At the start of this school year, the New York State Department of Education released its yearly school district ratings — based on the previous year’s test scores — and the Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow school district was upgraded from last year’s disappointing “District In Need of Improvement” designation to one of a district “In Good Standing.”
Aside from the relief at removing the stigma of last year’s designation, Superintendent Howard Smith says the change gives the district the freedom to concentrate its resources on the students, rather than on reactionary measures. “We spent a lot of time last year… to conform to the requirements of the improvement plan and to package it and ship it to the State,” he says. “That whole process was a significant diversion of professional time and energy. This allows us to keep it more student-focused.”
The change in designation was made possible in part due to a waiver granted by the U.S. Department of Education to New York State, releasing the State from the statistically impossible task of having 100% of students grade-level proficient by 2014. Once the waiver was granted, New York chose to grade school districts on the amount of growth shown by students in a district, rather than on a set number.
“The waiver said to look at growth less arbitrarily,” says Dr. Smith. “What constitutes reasonable growth for any group of students, without having that assumption that [proficiency] has to be 100% by any particular year? Now you’re just looking at whether or not students are improving by a reasonable degree every year. As soon as you put us through that filter, we did fine. [In] every school, every subgroup, we did fine.”
“We’re all very pleased that we’re In Good Standing again,” says Board of Education President Joe Lillis, “as are a number of other districts in New York. It was pretty widespread.”
“The new designation will not change any of the district’s programs,” says Dr. Smith. Any change or program put in place last year in response to the District In Need of Improvement designation — such as the decision to hire a Spanish-speaking math teacher to deliver math to English Language Learners in their own language—was a change or program that made a positive impact.
“We look at the data too, we know where kids need to improve,” says Dr. Smith. “We’re always making changes. The designation doesn’t change it one way or another because if it was the responsible thing to do, we would have done it anyhow.”
Since the State has thus far only released the designations, and not any of the underlying data, it is unclear if any individual school or sub-group is in danger of falling behind. That information will arrive when the district receives the official report card each year based on the previous year’s data. “If you go to the [New York State Education Department] website now, you’re still going to see the old report card from last year,” says Dr. Smith. “They have not yet come out with the new one.”
Assuming the State Education Department issues the full report card soon, Superintendent Smith intends to deliver the results publicly to the Board of Education at the Board’s meeting on November 1.
The change in designation may help raise the reputation of the two Villages, which had taken a hit just a year earlier with the In Need of Improvement designation. “I think it’s always helpful that the State looks on the schools favorably,” says Lillis.
“For people with children [who are] moving, one of their main priorities (if not the main) is the school system,” says Patty Neuwirth, owner of Hudson Homes Sotheby’s International Realty in Tarrytown. She explains that while she, as a realtor, is barred from saying anything good or bad about a community’s school system to a potential homebuyer, the buyers do not stay in the dark. “There are lots of places where school reports are published. Most real estate websites have school reports on them. These are facts, so yes, people absolutely will go to them, and make choices about villages they want to live in, even without visiting, on the basis of those reports.