Jaime Franchi

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Jaime Franchi is the Executive Editor of Morey Publishing. She covers education and contributes news and entertainment pieces for the Long Island Press, along with occasional op-eds when she's in the mood for some hate mail. Her work can also be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Huffington Post and The New York Times.

Long Island’s Opt Out Movement Has Made The Grade—Now What?

Common Core Protest Long Island
Common Core critics blasted New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo his Sept. 3, 2015 comments about the 'deeply flawed' and controversial education reform program, deeming them politically motivated and ingenuine. More than 1,000 parents, teachers and school administrators (above) rallied on March 9, 2015 at Long Island University Post Campus in Brookville against Common Core. (Jaime Franchi/Long Island Press)

Early this month, Betty Rosa, New York State’s new education chancellor, was on Long Island to visit Medford Elementary School, where she met with students, teachers and staff. Children in the dual language kindergarten program easily conversed with her in both English and Spanish.

As the highest ranking member of the state’s Board of Regents and the state’s education czar, the teachers and the superintendent regarded Rosa with respect. After all, she is the boss, with a capital B. But the kids took to her with the natural curiosity and comfort of childhood that essentially said, “She’s one of us.” She spoke their language. Literally.

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The friendly scene was in stark contrast to the heated battle pitting the governor, the teachers unions and grassroots public school advocacy groups against one another. The struggle came to a head during this spring’s testing season, culminating in a giant win for Long Island Opt-Out, a parent-led group that organized an historic number of test-refusals this year with almost 100,000 students—more than half of the student population in Nassau and Suffolk counties—opting out of state tests. Their message has been effective: No more Common Core. Despite incremental fixes promised by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his so-called “Common Core Task Force,” they are still demanding concrete changes.

Yet, it remains to be seen how this evolving protest movement will improve or replace the current education agenda.

According to local public education advocates, the answer is multi-tiered. It includes elections: first at the state level and then at the local school board in an effort to tackle education policy from all sides. The goal is a shift away from schools’ increasing test-prep focus almost exclusively on math and reading skills—eschewing the arts and play-based learning—to a comprehensive curriculum that addresses what some advocates call the “whole child.”

“I think we need to emphasize the issue of high-stakes testing,” Rosa told the Press at a lunch in the school’s conference room with staff and other attendees. “I think we have to get back to what really matters, which is teaching and learning—deep learning—and our kids’ excitement to really become those deep learners. We have to change the narrative back to focus on teaching and learning, and less on one Kodak moment to capture all of that work. Believe me, parents know that those children are assessed constantly. The issue is having multiple ways to measure achievement.”

Rosa had spoken out against high-stakes testing at a press conference in March after the Board of Regents had selected her to the leadership post. She said that if she were not a board member herself and her children were elementary-school aged, she would opt them out of taking New York’s Common Core tests. On May 3, at the elementary school in Patchogue, she told the Press that she doesn’t believe the state should have the right to withhold funds from school districts with significant numbers of students who had refused to take state tests in April.

“Parents legally have a choice,” she said. “Given that choice, you cannot then legally punish school districts and schools for decisions that parents have made. So my goal is to make sure that we get to a better place where we don’t even have to have these discussions because it gets back to teaching and learning.”

Dr. Betty Rosa
Dr. Betty Rosa, New York State’s new education chancellor, visiting with Long Island elementary school students in early May. (Jaime Franchi/Long Island Press)

But no sweeping changes can be made to a school’s education policy without the support of the local district’s board of education. Perhaps no one understands this better than Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt-Out Info, the popular Facebook page with more than 24,000 members that transformed into a robust-and powerful advocacy group. Deutermann told the Press that the election of nearly 100 Opt-Out members to local school boards, coupled with a new Regents chancellor, means that the tide is turning.

“The bottom line is that some of these big wins could mean huge, sweeping changes for some districts,” she told the Press. “Education is shifting in New York. It’s up to parents to elect the right board of education that’s moving with this philosophical shift of how we want to educate our children. It all goes back to something that Dr. Joe Rella [superintendent of Comsewogue schools] said: ‘You get the Board of Ed you deserve.’

“Parents are taking that seriously,” Deutermann continued. “This shift in philosophy is happening fast. We can’t wait 10 years if we want our children to experience this change.”

A key part of Long Island Opt Out’s strategy for the last two years has been to promote local supporters to their individual district’s school boards. So far, Long Island Opt Out has helped elect 94 candidates; 34 out of 57 this year, including local advocates Anthony Griffin and Sara Wottawa, who were elected on May 17 to their respective school boards.


“We have to change the narrative back to focus on teaching and learning, and less on one Kodak moment to capture all of that work.”


Griffin, an English teacher in Central Islip and co-founder of Lace to the Top, an advocacy group that promoted bright green laces to signify that “children are more than test scores,” was an LIOO-backed candidate who won a seat on the South Country school board. He’s hoping to influence his children’s public education experience from the local level.

“Changes in public education happen because of people,” Griffin told the Press in an email. “Some people want change to increase profits. Some want change to impose a belief. I want change to help students. As a board member in a student-centered district, I have an amazing opportunity to manifest those changes.”

Griffin is “thrilled to have the opportunity to bring what I have learned to my district’s board. Local control doesn’t exist without locally involved people.”

Wottawa is an outspoken parent in the Sachem School District. She joins two other LI Opt Out-endorsed board of education members who were elected last year to serve on the nine-member board.

“I’m hoping the three of us can work together to enforce change in the district,” Wottawa told the Press. “I would like to see Sachem take a more holistic approach in educating our children. I would like to see us move towards educating the whole child in Sachem. Most importantly, I would like to propel a unity in the Sachem community. Without the support of the majority of the community, positive change is nearly impossible.”

Though she’s in the minority on the school board, Wottawa is upbeat.

“Once we have more vocal public education supporters on our local school boards across the state,” she said, “I think we will see more positive changes.”

The special April 19 election of Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) to the State Senate to replace disgraced former GOP Senate majority leader Dean Skelos is seen as a key step in a populist-driven shift in the state’s education agenda, according to Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and a former assistant Secretary of Education in Washington, D.C. under President George H.W. Bush. During the Clinton administration she was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the federal testing program.

“Kaminsky’s victory is a victory for the leaders of the Long Island opt-out movement, who strongly supported his candidacy and the legislation he proposed as a member of the Assembly,” wrote Ravitch on her popular blog. “Kaminsky wants to decouple test scores from teacher evaluation, which would reduce the absurd pressure to raise test scores and the time lost by the arts and other subjects. Parents want their children to have a well-rounded education, not a test-prep curriculum.”

Kaminsky drew wide support from New York public school advocates after he sponsored three bills in the Assembly in February that would repeal several components of Cuomo’s Education Transformation Act. The bill would decouple teacher evaluations from test results, create an alternative pathway for graduation for students who do not wish to take or are unable to pass Regents examinations and repeal a provision that allows the state to place struggling or failing schools into receivership. Kaminsky’s recent election—although he’ll have to run again in November—allowed him to introduce his Assembly bills in the State Senate, where they have been referred to the education committee, which has until the middle of June, when the current legislative session ends, to determine their fate.

Kaminsky’s win at the polls came after public education advocates were buoyed by the Board of Regents’ 15-0 election of Rosa as Chancellor to replace Meryl Tisch, who was seen as a proponent of the high stakes testing.

Putting the emphasis back on teaching and learning may seem like a broad idea for education reform, yet Rosa cites her long history that includes her role as superintendent of a New York City community school as a key to her goals moving forward. It is that particular background that motivates her to embrace the vision of Michael Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford schools.

In direct opposition to Common Core, Hynes, has spearheaded a five-year “Whole Child” program, which he said can “save education” and be the “answer to Albany.” He presented it to the board of education on May 16.

Rosa said she agrees with the approach.

“I think it’s fabulous,” she told the Press. “Looking at the whole child, you’re looking at all of the needs of the child. I just compliment him and support him.”

She also supported Cuomo’s recent emphasis on community schools.

“I think many community schools have served as models that show that services are needed, that certain children come to school with certain needs and particularly children who come from disadvantaged homes where they cannot afford so many services,” Rosa said, adding that Hynes understands what’s needed. “I think that he realizes that we have to serve the whole child, not just the academic part. I think that’s extremely important. You have to have healthy children—children who enjoy being in school in terms of attendance. It’s just important for kids to have exposure to the arts and have other ways to develop their talents.”

