Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

School District Year in Review: 

Challenges heeded; Dollars flow in to get students career ready

Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting saw Branwen MacDonald re-elected to the position of president. This was after the July 5 meeting where Trustee Pamela Hallman-Johnson announced her desire to be president but couldn’t secure the necessary four votes. Two trustees, Allen Jenkins and Branwen MacDonald, were absent from the July 5 meeting and as a result the vote was postponed until the July 25 meeting. 

MacDonald and Johnson read statements stating their qualifications and interest in the leadership position. Johnson, who was elected in 2018, reiterated her statement from the organizational meeting on July 5. 

 “Since my time of service on the board, together with your partnership, we have made improvements in diversity, equity and inclusion as it relates to our hiring process. We have collectively improved graduation rates, special education programming and successfully launched our STEAM initiatives. Furthermore, as a board, we have improved and enhanced the image of our school district and we have brought to the forefront all the amazing initiatives that are taking place within our school community. I would like to continue this progressive push forward in an upward direction by serving as president,” said Hallman-Johnson.  

Board Trustee Pamela Hallman-Johnson who is beginning  the last year of her second term.

 She reminded the board that “every senior member, having served at least two years on this board, has served as either a vice president or president, not necessarily in that order. I am the remaining senior school board trustee who has not yet had the opportunity to serve as board president. I have served as a board trustee for the past five years. It is my hope that my fellow board trustees, in all transparency, honor the protocol and tacit agreement that we put in place – as I have and as each of you have had the privilege of being a beneficiary. I ask that you not deny me my opportunity to benefit as well. I humbly ask for your support and your vote of confidence to serve as board president for the Peekskill City School District for the 2023-24 school year” said Hallman-Johnson. 

 MacDonald, who was elected to another four-year term in May, said she welcomed the opportunity for dialogue as she began her statement. “I decided to run for president this year knowing that many of our members have pressing time commitments outside of our board responsibilities at this time and knowing that last year’s vice president who would normally proceed to the role is no longer on the board. Above all, this role is a service to our fellow trustees and by extension to our community. I feel I can best serve as I have this past year by being consistently present, prepared and informed and by continuing to drive our goals and priorities forward as a team.”

Trustree Branwen MacDonald was re-elected in May for a four-year term.

She continued, “I’m prepared to attend additional agenda meetings with our superintendent, communicate with our members between meetings regarding schedule changes, organize quorums for urgent meetings and update trustees regarding any information they may miss if absent. I will continue to be available when members need items brought to the agenda for discussion. I will continue to represent the board at events, PTO meetings and in legislative advocacy efforts and as a board trustee on the Westchester Putnam board representing our district and gaining insights from other districts. I appreciate the opportunity to serve you in this capacity and look forward to another year of growth in our district together as a team,” said MacDonald.

 At the July 5 organizational meeting Jenkins was elected as vice-president and he led Tuesday’s meeting. After the two trustees read their statements, Jenkins polled the board for votes.

 Johnson voted for herself, as did MacDonald. Jenkins then voted for MacDonald as did trustee Michael Simpkins (who had voted for Johnson at the July 5 meeting). Trustees Jillian Villon voted for MacDonald as did new trustee Amy Vele, securing five votes. Trustee Eric Redeka was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

 MacDonald took the oath of office as president from Superintendent Dr. David Mauricio who presented “A Year In Review”to the board. Before he began the presentation of 42 slides which lasted about 40 minutes,  he acknowledged the presence of staff and community members including Mayor Vivian McKenzie, Deputy Mayor Patricia Riley, Councilmen Dwight Douglas and Ramon Fernandez along with County Legislator Colin Smith. 

 Social Emotional Learning Initiatives 

At the beginning of the “Year in Review” he addressed the issue of social, emotional health and well being of students and what the district was engaged in regarding that area of a child’s development. He referenced what programs work effectively and what needs improvement.  

Based on feedback from the community and during an administrators retreat this summer he spoke of a community roundtable in August to continue engagement on this topic with parents and families. “We have listened and we’re moving forward in many of these areas.” 

Social, emotional wellness is a first priority and academic achievement is a close second. “These programs (social emotional learning) do exist but we will continue to move forward next year,” he said, mentioning that social emotional learning will be incorporated into homeroom periods in the middle school and high school as well this coming school year. 

