East Williston public to decide if STEM should remain top priority

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Rumayla Bhalloo and Amy Rose, parents of students in East Williston School District, discuss areas they believe the district should prioritize during a public meeting about the five-year-strategic plan. (Photo by Rebecca Klar)

The East Williston community is starting to plan the course of the school district for the next five years.

On Dec. 7 members of the community came out to tell the administration what areas they’d like to see the school district improve on.

The meeting was the first step toward creating the district’s next five-year-strategic plan, which will serve as a blueprint to guide the district in creating and maintaining programs.

Some parents seem to be caught between deciding whether to continue prioritizing STEM or start focusing on other areas.

Amy Rose, a mother of twin fifth-graders at Willets Road School, said she was narrow-minded before the meeting. The Roslyn Heights mom said she was mainly thinking about technology and not other areas for improvement, such as service learning.

But STEM programs the district adopted aren’t going anywhere, said Sean Feeney, principal of The Wheatley School.

“Do we have to keep emphasizing that,” Feeney said. “Or can we start focusing on other parts that help make a well-rounded student.”

Superintendent Elaine Kanas said it’s important for the public to remember that when one area is prioritized in the plan it doesn’t mean the others are forgotten about.

“When you choose something it’s not like saying ‘we’ll never do something with the other areas,'” Kanas said. “We’ll always continue to do the work that we need to do and the good work we feel we should do.”

For example, STEM was an area that the public identified as a priority for growth five years ago, Kanas said. That resulted in new programs such as the innovation lab at Willets Road School and Project Lead the Way, a four-year engineering program offered at The Wheatley School, Kanas said.

Literacy was not an area identified by the strategic plan, Kanas said. However, due to changes in state requirements and changes with Common Core curriculum, the district continued to work and develop in that subject area, Kanas said.

Rose also pointed it out it may be a bit redundant to have separate categories for science, mathematics and STEM, the umbrella term that encompasses both subjects. As Kanas said the committee would like to limit the survey to 20 topics, separating out those subjects may take up space used by other areas.

Contrarily, Richard Carato, a parent in the district and co-chair of the strategic planning committee, said other members of the public said they’d like to see technology on the list in addition to STEM.

As a parent, Rose said she’s concerned with employment competition her children will face when they graduate. She said she often feels like she’s pushing them toward technology but isn’t sure that’s the right thing to do.

Feeney, who has a background in mathematics, said that while STEM is important, nothing happens without the humanities.

“You can have some of the best technology out there, but being able to package it and put it in a story is really important,” Feeney said. “We can’t ever lose sight of the fact that we need kids to be able to read, write and think critically because that’s essential.”

Feeney added that nobody knows what the world will be like in 10 or 20 years when students enter the workforce. Much of the technology will be outdated, but the skills students are learning about the process are what they’ll take with them.

Another barrier to creating the plan is the wide range in ages of students. Parents of students at North Side School might have different priorities than parents of Wheatley students.

Rumayla Bhalloo, a member of the planning committee, has three students – one in each school. Even so, Bhalloo said it’s hard choosing what to prioritize because all students vary from one another.

The committee, made up of members of the administration, teachers, parents and a senior from The Wheatley School, will put together a survey that will go out in February for the public to choose their top five and bottom five priorities.

From February through mid-March the survey process will be open, and another community forum will be held. The committee will use the next couple of months to put together a plan that will be finalized and adopted by the board in July.

The current plan, put in place shortly after Kanas came to the district six years ago, stays in effect till the end of the school year.

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