GCSD may sacrifice top test scores for well-rounded students

— From the Positivity Project

Character, says the Positivity Project, is “what’s inside every one of us.”

GUILDERLAND — Discussing goals they first set in 2020, school board members here decided, in the midst of the pandemic, that meeting students’ social and emotional needs — treating “the whole student” — should be this year’s top priority.
For well over a year, said Superintendent Marie Wiles, a shared decision-making team has looked at research-based approaches and landed on the Positivity Project — which she described as a scientifically validated way of empowering youth and cultivating citizenship — as the way forward.

Over three years, Chris Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, led a 40-person team to better understand character. With Martin Seligman, he wrote an 800-page book, “Character Strengths and Virtues,” based on the research.

Seligman, in 1998, had chosen positive psychology as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association, reacting against the profession’s emphasis on mental illness. Positive psychology focuses on eudaimonia, an ancient Greek term for “good spirit” or “happiness.” Practices that can contribute to this sense of well being may include social ties, meditation, spirituality, or exercise.

Peterson and Seligman’s book describes 24 character strengths they say have existed in all human cultures throughout time. They believe that people have all 24 strengths within them and that character is not just skills or behaviors, but rather an intrinsic part of each person.

Their thesis is that, if each child is made aware that she or he has all 24 character strengths, each child will have the foundation for self-confidence grounded in self-awareness. Children will also better understand how each person is different and how to appreciate those differences.

The Positivity Project posits that strength does not come from ignoring the negative. Rather, strengths help people overcome adversity. For example, a person can’t show self-control without first being tempted, or can’t be brave without first feeling fear.

Wiles listed for the school board on Tuesday night each of the 24 character strengths, including bravery, curiosity, forgiveness, hope, open-mindedness, prudence, and zest.

Come fall, Guilderland students in kindergarten through eighth grade each week will learn about one of these traits with the lessons being “woven through the day,” Wiles said. Gratitude will be studied during Thanksgiving week and love on Valentine’s week.

Older students, too, will participate in the Positivity Project although all of the details have yet to be worked out, Wiles said, concluding that there is “a lot of excitement around the project” as it will help students “through the non-academic parts of life.”

Board member Rebecca Butterfield asked if the learning loss from interrupted schedules during the pandemic would be measured.

Wiles responded that benchmark assessments are undertaken at the elementary level and training for assessment is ongoing with high school teachers.

Wiles said her speech for the opening day of school will focus on the first priority of health and safety of everyone in the district’s seven school buildings.

The second priority, she said, will be focusing on social and emotional well being, which might mean sacrificing top test scores for well-rounded traits — “not necessarily what the Business Review is measuring,” she said. That publication annually ranks local schools, largely based on standardized test scores.

Other goals include closing the achievement-opportunity gap, maintaining facilities — the board decided, after the October vote on a $22 million bond issue, to look at creating a vision for how learning will guide facilities planning — and fostering equity and diversity.

To that end, in this year’s budget, the board had created a new administrative post: Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with an annual salary of $85,000.

On Tuesday, Matthew Pinchinat was awarded that post. To enthusiastic applause, Pinchinat told the board, “I stand on the shoulder of giants,” saying he is excited to support students and the work already underway.

He had been a Guilderland High School history teacher for four years, likening it to a high school education. 

Describing himself as the son of two Haitian immigrants, Pinchinat said, “It is my firm belief that …  the mission of this position, the emphasis on diversity, comes from our national credo: E pluribus unum, out of many, one … When we all are recognized for our value that we bring to the table, we are greater than the sum of our parts.”


Public comment

While the last school board meeting, on Aug. 10 had been briefly adjourned by the board because of a vociferous crowd objecting to mask-wearing at school, Tuesday’s onlookers were about half as many — 15 rather than 30.

The video of the Aug. 10 meeting, posted to the district website, as of Wednesday, had garnered 2,400 views; other school board meetings have viewership in the hundreds.

Most of those at Tuesday’s meeting, unlike on Aug. 10, wore masks and all spoke respectfully, without the heckling and threats that had characterized the last board meeting.

