Port Chester School District administrators and school board members wait for Port Chester parent and school board member Bob Johnson (left) to start off the public comments section at the forum on the Common Core learning standards in the Port Chester Middle School auditorium on Monday, Oct. 28. CLAIRE K. RACINE|WESTMORE NEWS
Port Chester School District administrators and school board members wait for Port Chester parent and school board member Bob Johnson (left) to start off the public comments section at the forum on the Common Core learning standards in the Port Chester Middle School auditorium on Monday, Oct. 28.

Less than two weeks after visiting JFK Magnet School, New York State Education Commissioner John King returned to the school district, along with Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch, Regent Harry Phillips and various New York State elected officials. Hundreds crammed into the Port Chester Middle School auditorium to give the commissioner a piece of their mind regarding the Common Core learning standards on Monday, Oct. 28.

Following King's decision to suspend the four scheduled state PTA meetings about the new curriculum aimed at ensuring students are better prepared for college and careers, the commissioner organized new forums that focused more on his listening to the public rather than speaking and put Port Chester at the top of the list.

Despite the packed auditorium, the majority of those who attended the event organized by Assemblyman Steve Otis and spoke out were not from Port Chester or Rye Brook, the two areas from which students in

the school district come. Rather than location, what unified the parents, teachers and administrators who patiently waited for their two minutes to speak were the issues. Overwhelmingly, attendees said they supported the idea behind Common Core but could not say the same about its rollout and


"I know it is human nature to resist change, but I am concerned that a program with great promise that could really raise the bar to benefit all students is going to fail, not because it is a bad program, but because the implementation is flawed," said Blind Brook Board of Education President Nancy Barr.

Barr said it is never too late to take a step back, a concept Port Chester School Board member Tom Corbia also championed.

Corbia suggested the state designate model schools and offer them the resources necessary to work all the kinks out of the curriculum. A Port Chester school, he added, could definitely be one of them.

When it came to asking the commissioner to slow things down, several people requested that teachers' and administrators' evaluations, and consequently jobs, under the Annual Professional Performance Review plan (APPR) not be directly tied to how students do on the new state tests right away.

"We are not afraid of accountability as long as it is there to help us become better teachers and to help our students realize their potential, but accountability is not summed up with one test, one test that does not fit all," said 6th grade math teacher Virginia Ellis, president of the Port Chester Teachers Association. Many modules for teachers to base their lessons on have only recently been released, and it is unfair to judge students and teachers on gaps in learning on material that was not previously available. For this reason, Ellis called for a 3-year moratorium on using the tests in such a manner until everyone can get used to the new curriculum.

Furthermore, Ellis requested that the state release last year's test questions and continue to do so in the future to help teachers understand what the state means by college and career ready.

"Particularly with the language issue in our district, our students can be hindered by just a word of a phrase," she said, explaining why educators need to see the actual questions.

Too much testing, not enough funds

Testing, specifically, the amount the state and federal government requires, also came under criticism.

Blind Brook parent and former school board member Sheri Zarkower said students are overwhelmed by the amount of testing, which is breaking their spirit.

"When the final chapter is written on core curriculum - and it may be the best thing out there or pieces of it may work - the footnote cannot read: we disenfranchised a generation of our children," she cautioned, "because then we failed."

"There are too many exams, especially in the early grades," said Port Chester parent and school board member Bob Johnson, who is also a teacher in Stamford and a member of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association. "We also request that test data stay private and away from third party interests."

Data collection and the fears it could get misused by third parties was another repeat complaint.

King, towards the end of the event, explained that the data can only be used for the purpose for which the school district contracted the company to use it and that they are governed by both state and federal rules and laws.

Others attendees spoke out about the disadvantages that poorer districts, including Port Chester, face, making it harder to adapt and handle the changes required by the Common Core.

"The evidence is clear: the more affluent students outperform the poorer ones," said Robert Reis, a Port Chester parent and White Plains teacher. The Port Chester school district had to spend money on training and materials, which could have been spent reducing class size, funding librarians and providing more security, which more affluent districts do not need to worry about. "When will policy place our neediest kids before politics and profit?" he asked.

Conflict during public comments

While the majority of people stayed within the stipulated two minutes and addressed the commissioner and the dais with a modicum of respect - which is not to say there were no angry words or impassioned verbiage - only one man prompted the moderator to speak over him in an effort to regain control.

When Harrison resident Peter Zucker began talking about the "billionaire boys club" and specifically went after Chancellor Tisch's relationship with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the League of Women Voters moderator, Erin Malloy, told him that was not what the forum was for and refused to let him continue in that vein.

The only other similar moment occurred at 7 p. m., the scheduled end of the event, when the people lined up at the podium to speak, many of whom has signed up beforehand, were told they would not be allowed to do so. After cries of outrage from them and others in the audience, the moderator, at the direction of Commissioner King, agreed to let those already in line have their say.

Most people, as they filtered out of the auditorium, expressed frustration that King did not appear to have really heard what they had to say.

Despite their muttered comments, King remained upbeat about the future of the program.

"We listened carefully tonight and we will continue to made adjustments," he said, adding that the State Education Department is committed to Common Core and moving forward with it.