September 1, 2016
“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress;
working together is success.” Henry Ford
(The following speech was written with the intent of the spoken word, and does not necessarily follow the rules for grammar and written essay.)
Good morning everyone. I would like to welcome Colin Vega, Senior at VHS, who is joined by Claire Ma, VHS Choir Teacher. Colin will lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance. Would everyone please stand and remain standing for our National Anthem.
Thank you Colin for that wonderful performance and taking time out of your morning to be with us. We wish you a wonderful school year.
At this time, I would like to introduce VHS Senior Mia Corbett to the stage who will introduce our next performance.
Thank you to our band and teachers for a wonderful performance. You exemplify everything that is wonderful about the Verona music program.
Welcome back everyone. I hope you have all had a relaxing and enjoyable summer. The last few days of summer leading up to the first day of school is one of my favorite times of the year. September is a time to begin again with renewed energy. It’s now that you begin to set into motion your new year’s resolutions. There is an energy and excitement like no other.
The past ten weeks have been busy in Verona. The energy savings improvement program (ESIP) upgrades not only enhanced the lighting in all of our schools, but enabled us to go green and become more energy efficient. Our referendum provided us with significant improvements across the entire district, from walkways and driveways, to technology infrastructure and wifi, to a music addition, tennis courts, athletic fields, and improved heating at VHS, just to name a few. All of this work and effort was necessary to provide a safe, secure, positive learning environment and a supportive atmosphere for teachers, staff and students.
None of this could have been accomplished by any one individual. It was a team effort from the planning phase right through implementation. And for a few of us in this room, it was a challenging summer. Our custodial, maintenance, and technology staff needed to be determined and flexible through it all. They did an amazing job this summer throughout the entire district. When you return to your buildings, you will see firsthand the great effort that our staff went to in order for you to start the school year off on the right foot. The place has never looked better, and I want to thank them for their efforts. Please join me in giving them a warm round of applause.
You are all dedicated to supporting the needs of our students in the classroom, on our fields, on-stage, and backstage. You help support our students to learn the alphabet, how to kick a ball, to be kind, analyze text, conduct lab experiments, and you get them into the colleges and universities, the military and workforce.
We have with us today our paraprofessionals and new faculty members that we are welcoming to the Verona community. They are a special group of people; a group of educators that our team believes can do outstanding things. We believe that you are an excellent fit for Verona, and in turn, we believe that Verona is an excellent fit for you. We maintain high expectations to support the best interests of our students, and we look forward to supporting your professional growth for years to come.
At this time, I would like to ask all of our new paraprofessional aides, administrators, teachers, and faculty to please stand.
Please join me in welcoming all of our new staff with a warm round of applause. To our new staff, you may be seated.
I ask that our new members take a moment to look around, look to your left, look to your right. Welcome to an incredible place. A community of learners that is committed to maintaining a focus on children, and helping each one succeed. You are amongst an outstanding group of educators, who are extremely seasoned and knowledgeable. Take advantage of their years of experience, embark together on your journey. We will support your growth as you perfect your craft. I welcome you to this incredible organization and wish you a long and fulfilling career with us. You will help define the future of Verona.
To our new faculty, you may be wondering what it means to be part of the Verona Public Schools? I would like to spend some time sharing with you what makes Verona so very special. A highly engaged and supportive community, dedicated to, first and foremost, the best interests of each and every child. We continuously strive to raise the bar for success. We continue to redefine and measure success for each and every student, an approach that is differentiated and personalized, always seeking to help each child achieve their unique potential.
To that end, the Verona Foundation for Educational Excellence is dedicated to enhancing education within our community by providing grants to our staff for innovative ideas that will enhance student learning. Last year, the VFEE Inspiring Excellence Award recognized and celebrated teaching excellence and innovation. Each school in the district has many dedicated educators who make outstanding contributions to their school community on a daily basis.
VFEE honored several outstanding educators this past year that I would like to recognize today:
Claire Duffy, Brookdale Avenue School,
Corisa Walker, F.N. Brown School,
Lisa Varuolo, Forest Avenue School,
Grace Minervo-Buneo, Laning Avenue School,
Jennifer Kleinknecht, H.B. Whitehorne Middle School,
and Richard Wertz, Verona High School.
Let’s give them a nice round of applause.
For our new faculty, that is only the beginning of what is special about Verona. You will come to learn that there is much to be proud of here. Our elementary schools support the successful conflict resolution and peer mediation programs that began at F.N. Brown and are now in each elementary school. A special thank you to Anna Collins, Luisa Witter, Rob Hill, Lou Waibel, and Karen Tully for spearheading this effort with Dr. Lanzo.
Joni J., Super Art Teacher Extraordinaire, spearheaded Hearts for Hope, where the SCA funded the purchase of 300 ceramic hearts, students and staff painted hearts during art class, integrating various art skills while developing empathy for those that are in hospitals battling cancer related diseases and those that are currently serving our country in the armed forces.