The genesis of Hynes’ plan came from his opinion that the U.S. Department of Education and the New York State Department of Education have “for far too long been about two things: 1. test scores. 2. higher test scores,” he told the Press in an email. “Public education has been forced to move away from educating the ‘whole child’ due to the Regents Reform Agenda, NCLB [No Child Left Behind], and this crazy notion that our 15 year olds must score higher than other 15 year olds around the world or America is doomed. The funny thing is nobody talks about the test the 15 year old takes…yet many place great importance on the results.”

Hynes’ focus on the whole child comes as a result of his background in psychology and as a former elementary teacher in Bellport. He bases it on the simple concept that kids can have fun and learn in school simultaneously.

“They can play and utilize highly developed divergent thinking skills at the same time,” Hynes said. “We need to teach our children how to socially and emotionally excel. On the flip side, we also need to teach them how to recalibrate when they are having difficulty with something.

“This is where more play in schools comes into play (no pun intended), more recess, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, etc…” he continued. “I believe by focusing on social, emotional and academics for our children…we will be able to harvest the talents they never knew existed.”

This idea is in stark opposition to the EngageNY curriculum that the State Department of Education has been pushing to coincide with the Common Core standards. New York’s curriculum is taught from firmly established modules that give teachers little room to waver from. Because the high-stakes tests are based upon this strict curriculum—and because teacher evaluation had been directly tied to the test results—the idea of learning through play had been replaced with a high-pressure classroom atmosphere that Hynes said benefits neither the educator nor the student.

On a cold rainy Tuesday in early May, kindergarten children at Medford Elementary joyfully showed off their Spanish skills in a counting song to Rosa’s obvious delight. The dual language program facilitates fluency in Spanish at a young age.

“My goal is make sure our children have the resources and the opportunities to have access to quality education,” she said. “By that, I mean we need the resources, which means the money, obviously. Opportunities, like in this dual language program, these kids get an opportunity to learn two languages. And access is making sure that children who sometimes don’t have the finances get to places where those opportunities are.”

Rosa surveyed the room filled with enthusiastic five- and six-year-olds and said, “We have to fight for these children within the public schools.”

9 Celebrities With An Unmistakable Long Island Accent

They tawk just like us! People know we’re from Long Island as soon as we open our (big) mouths. Without the edginess of Brooklynese, the Long Island accent is as distinctive as it is irritating. I say it’s time we own it. No, we don’t all sound like Amy Fisher. But some of us do. And some of us sound much, much worse. Whatevah.

So do these rock, TV and movie stars. And it never held them back from making it big in Hollywood. In fact, it probably helped.


 

Edie Falco

 

Even though The Sopranos has been off the air for almost a decade (how can that be??), Edie Falco’s Lawn Guyland dialect is still audible in our collective unconscious. Close your eyes. You can still hear her “Tony!” can’t you?

Although she was born in Brooklyn, Falco grew up in Long Island’s very own Hicksville, before moving to North Babylon and West Islip (home to many Tonys) and eventually Northport, from where she graduated high school. Of course she starred in her high school play—and naturally she played Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”the precursor to the rest of her career, as the perpetual Long Island-sounding actress.

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Falco has taken her Lawn Guyland accent to both the stage and screen, where she is an Emmy-, Golden Globe- and Screen Actors Guild-award winning actress. She has starred on Broadway in “Side Man,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clare de Lune,” and “‘night, Mother.” On the big screen, she acted in such films as Trust, Reversal of Fortune, Random Hearts and Freedomland. But it was on the small screen where she made the splash that embedded her in the pop culture annals forever. From her small role as prison officer Diane Whittlesey in HBO’s Oz to the infamous Carmela Soprano to the title role in the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco and her accent have earned their place as pop culture icons.


 

Fran Drescher

Her voice is synonymous with her face, her hair and her persona. But without the voice, Fran Drescher is virtually unrecognizable.

So maybe she grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens. We can waste time arguing over whether or not Queens is considered Long Island, but I’ll just tell you to peruse a map and then carry on with this article. We have a ways to go and no time for petty disagreements. (And also, I’m right and you’re wrong.)

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Although she had her share of small film roles in such big screen movies as Saturday Night Fever and This is Spinal Tap, the performance that brought her accent into our homes was her starring role in CBS’s The Nanny, created and produced by her then-husband and business partner Peter Jacobson. In the show, she played that accent for all it was worth, and audiences couldn’t get enough of it. The hair, the nails and that voice were all pitted against the staunchly uptight British widower Maxwell Sheffield, played by Charles Shaughnessy.

She was then able to parlay that inimitable persona into voice work, like in the animated film Shark Bait as well as into big screen projects like Beautician and the Beast. Most recently, she played the wicked stepmother in Broadway’s “Cinderella.”

Fran Drescher has also given voice to a cause dear to her heart. In her book Cancer Schmancer, she details her experience with uterine cancer in order to make women more aware of the early warning signs. She has become a voice (see what we did there?) of women’s health causes in general, fighting for research funding for diseases that disproportionately affect women.


 

Billy Joel

 

Everybody on the Island has a Billy Joel story. Whether you ran into him down in Oyster Bay Harbor, had an autograph signed in the parking lot of a red sauce joint in Syosset, your mom went to high school with the “Virginia” in the song “Only the Good Die Young,” or he’s driven his car into your living room, Billy Joel is a part of our Long Island culture. His voice is our voice. His accent as well.

He’s a legend. His songs are a mainstay on Long Island radio. And he’s ours.

Raised in Hicksville, Billy Joel has never strayed from his Long Island roots (although he might have moved up to a snazzier zip code—or two). During Hurricane Sandy, Billy Joel could be found digging in to help restore the shoreline.

You may like him or you may not. He may not be the coolest or the most talented or prolific (especially in the last 20 years) artist, but his influence is virtually unmatched. He sells out Madison Square Garden every friggin’ month—and has for the last two years with his unprecedented MSG residency.

Let’s face it, even if you never need to hear the song “Piano Man” ever again, it will outlive us all. And if you go off the Island and happen to hear it, you will lay claim to it as part of your Long Island heritage. We all do it.

His repertoire goes way beyond the radio hits of the ’80s, your “New York State of Mind” and your “Tell Her About It.” (Full disclosure: “Tell Her About It” was the first 45 I ever bought, at TSS in West Babylon, to play on my My Little Pony record player. It’s so damn catchy.) Obscure songs on Glass Houses and The Bridge show the range and depth of his song-writing skill and piano prowess. His Broadway smash “Movin’ Out” as well as his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (of course) further solidified his position as the one and only Piano Man.


 

Ralph Macchio

Sigh. “The Karate Kid” came into our hearts as a young heartthrob when he played Daniel LaRusso in 1984. He cemented his place in pop culture when he played Johnny in The Outsiders, holding his own (and then some) in the company of Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon.

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Born and raised in Huntington—a Half Hollow Hills High School alumnus who lived for a spell in East Islip and currently resides in Miller Place—Macchio has never lost his Long Island accent. You heard it when he was an adorable teenage kid (who was actually in his 20s when he played high school students), when he was in My Cousin Vinny (although his accent might have been drowned out by those of Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei), and when he was an adorable 50-year-old contestant on Dancing with The Stars (who still looked like a teenager).

Like Billy Joel, most of us here on LI know someone who knows someone who knows him. And they all have the same opinion: Ralph Macchio is a great guy. Down to earth. Modest. Eternally young. And so damn nice.

His sweetheart reputation has so followed Macchio that he was prompted to create the short “Wax On, F*ck Off,” for Funny or Die in 2010, which portrayed his close family and friends having a reverse intervention to plead with him: “Please do something to become relevant! Like doing drugs, soliciting a prostitute, something!” The video has millions of views and has reached “immortal status” on the site.

As has Macchio in our collective LI hearts. [Read my heart-stopping interview with the eternal LI heartthrob – “Ralph Macchio: L.I.’s Karate Kid Stays True To Form With ‘Across Grace Alley’” – HERE.]


