Renovations at Flagship School Run Aground, Reduction in Construction and Test Scores at Washington Irving

The Washingtion Irving Intermediate School has seen many transformations in its lengthy service, originally to Tarrytowners and later to residents of Sleepy Hollow as well.

imagesThe School is by far the most attractive building within the educational system and its halls and classrooms are bright, cheery and filled with dedicated teachers and staff throughout.

Washington Irving, commonly referred to as WI, was at one time Tarrytown’s High School. Its arch rival, North Tarrytown High School, was housed in the current Morse Elementary School. With the opening of Sleepy Hollow High School in the late 1950’s Washington Irving became the junior high school. This writer can remember striding across the stage at WI in white buck loafers to accept a social studies award in 7th grade. Fast forwarding to the 1998-1999 school year, Washington Irving (which currently houses grades 4-6) was named a New York State "Blue Ribbon School" by the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. To secure that recognition WI had exemplified outstanding performance in education and after-school programs, while exhibiting a tangible and equitable spirit within the student body, fostered by a core of exceptional teachers.

Six years later the School finds itself in a different place. The Superintendent of Schools, Howard Smith, has informed faculty that in spite of their "talent and dedication" the average passing rates in grade 3 (Morse School) and grades 4-6 (WI) on the 2006 English Language Arts (ELA) exam was 68%. In correspondence to the teachers Mr. Smith put the scores in perspective by saying that the only districts in Westchester County with lower grades were Peekskill and Yonkers. The average for math was 72% which translated to lower passing rates than the County average. Focusing on specific grades Mr. Smith noted, "Our 4th grade ELA passing rate was the lowest it has been since 1999 and our 4th grade math passing rate was the lowest since 2001." The Superintendent formulated a list of 10 questions

to teachers who, by most accounts, have been inundated with curricula changes year in and year out. As one teacher put it, "It’s not one new program we’re asked to initiate, but several, and if they don’t work you can expect more the next year." The School District’s Assistant Superintendent Barbarann Tantillo is in charge of curricula and all changes to it. With regard to the perception of ever-changing curricula, one of Mr. Smith’s questions to teachers is prophetic, "Is there anything we are doing that we should change or stop doing?"

On March 1, The Board of Education chose the Washington Irving School auditorium to hold a public information session on the School’s construction project. Supertintendent Smith addressed a dozen parents, scattered about the large auditorium, on the School’s revised construction estimate. In 2005 voters approved a $72,200,000 referendum for construction and renovation work to both Washington Irving and the Sleepy Hollow High School. At that time $17,087,000 had been earmarked for WI. The School’s library was to be expanded and the auditorium was scheduled for renovation. Windows were to be replaced and bathrooms were to be renovated as well. General classroom sizes were to be increased, a new art room was planned and the Administration and Nurse’s areas were to be reconfigured.

In October of 2005 (a year after the conceptual estimate) the design estimates for both schools were revised and the new figures reflected a $10,191,429 increase over what voters had approved. Mr. Smith and the Board of Education decided to keep the original scope of the Sleepy Hollow High School project intact and revise the budget for expenditures at Washington Irving. Those revisions left an available balance of $6,436,836 for WI. As a result, the 3 new wings that had been planned will not be built. The current three-grade (4-6) building will become a 2-grade building (4-5) with sixth graders being moved up to the Sleepy Hollow Middle School. The new library which had been touted as vital, will not be built. The current library will simply be expanded. New music rooms have been cancelled and existing music rooms will be renovated. The plan for new heating and electrical systems has been jettisoned and those systems will simply be upgraded. New lighting systems will not be installed and existing lighting will remain. The School will receive new bathrooms and windows as previously planned, along with renovations to increase the size of classrooms. Other projects not affected by the budget reduction are a new art room, nurse’s station and renovated auditorium. Administrative offices originally slated for redesign will remain unchanged with the revised plan.

Revisions in the construction timeframe have prolonged the start-up date. By June of this year the Board of Education hopes to submit revised plans to the State Department of Education (SED). By this coming December the SED is expected to give approval. Bids for the work are to be awarded on January 17, 2008 and construction is now set for July 1, 2008. As for completion of construction at WI the Board has placed a question mark on the date of 12/31/09.

At the end of the information session Superintendent Smith and the Board of Education answered questions from parents. One woman mentioned that the construction at the Sleepy Hollow High School had not worked out the way she thought it would. Mr. Smith concurred that there were annoying inconveniences at the High School and that it wasn’t possible to keep students completely away from the noise and dust. Another parent cited that the Morse School wasn’t appropriate for children with developmental issues and that it’s not a good school for little children in 2nd and 3rd grades. Superintendent Smith replied that he realized the limitations of Morse as an elementary school. He said money had been put into the building for a new roof, windows and fire alarm system, and that teachers had devised ingenious methods of making the school more appealing. He concluded by saying that Morse was never meant to be an elementary school. Perhaps the most perplexed parent found himself making a statement to the Board rather than asking a question. He noted that both of his children would be caught up in ongoing construction. His daughter at Sleepy Hollow High School would not get to enjoy the new school before she graduated, and his other child would go through Washington Irving during its construction phrase.

At the conclusion of the information session the Board of Education turned their attention to the proposed school budget for the coming 2007/2008 school year. The proposal calls for a 9.83% increase, raising the current budget of $50,601,862 to $55,575,667. The budget is to be adopted at the regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting on Thursday, April 12, at 8pm. Registered voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, May 15 to cast their ballots in support of or opposition to the increase.

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About the Author: Robert Bonvento