Dear Putnam Valley Community Member:

As the District begins a long-awaited spring break, the change of season warms the physical and emotional self. For students and instructional staff, there is time for renewal and recreation and, for many students, family holidays and ceremonies that strengthen bonds and are sources of resilience. In an article I recently read, the author talked about how we heal divisions by creating “microclimates” in our homes or with friends to heal and help. An example of that kind of unity occurred at a meeting that took place on Monday in the Putnam Valley Library to plan a second “community read” experience to take place over the course of a month this summer in different locations throughout Putnam Valley. You will be hearing more about this project, now in its second year. The group of community members and leaders had met a few times before to recommend books that could possibly serve as the focus of this year’s “read.” There were several suggestions and the group members set out to read as many as possible to come up with a recommendation. The discussion of the books brought the committee together and led to provocative discussions about which of the books would attract readers who would join the gatherings. The committee members had different opinions about the books, but enjoyed the different perspectives and ultimately came up with a book of choice: Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. Every suggested book had proponents and there were pros and cons, yet a happy consensus was reached based on criteria that had been determined, including accessibility, meaningful, universal, engaging theme. The “microclimate” created by the diverse group was collaborative and hopeful. The conversation provided room for many lenses and insights.

Schools create their own “microclimates” reflected by the respect, caring and compassion of those who inhabit them. We know that it is up to the adults to “make the weather” in the classrooms and demonstrate the best selves that we ask of students. I recently sat in at a grade level meeting at the Middle School. The teachers, the assistant principal and the principal were discussing how to support individual students, whose conduct had been challenging. What was beautiful about the “microclimate” created in that space was the effort made by teachers to find ways to encourage student success. There was respect and honor for individual students without rancor or sarcasm or even irony. Instead, there was a search for solutions, for allies, for ways to turn things around. That effort was inspiring and demonstrated what is possible in a world that is often harsh both in the real and virtual spaces that are created.

At the elementary school this week I viewed striking posters made by students celebrating their diverse cultures. While students described their country of origin, the food and customs, there was a common theme about how to represent their culture or cultures. It is instructive to learn how many of our students experience the richness of multiple cultures in their homes. Frequently, their representation of their culture included a lovely drawing of their family.

And at the High School, those who saw the remarkable musical, A Chorus Line, found the perfect collaborative and vibrant environment expressed by 30 students on stage and many members of the pit with 50+ involved in some way, doing sets and tech. During the musical, each of those auditioning for the “chorus line” has a story, an individual narrative of struggle, obstacles, and desire for success. These are touching and arouse our empathy. In the playbill, one of the students in the play serves as dramaturg, writing notes on the production. What she says calls out to this concept of creating special spaces and micro-communities that support our humanity:

Here are high school junior, Jasmine Gelfer’s words about her experience in A Chorus Line:

“This production also allowed me to develop friendships with people that I never would have been friends with if we weren’t in the show together. Theater brings people of different personalities and ways of life together, since we all share this common interest.  Working with this cast and crew has been nothing but positive. Everyone has their own strengths that, when brought together form a successful performance. Every single person involved with this production was necessary in making this show a success.”

We need each other’s unique contributions to make our schools and community a success on behalf of all of our students. There are ways we can be particularly supportive of all of our school communities. We can insist upon respectful communication unsullied by the use of racial, gender-based or ethnic slurs. There are instances when we hear about students who suffer the hurt of ugly words that tear down self-worth and deny the right to dignity and confidence. Often, students do not come forward with the name of perpetrators. When we know, we respond with the goal of ending the behavior and teaching students why this behavior is not tolerated.  We teach the history of these words and their impact, and we expect our students to be upstanders. We want to educate those who give pain to others. This is a good week for reflection on these matters and to establish a community consensus on the right of every child to be free of the careless use of hate speech in person or online.

I want to wish you all a safe and enjoyable week to make beautiful weather inside and out!

Sincerely,
Fran Wills
Superintendent of Schools