At Laning Avenue School, Pam Solomon helped make the new principal, Mr. Freund’s transition to Laning, very smooth. Pam made herself available multiple times throughout last summer to serve on interview committees. Pam worked closely with two new 4th grade teachers at Laning, introducing them to our curriculum and learning community, playing an important role in ensuring that all of last year’s 4th grade students had a wonderful, enriching experience.
The new Sensory Garden at Laning helps students with anxiety, ADD/ADHD, Autism, or Sensory Processing Disorder who can feel overwhelmed by ambient noise, fluorescent lighting, or by working in a large group. Taking a break from those sensory experiences may help students return to the classroom refreshed and ready to learn. Diane Conboy, Maryann Bifulco and the Laning Avenue team have been dedicated to establishing the Laning Avenue School Sensory Garden which supports our students to learn in new and creative ways.
Joan Weiss had been teaching kindergarten at Forest for nine years. Three years ago, our first grade class enrollment grew and we needed someone who was willing to teach a third section of second grade and then move up with that class to third and fourth grade. Joan stepped up to the plate and wound up teaching four different grade levels in as many years. For three straight years, she learned a new curriculum, adjusted to a new grade level, and worked with a new group of grade level teachers. Joan embraced this process and did it with energy, passion, and a big smile. She enjoyed the years of moving and changing. It was an enriching experience for her. Thank you Joan for your flexibility as you settle into a more permanent position this year for the first time in a long time.
At Brookdale Avenue School, Luisa Witter and Rob Hill presented a district workshop on Diversity in the 21st Century. The faculty continued to support Reading Workshop Model with a focus on guided reading and Claire Duffy was appointed to Academic Literacy Coach with her extensive background in supporting students and staff with reading instruction.
At HBW, Amy Heckel not only helped students become more aware of climate change, but she connected them more deeply and personally to it by helping them understand local efforts designed to combat this important global issue.
Dan Halpern and Brian Michalowski may be a year away from the end goal, but we are proud of them for their efforts in securing a VFEE grant for the production of the White(horne) album this upcoming year that will engage the entire HBW community in an interdisciplinary unit of study.
Julia Harth. Congratulations on placing your own personal stamp on new courses and sparking an incredible interest in our students to explore engineering and design, from Pumpkin Chunkin to Rube Goldberg, and everything in between.
Last but not least, congrats to the 6th grade Carnegie Team here with us today (Corrie Russignolo, Debbie Marsano, Doris Peim, and Kate Smith). Through our new House Model, this team was relentless throughout the year in supporting numerous students with intense needs. The team proactively communicated concerns to parents and worked to support their students in creative and supportive ways. Thank you for your endless efforts.
At VHS, Rich Wertz was recognized by Princeton University this past Spring as a Distinguished Secondary Teacher of the Year in the State of New Jersey. Mr. Wertz is frequently at the high school at all hours of the day and night helping students grow, not just in his classes, but in others too. Mr. Wertz is credited with growing our Computer Science program which has translated into many students being accepted and studying Computer Science in their chosen college or university.
Nathan Scott is well known for his wonderfully written personal letters he sends home about every student he teaches. His time and dedication to understanding each child and expressing his or her positive attributes both in phone calls home and in personally hand written letters demonstrates a whole child approach to motivating student learners.
Erik Lynch is a highly devoted and energetic music teacher. Mr. Lynch’s passion for music can be seen in the performances he has had in many halftime performances during football games, during their wonderful concert last year at the Cathedral Basilica, or during other countless performances throughout the school year. He has been nominated three times for a Grammy because of his work with students and is a quarterfinalist for the 2017 Grammy. Congratulations Erik.
Dr. Marie Meyer is a go to person for students in the building. Every lunch period you can walk by her room and see countless students eating in her room, talking about global issues, or discussing works of literature. Dr. Meyer has an innate ability to connect with students in a way where learning feels personal and relevant. Dr. Meyer also runs Girls Learn International and Avant Garde, the Verona High School literary magazine.
On the courts and on the fields, the athletic program won the North 1, Group 1 State Championship in Girl’s Tennis and Boy’s Basketball, we were the SEC Liberty Division Champions for a 2nd consecutive year in wrestling, won the McInnis Cup Championship in ice hockey, and we won Back to Back State Championships in football while extending a 23 game winning streak, the longest run in the State. In addition, 14 student athletes from the class of 2016 will be participating in NCAA Athletics next year. And now we will have the facilities we can all be proud of when we cheer on our students and coaches.
I have really enjoyed watching your academic accomplishments and our progress over the past two years. As a result of your tireless efforts building a foundation for our students, your dedication and professionalism, our students exceeded their own expectations. They excelled academically, athletically, and artistically. The Verona Public Schools played an integral role in sending students to some of the most competitive colleges in the nation.