Some of the programs that are working are positive behavior interventions and support programs at each school. The district aims to work closely with families to engage in this practice as well. “We continue to work each day with our students, identifying social behaviors we want them to engage in. We are the individuals who shine the light as adults in this community to help students understand the path they should move down. Sometimes they get into scenarios where they need to readjust themselves,” said the superintendent.  

More than 100 students have graduated with this seal showing proficiency in reading English and Spanish.

Ellen Gerace, the district’s special education director, introduced a method known as  Zones of Regulation before the pandemic in the elementary schools. A Zone of Regulation is a specific area in the classroom where a student goes when they are facing an emotional challenge that is getting in the way of learning rather than being removed from the classroom. In the zone area they can use manipulatives to gain perspective and once they’ve gotten back on track they can return to instruction and continue to learn in the classroom setting. 

Other resources the district has employed include character development,restorative practices regarding diversity, equity and inclusion and conflict resolution when students have a challenge with each other. The conflict resolution involves peer mediation with Westchester County mediation partners.  “This is when students have challenges with each other, they have an opportunity to rebuild relationships.” Mauricio mentioned that the program will now be offered in the middle school in addition to the high school. “They learn how to resolve conflict and co-exist in the school environment.” 

There is a national shortage of seats available for counseling, according to Mauricio and Peekskill is not unusual in that the needs of families can’t be met.  He met with the Westchester Commissioner of Mental Health about this issue and they are exploring ways to bring more counseling services to the community, including, with parent’s permission, virtual appointments, so children and families don’t have to travel to White Plains. The school district will pilot this program this year. 

The district is continuing its partnership with community mentorship programs for black and brown students and for girls.  There is a plan to bring mentors from the community into the programs. In addition, the district is continuing its anti-bias work for staff with nationally recognized Dr. Paul Forbes. 

Growth in Pre-K and High School Career Ready programs 

Other highlights of the presentation included the news of two grants the Peekskill City School District was awarded. In December, Peekskill received a million dollars from the state to expand the pre-K four-year-old program. Mauricio noted that when he arrived in the district five years ago, there was only a half-day pre-K program and now there are 250 full-day pre-K children enrolled for the coming year.

A graduate of the 2023 Pre-K program.

At the opposite end of the educational spectrum, for high schoolers,  he announced a new program with Westchester Community College that allows any graduating senior from Peekskill High School to automatically be accepted into the community college without having to go through the college application process and pay enrollment fees.  

The financial highlight of the evening was the announcement that the Peekskill City School District and the Ossining School District are recipients along with BOCES of a $2.7 million Pathways to Technology state grant which is primarily for academically and economically at-risk students to strengthen the pipeline between local talent and industries with a favorable job outlook.

Peekskill is an inaugural recipient of this program that begins in 2024-25 school year.

The Pathways in Technology Early College High School Program  (PTech) incorporates an integrated four to six  year program that combines high school, college, and career training. The public-private partnerships provide students with mentorship and opportunities to learn through worksite visits, speakers, and internships. The partnerships in the program are with SUNY Westchester Community College, Open Door Family Medical Center, Peekskill Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Ossining Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Sun River Health.

PTech is open to 25 Peekskill students and 25 Ossining students beginning with the 2024 school year. This upcoming school year is the planning phase. Students will be able to sign up to express their interest as they enter high school and be selected through a process that is still developing.

A portion of the presentation included images of how the physical structure of the buildings have been upgraded to reflect a brighter learning environment. This is Woodside School principal Staci Woodley in the before and after pictures with Dr. Mauricio.

The career focus areas of the program include cybersecurity, computer information systems , network IT, health information technologies, medical coding, and paramedic/emergency medical technicians (EMT). Students will be able to graduate with a high school diploma and an associates degree. The program will help students be the first in line for jobs with participating business partners in high-wage, high-skill, and high-demand career areas. 

At the end of his presentation, Mauricio identified the leaders in the buildings; new assistant principals and principals as well as directors of departments. 








About the Contributor
Jeffrey Merchan
Peekskill native Jeffrey Merchan is a 2022 graduate of Peekskill High School. He is the Collegiate Journalist at Peekskill Herald, funded by a grant from the DJ McManus Foundation. He is currently enrolled at Westchester Community College where he is studying journalism. As the inaugural recipient of the McManus grant, he will be covering city government, schools and feature stories with a focus on Peekskill’s growing Hispanic community.