 

Ray Romano

 

Ray Romano’s voice is that whiny Long Islandese that we gotta lay claim to, even if we don’t wanna. His show Everybody Loves Raymond was so thoroughly Long Island, with his Italian parents living in the house directly across the street and his job as a sports columnist for a suburban newspaper whose name shall not be mentioned. His older brother was an NYPD cop, as all of our brothers are growing up. The kids are obnoxious, but cute. As all our kids are.

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Romano was actually brought up in Queens, a part of Long island. (See: Fran Drescher.) He went to Hillcrest High School with Fran Drescher and even had the character Ray Barone (we all know people with that last name too!) introduced on Drescher’s show The Nanny. Phil Rosenthal, the executive producer and creator, is a Hofstra University alum, and frequently features the school in the show.

Romano is a wildly successful comedian, who was at one point the highest-paid TV actor in CBS history. He has starred alongside fellow Long Islander Kevin James in the film Grilled. When he’s not making guest appearances on shows like Parenthood or The Office or taking his disco suit off on HBO’s Vinyl, you can find him competing in the World Series of Poker. You know, playing cards. Just like your neighbors.


 

Howard Stern

 

Howard Stern has one of the most recognizable voices of all time. The self-proclaimed “King of All Media” has entertained us with his unique and massively influential brand of gonzo radio that has earned him fame (or infamy) and fortune, plus led to a TV show and the feature film Private Parts he starred in based on his life.

Born and raised in Roosevelt, Stern has an accent distinctively and apologetically Long Island. He tawks just like us. He says cawfee. And he curses. A lot. Like us.

Howard Stern, who reached payscale heights that no one in his industry could ever touch, whose mop of brown curls and big nose are recognizable before you ever hear that Lawn Guyland accent, is the pioneer who paved the way for the entire shock-jock genre, including Long Islanders Opie and Anthony, who often credited his influence on their own LI radio show (before Anthony’s 2014 firing for what Sirius XM characterized as “racially-charged and hate-filled” social media posts (very unfunny) and subsequent launch of his popular podcast-style talk radio network).

Howard Stern still has command of the airwaves. And so it will remain for the foreseeable future.


 

Michael Kors

 

For the longest time, we could identify Michael Kors’ fashion line by its high-end classic appeal or by the label, but since the debut of Bravo’s Project Runway, where Michael Kors sat for several seasons as a judge, we now know without a doubt that although he is one of the jet set, he is absolutely Long Island material.

One of the most successful fashion designers of all time, Kors grew up in Merrick, attending John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore. He has dressed Hollywood’s A-list, including Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson and Taylor Swift. And he dresses your neighbors, from the teenage girls who live next door touting pocketbooks with big MK’s on them to their mothers, in his eye-catching print patterns. All bought at the Massapequa mall. Maybe Smithhaven.

The other thing we didn’t realize until Project Runway? His acerbic, hysterical, gifted sense of humor, such as these fashion critiques, laid down with a gorgeous Long Island accent:

“Commes Des Garçons goes to the Amish country.”

“A legging that Friar Tuck would wear.”

“Real bitchy ’80s, kind of like… Knots Landing.”

“Something a Teletubby would wear to a party.”

And my favorite:

“Transvestite-flamenco dancer at a funeral.”


 

Theresa Caputo

'Long Island Medium' Theresa Caputo
‘Long Island Medium’ Theresa Caputo

The “Long Island Medium” is known as much for her Long Island accent as she is for her abilities to communicate with the other side. (We have our doubts. Read about “My Not-So-Psychic Experience With Long Island Medium Theresa Caputo HERE.)

The hair defies the laws of gravity. The nails are a species of their own. The shoes reach spectacular heights and demand magical balancing ability. Oh but the voice. That voice. It is Long Island to the core.

This Hicksville celeb has risen to fame and fortune by interpreting messages from the dearly departed and sharing them with the grieving. This practice has undoubtedly helped many deal with the loss of loved ones–and makes riveting television, to boot. Her TLC show “The Long Island Medium” is one of the most popular in the network’s history. Her live shows are often the hottest ticket in town. Private readings have a waiting list as long as the line of traffic trying to get into Jones Beach on the fourth of July.

Can she really communicate with our deceased muthahs and fathahs? Does it matter?


 

Jerry Seinfeld

 

Who could forget the most successful television star in the history of the medium? That show about “nothing” set the standard for what television comedy could—and should—be. And it put that nasal Long Island twang on the map for eternity.

Jerry Seinfeld grew up in the Massapequa area of our fair Island. A graduate of Massapequa High School, Seinfeld is one of our biggest claims to fame.

With an unprecedented syndication deal ($100 million), Seinfeld officially has more money than God. He has parlayed his post-Seinfeld career into a terrific web series called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (pronounced “cawfee”)–in one memorable episode he takes President Obama for a spin in his 1963 Corvette Stingray–and a successful stand-up tour.

A car enthusiast, Seinfeld now has the time and money to indulge his greatest passion. He reportedly owns 46 Porshes, including the only air-cooled Porshe 911.

Which is probably unlike any of your neighbors.

(Photo credit: slgckgc/Flickr)

Why I Will Never Watch ‘Game of Thrones’

Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones Season 6 kicks off April 24 and the world will be watching, but I won't.

With all the hubbub about this weekend’s Season 6 kickoff of Game of Thrones, I thought I’d squawk a lil about why I will most definitively Not be watching.

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Perhaps you’d think it’s because this show has almost singularly ushered in our “Spoiler Alert!”-maniacal culture. Or maybe because it’s known for graphic sex, graphic violence and graphic sexual violence. Maybe you think epic dramas with multiple storylines and a seemingly endless cast of characters just isn’t my thing. But you’d be wrong.

It’s the costumes.

I simply can’t get interested in a show set in a world that exists before the zipper was invented. Body armor and bustiers don’t interest me. (Not during the daytime, anyway.) The truth is that I can’t get interested in anything in fantasy period costume.

I cannot relate or connect to medieval times. Not the utensil-less theme restaurant. Not the time period. And certainly not fiction set there. The same goes for fantasy worlds where people wear this kind of thing.

I may be in the minority here, but I don’t really see how. Our clothes serve as the touchstones of cultural progress. I can get behind retro-wear that harkens back to the 1960s. Even the ’20s. But when we start going back hundreds of years, my eyes glaze over. I am simply unwilling to become emotionally invested in characters who live in a time period set before women wore pants.

Did they have the same trials and tribulations that women have faced for millennia? Philandering husbands and unruly children? Oh hells yes. Are the men sweaty and muscular and brave and fierce? It looks like it, based on the short snippets I’ve seen before I can quickly switch channels to something I am actually interested in. Yet, because of the confines of their clothing, the silly stylings of their outfits, I am out.

Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I am no slave to fashion. I clean up alright, but I am by no means a clothes-horse. So why this aversion to gilded costumes of centuries past? To intricate curls placed just so on the top of women’s heads? The hipsters have brought facial hair back to this century with a vengeance, and I am one of the few people okay with that, but the bearded faces of the warriors who populate Game of Thrones give me a wide yawn.

Jousts? Boring.

Swordfights? Snore.

Dragons? Phooey.

This prejudice extends far beyond George R. R. Martin’s fantastical epic. Case in point: I adore Gerard Butler. His face, accent, abs, et cetera. And yet, I was not one to subject myself to any of those beloved things when the film “300” came out. Not because it was touted as one of the most violent war movies since “Saving Private Ryan,” but because in the promo posters, he was wearing an old time-y period war-wear and that just turned me off. And it was great flick! Ask anybody. Anybody but me.

Will Game of Thrones come back this season to acclaim and applause and watercooler-inciting debate? Absolutely.

Will people be riveted by the action and some guy named Jon Snow (who apparently has amazing hair, from what I’ve heard, anyway) and whether he is dead or whatever? Yup.

Will I be joining in the fray?

Spoiler alert: Nope.

Anti-Common Core Fury Rages As Latest Exams Administered Across New York

Common Core Opt Out
The recent message on the popular Common Core "Long Island Opt Out Info" Facebook page shares the message of standardized testing critics across New York State.

The parking field at Stony Brook University overflowed with minivans and sedans of parents and educators who’d gotten last-minute word of a “listening tour” critical to informing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new Common Core Task Force about necessary modifications to the controversial education program—and ultimately, helping shape policy across the state—flooded the campus.