In 2009, Verona had 12 AP Scholars. Verona had 58 AP Scholars in 2015, a number more than four times our success rate just seven years ago. That is some incredible growth, a testament to all of your efforts, beginning in Pre-K and building on skills, knowledge and critical thinking through middle school and then catapulting all the way through senior year, all supported by our administration and Board of Education. You have taught, coached, and counseled kids to become their very best, overcoming challenges and obstacles that inevitably face each and everyone of us. You’ve been their academic barometer and their moral compass.
These honors and accomplishments are not an accident, they are a result of our concerted efforts as a team, a manifestation of the day in and day out commitment and passion you put into each lesson, and the support and guidance you provide to each and everyone of your students. We are proud of our success in dual enrollment college courses, which provide students opportunities to earn college credit while at VHS.
Just three years ago, three short years ago, we had 28% of our students enrolled in at least one AP course at VHS. Certainly, an accomplishment to be proud of. However, this Fall, over 47% of our students at VHS will be enrolled in at least one AP course. This is an increase of nearly 20% in just two years. A comparative analysis indicates that VHS is a leader in the State in AP participation, only surpassed by Princeton High School, Bernards High School, and Cranford High School. Next year, we project that we will be #1 in NJ in removing artificial barriers to higher level coursework for our high school students. Some critics may have not believed we could increase participation without watering down our standards. Our teachers and administrators proved that wrong. While increasing participation, student performance increased with scores of 3 or better climbing from 63% in 2015 to 71% in 2016. More and more of our students are engaged in rigorous coursework and performing at a higher level than a few years ago.
These are extremely important statistics for several reasons:
First, the district is committed to removing barriers for students to take rigorous AP courses,
#2. Our focus is on well developed and implemented curriculum, which each of you plays a direct role in,
#3. Success cannot happen without talented teachers and highly engaging, quality instruction,
#4. Our administration and counselors utilize PSAT scores to identify AP potential in all of our students that aids in the scheduling process,
And lastly, our teachers set high expectations for our students and support them to achieve his or her goals.
I would like to congratulate all of our AP teachers for their contributions to our program and students. I would also like to recognize the following teachers who attained a student performance average of nearly 4 or better on last year’s College Board AP exams: Dr. Janan Wehbeh in AP Chemistry, Dr. Marie Meyer in AP English Language, and Melissa Wallerstein in AP Human Geography. Congratulations on a job very well done. I would also be remiss if I did not recognize Melissa Wallerstein for being named one of our nation’s 2016 American Geographical Society Human Geography Teacher Fellow. Congratulations Melissa.
Our Orton-Gillingham partnership with Fairleigh Dickinson University provides training and certification to staff members in our first cohort through a direct, multisensory structured, phonetic approach to teaching reading that supports some of our struggling readers. Kudos to the following faculty for making this program a possibility in Verona:
Anne Marie Ruggiero
Thank you for your dedication. We know how much time and effort you put into developing your craft as lifelong learners and helping some of our struggling readers attain their goals.
So many of you have jumped right into new technology, using Chromebooks to incorporate Google Apps For Education in your classrooms. All along, making sure to maintain a focus on teaching and learning, where technology was essentially non-existent a few years ago. You have embraced this change and as we have rebuilt a new network, added real wifi, and adopted nearly 1,000 Chromebooks for implementation in your classrooms. And over 60 of you have actively participated in the Google Teacher Academy, while many of you have turnkeyed professional development both formally and informally for your colleagues. For that, I say thank you.
We experienced a pilot program in grades 1-8 last year to support teaching and learning of inquiry based science. This Fall begins the multi-year process of supporting our faculty with professional development and new materials to improve student engagement and academic performance.
Reading Workshop continues to thrive in our elementary schools and was expanded last year in grade 5 at HBW. Thank you Dr. Bangia, Mrs. Sue Conlon, and Mrs. Dara Chamma for your efforts in expanding our literacy initiative.
All of these accomplishments are wonderful news. But none of them would be possible if it were not for the people in our organization that are so dedicated to our students. Commitment, day in and day out, with a focused effort to give your very all. I would like to commend the following staff members who maintained perfect attendance throughout the 2015-16 school year:
Please join me in giving them a round of applause.
Our strategic plan provides us with direction on what we value most as a community, including our mission statement, core values, and strategies that will guide us to achieve our goals. I could have highlighted so many more accomplishments today if we had more time. We have built an amazing amount of momentum as we collaborate together. Our work is meaningful, purposeful, and filled with such promise.
You can see we have much to be proud of in Verona, a testament to our individual contributions and our collective efforts. We sometimes focus so much on where we are going next. Let us stop for a moment, breathe, take it all in, and be proud of what we have achieved. Thank you for all that you do each and every day to make Verona a special place. I look forward to seeing where we go next by sustaining progress in so many areas. I wish you a wonderful first day of school and a successful year. Be well.
At this time, I would like to turn the program over to the VEA. Thank you.