From K-12, Rocco and his Bulldogs are all in it together

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“The last few months have created many superheroes in our school,” John Acee, Board of Education president, says of the efforts made by the entire Westmoreland Central School community. “Teachers who pivoted very quickly to online instruction; parents who became teachers overnight; cafeteria staff and bus drivers who are providing meals to kids daily.”

He also mentions how the administration had the foresight to ensure that all the teachers and students had Chromebooks or iPads for remote instruction.

April Elwood, whose son Dylan is graduating this year, agrees with him. She feels that the school was “on top of it” before the closure even happened. Her son has been a student in the Westmoreland School District since Kindergarten.

“He was issued a Chromebook as soon as he hit high school,” she says. “The school has just gone above and beyond. There isn’t a single teacher in Westmoreland that hasn’t done all they could. They were ready.”

“Our staff was ready to go March 16th!” says Rocco Migliori, the Superintendent of Schools. 

He estimates that the communication from the school to home has increased ten-fold. Counselors, social workers, and psychologists have been reaching out virtually. The cafeteria crew prepares two hundred breakfasts and lunches each day, and the bus drivers deliver them. The clerical staff has fielded calls and emails working from home, and his administration team has followed up with surveys and virtual town meetings with local, state, and elected officials. 

“Westmoreland has definitely set the bar high,” marvels Barb Dixon Clanton who’s daughter Ashlynn is in seventh grade. “I’ve noticed the Google Meets are about more than just learning. The staff is truly checking in on the students’ well being.”

Board president John Acee credits some of that to the school’s seven-year partnership with Freedom Writers Erin Gruwell.

“Westmoreland has been at the forefront of social-emotional education,” he says. “It’s something that our district places a great deal of value on, so much so, that it is an integral part of our district’s strategic plan.”

The district has also partnered with ICAN (formerly Kids Oneida) to develop a special “hotline.” Kids or parents can send an email to a dedicated link, anonymously or not, and they will get a personal response from a counselor or caseworker within twenty-four hours. 

“Our students have demonstrated resilience over and over again,” Acee observes. “It certainly does take a village!”

“They were thrown into a different world literally overnight, but they adapted to this new normal in less than a day,” Migliori adds. “There was a tremendous amount of time and energy that went into the planning of instruction of virtual lessons, but you wouldn’t know it by watching our staff. They look as if they have been doing this forever.” 

“Our experience has been a positive one,” Barb Dixon Clanton says. “[her daughter] Ashlynn said she feels like she’s gotten to know her teachers on a more personal level. The staff was prepared right from the beginning, and because of that, our children never stopped learning!”

Joyce Russell, who has been helping her fourth-grade grandson navigate the transition to learning at home, describes the contact between school and home as “amazing.”
She has high praise for Upper Elementary principal, Stephen Polara, who has just been promoted to Director of Pupil Personnel/Curriculum K-12 for the district.

“Mr. Polera starts every day [online] with the Pledge of Allegiance, announcements, and a fun fact, as if he were right there,” Russell says.

“The Bulldog Four” are four core values articulated by the Upper Elementary community. They include, “I will be responsible. I will give my best effort. I will be respectful and kind. I will be safe.”

Those routines give the students a sense of comfort and stability in an uncertain time.

“The teachers post assignments by 8:30. There is a class meeting every day at 9:30, and [her grandson’s] teachers are available for any questions or help the rest of the day,” Russell says. “I don’t think they have left anything out in regards to the educational needs. With all the planning and work the entire staff has put in, they deserve nothing but the highest respect and appreciation.”

In Polera’s letter to parents dated May 13, 2000, he talked about how supportive the staff and community have been towards him over the past two years. While he is looking forward to his new role in the district, he will miss all of the students in the Upper Elementary building.

Those kids will be back in the fall, but senior Isabella West will not. She is heading to college in Charleston, South Carolina, to study Spanish and International Relations. 

We talked about how it felt to be graduating at such a difficult time. She told me that gestures like the banners congratulating each member of the class of 2020 along Route 233-a program proposed by school board member Denise Szarek-meant a lot to her. 

“My friends and I were excited to see our faces on 233,” she said. 

Since so many of the traditional ways of celebrating graduation have had to be canceled because of COVID-19, these initiatives mean a lot to Isabella and her friends.

“It was very thoughtful and a great gesture from the school.”

West also mentioned how much she has been enjoying the videos Greg Williams and Patrick Cardillo have been producing for the school’s website. 

“The ones with all the teachers was very moving and motivating,” she said. “To see them care and want their students to succeed-even in a situation that we’re not used to-was touching. They’ve also been keeping in touch with us and making sure that we’re okay mentally and physically.” 

Another thing that impressed her was the way foreign exchange students were included in the banners.

One of those students, an Indonesian girl named Tiara, lived with the Owens family until the pandemic meant she had to leave the country before the end of the school year.

I asked if it was hard to leave Westmoreland.

“It was,” Debbie Harris Owens said. “She really wanted to finish and graduate. Tiara was on the Principal’s list and did well in her studies. She liked the openness of the conversations. She loved her Media Production classes and Art.”

The school’s May newsletter says, “In the end, the COVID-19 health crisis could have knocked us off course, but it didn’t. [It has] helped make the Westmoreland School Community what it is…strong, resilient, innovative, and caring.”

Parents like Sarah Smith believes Superintendent Migliori deserves a great deal of credit for that success. 

“Rocco has been doing an amazing job,” she says. “If you have kids in the district during this difficult time, you will understand. We are lucky!”

School Board President John Acee echoes her sentiments.

“I credit the leadership of superintendent Rocco Migliori for getting out in front of things very early on in March with his planning and regular communications with the staff.”

Migliori gives all the credit to his staff and the people of Westmoreland. He says how great it’s been the way they’ve consistently offered to help and expressed their thanks for all the school was doing.

“This is a community that is extremely supportive of their school,” he says. “They take pride in the fact that we’re all in this together and that we’re all Bulldogs.”

Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo.

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