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Filled to capacity, New York State troopers directed the still oncoming traffic to impromptu curbside spots, while inside, droves crammed into a room within the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology with just a 100-person maximum. Every folding chair was taken; people lined the back and side walls. Additional police officers held off the overflow spilling into the hallway and in front of an elevator one floor downstairs.

“Militant,” is how Michael Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford School District, recalls the armed police presence at the Nov. 6 event—which was, after all, an educational session. “Shocked,” is how he describes his emotions that afternoon.

The haphazard meeting—which most parents and teachers had only learned of two days prior—was billed as a means for relaying much-needed input and recommendations to the Cuomo administration before it charted the state’s education policies going forward regarding the much-maligned standardized testing program Common Core. Hundreds of thousands had refused to sit for the exams last year—choosing to “opt-out” instead—and the anti-Common Core movement’s resolve has only intensified since then. Opponents to the testing frantically descended upon Stony Brook University that chilly day in the hopes of providing a long list of significant changes that could improve the tests, and consequently, education, to millions of students across New York. They took time off from their typical work days in the hopes that Cuomo and his Task Force would actually listen.

Now, five months later, as the latest rounds of Common Core exams roll out across New York State—with English Language Arts (ELA) exams for grades 3 to 8 administered on April 5 to April 7 and Mathematics on April 13 to April 15—the reality has firmly set in among local education advocates, many of those who attended that day: It was all just a game of smoke and mirrors. Gov. Cuomo wasn’t really listening, but simply holding the “listening tour” to give the appearance that he’d address their concerns, fix the flaws, revamp the system. The spectacle was set up to simply placate them, make it appear that he cared, get them to shut up. It was devised to slow down the ever-growing movement. The 15-member task force and its 51-page report published in December, though admittedly implementing several of the countless suggestions relayed by the collective community of parents and educators, was overall just a huge sham, they say, and all who perhaps naively believed it would result in real, meaningful changes, have been played.

“Essentially nothing has changed except the perception that Cuomo has brought about real change,” laments Middle Country School District teacher Kevin Glynn, one of many who are disillusioned by the task force’s recommendations.

Common Core Task Force
Valley Stream Superintendent Constance Evelyn and state Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), both ‘Common Core Task Force’ members, fielded complaints from dozens of Long Island parents and teachers during a ‘listening tour’ stop at Stony Brook University in November. (Jaime Franchi / Long Island Press)

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Gov. Cuomo announced the Common Core Task Force last fall to delve into parent, teacher, student, and administrator concerns before executing a new plan to tackle the disaster wrought by the botched rollout of the initiative four years earlier.

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More than 240,000 students statewide “opted-out” of taking the exams last April, with the movement’s power core centered on Long Island. Then-New York State (NYS) Education Commissioner John B. King, who championed the flawed system and criticized parents and teachers who voiced concerns, rightfully became a lightning rod for attacks, and remains so. After resigning from the post amid ever-mounting opposition, King was recently appointed U.S. Secretary of Education—viewed by anti-Common Core parents and teachers across the state as a blatant indication that their calls not only fell on deaf ears among the corridors of power, but that they are being willfully ignored and even disregarded.

Also indicative of this, education advocates say, is the task force’s report, supposedly crafted with input from parents and teachers it “listened” to during its trek across the state, to highlight and address the problematic issues with Common Core reform. It proposes 20 recommendations, yet Common Core opponents bash it as lacking teeth and having no real means of implementing or enforcing the few changes it does suggest, among other criticisms.

Back in November, in that packed classroom, this wasn’t so clear. Long Island education advocates had no idea they were being bamboozled until recently, they say.

The most outspoken local critics of Common Core and familiar faces of the Opt-Out Movement were all there at Stony Brook University, among them: Jeanette Deutermann, a Bellmore mother, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) cofounder, and “Long Island Opt-Out Info” Facebook page founder; GiGi Guiliano of East Islip, mother of three; and Tim MacDowell, a father, whose son attends Longwood School District in Middle Island.

They joined other impassioned parents and educators in voicing their long-simmering gripes to task force member Constance Evelyn and state Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), chairman of the NYS Senate Education Committee, also a task force member.

In case things got too heated, the state made preparations to physically extinguish the flames. Troopers were stationed throughout the scene, with one telling this Press reporter, “This is a hot topic. They want everyone to feel our presence.”

Another police officer looked around at the space. “We’re already at capacity,” he said. “This is going to be a clusterfuck.”

The firebrands in attendance may say as much for Common Core, yet the colorful characterization did not match the well-organized and respectful manner in which the community addressed Evelyn and Marcellino that day.

The commissioner and senator heard stories and experiences from those in the trenches, whether they were from parents of children who’ve been subjected to the roughshod implementation of the standardized testing or from those teachers for whom 50 percent of their job security balanced on the results of its related assessments. Administrators weighed in as well.

The consensus was clear: It isn’t working. The very nature of the standards as a gauge for college and career-readiness from kindergarten was wrong. That 50 percent of teacher evaluations was based upon the flawed tests was not only improper, but a slap in the face. Children were being over-tested. The stakes were way too high for students, teachers and schools themselves.

Melissa McMullen, a sixth grade teacher in the Comsewogue School District, deemed the term “Common Core math…a euphemism for poor math instruction rooted in profit-for-publishing companies rather than powerful, strong math instruction,” and was greeted with applause from a room overflowing with supporters.

“It is not a logical path to math competency and math fluency,” she blasted.

Dan Campbell, a fifth grade teacher at South Huntington Schools, explained that “before the implementation of the Common Core, Long Islanders had a 94-percent proficiency rate in reading. Our schools were considered the best in the country. Since the implementation of the Core and the manufactured crisis known as Hurricane Bill and Melinda [Gates], I’m certain that the only thing we lead the nation in right now is the creation of anxiety.”

Michael Hynes, the superintendent of Patchogue-Medford, demanded a “cease and desist.”

“One of the goals of education is to awaken and develop the powers of creativity,” he declared. “Instead, what we have is a culture of standardization.”

“This time that we’re in, from an educational paradigm, is historical,” he continued. “The next four years will pave the way in public education for the next forty.”

Another major source of outrage among anti-Common Core activists are the very members Cuomo handpicked for the task force—proof, they say, that any true reform is impossible.

Common Core Opt Out
Parents and teachers from across Long Island packed Stony Brook University’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology to voice gripes about controversial education reform program Common Core during a ‘Common Core Task Force’ ‘listening tour’ stop in November 2015. (Jaime Franchi / Long Island Press)

‘RIGHT THE SHIP’

“It is time to right the ship,” said Richard Parsons, senior advisor at Providence Equity Partners, Inc., former chairman of the board at Citigroup Inc., and chair of the Common Core Task Force, in the task force report. “We believe our report and recommendations reflect the thinking of a wide cross-section of citizens and education stakeholders around the State.”

The New York Common Core Task Force report listed 21 recommendations to “right the ship,” broken down into three broad goals: “establish new high quality New York standards,” “develop better curriculum guidance and resources,” and “significantly reduce testing time and preparation and ensure tests fit curriculum and standards.”

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Parsons also led Cuomo’s 2012 New NY Education Reform Commission, which was tasked with shaping the New York State education agenda that largely ignored the disastrous rollout of Common Core and the punitive intertwining of teacher evaluations with standardized testing. Beyond positioning a corporate CEO with no education policy experience as the head of the Common Core task force—for a second time, reminds Long Island Opt Out Info Facebook page founder Jeanette Deutermann, an outspoken critic of the standardized exams—Cuomo also installed many of the same members of that old education reform committee on the new one. This includes: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, the state Assembly’s Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan, and nonprofit Parent Power Project founder and Rochester-area parent, Carrie Remis.

Admittedly, explains Deutermann, when the governor’s office sought to assemble the task force team, they did reach out to several key critics, soliciting recommendations. But those names—which included public school teachers and public education advocates such as Jamaal Bowman and Gary Rubenstein from Stuyvesant High School—never made it to the final cohort, she says.

“I have to give them credit,” she says of the task force. “They reached out and spoke to the people I recommended. They did extensive interviews and research. But the problem is that the people they actually pulled in were not appropriate. They chose parents who were tied to charter schools when this is a parents’ movement.”

Deutermann cites its chairman, Parsons, as one of the main problems.

