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District 26 holds breakfast

By Kelsey Durham

Several elected officials met with parents and educators of School District 26 last week as the district’s presidents’ council hosted a legislative breakfast in Bayside to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing education today, including school safety and Common Core standards.

District 26 — which covers northeast Queens neighborhoods — is known as the best education district in the city, and council President Kim D’Angelo said the group holds one or two legislative breakfasts per year in order to keep elected officials in the loop about their concerns.

With the harsh winter that the city has experienced over the past few months, one of the most important topics D’Angelo planned for this year’s gathering was the safety of children as they make their way to school.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and city Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have come under fire for keeping schools open despite severe weather and significant snowfall, even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency and advised New Yorkers to avoid unnecessary travel.

D’Angelo said most parents in the area drive their children to and from school, and she told legislators during the breakfast that parents do not think their child’s attendance record should suffer if parents do not believe it is safe to get them to school.

“If the roads are not clear out here in District 26, we can’t just hop on the subway,” D’Angelo said. “And with so many of our teachers unable to make the unsafe drive from Nassau and Suffolk counties, the children who do make it to school spend much of the day doing busy work or watching movies. Very little essential learning goes on when the attendance rate is 42 percent.”

State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone), a former high school teacher who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said one possible solution to the snow day issue is to explore the idea of closing schools on a boroughwide basis.

She pointed out that the weather in Staten Island or the Bronx could be drastically different from conditions in Queens or Manhattan and that allowing each borough or district to decide itself whether to keep schools open would be safer for everyone involved.

City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) said he has received a lot of positive feedback on a Facebook post he made recently about the same issue in which he suggested that each school delegate a rotation of teachers to serve as a “skeletal staff” that would be required to go into school on days with inclement weather.

The idea also comes with a basic activities program that would be implemented if a large portion of students are missing in order to avoid having students miss class work.

“I understand we can’t close schools because people have to go to work, but we have this philosophy that if schools are open, you have to go,” Weprin said. “The problem is that kids just end up watching movies.”

Another important issue discussed at the breakfast was the newly implemented Common Core that has divided parents and educators over the rigorous testing and standards that go along with the curriculum.

Many parents who attended the event said Common Core has made it increasingly hard for them to help their children with homework because the criteria calls for lessons to be taught strictly in a certain way, while other parents described seeing their children distressed and unable to sleep the night before one of the many tests that come along with Common Core.

Stavisky said she sees “a number of issues” with Common Core in its current state and said that although she agrees with the need for occasional testing, she questioned the necessity of performance exams for students as young as second-graders.

Alim Gafar, treasurer of the District 26 presidents’ council, agreed with the senator.

“I’m all for having a high bar for our children to reach, but certain parts are just not well-thought out at this point,” he said.

Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at kdurham@cnglocal.com.

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