Earlier on Tuesday, Governor Kathy Hochul had said universal mask-wearing would be required in schools and all school personnel would have to be vaccinated or take weekly COVID-19 tests.

Topics at Tuesday’s meeting were varied.

Michael Hawrylchak, an attorney and parent of four children who serves on the library board and whose wife was formerly a Guilderland administrator, was upset that fifth-graders at Guilderland Elementary School will have different teachers for each subject rather than a single classroom teacher.

“I’m here to ask for accountability,” Hawrylchak said, stating that the decision was “made behind our backs.” Parents had not learned of the change until students were given their class assignments.

Several board members said they, too, were not happy with the process that led to the change.

Ashley Tenney, with a child at Altamont Elementary School, spoke in favor of mask-wearing at school while Jeanie Sentinello asked the board, “Do you stand by a parent’s rights?”

She said, by requiring student athletes to either be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19, “you are backing them into a corner … These are just children.” Testing, she said, should be used solely for individuals who may have the virus.

Suzanne Cifarelli, who favors mask-wearing at school, said she was “shocked and dismayed” at some of the behavior at the last school board meeting and horrified her daughter would be exposed to that.

Deena Lestage Restifo, who had spoken against a mask mandate at the last meeting, was asked by school board President Seema Rivera on Tuesday as Restifo went to the lectern if she had a mask. “I have a medical condition,” said Restifo. She announced she would be running for the school board.

Rivera also read seven written comments, including one from Farnsworth Middle School eighth-grader Callum Abbasi who said of the Aug. 10 meeting, “This type of behavior would not be allowed in a classroom.” Abbasi went on, “What we must do is be polite and state facts supported by valid scientific studies, not opinions fueled by partisan disinformation.”

The written comments are posted on the district’s website.



This fall, Guilderland is launching its first pre-kindergarten program.

In April, the district had been surprised to receive $626,400 in unasked-for state aid to start its first pre-kindergarten program. This would pay for 116 four-year-olds — about half of kindergarten enrollment.

The district did not have the space or staff to run such a program in-house and so put out a request for proposals for area early-childhood-education providers interested in working collaboratively.

On Tuesday, the board OK’d, pending attorney review, to agreements with Kidz Korner Childcare Learning Center, located in Carman Plaza, and with St. Madeleine Sophie School, located further along Carman Road.

Board member Kelly Person raised two concerns — about the religious aspects of St. Madeleine Sophie School, and about teacher qualifications at both schools.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders replied that St. Madeleine Sophie is “fully cognizant of the separation of church and state.” He added that parents could opt into wrap-around services that involved religion but said there would be no religious teaching in the school program

In both programs, the teachers, who have to be accredited in early childhood education, are not Guilderland school district employees, Sanders said.

“We’re more of a conduit for the funds,” Sanders said of the district.

He also said that both providers have had experience with children with disabilities and with multiple languages.

Wiles said that district children who had already been enrolled in the two programs would be “grandfathered in” and that remaining places would be filled through a lottery.

Once contracts with the two schools are signed, Wiles said, the district will send applications to families who have reached out.


Other business

In other business, the board:

— Heard from Wiles that no policies have yet been created by the district on vaccination or COVID-19 testing for student athletes. While Albany County’s health commissioner had recommended that sports be canceled or held remotely if students are not vaccinated, Wiles said the new governor could release a directive later in the week;

— Learned from Wiles that a draft reopening plan will be posted on the district’s website and a question-and-answer session about the plan will be held on Monday, Aug. 30; the plan may change with the governor’s guidance, she cautioned;

— Decided, rather than hold an election within 90 days, as required, to fill a vacancy on the nine-member board left by Benjamin Goes’s resignation on Monday, it would instead accept applicants for the post and hold a public interview session, before deciding on an appointment.

“I think we should do it cheaper and faster,” said board member Blanca Gonzalez-Parker of choosing appointment over election. The unpaid appointed post would last until the May elections;

— Due to the shortage of available bus drivers locally and statewide, approved an emergency contract with Northland Transportation Services and Amazing Grace Transportation to run from Sept. 9 to Oct. 9; and

— Met in executive session to discuss issues relating to potential litigation strategy with respect to tax certiorari claims.

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