“Parents were upset about corporate influence in public education,” she explains. “Then Cuomo chooses a bank CEO as the head of the task force. What kind of message does that send?

“They wanted to make sure they could control the outcome,” she theorizes about the administration’s picks for the task force’s makeup. “They didn’t want any surprises.”

Critics also assail the actual content of the report.

Specific recommendations include considering input from local districts, educators, and parents when creating the new standards, making the standards age-appropriate, and ensuring that the entire process is transparent. They also include flexibility for teachers to develop and tailor the curriculum within their classrooms, quoting Linda Darling-Hammond, faculty director for the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, saying, “It is very important that the Standards be used as a guide, not as a straitjacket.”

The most comprehensive set of recommendations concern state assessments, which lie at the base of the Common Core mechanism. The report recommends protection for students with disabilities and English language learners, transparency on the quality and content of the tests, and a shortened timeframe for exams, in terms of both fewer days and hours.

NYSUT [New York State United Teachers], the 600,000-member state teachers union, celebrated with a multimedia campaign to “highlight progress.” In a press release dated January 15, NYSUT President Karen E. Magee stated:

“Unprecedented activism by parents and teachers opened the door for much-needed change in public education. The pendulum is swinging back to what’s most important—teaching and learning. At the same time, we’re reminding New Yorkers there is still a lot of work to do. We must all work together to continue this progress for our students.”

Critics—including many local education advocates—believe those task force recommendations, without altering any actual laws, have little teeth to be effective. The most headline-grabbing modification included in the report were calls for an immediate four-year moratorium on Common Core test scores counting against teachers or students, causing some parents, teachers and the state teachers union to rejoice. Yet dissenters, such as Deutermann, say Gov. Cuomo, who enacted his Education Transformation Act, which counts 50 percent of teacher evaluations based on state test scores, retains the last word by keeping the law in place while reducing the urgency to opt-out.

“So, when you first look at the preamble leading up to the task force report, it sounds like, ‘Wow—they heard us,’ because they’re really enumerating all the complaints and concerns of parents and educators,” Bianca Tanis, an elementary special education teacher, public school parent in New York’s Hudson Valley, and co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), told the Press. “But then as you delve into the task force report, you see that there is very little substance in there in terms of change.”

That message was echoed within a blog post on New York Rank & File. Curated by a self-described “coalition of educators motivated by a desire to provide our students with an authentic, developmentally appropriate, culturally relevant, and child-centered public education,” it called upon NYSUT to clarify their million-dollar, member-funded media campaign signifying progress in public education.

“While the opt-out movement has captured the attention of policymakers, there has been no substantive change,” it reads. “The only change is that school districts must now use limited time and resources to negotiate another APPR [Annual Professional Performance Review, which determines ratings standards and assessment process for teachers’ effectiveness] plan that requires both more testing for NYS children and a continued focus on evaluating teachers through test scores.”

When the Education Transformation Act passed along with the state 2015-2016 budget, explains Tanis, the law specified that half of teacher evaluations were to be judged on the basis of state test scores. The four-year moratorium suspends the controversial Common Core test from counting toward these evaluations, causing school districts to adopt an addition test, to be approved by the state for appropriate rigor to show one-year growth per student. The Common Core tests will still be given, and results could count toward tenure decisions, and the hiring and firing of teachers.

“Teachers are still being evaluated by tests, just not the state tests,” says Tanis. “That’s the part that they’re leaving out.”

Tanis has launched a full-throttle Twitter campaign to get NYSUT to acknowledge the lack of actual progress without a change in legislation that is directed at Cark Korn, spokesperson for NYSUT. The fear is that by celebrating the Common Core Task Force’s report as significant progress, actual progress will stall, and if teachers are still being evaluated by tests, then instruction will be focused on test-prep as a result. Because of the perception that Common Core testing no longer “counts,” the fight has consequentially gone out of those teachers and students who believe significant changes are underway.

Glynn, the Middle Country School District teacher, explains:

“Message from the union is that it is fine to go back in the water.”

Hynes, the Patchogue-Medford superintendent, equates this misdirection with a metaphor of a frog and a pot of water.

“So if you place the frog in a pot of boiling water, it jumps out,” he explained to the Press. “If you placed a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and you turned it up one degree every minute, when it gets to the boiling point, the frog dies. He doesn’t know he’s being boiled to death because he can’t adapt quickly enough.

“We, in New York State and in this great nation, are being boiled to death as far as what’s happening to public education,” he continued. “And most of us don’t know it.”

“Most,” but not all, he added.

“Jeanette [Deutermann] is the kid who yelled out ‘Car!’ while we were all playing in the street,” Hynes told the Press via Facebook. “Some would like to believe the car has passed, but anyone without an agenda can see the car is still there and the engine is revving up.”

“And I think it’s more of a semi than a car!” states the Bellmore mother.

Common Core New York State
Common Core opponents rallied at East Islip Middle School on March 21, 2016 to strategize against New York State’s controversial standardized testing policies: (L-R) Beth Dimino, Bonnie Buckley, Jeanette Deutermann, Marla Kilfoyle & GiGi Guiliano. (Jaime Franchi / Long Island Press)

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE

Deutermann stresses the ever-growing importance of opting out of the Common Core tests this April—with the next round of Common Core Mathematics examinations for grades 3 through 8 to be administered in classrooms across the state on April 13 to April 15.

“It took three years of advocacy and a history-making opt-out year to force the powers that be to admit there’s a problem,” she told the Press. “Another year of high opt-out numbers may actually get some proposed changes to land in our classrooms. One thing for sure: If parents opt back in now, any potential progress will come to a screeching halt.”

The implications of the Opt-Out Movement being diminished due to complacency based on the task force recommendations and the four-year moratorium could be significant.

According to Hynes: “If we have the same or less opt-outs, I feel any progress will totally be gone.”

Progress, Hynes suggests, could be fulfilled by the restoration of local control of individual districts, the relinquishment of mandates that serve to constrain public schools from serving the needs of their communities, and the elimination of the “test and punish” model. In order to fulfill it, the state would need an education commissioner and a Regents chancellor who could earn back New Yorker’s trust and rebuild the education system with what is best for students as the top priority. But with the ascension of New York’s failed former Education Commissioner John B. King to U.S. education secretary, progress may be stalled nationwide, regardless.

Stu McMullen, a father of four, is appalled at King’s newly proposed position and told Superintendent Evelyn and Sen. Marcellino as much at Stony Brook University in November:

“The implementation of the Common Core was so poorly done that if it was in the private sector, the people involved would have been fired,” he said. “One was promoted. Illogical!”

If the heavy police presence at November’s Stony Brook University “listening tour” stop were any indication, the state education department doesn’t view massive opt-outs as “progress.”

What comes next will determine who is winning the battle of public education.

Common Core Critics Hope Tide Turning In Battle Against Controversial Standardized Testing

Common Core New York State
Common Core opponents rallied at East Islip Middle School on March 21, 2016 to strategize against New York State's controversial standardized testing policies: (L-R) Beth Dimino, Bonnie Buckley, Jeanette Deutermann, Marla Kilfoyle & GiGi Guiliano. (Jaime Franchi / Long Island Press)

The New York State education system is about to undergo two significant developments that local advocates hope will ultimately help spell the end of the controversial reform program Common Core.

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The first is the April 1 replacement of outgoing state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch—a staunch supporter of Common Core—with former Bronx Schools Superintendent Betty Rosa, who recently declared: “If I was a parent and not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time,” referring to the ever-growing “Opt-Out” movement, whereby parents refuse to allow their children to take the standardized tests. Hundreds of thousands of students across New York did so last year.

The second is state Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach)’s run for the vacancy left by disgraced ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). A vocal critic of Common Core, he has sponsored several bills to drastically overhaul standardized testing across New York. A Kaminsky win in the special election on April 19, when New York also holds its presidential primary, could give Democrats control of the state Senate, and possibly get those reforms passed. A similar piece of legislation he cosponsored last year “to reverse the negative effects of the high-stakes Common Core testing environment” passed the state Assembly before stalling in the Senate.

