Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories about the major local news of 2018. Today, we look at public schools. 

In 2018, schools tackled gun violence, social media and shifting technology norms while developing new ways to engage students in the learning process. 

Parkland shooting & student protests

A shooting Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead and mobilized a national movement to address gun violence. Survivors of the shooting organized multiple student walk outs and a march on Washington D.C. titled “March for our Lives,” which students across the country — and locally — took part in. 

On March 14, students organized walk outs from their classrooms to gather and protest gun violence for 17 minutes, a minute for each of those slain in Florida one month prior. In some districts, students coordinated with administrators to host assemblies or “walk ins” to talk about bullying and creating positive school environments, others held memorials where the names of the dead were read aloud. In Oneonta, two separate walk outs took place, an organized assembly and a breakaway protest that brought students into the street with signs.

At the March 24 national march against gun violence, community members joined students in Delhi, Oneonta and Cobleskill, and others across the country, describing a culture of fear in public spaces and frustration over a perceived lack of initiative from elected leaders.

Counter protests were also held in support of the second amendment.

SROs & school safety

While students marched against political leaders, those in law enforcement sought to harden security in schools. In reaction to the Florida shooting and multiple threats made to schools, School Resource Officers, or SROs, became a topic in Albany. School resource officers are armed guards that work full-time at a school. The New York State Sheriff's Association lobbied for the state to fund SROs for all public school districts. While that push was unsuccessful, the conversation continued in sheriff's departments throughout the state.

Otsego County Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr., solicited the county board to fund two full-time SROs. The money isn’t readily available within the county budget, but in the fall of 2018, the Otsego Northern Catskills Board of Cooperative Educational Services partnered with the Otsego County Sheriff’s Department to contract Deputy Jim Cox as an SRO on its Milford campus.

Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond said the county has one full-time SRO who splits time between Sidney Central School and DCMO-BOCES in Masonville, as well as an active substation program where deputies drop in to schools once per shift, which amounts to 17 visits per week. Since the Feb. 14 shooting, DuMond said the deputies have doubled that effort.

Not everyone is in agreement over SROs. Arguments against their effectiveness and fears about an armed presence in schools have been made by teachers and legislatures, citing that Marjory Stoneman Douglas had an SRO on duty at the time of the shooting.

Agricultural education, farm-to-cafeteria initiatives get a boost.

New York’s 2019 budget increased Education Aid funding by $1 billion and added extra funding to support initiatives such as No Child Goes Hungry, expanding the program by $1.5 million in grants to help school districts use locally sourced ingredients and finance free lunch programs.

Sidney Central School District received $58,783 to appoint a farm-to-school coordinator and assistant to procure local farm products for ten school districts in the DCMO-BOCES region for NY Thursday, an initiative that every Thursday meal will be made entirely from locally grown foods.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County received funds from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to develop workshops in food preparation.

Between two August workshops, 110 school cafeteria workers from 37 districts were trained for the rising presence of fresh, whole foods, combining demonstrations and instruction with a hands-on component.

At the unveiling of a new greenhouse at Sherburne-Earlville Central School District, superintendent Eric Schnabl announced the school would reopen its FFA chapter after 20 years of inactivity. The school, he said, is reviving its agricultural science program.

Superintendents & shake-ups

Walton and Worcester Central School Districts placed their superintendents on leave before the 2018-2019 school year began. Both upsets were mired in controversy.

Roger Clough III, superintendent for Walton, was put on leave in August. Around the same time, three top administrators at the school offered resignations. Board of Education President Ronda Williams said the events were not related, but it meant Walton started the school year with interim leaders.

Worcester Superintendent William Diamond offered his resignation on March 21 after being placed on administrative leave in February. William Fisher, Worcester's Board of Education president, cited “personal reasons” and “multiple differences” as to why Diamond was placed on leave.

The Worcester board of education appointed Tim Gonzales as superintendent in June. Gonzales previously served as executive director at Paradise School outside of Phoenix, Arizona.

Walton is using an interim superintendent until the board completes the hiring process.

Details on the superintendents’ leaves were not made public due to the state’s personnel laws, but no criminal charges were filed in either case.

An unused school gets a second life.

The Unatego School Board of Education voted to close in the Otego Elementary School in 2017, and sold the building this year to AgZeit, LLC., a company specializing in hydroponic vertical growth operations. A mix of private and public investors will help get the project off the ground.

The fledgling business will tie high-production indoor organic farming with educational components and housing for veterans with opportunities for job training and a year-round farmers’ market, AgZeit owner James Dutcher said.

James Salisbury, president of the Unatego Board of Education, voted in favor of AgZeit.

