Panel talks county education challenges | News, Sports, Jobs


OBSERVER Photo by Mary Heyl
The Fredonia chapter of United University Professions recently held a panel discussion at SUNY Fredonia regarding the changing role of education. Pictured, from left, are panelists Mike McElrath, principal, Jamestown public schools; Justin Hanft, director, Chautauqua County Education Coalition; Elizabeth Booth, director, JCC North County Training and Conference Center; Janeil Rey, director, Workforce Development at Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES; Greg Cole, president, Silver Creek Central School Board of Education, Dr. James Tracy, superintendent, Dunkirk City School District; and Jeff Sortisio, superintendent, Fredonia Central School. Not pictured: Joe Winiecki, director, Erie-Cattaraugus Teacher Center.

From attendance issues to staffing shortages, panelists at a recent United University Professions Fredonia Chapter meeting recently discussed the challenges that Chautauqua County educators are facing. The eight panelists who met at SUNY Fredonia explored these issues and also discussed ways in which they are currently being addressed or could be addressed in the future.

Moderator Mike Igoe, assistant communications professor at SUNY Fredonia, began the discussion by asking panelists, “What do you feel your main challenges are as an educational institution for our region, and how do we solve them?”

Jeff Sortisio, superintendent at Fredonia Central School, responded first: “How do we adjust what we teach and how we teach to what the future needs are, especially when a lot of those needs are unknown?” He went on to explain that although the district is looking at answers to this question, much of what Fredonia or any public school can do is guided by decisions made at the state level.

Dr. James Tracy, superintendent of Dunkirk City Schools, said understaffing in the technology program at his and other districts is problematic. During the past year, the district lost two technology teachers due to the high demand. Tracy currently has one opening, and “we were able to get one (teacher) who is just finishing his degree and is able to work, by law, as a substitute until he finishes and gets his certification, hopefully in December.”

Greg Cole, president of the Silver Creek Central School Board of Education, noted that the biggest challenge the school board sees is academic preparedness. Currently, the district is working with students to raise performance and build proficiency, while also focusing on necessary soft skills such as attendance, punctuality and putting in a “full, honest day of work.”

Janeil Rey, director of Workforce Development at Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, said one of their biggest challenges is connecting students to available programs. She referenced the HVAC program, which enrolled 16 juniors and six seniors this year, but has openings for 20 students at each grade level. “We have 95 students in P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School), but we have room for 160 students,” Rey said. “We have 100 additional spaces in career and technical education in our two centers in Chautauqua County, Hewes and LoGuidice, that should be filled.”

Elizabeth Booth, director of JCC North County Training and Conference Center, noted that declining population is a significant issue. Currently, the campus is working on experiential learning opportunities with local companies and is partnering with Athenex to develop programs and training that will prepare graduates to fill those jobs. Similarly to BOCES, the campus has under-utilized programs in technology, and college completion is another ongoing challenge.

Justin Hanft, director of the Chautauqua County Education Coalition, called for “a mindset shift,” as he believes the current problems facing educational institutions are complex and unlikely to ever go away. “But how can we make them the best that they can be in Chautauqua County?” he asked. Hanft noted the importance of connecting the area’s resources and programs with the people who need them. “We need to make sure we have a continuous community process of gathering: getting together and talking about the programs that are effective, reaching community-level outcomes that we’re looking for and that can be sustained through the resources that we have here in Chautauqua County,” he stated.

Mike McElrath, principal of Jamestown public schools, said currently the biggest challenge he is facing is student attendance. “Thirty percent of my students would be considered chronically absent by New York state reporting standards,” he stated. “That means missing 10 percent or more of their school days.”

McElrath also noted a paradigmatic shift in education, especially when it comes to the role of the educator. “We have a number of students who exhibit mental health concerns,” he explained. “We have two full-time social workers who work all week long with half hour appointments. They’re booked all day, all week with a waiting list. It changes the role of the teacher — how do you interact with students who have a short fuse or difficult circumstances at home?” He went on to explain that although the school is encouraging students to pursue challenging courses, they are simultaneously trying to integrate soft skills such as attendance, punctuality and work ethic into the curriculum.

Joe Winiecki, director of the Erie-Cattaraugus Teacher Center, said that his center is working hard to provide area teachers with training and resources to meet their needs. He provided the example of iPads as tools that many teachers first explored at the center several years ago before recommending them to their school district. Training on “hot topics” like safe schools and respectful classrooms are also priorities at the center right now.

Audience members had the opportunity to ask questions of panelists. A SUNY Fredonia student inquired about the variety of educational pathways that high schools are developing. Tracy addressed the question by discussing the importance of internships and courses geared toward careers. “We actually have kids in our school who we pay to help fix our laptops…We’re starting a pathway for kids who might want to go into teaching to receive JCC credit, go on to an early childhood education program at JCC, finish it at SUNY Fredonia and come back here to teach in Dunkirk,” Tracy explained.

Another audience member inquired as to how BOCES programs could be better advertised to students and families. Rey discussed recent efforts, including information at the Chautauqua County Fair, more literature for guidance counselors to distribute to students and middle school “taste of tech” visits. Rey acknowledged the importance of more efforts like this, as most BOCES students join the program through one of three ways. “They have a friend — so word of mouth — or they have a parent in education who is aware of this option and sees it as a good opportunity. Or they have a parent who is in the skilled trades,” Rey explained. “That leaves out a lot of kids.”

A retired union electrician asked the panel if there could be more communication between local apprenticeship programs and school districts. “As a superintendent, I would welcome that,” Sortisio responded. “Skilled labor is an incredible pathway. I would love that partnership…Today’s adolescent, today’s child wants experiences. They don’t want to just sit in a classroom and listen. They want to be doing things.”


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