These were the topics of discussion at a community education forum last Monday at East Islip Middle School auditorium—the latest stop on a “Reclaiming Public Education” tour. In attendance was a who’s who of local education advocates and Common Core opponents, including: East Islip mother of three GiGi Guiliano; Southold and Greenport school districts superintendent David Gamberg; Marla Kilfoyle, founder and executive director of anti-Common Core group Badass Teachers Association; “Long Island Opt-Out Info” Facebook page and New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) founder Jeanette Deutermann; East Islip parent Bonnie Buckley; and outspoken education advocate Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association President Beth Dimino.

Their resounding message: It is still as important as ever to refuse the Common Core tests this April, not only to support incoming Chancellor Rosa, but to protect students from harsh educational practices.

As head of the New York State Board of Regents, Rosa—a longtime teacher, principal, college professor and two-term Board of Regents member, as well as a superintendent—holds the most powerful and influential position within the Empire State’s entire education hierarchy. She appoints committee, subcommittee, and working group members. She presides over the University of the State of New York and the entire state Education Department as a whole. As chancellor, Rosa is responsible for supervising, overseeing and helping create and implement all educational policies and practices within the state.

Rosa’s remarks—made the same day as the gathering at East Islip Middle School—consequently carry enormous weight. Education advocates view her acknowledgement that she’d “opt-out” as indication of a seismic shift—a re-alignment, even—away from the state’s long-held support of Common Core, and toward what opponents term “common sense” education policy. Both Rosa’s predecessor Tisch and former state education commissioner John B. King—who was recently confirmed as U.S. Education Secretary (igniting the fury of local education advocates)—were staunch defenders of the standardized testing program. Common Core critics also regard Rosa’s statements as giving credence and hard-fought validation to their movement.

“It is a new day in New York,” blogged education historian and research professor of education at New York University, Diane Ravitch. “Rosa’s election is a sharp rebuke to the corporate reformers who have controlled the state for many years.”

“Betty Rosa has given us new hope on putting the focus back on the well-being of our children,” said an emotional Guiliano, who hosted the March 21 forum.

“We’re going to have to continue with what we’re doing, because it allows [Rosa] the backup to make the changes,” explained Deutermann, also a parent. “If parents start saying, ‘We’re good with all of this now,’ she won’t have the backup she needs to continue pushing through these changes.”

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The modifications advocates are pushing for include laws that would decouple standardized tests from teacher evaluations, create pathways for learning-disabled students to earn sufficient high school diplomas, and enable the state Board of Regents to appoint a panel of experts to create and implement a new teacher evaluation system, among other measures. Some of these revisions have been proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Common Core task force,” which released a 50-page report of recommendations in December. But critics charge that without corresponding new legislation to repeal several controversial stipulations of the governor’s Education Transformation Act of 2015, which was passed with the state budget, no such changes will ever come.

The Common Core opponents are supporting Kaminsky, who earlier this month proposed four more bills that aim at scaling back the controversial program.

“Todd Kaminsky is the politician who has adopted this issue as his own and is taking it as far as he possibly can,” special education advocate Bonnie Buckley told the Press. “And I’m just grateful. I’m grateful, because I’ve spoken to politicians all over Long Island. I met with [NYS Sen.] Carl Marcellino, who’s the education chair. And I met with [NYS Sen.] Phil Boyle. I met with tons of them. And he was the one.”

Kaminsky’s recent bills, which were referred to the state Assembly’s education committee last week, seek to: replace the student performance category of teacher evaluations with a teacher evaluation category created by a committee of certified state educators, and also shift evaluation provision determinations from the education commissioner to the Board of Regents; eliminate the state takeover and restructuring of failing schools via the appointment of an outside receiver, and instead allow input from educators within local communities to help solve related issues; create a committee of educators to explore methods of reducing time spent in the classroom on standardized testing, as well as ensure the tests would be released within 10 days of the scores being posted; and establish additional high school diploma options for students denied diplomas due to the state’s elimination of such options for students with disabilities and others.

Deutermann stressed the potential impact of Kaminsky’s proposed legislation, explaining how recent political conditions have created a type of perfect-storm environment for its passage through the state Senate. Because the bill is sponsored by a Democratic Assemblyman, she said, it has a significant chance to pass through the Dem-controlled Assembly with relative ease and expedition. But since the state Senate is majority GOP, Democratic-sponsored bills that make it there are typically “Dead On Arrival.” The outcome of the upcoming special election for Skelos’ seat—left vacant when he stepped down following his arrest amid a federal corruption probe, in which he was ultimately convicted—could give Democrats the majority, making the bills’ passage more likely.

“If he gets into the Senate in April, he can have a ‘same-as’ bill go into the Senate as well,” Deutermann continues. “So it’s a big deal, and it’s something we haven’t had. We haven’t been this close to getting a significant bill like this—ever.”

These laws, if passed, can bring public education back to what Southold and Greenport school districts superintendent Gamberg says is “worth fighting for.”

Gamberg laid out the foundation for what he believes constitutes quality education: scholarship, teamwork, authentic engagement and imagination—all of which he believes are antithetical to what the standardized testing culture has produced. Gamberg cited the Southold robotics team as an example of what public education could, and should, be.

“It’s the integration of literacy, science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts in performance-based tasks that requires students to identify and solve problems,” he told attendees. “That’s the kind of education that predated Common Core. And it’s still happening.

“Not because of Common Core,” he added. “Maybe in spite of it.”

With new leadership at the helm of the Board of Regents and the possibility for new laws to reverse the damage done by Common Core, the goals at the heart of the opt-out movement have come into clear focus.

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“This isn’t just about our kids,” declared Deutermann. “It’s not just about my kid, my school. My family. This is about all kids. This is about New York City kids. Long Island kids, upstate New York kids. And now, actually, the entire country is watching New York. I’ll even preface that and say they’re watching Long Island. The entire country. And what we’ve been doing is making history. What New York has done has ignited the rest of the country to start doing a push-back against their standardized testing.”

Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association President Beth Dimino put it bluntly:

“I’m telling you: Give your children that chance. Standardized testing is not the right route. If there were ever the adjectives ‘high-stakes’ before testing, protect your children.

“It’s child abuse.”

[Photo Caption: Common Core opponents rallied at East Islip Middle School on March 21, 2016 to strategize against New York State’s controversial standardized testing policies: (L-R) Beth Dimino, Bonnie Buckley, Jeanette Deutermann, Marla Kilfoyle & GiGi Guiliano. (Jaime Franchi / Long Island Press)]

Snowy Nor’easter Threatens Long Island Spring Debut

Long Island snow forecast

In her continued effort to confuse and bewilder, Mother Nature is threatening a major winter storm that could dump a half-foot of snow on the Island Sunday into Monday.

According to the National Weather Service, a potential nor’easter “will develop off the North Carolina coast Saturday evening and track northeast during the day Sunday.”

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Meteorologists said parts of Nassau and Suffolk counties can expect accumulations between 3 to 6 inches.

After a sunny and mild Saturday afternoon with temperatures in the low 40s, clouds will likely move in during the evening along with possible snow showers, forecasters said.

Although there is still “considerable uncertainty,” surrounding the storm, the NWS reports a 70 percent chance of snow Sunday with a high of 36 degrees, plus 26 mph wind gusts. The temperature will drop into the low 30s when the sun goes down and snow is likely to continue throughout the night and into the Monday morning commute.

Long Islanders might remember the seven-inch onslaught of snow last year on the very same day.

Now would be a good time to review your bread and milk inventory.

The potential for accumulating snowfall continues for Sunday afternoon into early Monday morning, but considerable uncertainty remains. Stay tuned to our website and our social media pages for more updates.

Posted by US National Weather Service New York NY on Friday, March 18, 2016

Common Core Critics Slam Confirmation Of John King As U.S. Education Secretary

John King Common Core
Embattled former New York State Education Commissioner John King, was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education March 14, 2016, infuriating Common Core opponents.

In a 49-40 vote Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed President Barack Obama’s nominee for U.S. Department of Education secretary, former New York State education commissioner John B. King, Jr., inciting harsh criticism from education advocates across New York, as well as a denunciation from U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

“John King’s tenure in New York was very adversarial, leaving families, students and teachers without a voice on important issues, and therefore I cannot support his nomination at this time,” says Sen. Gillibrand, who voted against King, in a statement.

New York’s other U.S. senator, Chuck Schumer, voted in favor of King’s confirmation.