“The hope is that it’s going to create jobs and will be something that is very beneficial to the Otego community,” Salisbury told The Daily Star in June. “I certainly feel like the community is looking forward to it.”

NYSED state exams change, opt out movement slows

The statewide Grades 3-8 English language arts and math exams had some changes this year, including cutting the days of testing from three to two. Additionally, the opt-out movement decreased its numbers by one percent.

Under New York law students are not required to take the exams, and the rate of refusals ballooned to one in five with the state Legislature's decision in the budget to couple the Common Core learning-standards exams to teacher evaluations in 2015. The state stalled on this section and the refusal numbers have decreased annually. In 2018, the refusal rate was 18 percent compared to the 19 percent in 2017.

Parts of upstate New York and Long Island are hotbeds for the opt out movement, with some schools having refusal rates of nearly 40 percent.

New York State Education Department offered computer-based testing for the second year in a row. The test will eventually move completely to computer testing in the next couple of years, but schools such as the Delaware Academy at Delhi decided make the move ahead of the change. Administrators said they were satisfied with the test-taking, despite some hiccups.

Social media a topic of concern

Homework, socializing and communicating are increasingly done on a digital device. As schools implement one-to-one tablet programs, allowing every student 24-hour access to a computer, concerns about digital literacy are making their way into the conversation. Events, forums and school conduct rules on the topic were a focus of 2018.

Delaware Academy in Delhi banned the use of cell phones during school hours to set boundaries around usage.

A study published in November 2017 by researchers at San Diego State and Florida State universities found that an increase in instances of depressive symptoms and anxiety, particularly among young women, correlated with an increase in use of social media. This trend has escalated between the study intakes from the 2009-2010 school year.

Inversely, the study showed that other factors, such as homework, face-to-face interaction and exercise correlated with lower levels of depressive thoughts.

Delaney Ruston, a physician and the filmmaker of “Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age,” visited Oneonta High School in May to speak with students and parents on the subject, stressing the need for boundaries and honest dialogue between parent, students and teachers. Setting an example of appropriate use was also a necessary component to developing healthy behavior.

Vaping

Vaping, or smoking a vaporized tobacco product with an e-cigarette, is attracting young people at record rates, according to recent studies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that traditional cigarette smoking is down, but vaping is on the rise. The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research’s annual Monitoring the Future survey disclosed that use of nicotine by 12th graders in the last 30 days rose from 23.7 percent in 2017 to 28.5 percent in 2018. This increase is attributed to e-cigarettes, which offer candy-flavored options and discreet packaging.

In November, the FDA restricted the sale of flavored e-cigarette products in stores, prompted largely by underage vaping.

Schools in the area do not see it as a large problem yet but have been working to get ahead of the trend, educating teachers and parents on the products and informing students about the health concerns.

Most local schools beat state graduation rate

Graduation rates in the state rose slightly to 80.2 percent, a gradual increase from last year's 79.7 percent. Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia said this puts New York on track to meet its federal Every Student Succeeds Act goals of 83.9 percent by 2022.

The results are based on four-year cohort data, which refers to a group of students who entered ninth grade in the same school year.

Of the schools within The Daily Star's coverage area, 29 of the 35 districts met or exceeded the state average. The four counties outperformed the state: Otsego County had a graduation rate of 86 percent, Delaware had 87 percent, Chenango had 84 percent and Schoharie had 82 percent. A socioeconomic gap in graduation rates is persistent statewide, though it is improving. In our region, 16 out of the 35 districts had lower graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students.

Charlotte Valley, Richfield Springs, Worcester, Sharon Springs, Roxbury and Afton central school districts had the lowest graduation rates at or below 75 percent.

Bainbridge-Guilford, Franklin, Gilberstville-Mount Upton, Delaware Academy and Stamford had the highest graduation rates, with 93 percent or more graduating.

Robotics

Coding and technology-centered sciences such as as robotics are being embraced in schools. Robotics and programming offer students a way of learning a valued skill set while engaging in playful activities.

Libraries, 4-H clubs and schools have developed educational programming focusing on programming and problem-solving with robots.

Schools are designing “maker spaces” and organizing robotics teams to accommodate the fast-growing platform.

This year, Oxford Academy Central School hosted its first RoboRAVE, a weekend-long robotics competition that is held around the world.

Oxford Academy sent a three-person robotics team to compete in Japan in November and students from Downsville Central School are fundraising for a similar venture to New Mexico in May.

  

Whitney Bashaw, staff writer, can be reached at 607-441-7218 or wbashaw@thedailystar.com . Follow her on Twitter @DS_WhitneyB .

Reporter

Reporter covering agriculture and k-12 education in Central New York state.