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Students will see extra security, civics, mental health training this fall

In some ways, the experience that awaits this week seems familiar and timeless. The bus still comes. Parents still either dab at tears or quietly rejoice as they wave goodbye. School supplies still get purchased. Children still react with dread or excitement or a little of both.

But in many other ways, the only thing that stays the same about returning to the classroom every September is change.

Students who settle in at their desks this week and this year may have faced added security before even setting foot in the school. They will be learning more about mental health. In some districts, they will be exploring new buildings.

The cultural focus on how best to educate children and how to gauge the effectiveness of both what they have learned and how effectively they have been taught also continues.

The start of this annual educational journey will begin as it does every year, with Labor Day in the rearview mirror and the first of nearly 10 months of households across the region filled with the same words: It's time for school.

Safer schools

School safety once again is center stage in the wake of the February shootings in Parkland, Fla., so don’t be surprised to see tighter security when school reopens or as the year progresses.

In Maryvale, for example, the school district reconfigured the entrances at its primary, intermediate and middle school buildings to better secure access from the outside, said Superintendent Joseph D’Angelo.

Similar projects are in the works in the Starpoint and Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda districts.

“In the spring, after the tragedy in Florida, we had police come in and give us recommendations at each building,” said Steve Bovino, superintendent in Ken-Ton. “The major thing is what we call ‘single point of entry.’ We want visitors coming in through one location.”

“It’s certainly going to look and feel different than how visitors gained entry in the past,” said Sean Croft, Starpoint superintendent. “I think people will be very tolerant of the changes.”

In City of Tonawanda schools, procedures have been tightened at every building, with visitors required to show a state-issued ID that is scanned into a national database before they are allowed in.

Meanwhile, schools will be keeping an eye on what's happening in Lockport.

Lockport schools turn to state-of-the-art technology to beef up security

That city school district will use facial recognition and tracking software to add an unprecedented level of security. The system will use some 300 surveillance cameras throughout district buildings to recognize faces of registered criminals, sex offenders or others barred from the premises. When the software makes a match, an alarm is sent to district officials and perhaps police.

Installation is to be completed by the end of September, Lockport Superintendent Michelle Bradley said.

And could see-through backpacks be a new trend?

While students may not be asking parents for clear or mesh backpacks, they’re being considered as an option among more schools around the country as a security precaution.

In fact, they popped up on the supply list for at least one Buffalo school, although a spokeswoman said that is not a districtwide policy.

Protecting kids' mental health

All elementary, middle and high schools across New York State are now required to teach about mental health, under a law that took effect in July. The new law comes after years of lobbying by the Mental Health Association in New York State, which points to statistics that show half of anxiety disorders begin as early as age 8 and that more than one-fifth of teenagers experience serious mental illness each year.

“What I’d like to do in the district is a full continuum of mental health services from pre-K  all the way to 12th grade,” said Mark Laurrie, superintendent for the Niagara Falls City School District.

The hope is that education in schools can provide students with the lifelong skills needed to understand mental health and when to seek help for themselves or others.

New state law heightens focus on students' mental health

Similarly, districts are talking to teachers about paying attention to the social and emotional well-being of kids.

Like the Buffalo Public Schools, Ken-Ton and Lake Shore are among those districts focused on training teachers in “trauma-informed care” to recognize the effects of a variety of traumatic experiences students may encounter in their lives, either at school or home or in their neighborhoods.

“The opioid crisis, drugs, alcohol, single-parent families, social media – I could go on and on,” said James Przepasniak, superintendent in Lake Shore. “We’re seeing it all today.”

Teacher shortages

While there seems to be no scarcity of teaching candidates at the elementary level, some districts report a much smaller applicant pool for some of the more specialized positions.

“We do have these persistent shortages in certain subject areas – bilingual education, special education, technology and in some cases math and science,” said David Albert, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.

“That’s the biggest issue facing us – the availability of staff,” said Clark Godshall, superintendent for Orleans/Niagara BOCES. “It’s tough to find the specialized areas of science and math.”

Another challenge: finding substitute teachers.

“All the districts are vying for the same people,” Godshall said.

