Innovation and smart short-and-long term planning are critical components of any successful school district, which is why every year the Wallkill Board of Education meets with the district administration to conduct an annual goals meeting. The group met on Oct. 28 in the high school’s active learning room for its yearly session as the board refined a set of goals for the next 12 months.
The board came to a consensus on a handful of short-term goals including the exploration of adding another week to the district’s elementary summer school session, which is currently conducted over three weeks. The board also set a goal to hammer out a timeline for the implementation of an American sign language course for the eighth grade in the 2020-2021 school year, the establishment of a board recognition program for school staff members that was suggested by board member Dustin Palen and initiatives to review digital citizenship maps to address social media concerns and to strengthen cultural awareness responsiveness.
Under Wallkill’s current setup, Spanish is the only foreign language offered to the students, but the sign language class could provide an alternative for those who choose it. “Last year during the budget cycle we were talking about adding an additional foreign language and unfortunately we didn’t get the state aid we were hoping for and we didn’t add anything at that point,” Wallkill Superintendent Kevin Castle said. “What I came up with in the meantime was to integrate our K-6 summer academy with our American sign language program to start gauging what the interest was out there. There was interest and we ran two sections during that three-week program.”
The district then decided to run a sign language after-school program for grades 5 and 6 utilizing the same pair of teachers who taught the summer classes. The two sections of 25 students apiece clearly demonstrated interest in the program and showed a potential future for a sign language course.
If the program is implemented next year, the class would be available to eighth-grade pupils. “The next step is going to be a survey for our seventh-grade students to see if there’s an interest, and based on that it will inform us how many sections we would need,” Castle said. “Then we would determine how we would administer the course, either through Orange-Ulster BOCES, where they do distance learning or if we can find a certified teacher.”
During last Monday’s meeting, the board also set long-term goals, including the addition of a foreign language at the elementary level and conducting an analysis of the district’s special education program.
The district is also closely monitoring enrollment levels of the next several years, as numbers are expected to decline. Castle noted that the district may have 20 teachers retiring after the 2020-2021 school year, and the staff levels will be tailored to fit the district’s enrollment numbers. “When enrollment goes down we have to adjust, so we have a responsibility to our taxpayers to do that,” Castle said. “It’s important that we forecast and then look at our staffing needs to see what we need to accommodate the new numbers. That’s something that we’re looking at. I think we’ll be relatively neutral over the next two years, then we’ll start to see that enrollment decline. We should have a little spike at the high school next year, but then after that you’ll start seeing a decline there and in K-8. 2021-2022 is the year where we’ll have to take a hard look at our staffing needs. We don’t want to lose programs, because we feel the programs we’ve added are beneficial to our students. But at the same time we need to recognize that if our enrollment is going down, we need to recalibrate. So that’s what we’ll be doing over the next year and a half, researching that.”
The superintendent explained that the declining enrollment figure could be tied to numerous societal trends. “My theory for why enrollment is dropping is that we still have families who no longer have kids in our school district still residing in our communities,” Castle said. “Which is awesome, that they’ve continued to remain here and be part of our community. Additionally, there haven’t been many new developments being built. So you take those two pieces and you don’t have homes to move into. So that results in enrollment declining. There could be other factors too, but I truly believe those two are big ones.”
Board of Education President Joseph LoCicero said that the annual goal meetings have proven productive in his experience serving on the council. “In this board we all come from different backgrounds and everybody wants to have their influence in something, because that’s why they’re here,” he noted. “So it’s nice for us to get together where we can have an open forum and we can come up with ideas that maybe I didn’t see that somebody else did see. We’re able to bring those things to the attention of the administration and the superintendent and come up with some good, cool things and things that really need to be done for the schools. We’re lucky that our administration is open to those and we work as a good collaborative team and we get results. We had seven goals last year, and all of them were if not finished, at least touched upon. So I think it has worked out very well.”
The goals session allowed the board and the superintendent to engage in a lively discussion about the future of the district, with suggestions flying back and forth. “I love it,” Castle said. “Our board is awesome to work with. It’s very team-oriented and student-centered. You take those two pieces alone and that makes for rich conversations that all focus on student learning. I value those meetings and I know the board does as well. Because the end result is we’re putting things in place to help kids.”