As soon as I heard “all”, as in “all children,” I breathed a sigh of relief. Our cherished, heralded Great Neck public schools would be in good hands with Dr. Kenneth R. Bossert as superintendent of schools.
He began his introduction to the community – two events on one day, the first at Reach Out America and the second a meet-and-greet at South High School – reading the Great Neck Public Schools’ Mission Statement:
“The Great Neck Public School District provides an innovative and collaborative educational environment that supports academic excellence and the social and emotional growth of all students so that they may become lifelong learners and compassionate, productive members of a diverse, global society.”
In his remarks, he showed he embraced this mission at his core, saying it was a key reason he agreed to leave Elwood UFSD, where he was Superintendent for seven years, to come to Great Neck “for the final chapter” of his career.
“I wanted to make sure the ideals, philosophies matched my own. These words were powerful. In the guiding principle, the mission statement, the key word is ‘all.'”
“All,” he said, means providing the best opportunity for students regardless of socio- economic background, heritage, history in the community or lack – to help all children reach their best potential.
“I support academic excellence, social and emotional growth of all students. All. That means providing resources, tools necessary for them to figure out their path, reach their goals. It’s wonderful to analyze college acceptances, how many got into the Ivy League. But there is no one size fits all – students come from varied backgrounds, have varied interests, goals. Our mission is to help them achieve, whatever they want to be, to figure the best way to support them.”
It is heartening to hear that full embrace of the mission statement that has served Great Neck students so well for decades.
Public Education is under threat as never before. There is a nationalized effort to ban books, erase DEI (Diversity Equity Inclusion) values, to rewrite history and biology in order to literally indoctrinate young people, to vilify teachers and administrators (destroy teachers unions), and take over school boards.
Indeed, Dr. Bossert listed DEI work as one of the key areas he hopes to focus on this year as well as News Media Literacy (making sure students are able to identify credible news outlets, research and develop parallel research), Early Literacy and “All Means All” so that “every student has the opportunity to be successful.”
It’s a really tough time to be an educator, which makes the challenge even greater for a new superintendent, even in a district like Great Neck that has been ranked No. 1 in New York State and No. 3 in the nation by NICHE.
‘The race for excellence has no finish line,” Bossert said. “When you are No. 1, it’s easy to rest on laurels. Our job is to not allow that to occur.”
Asked how he will handle a parent wanting a book removed, he said, “This is not unique to Great Neck – parents wanting literature removed from libraries.”
The way to handle it is to have a process to follow when a portion of curriculum is identified as controversial. “Sometimes it makes for difficult conversation, meeting. That’s not foreign to me.” The process starts with a review with the teacher, then if the parent is not satisfied, the building principal, then a committee review, and after that the board is the final voice.
Asked his view of Artificial Intelligence, he said, “AI is like any new tech.” At first educators keep them out until they become indispensable to teaching. Instead of saying AI is a platform for plagiarism, ask how can we use this tool to our advantage and help move students’ critical thinking forward.”
At the Meet and Greet at Great Neck South High School, I ask about how he might balance the challenge of high-stakes testing – the subject of his Ph.D dissertation that found “when teachers abandon best practice in favor of test prep, drill strategies, children lose out.”
“It has to be a balance…If teachers abandon good instruction in favor of test prep, they won’t meet the same level of success,” he said.
This is Dr. Bossert’s first year in Great Neck, but this year will be the first since 1992 that Barbara Berkowitz will not be joining the Board of Education, having chosen to retire after 31 years, including an unprecedented 15 consecutive years as president of the board.
Few people, I suspect, really appreciate what goes into being a trustee on the Board of Education, let alone its president, and all the complexities and challenges that must be addressed. And then there is the real-world impact on real people’s lives.
Over the course of her 31 years, Berkowitz has had a direct impact on thousands of lives – so many of whom have gone on to make a real mark in the world.
Berkowitz was on the board when the Internet first began and changed everything about teaching, even the infrastructure.
The list goes on: Parkville kindergarten; Option Zone to level out school population between North and South schools with the least disruption to families; preserved low-class size, extra curriculars despite state tax cap; high-stakes testing; bullying; Universal Pre-K; SCOPE pre- and after-school care program; self-sustaining summer recreation program; summer enrichment; two bond issues, security improvements throughout district including expanded transportation; SEAL program; ACE special education program that keeps our students in-district and brings in tuition-paying out-of-district students); two major bond issues; construction to accommodate increased enrollment (one of few districts that has seen numbers going up when others were going down); battled back charter school. And to cap it off, the challenge of COVID response and its aftermath, including expanding access to mental health services and guidance counseling.
“I’ve tried to do my very best to treat all members of the public with great respect and exhibit a spirit of collegiality and kindness toward our staff, as well as my colleagues, while always keeping the needs of our students uppermost in my mind,” Berkowitz told The Island Now in February.
“But despite my heavy heart, I know the time has come for me to move on and let someone else assume this seat on the board after June 30.”