Highland MS students adjusting to a school within a school

By Mark Reynolds
Posted 4/17/24

In his report to the public and the school board, Superintendent Joel Freer spoke about the recent move of the Middle School students and staff to the High School after a devastating fire at the …

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Highland MS students adjusting to a school within a school

In his report to the public and the school board, Superintendent Joel Freer spoke about the recent move of the Middle School students and staff to the High School after a devastating fire at the Middle School in March.
“With any plan like this it’s not without some hiccups but I will say that the staff has been incredible and the administrators are working very hard to make this work. I want to thank the students for trying to be as positive as they possibly can be,” he said.
Freer recalled some grumbling from High School students when the plans were announced, “but today I saw smiles and I saw some kids saying thank you to the adults for getting their younger brothers and sisters in attendance here.”  
Freer said on the morning when the Middle School students arrived  there was a ‘cadre’ of high school students greeting the middle school students, “to cheer them on and welcome them back, and it made for a really nice atmosphere.”
Freer said because of the circumstances of moving the middle school students to the high school, the district made an appeal to New York State to waive the federally mandated assessments for the 6 through 8th grades, “just because of the environment they will be in here at the high school. It’s not that we don’t want our kids taking tests. We think they’re important, but we want them to take them in the most appropriate environment possible. But if we are told we have to do it, we will do it as we always do and we will afford the children the best opportunity that they can have to take those assessments.”
Freer said this is the first year the students would be doing them all computer-based. Although the district is ready, he noted that this is a different environment, “where there are extra noises around and we just don’t know that it would be a true picture, so hence this is why we put the appeal out.”  
Freer said Ulster County Legislator Gina Hansut has been in contact with NYS Senators Gillibrand and Schumer, “to try to get them on board” with waiving the tests or allowing the students to take the tests over a slightly longer period of time.
At this time Freer noted that New York State has not yet passed their budget and at a recent community event, he urged Assemblyman Jonathan Jacobson to push for more state aid to the district. He also highlighted Hansut’s efforts, “in helping to get us some materials when we were trying to do a school within a school. So it’s nice to see those folks do care even if in Albany they don’t give us the funding that we need.”
Freer spoke about a previous presentation made at a board meeting where cuts and the lessening of hours of a number of positions was under consideration, should the state fail to increase Foundation Aid to the district.  
“This is how school districts lose quality people, because if I saw my position up there, you’re darn right I’d be looking to go somewhere else because I need to make sure that I keep my career moving forward,” he said. “There are no official pink slips at this point but the writing was on the screen and that’s the difficult part for these folks.”  
Kevin Rizzo, President of the Highland Teachers Association, said he and others in the HTA have been meeting with top lobbyists for the state of New York and have developed a plan. He said videos have been taken in the schools to show how budgetary cuts would impact HTA members and the level of education that Highland is going to receive, “and that information is going up to the Governor as we speak.”
“We’re meeting and calling politicians on a regular basis, not only to reinstall the Foundation Aid, but that they’re missing the point on the formula on how they are giving state aid to school districts; it is off and we’re fighting to get that formula rewritten at this point,” he said, promising that he would “continue to work as hard as I possibly can to get as much money to this district as we possibly can get.”
Cell Phone Use
The school board continues to discuss the current policy on cell phone use that is in the student handbooks in order to arrive at a final policy that they hope to introduce at the start of the 2024-25 school year.
Board President Alan Barone urged his fellow board members to review the current policy. He thanked the high school staff for a recent presentation on this issue.
“It kind of gives us a feeling that we’re all on board with trying to control the use of cell phones and allow the students to have a good positive learning experience and to not be distracted by the cell phone of their neighbor that’s sitting next to them. I think this is a positive approach to student learning in a good environment. We’re not out there to terminate cell phone usage in the school building [but] we’re out there trying to promote a positive environment for educational purposes.”
Barone also took a few moments to acknowledge the large turnout at the meeting and the support of the Highland Teachers Association. He began by saying the school board is not the enemy.
“We’re here to work with you and if any of you have comments and concerns or want to start some dialogue, come to our meetings and we’ll be happy to start that dialogue. We would like to have some lively input from staff so we can have some positive discussions that are going to benefit our students. That’s what the Board of Education is here for; we do not get a paycheck, we’re here to work with our staff and to promote a positive learning experience for our students. I entertain and invite you to come to every one of our meetings and give us a heads-up and say you want to discuss whatever it may be; we’re here to do it,” he said.” He cited a few recent accomplishments of the board and the community: implementation of the capital project, a new turf field for the students, and an Outdoor Learning Pavilion that will soon come to the Elementary School.