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The split vote comes amid ever-growing protests against King’s nomination and the controversial education reform Common Core instigated by statewide education advocates, who had experienced firsthand the aftermath of his tenure. More than 240,000 students statewide “opted-out” of taking the exams last April. Sen. Gillibrand was the lone Democrat opposing King’s nod.

King remains a controversial figure in New York education. Known for his unrelenting stance to stay the course on the Common Core rollout, he has been accused by critics of turning a deaf ear to students for whom the education reform failed. The Common Core Learning Standards, created by the National Governor’s Association and Council of State School Officers, was born from President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which granted funds to states that implemented the national reforms. New York received $700 million in Race to the Top funding.

Common Core’s rollout was flawed from the start, with teachers given inadequate preparation for teaching the new materials, which were riddled with typographical errors and mistakes, confusing parents, educators and children. The new reforms were included in the state exams, given each April in math and English for grades 3 through 8. Critics blasted the tests for being shrouded in secrecy, its scores not released until the following school year, and the content developmentally inappropriate for the grade levels.

Protestors took to forums and social media to voice their frustration and call for change. One event at Ward Melville High School in fall 2013 featured King and then-Regents Chancellor Meryl Tisch in their first stop on a Common Core “listening tour” after they’d been shouted down by parents and teachers in Poughkeepsie.

That night in Suffolk County, Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association President Beth Dimino told then-Commissioner King:

“Psychologists are now diagnosing our children with a syndrome directly related to work they are doing in the classroom. I tell you, Mr. King, because you’ve awoken the mommies, you’re in trouble.”

True to her word, protestors refused to let up on King, calling for his resignation after last year’s round of state tests. He left his post in New York to travel to Washington, D.C., to accompany then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan, whom he has just succeeded.

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Jeanette Deutermann, a Long Island parent, founder of the Long Island Opt-Out Info Facebook page, and co-founder of nonprofit New York State Allies for Public Education, blasted King’s ascension Tuesday via her popular Facebook page.

“It is inconceivable that a man synonymous with failed education policies could be promoted to the highest education post in our nation,” she slams. “The incompetence of John King as New York’s SED Commissioner was epic, and New York will be cleaning up the mess he made for years to come. The silver lining may be the igniting of an education uprising across the country the way his leadership, or lack thereof, ignited New York.”

That “ignition” is the robust, pro-public education and anti-Common Core movement that sparked parents, educators, and students to organize, protest, and take action against the education reforms they believed were undermining public education.

Michael Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford schools, finds the idea of King as U.S. Secretary of Education “beyond appalling.”

“It’s really scary to think that that gentleman, and I’m being kind by saying that, has the potential to reframe or to move forward with what Arnie Duncan has started,” he told the Press in January. “This is a guy who is pro-charter, his kids go to Montessori school. I really believe he doesn’t know anything about public education. And now potentially he will set policy nationwide.”

Marla Kilfoyle, a social studies teacher at Oceanside High School, outspoken Common Core critic and cofounder of the anti-Common Core coalition Badass Teachers Association, aka BAT, is “simply disgusted,” she tells the Press.

“The appointment of John King is an unbelievable disappointment to parents, teachers, and students,” she blasts. “Thousands upon thousands of letters were sent detailing why he should not be appointed. The letters sent were from New Yorkers who have experienced his failed leadership which has subsequently destroyed education in New York State. The fact that he produced the largest parent testing revolt in the country and was promoted to be in charge of education at the national level flies in the face of good reason.”

Also weighing in on the news of King’s confirmation Tuesday was Dr. Mark Naison, professor of history and chair of African and African American studies at Fordham University, an outspoken Common Core critic, who brands it a “shameful episode” in the history of U.S. education. He predicts its ramifications will be felt by Democrats in the 2016 presidential election.

“The United States Senate, at the bidding of our President, decided to display its contempt for the collective voices of teachers, students and families who have been in revolt against the excessive testing being inflicted on the nation’s public schools,” he tells the Press. “By appointing John King, whose policies provoked the largest test revolt in U.S. history in New York State, as Secretary of Education, the Senate basically signaled to the nation that the voices of lobbyists, profiteers and privatizers count more than the opinions of those who actually spend their lives in the nation’s public schools.”

A call to King for comment has not been returned as of press time.

Lawmakers & Common Core Opponents Blast Education Czar Nom John King

John King Common Core
Embattled former New York State Education Commissioner John King, was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education March 14, 2016, infuriating Common Core opponents.

State lawmakers joined Common Core opponents in criticizing President Barack Obama’s nomination of former New York State Education Commissioner John King for U.S. Secretary of Education in the first day of confirmation hearings Thursday.

King, who assumed the role of acting commissioner in January, remains a lightning rod for fury among parents and teachers across New York State upset about his botched implementation of the controversial Common Core education reforms, which led to hundreds of thousands of students across the state and nation “opting out” of taking the standardized tests.

Critics charge King’s previous tenure is proof he is incompetent and therefore unqualified for a higher office that carries nationwide responsibilities.

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“The bottom line is putting King as the Secretary of Education is basically perpetuating a flawed program that’s destructive to kids and destructive to schools,” NYS Assemb. Al Graf (R,C,I – Holbrook) tells the Press. “I would think that if they really want to fix education in this country, you want someone with experience in the classroom. And he doesn’t have that. He made a mess of New York, now you’re going to give him the opportunity to make a mess out of the rest of the country?”

Graf accompanied fellow Long Island lawmakers Assemb. Ed Ra (R-Franklin Square), Assemb. Dave McDonough (R,C,I-Merrick) and Assemb. Dean Murray (R,C,I-East Patchogue) in issuing statements calling upon U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. Charles Schumer to oppose the confirmation.

“I am disappointed with the decision to nominate King as Arne Duncan’s successor, as it limits the opportunity to revitalize the future of our education system,” slammed Assemb. Ra, ranking minority member of the Assembly Committee on Education, in a press release. “We are encouraging our federal representatives to oppose King’s selection because he is simply not the visionary our students deserve.

“In order to be successful in our efforts, we must keep our calls for appropriate educational standards, local control, and decreased reliance on mandated testing consistent at the state and federal levels,” he continued.

Despite the bashing, King, who grew up in Brooklyn and whose parents were lifelong public school educators, credited education with saving his life during testimony before the U.S. Senate Education Committee Thursday.

“I’m mindful of how remarkable it is that I am here at all,” he told federal lawmakers. “Some of you may know, I believe education is the difference between hope and despair, between life and death even, because it was for me.”

Describing a “scary and unpredictable” home life following the death of his mother when he was 8 years old and the loss of his father to undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease just four years later, King stated:

“Amidst that trauma and uncertainty, school was my refuge and teachers were my saviors.”

His personal battles aside, King remains within the crosshairs of local anti-Common Core advocates, among them, the Patchogue-Medford School District went so far as to adopt a resolution opposing his nomination, with its Board of Education declaring:

“We cannot help but conclude that amplifying Dr. King’s abject failure as the leader of the educational establishment in New York State to the federal level is good for no one.”

The resolution put forth a recommendation stipulating that “the President of the United States nominate, for our nation, a Secretary of Education who is proven leader in education, who has extensive public school experience, and proven success, as a both a teacher and administrator, who will be responsive to others, while being empathetic to the realistic needs of our nation’s students and working with the educational community.”

Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Michael Hynes tells the Press via Facebook: “In his short tenure as the Commissioner of Education, John King has done more damage to the children in the state of NY then the past five commissioners combined.”

In a feature report titled “John King: More of the Same or Worse” for the education advocacy nonprofit Network for Public Education, Executive Director Carol Burris (former principal of Rockville Centre’s South Side High School) detailed King’s experience leading up to this nomination, describing King as an inadequate leader who oversaw disastrous education policy. Burris examines not only King’s lack of experience as a classroom educator, but within the realm of public education. His experience, it states, centered around only private and charter schools for a total of three years before taking a position as managing director of the Uncommon Schools chain of charter schools.

Burris describes King as “inflexible” and “quick to criticize” those who opposed his views while education commissioner. Under his tenure, the “opt-out” movement in New York grew such that an estimated 240,000 students refused the tests, and 625,000 nationwide, according to nonprofit The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

Burris also criticizes King’s decision to “stay the course” after it was apparent that the Common Core initiative was riddled with flaws that invalidated the efforts of the education community and discouraged thousands of educators, students, and parents throughout the state.

