Apthorpe Discusses Key Issues
Bret Apthorpe has an affable disposition, but gets down to brass tacks when necessary.
The new Jamestown Public Schools District superintendent sat down with The Post-Journal to discuss important issues impacting the district and his vision for the schools as a whole. Apthorpe said being the Jamestown superintendent is a “lifetime achievement.”
“Legacy is really important to me,” