Will Whole-Child Champion Michael Hynes Go All the Way?

On a Monday evening, as summer ended, the Patchogue-Medford school board on Long Island affirmed its support for superintendent Michael Hynes, extending his contract for five years.  President Anthony O’Reilly, as Greater Patchogue reported, was “thrilled beyond belief.”

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In the United States, local communities are the hubs of education policymaking.  The sentiments of this school board president reflect a philosophical shift away from the cold, rational demands of standards-based accountability, a consensus that children are the top priority.  Hynes believes in teaching to the whole child, O’Brien said.  He understands that kids are individuals:  “It’s not a testing and numbers game.  You have to find out what works for each child…We are helping to right a wrong and we stand with our superintendent.”

Now, this is not new for Long Island, the epicenter of New York State’s opt-out movement. The winds have been blowing in this direction for a while.  Here, Jeanette Deutermann, a mother of two, is a local hero, a relentless and articulate critic of the status quo.   David Gamberg, superintendent of the Southhold and Greenport districts, has been vociferous in his critique of the Common Core and high-stakes testing.

During Hynes’s three years in this large, diverse district, where roughly 70 percent of eligible students did not sit for tests in 2016, he has joined their ranks, making the case for bringing joy and excitement back to learning:

I don’t think anything we’re looking to do here is so outlandish or out of the ordinary. What we’re looking to do is go back to the basics of what it means to fundamentally educate a child. As a state and a nation we’ve been moving away from that.

I think it’s refreshing for people to hear that we want kids to actually enjoy and make the school experience relevant to all of them. That’s really what we’re trying to do.

In addition to doubling recess time in the primary grades—kindergarten through fifth grade—Hynes has stipulated that yoga and meditation be added for all students.  Structured and unstructured play, with more project-based learning, will be reintroduced into kindergarten through second-grade classrooms.  During the years of No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, these staples of best practice  have been disappearing.

Newsday, which has not been sympathetic to the cause of Long Island’s renegades, dutifully reported the recalibration of recess. The paper’s paywall made it difficult for me to get more detail.  But an article called “Urging Social Wholeness,” in the Long Island Advance, with a photograph of Eagle Elementary’s “Imagination Station,”  filled me in, bringing momentary relief from the terrors of electoral politics:

Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Michael Hynes had already greeted students at two other schools well before 9 a.m. when he walked the halls of Medford Elementary School on Tuesday.

How’s it going? he greeted dual language teacher Heather Kutnowsky.

You OK with play?  he asked kindergarten teacher Karen Bear. I love it, she said.

Play was an important component this school year, emphasized last week when Hynes presented the district’s five-year plan, Road to Success, which integrates a whole-child approach and initiates social and emotional growth by establishing more play time, less prep time for tests, and more robust, effective teaching via teamwork projects. Hynes pitched the plan during the convocation in Patchogue-Medford High School’s auditorium last Thursday that will affect 7,800 students.

The school board also voted on a Serve All Students resolution last week, becoming the first school district in New York State to pass a resolution that urged New York State Education officials to foster a public education vision that prioritizes child-centered and developmentally appropriate learning standards and assessments.

I learned, too, that Cynthia Suozzi, a professor at St. Joseph’s College, is working with pre-K staff in seven classrooms, with 240 students, at three elementary schools in the district: “We utilize the Reggio Emilia philosophy,” she said.  “It’s play-based and we use play as a modality that seeks to bring out their interests.”  Suozzi  views children as little scientists, and worries that teaching has gotten lost in high-stakes testing.

Reggio Emilia, a movement to create schools that would nurture high-level critical thinking necessary for democracy’s survival in the aftermath of World War II, is the gold standard for practitioners of progressive early education.  They talk about it with reverence and longing, and those who can afford the study trip to Italy for a firsthand view jump at the opportunity.

As for Imagination Station, well, it sounds promising.  But the time allocation—30 minutes twice a week—is minimal; it feels like an add-on, gimmicky.  Will wooden blocks be brought back into kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms?  Will Hynes agree to discard the “learning blocks” of  EngageNY, the Common Core curriculum that has encroached upon the primary years, narrowing fields of inquiry.  He’s  mentioned project-based learning.  Will children have choices, guided by teacher’s scaffolding?  He might want to check out this first-grade classroom at Sidwell Friends, in Washington, where  presidents and other power brokers send their kids to be educated.

This is a great start.  Still, I hope that Hynes thinks about moving Reggio and the nurturance of little scientists on up to these critical elementary years, if not beyond.  Otherwise that social wholeness may prove elusive.

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