“The 2013 Common Core tests were a disaster,” Burris writes. “The setting of unreasonably high proficiency cut scores, the length of the tests, and confusing and overly difficult questions caused both scores and parent confidence to plummet.

“Principals reported young children in tears, becoming physically ill,” she adds. “The 2014 tests were a rerun of the previous year, and the achievement gap and the Opt Out movement grew. In 2014, the New York State United Teachers called for John King’s resignation.”

Amid Clinton’s Historic Run, It’s Sanders’ Message That’s Resonating With LI Women

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Exactly one week after Hillary Clinton’s drubbing in the New Hampshire primary, a group of about 15 women gathered in the Pace Landing section of West Islip for yet another examination of the tumultuous campaign for the Democratic presidential ticket.

But those who assembled on this Tuesday night aren’t the type of people you might expect to find in the living room of such a tony neighborhood, considering the generation gap between some of them. It’s not age, economic status or familial ties that brought this group together. Instead, it’s their political ideology that united them in common belief and action. Although the majority of them were left-leaning women, they were not there to discuss the virtues of the female Democratic presidential contender who could make history as the first woman elected to the White House. These were Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) supporters.

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Their gathering came a week after Sanders, a self-proclaimed “Democratic socialist,” routed Clinton in New Hampshire and battled to a near-tie in Iowa. With Sanders rising in the polls nationally and in states like Nevada, where no one ever imagined Clinton would be in a nail-biter, the potential that Sanders could actually walk away with the nomination has emboldened his already rambunctious supporters.

“Bernie talks about everything that has either happened to me in my life or has come out of my mouth at some point,” 34-year-old Melissa Peters, an active member of the Facebook group “Long Islanders for Bernie Sanders,” told the circle. “From being poor, which I’ve been, from education–student loans have killed me, just wanting the best for my children, watching the opiate problem in our neighborhood and having it personally affect me in my life–literally, everything he says hits me or somebody in my life.”

Like many of Sanders’ backers, Peters believes the Vermont Senator speaks to her personal experiences in a way no other politician before him ever has. That’s why she is actively campaigning for him, keeping her car well-stocked with bumper stickers and campaign buttons. Her children, ranging from 6 months to 6 years old, are well-known on the Long Island campaign trail, knocking on doors and singing Sanders’ praises.

The discussion centered around the issues central to their beliefs: opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, support for a single-payer healthcare system, and rebellion against the establishment and politics as usual. Gatherings like these have been popping up all over the country as grassroots support of Sanders has usurped what had once seemed like a surefire nomination for Hillary Clinton. Indeed, exit polls taken at polling sites during this month’s New Hampshire captured what, at the surface, appears to be shockingly high support for Sanders among women, a coveted voting bloc that overwhelmingly favored Sanders by a margin of 55 to 40 percent in New Hampshire.

Women for Bernie Sanders
More than a dozen women gather in West Islip to discuss the Democratic primary for president. They were all Bernie Sanders supporters.

It probably didn’t help Clinton’s efforts that feminist leaders Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright recently chastised younger women for what they perceived as their dereliction of duty to support her campaign to be the first woman elected president.

On Feb. 5, feminist icon Gloria Steinem suggested on Bill Maher’s HBO program that women have been coming out in droves for Sanders not because of their appreciation for the candidate, but out of a primal attraction to men.

“When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie,’” she told Maher. (She later released on apology on her Facebook page.)

Two days later, it was Albright, another former Secretary of State, who got into the mix while stumping for Clinton in New Hampshire.

“We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done,” Albright, 78, said. “It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

A laughing Clinton applauded Albright’s biting critique, which many Sanders supporters perceived as flippant.

“A special place in hell?” Peters wrote on her Facebook page with a link to Albright’s comments. “Albright and Steinem must think they can insult women into voting for their girl…That itself is insulting to any feminist.”

The women who gathered on Tuesday said that Sanders’ message simply resonates more with them than Clinton’s.

Their collective enthusiasm stemmed from discovering pockets of like-minded people on an Island that seemingly runs a deep red. The recognition of their commonality has been fostered on social media and cemented through organizing and participating in Bernie-centric events, such as the upcoming march for Bernie in New York City on Feb. 27. Their passion was reminiscent of the groundswell of grassroots support that propelled then-Sen. Barack Obama to the White House in 2008. Yet, they were disappointed by what they perceived as Obama’s abandonment of the progressive agenda once he was elected.

Wendy Hoder is a 57-year-old activist and former Democratic committee person who was practically raised from birth to be politically active by her libertarian father, who used to take her as a child to protest such initiatives as the Stony Brook sewage treatment plant, which was polluting Port Jefferson Harbor. Disillusioned with the crop of Democratic candidates, Hoder had decided to sit out the current election—before Sanders threw his hat in the ring. Then everything changed.

“When I heard he was running, I was like, ‘Viva la Revolution!’” she said to the laughter of the Bernie-enthusiasts surrounding her.

Revolution, however, was something close to the heart of Sandra Garay Avila, whose family fled El Salvador following a bloody civil war. She has seen firsthand the political upheaval that comes from a vast disparity in the distribution of wealth.

“It was something like 14 families owned 60 percent of the land,” said Avila. “I always compare it to this country. I see everything that’s going on around here. I look around and say this country’s not headed in the right direction.”

Sanders’ message of combatting income inequality speaks to the heart of Avila’s fear in a way that Clinton–or any Republican–does not.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what the future of the Democratic Party will look like if Bernie gets the nomination,” said Terry Kalb, a retired teacher from Wading River, referring to Long Island’s Democratic Party, which unequivocally supports Hillary Clinton.

“There are plenty of people hurting on Long Island,” Kalb continued. “There are plenty of people barely clinging to an existence on Long Island. It’s not just the Gold Coast Democratic Party. So the same kind of revolution that has to happen in Washington is going to have to happen in our smaller communities and in the party system in New York.”

They believe Sanders is just the candidate to reshuffle the political deck as we know it.

(Featured photo credit: Bernie Sanders presidential campaign)

Zephyr Teachout, Anti-Common Core Firebrand, Running For Congress

Zephyr Teachout
Anti-Common Core firebrand Zephyr Teachout is running for Congress.

After teasing supporters all last week, Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law professor who challenged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary, formally announced her bid for Congress Tuesday.

Teachout, whose unsuccessful attempt to unseat the governor had galvanized many Democrats backing her stance against controversial education reform, Common Core, will seek to represent the state’s 19th district, which she carried in her gubernatorial contest, and which comprises parts of 11 upstate and Hudson Valley counties. The seat will be vacated by Chris Gibson, a Republican who announced last year he would not seek reelection in November.

“I’ve shown that I’m not afraid to be independent and stand up to political insiders, and I’m not willing to give up,” she texted the Press Tuesday. “The people of the 19th aren’t willing to give up—every day I see people creating their own media, sharing their stories, and demanding their voice back.”

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Teachout’s insurgent run for governor resulted in impressive numbers, securing 34 percent of the overall vote—a significant total representing tens of thousands of dissatisfied voters–and a tribute to her campaign prowess since she’d never run for public officer before. Though her popularity can surely be credited to her progressive stand on such issues as public campaign financing and hydrofracking, Teachout’s outspoken opposition to Common Core was undoubtedly largely responsible for her remarkable showing—fueled by a loyal core of parents and teachers who saw her challenge to Cuomo as a rejection of standardized testing and its disastrous roll-out.

“I’m running to raise up the voices of people who are shut out—and that includes the voices of parents and teachers,” she declared. “As you know, education policy will be important in my campaign. And, as Congressperson.”

Hundreds of thousands of parents opted their children out of taking the Common Core exams last year, with rallies and highly charged protests against Coumo and the initiative held across the state. It’s a subject that still resonates with families throughout New York.

Shortly after announcing her congressional run, Teachout posted on Facebook that she’d already received 1,257 contributions in just 28 hours—more than double her initial goal.

“I’ve learned so much talking to parents and teachers over the last few years, and I look forward to learning even more,” she said.

Teachout reportedly won’t face a Democratic primary. John Faso, a former Assembly minority leader, and Andrew Heaney, an investor, are both vying for the Republican nomination.