Allure of teaching fades

Speaking of teachers, for the first time in 50 years, a national poll of adults revealed that more than half said they would not want their children to grow up to be a public school teacher.

In the 2018 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, based on a random sample of 1,042 adults, 54 percent said they would not want one of their children to be a public school teacher. That’s compared with 70 percent in 2009 who said they would support having a child become a public school teacher. The most support was shown in 1969, when 75 percent said they would support a teaching career for a child.

The most common reasons for not liking the career were inadequate pay and benefits and student behavior/lack of discipline.

Whatever they think of public school teachers, most of those responding to the poll, 78 percent, said they favor reforming the public school system rather than finding an alternative to it.

Every Student Succeeds Act

The new federal education law – known as ESSA – mandates high standards and accountability for schools, but gives states more flexibility to decide how best to rate schools and fix those struggling the most.

New York approved its plan earlier this year and is expected to roll out guidelines for how it is to be implemented.

“A number of us have gone to various briefings and seminars on what this is going to look like,” said Bovino, the Ken-Ton superintendent. “It’s very different than what we have had in the past and it’s going to take a little getting used to.”

One of the more controversial issues: the potential consequences for schools failing to meet a 95 percent participation rate on state standardized tests, as required by the feds.

Civic readiness

We’ve heard about students being prepared for college and career. But how’s their civic preparedness?

Part of the state’s new education policy is to incorporate civic readiness within its school accountability plan.

While it won’t take effect this school year, the Board of Regents will convene a panel on how it might measure a student’s civic readiness, which could mean such things as a culminating community project or citizenship portfolio, said Albert, the School Boards Association spokesman.

“Civic readiness is one of those changes in ESSA that’s going to have a significant impact on schools and this will be a year of finding our way, so to speak, with new requirements,” Albert said.

State test results delayed

If you were looking to see how your child did on the state assessments in the spring, you will have to wait a little longer.

Results for the grades three through eight state assessments in ELA and math are usually delivered over the summer, but scores from this past year are scheduled to be released in mid-to-late September, according to the state Education Department.

The number of sessions of the tests was reduced from three days to two, and as a result of the change, the state said it was reviewing the performance standards for the tests over the summer.

Spending on facilities, tech

Many schools are putting finishing touches on renovations, like improvements to the entrance of the Eden Middle and High School, brand new libraries at Hamburg Middle and High schools and refurbished elementary auditoriums at Frontier Central.

"They've got to be cool spaces for kids to want to be there," Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell said about the libraries. "Every time we redo a space we're trying to redo it to help students and adults to engage together in modern learning."

There's also a new kitchen at Hamburg Middle School.

"The pots and pans were probably there from when the school opened," Cornell said. Now, he said, "everything is brand new," adding that a lot of students are going into careers in culinary arts.

And schools continue to spend on technology, like Frontier Central, which purchased 1,800 Bak USA laptops and 400 iPads for students. In the City of Tonawanda, Chromebooks have expanded to students in 10th grade. Sixth through ninth grades already had the tablets.

Capital votes to come

Residents in some school districts will be heading to the polls this fall to vote on capital projects.

At Frontier Central, a $1.8 million multiuse synthetic turf field at the high school is on the ballot Sept. 27. The field would be built at the site of the current turf athletic field within the track.

The project is eligible for a 75 percent reimbursement of the cost, Superintendent Richard Hughes said. Not having synthetic turf “puts our kids at a little bit of a disadvantage,” he said. The field would be used by the school’s lacrosse and soccer teams, and reduce the maintenance that crews perform, he said. There also will be improvements in storm water management and minor door replacement at the high school.

West Seneca Central is planning a $75.5 million capital project that will touch every building in the district. Renovations and upgrades to facilities would also include turf fields at West Seneca East and West high schools. A vote is expected sometime in December.

School Board elections

It still is a little soon to be thinking about School Board elections in the spring, but keep an eye on the one in Buffalo, where elections have been know to turn into a raucous event.

All nine board seats – district and at-large – are up for grabs in Buffalo in May, something that happens only once every 15 years.

News reporter Barbara O'Brien contributed to this story.

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