve got new doors and windows too.” 

Roslyn (Ny.) Public Schools

      • Schools: 5
      • Students: 3,300
      • Staff and faculty: 363
      • Per child expenditure: $21,664
      • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 8.5%
      • Graduation Rate: 99%
      • Website: www.roslynschools.org

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