Amagansett: A New Year and a New Curriculum

This year will be the first full one for the school’s new principal, Robert Brisbane, who assumed his role toward the end of the 2012-13 academic year
Dr. Robert Brisbane brings 26 years’ experience in education to his new position as principal of the Amagansett School. Morgan McGivern

   For administrators at the Amagansett School, like those at other schools across the state, the new school year means exciting beginnings but also the return to a challenging set of new state and federal standards, known as the Common Core, that bring additional work for teachers and administrators, including an unprecedented degree of data collection.

    This year will be the first full one for the school’s new principal, Robert Brisbane, who assumed his role toward the end of the 2012-13 academic year. Dr. Brisbane brings 26 years of experience as an educator, including 10 as a teacher in Harlem, one as an assistant principal, eight more as a principal, and positions with Nassau Board of Cooperative Educational Services and the Westbury School District. “And now, the pinnacle of my career,” he said on Tuesday. “All of that prepared me to be here now.” Working at the Amagansett School so far, he said, “has been a really great experience.”

    “We’re happy to come into school to see all those happy, smiling faces again,” Eleanor Tritt, the district superintendent, said Tuesday of the 109 students enrolled at the school this year. “It’s very nice.”

    While reporting requirements are more stringent and the standards have changed, the basics at the Amagansett School have not, Ms. Tritt said. Emphasis on reading and comprehending complex material, mathematics, science, social studies, and history remain important, as do art, music, and physical education.

   “I know some places where music and the arts have to be taken away,” said Dr. Brisbane. “It takes the joy out of the school. Here, we can still have that. Our students do very well. Teachers work very hard. We are adapting to the Common Core, but the child here still gets a full experience. That’s one of the many beauties of Amagansett.”

    “We are beginning to develop the curriculum model,” Ms. Tritt said. “The standard just says, in a generic sense, what children should be able to do and know. But how does that come alive in real life? What does that mean when you actually implement that?” The school has ordered an initial set of curriculum modules from the state, at considerable expense. Six to seven modules, for each subject, are required over the course of an academic year.

    At the state level, Ms. Tritt said, “they had determined what students needed to know when they were ready for college. Then they just backtracked and divided the topics down to the lower grades. What we don’t think they really considered is the developmental level of the children. Just because it works out that you can backtrack, it doesn’t mean that the grade they assigned those concepts to are really developmentally appropriate for that level. We will have to see over the course of the year what adjustments we feel are appropriate for the children.”

    Teachers, Ms. Tritt said, have had to absorb the new curriculum, put it into practice, and educate parents and children about the new, higher expectations. “That’s a very big undertaking,” she said, but the school’s personnel are handling the changes well.

    The quantity of data that must now be collected and reported, Ms. Tritt said, “has really made a huge difference to the way in which everyone has to function — this is for all districts — and the way the data has to be shared across the various programs, then consolidated, sent to BOCES, and then BOCES has to send it to the state. We’ve implemented so many of these new programs, but it means the data has to be perfect in order to share.” The requirements, she said, burden every school district, with no commensurate funding. “It is quite an additional cost to districts in terms of money and the amount of time that people have to devote. We have to, for instance, collect the minutes that every teacher spends with every child, every day, for every period. If a child is pulled out for occupational therapy, speech, goes to the library, or goes to the nurse, that has to be recorded as to which teacher the child was with, for how many minutes.”

    In this new environment, in which college and career preparation are emphasized earlier in a child’s development, the superintendent and principal are concerned both that fundamentals may be overlooked and that children may suffer undue stress. “The state seems to emphasize, primarily, making our students resources for global competitiveness,” Ms. Tritt said, “whereas we feel the purpose of education is good citizenship and a well-rounded life — to be a successful person in life, not an economic commodity. We feel that the most important fact of interpersonal relationships is for children to communicate with other people, to respect other people, to understand other people, to be able to work with other people, to have confidence, to be able to get up and present.”

    Students now take two sets of standardized tests in the fall, two sets in the winter, and four sets in the spring. “The number of weeks that the children are exposed to taking tests has increased tremendously,” Ms. Tritt said. “There’s no way they can not feel [stress]. We’d rather be teaching the kids than testing them.” Effort is made to insulate children from the stress of expectations, she said. “But as the kids get older, the pressure they’re exposed to, particularly at the secondary level, is that they feel they will not be able to be competitive, unfortunately. There are schools I’ve read about that start talking about identifying careers in early elementary school. I think that closes the world to them.”

    The Amagansett School offers various opportunities for children to perform, Ms. Tritt said, and teachers and administrators will work hard to maintain that. “That’s so important in developing their independence, their sense of competence, their ability to formulate their ideas and work with other people. We always emphasize that the academics is one portion of what we do. We really try to keep that balance.”

    The superintendent and principal hope that parents understand that, given the state’s new expectations, the standardized tests are not necessarily a reflection of what their children have learned. “We’re very fortunate,” Ms. Tritt said, “because the community is so supportive. The school really is a cornerstone of the community. Education is valued and appreciated.”

    Yesterday, the school hosted a “welcome back” picnic. On Sept. 28, the PTA will host a fall fair.