Debated Sixth Grade Move Proceeds As Originally Planned

After protests, petitions, votes and re-votes, Massapequa’s sixth graders are attending Berner Middle School this fall.
The Board of Education voted at their meeting on July 13 to reverse the original plan, approved in 2016, to move the sixth graders to Berner. The reversal came with mixed emotions.
“… when we told [our son] the news he was quite excited to know that he would be able to stay back in Unqua,” Massapequa parent, John Reece said. “He’s had an amazing experience.”
The reversal came as a shock to many, since the students had already completed all the necessary work and a moving up ceremony from their elementary schools. Some parents were looking forward to the opportunity for their children to experience clubs, sports, a foreign language and chromebooks. As a result, several parents took a stand, protesting against the reversal outside MHS.
At the protests, parents expressed how emotional this experience had been for their children. “This is awful. Let them go into Berner, that’s what they were promised,” Sarah Avagnano, a parent of an incoming sixth grader, said. “They graduated and did everything they were asked, now the school’s going back on their promises. This is not fair to the kids.”
Students weighed in as well. “We worked hard the whole year and graduated. Now we have to do it all over again. It’s very upsetting and hard to process,” sixth grader Olivia Avagnano said.
Still others continued the fight to reverse the decision by signing petitions and attending Board of Education meetings.
“By going to Berner, it’s going to give them the best possible education and prepare them the best way we possibly can as a school district to be successful in their chosen colleges and careers,” BOE Secretary, Mr. Gary Baldinger said.
On the other side, anti-move parents have stressed the point that most sixth graders have not developed necessary social skills to enter middle school at a young age.
“I believe that their social and emotional skills are not developed properly enough to put them in a position to make intelligent decisions when questions such as sex and drugs and things of that nature come up, not that I’m saying Berner has drugs” BOE President Mr. Tim Taylor said.
In response to the division in the community, Superintendent Mrs. Lucille F. Iconis emailed the state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia after the August 3 BOE meeting. The email was sent, according to Mrs. Iconis, in hopes that the Commissioner could offer some relief such as a reduction of the required days of instruction in order to give the teachers time to prepare for the return to the elementary schools. She was concerned that the State Education department was being bombarded with a high number of emails about the reversal and that the Commissioner would wonder why the Superintendent of the district had not brought an issue of great concern and controversy to her attention.
Soon after sending that email, Mrs. Iconis received an automated reply from the Commissioner’s office stating that the only way any correspondence could be taken into consideration is if an official petition was submitted, which she did NOT submit.
Ms. Elia banned the school board from reversing the move after receiving a petition signed by over 1,000 Massapequa parents.
“I was as surprised as many,” Mrs. Iconis said. “that the Commissioner weighed in on the decision to stay the resolution passed on July 13, 2017.”
However, some members of the Board were displeased with her actions.
“… the Superintendent … emailed the Commissioner of Education, requesting her intervention without the approval of the board,” BOE Trustee Mr. Brian Butler said. “Which I believe led to the state placing a stay on the board’s decision.”
This led members of the Board of Education to file Article 78 proceedings in an effort to reverse the stay. According to Article 78 in New York State Law, an individual can file a challenge against an administration. “The Board of Education filed the article 78 against the Commissioner of Education to reverse the stay order she placed,” Mrs.Iconis said.
As reported in Newsday, Judge Denise Hartman of Albany did not overrule the commissioner’s stay. As a result, sixth grade students are currently attending Berner Middle School.
Many are overjoyed that the Board of Education was required to keep the initial promise made by the Board of 2016 to embark on this new chapter.
“This is my fifteenth year as a member of the Board of Education,” BOE Trustee, Mrs. Maryanne Fisher said. “And I couldn’t be more proud of what we have accomplished under the leadership of our Superintendent.”
In spite of the differences within the community, what hasn’t been discussed is the advantages the students are gaining, Mrs. Iconis shared.
The new sixth graders will be introduced to many new classes, such as MS (Middle School) 101 which introduces the new students to digital and physical organizational skills, conflict resolution and other relevant skills. As well, sixth grade students at Berner will now take language, health and Family/Consumer sciences.
All current sixth grade teachers, plus two newly hired, are now at the middle school. Many of these teachers feel like “pioneers,” Mrs. Iconis said, by moving up to the middle school and introducing the new curriculum.
“The first few days of teaching at Berner have been exciting. It is a new experience and it feels like I am embarking on a great quest. The students have been doing a fantastic job and I am amazed at how quickly they have settled in,” sixth grade teacher, Mr. Keith Lambert said. “Berner is a much bigger school than Unqua, but I am meeting so many people and making new friends-just like the students. I think it is going to be an amazing year.”
Furthermore, the elementary schools will be gaining new science rooms for students to utilize and some of the YMCA students will not be bused to Berner anymore for the before and after school program.
“Not only does the configuration allow for educational enhancement for sixth graders going to Berner,” Mrs. Fisher said, “but our elementary buildings also now have additional space to expand their educational programs.”
Many parents agree. “They have so many more educational opportunities to branch out and meet new friends at this age,” sixth grade parent Lisa Hansen said.
But still, not everyone is happy about the change. “Our son was a little upset, not crying or anything crazy, but he was disappointed [when he learned the move was taking place]. We tried to explain to him that he is going to be okay no matter where he is,” John Reece said.
Considering that each side of the debate their own opinions, one thing is for sure—both sides are fighting for the the best education possible for their kids and to keep the district’s reputation untarnished, no matter what building they learn in.

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