New York State Education Commissioner John King (left) listens to bilingual 4th grade teacher Kristin Pascuzzi (right) explain the need for texts in Spanish at the JFK Magnet School library on Thursday, Oct. 10.CLAIRE K. RACINE|WESTMORE NEWS
New York State Education Commissioner John King (left) listens to bilingual 4th grade teacher Kristin Pascuzzi (right) explain the need for texts in Spanish at the JFK Magnet School library on Thursday, Oct. 10.

Ever since John King became the New York State education commissioner, Principal Lou Cuglietto has been urging him to come visit his beloved JFK Magnet School. Those efforts finally came to fruition last week when King toured the elementary school and quizzed the Port Chester teachers on how they are adapting the Common Core learning standards for the district's bilingual students and English Language Learners.

After a tour of the school where King had the chance to interact with students in their classrooms, he, district personnel, the entire Board of Education and the JFK PTA copresidents gathered in the school library with about 30 teachers from kindergarten to 5th grade. King, rather than lecturing about the new testing standards aimed at ensuring students are better prepared for college and careers, instead spent the majority of his time asking questions.

"Sorry to use you as a focus group," King said, "but if you had limited resources, would you do a native language text for every unit for every module in third grade or would you create a full module that was in Spanish if you had to choose between them?"

The needs are different based on what kind of program a school is operating, JFK Assistant Principal Judy Diaz said. For a dual language program such as the one at Park Avenue School, parallel instructional modules are needed, as teachers would not want students to be rereading the same book in Spanish and English.

"If you're in a transitional program like we are, then it will look different. We wouldn't necessarily need both concurrently," Diaz said. For JFK's bilingual program, instead, authentic Spanish texts that have the same theme would serve the teachers best and completely different modules are not needed. Native texts would be nice, but there is not enough time to teach both separately, 5th grade teacher Enrique Tovar said. Furthermore, translated texts can be helpful since students can practice in English at school and then go home and read with their parents in Spanish.

Many teachers in Port Chester have already personally translated segments of their classes. The State Education Department is trying to gather up translations like that- ESL and Bilingual Director Carlos Sanchez already turned over what the district has done-so they can be vetted and offered to school districts throughout the state.

Assistance such as that is essential, said a bilingual 4th grade teacher.

"The majority of our students here are fortunate enough to speak two languages, and I think that as a bilingual educator, we still need a lot of professional development and support in the area of bilingual education and how to implement these modules in our classroom," Kristin Pascuzzi said. Furthermore, the goal should be that "ultimately in this era we're producing children that are bi-literate and bilingual, not just transitioning into English but maintaining their native language as well."

Money, please

At a time when teachers in Port Chester are dealing with a new, tougher curriculum, they lost the additional time afterschool activities provided which extended the school day for more than a thousand children at the elementary, middle and high schools.

"What we're missing is the end of the day," Board of Education member Jim Dreves told the commissioner. "The end of the day wasn't the end of the day. We went on to afterschool programs that reinforced everything that happened during the day."

Although the district scrambled to create a fee-based setup after losing $1.3 million in 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, less than 200 students signed up for the programs.

"Common Core is ultimately going to be very good for everybody, but we," Dreves emphasized, "we need extra help in the afternoons. That would be a significant help to parents and teachers and bring it all together."

"Money," he told King to laughter, clapping and sounds of agreement from those in the library, "I'm asking you for money."

State Assemblyman Steve Otis asked that King and the State Education Department keep this in mind going forward.

"When there are new funding opportunities, take a special look and priority to districts that had the 21st Century grant money and lost it and have that be a criteria in terms of other funding opportunities that come up," he said.

While there are new grants-and Assistant Superintendent Frank Fanelli already plans to apply for as many as possible-there are always a lot of districts that put out their hands.

"How would you prioritize?" King asked. "More state funding for expanded learning time, more state funding for early childhood, more state funding for the district and tax cuts, which are also on the table?"

Across the board, district personnel and school board members chose afterschool extended day funding, with head nods of agreement from almost all the teachers in the room.

"As opposed to just looking forward, you have to look at what was taken away," Otis said. "It's a harder situation where a district had something and it isn't there anymore."

PTAco-president Ingrid Perez said parents are extremely upset about the elimination of afterschool support.

"That was a really big concern for the parents because they struggle with homework," she said.

"I think everyone's answer is our afterschool program," added school board member Bob Johnson. "We'd like to get back to where we were and then we can talk about expanding."

As opposed to subsequent meetings King has had with the community regarding the Common Core, there was no yelling at JFK, and Cuglietto viewed the experience as a success for all involved.

"The dialogue was academic at times. The dialogue was political at times. The dialogue was passionate at times, and yet it was always respectful and productive," he said.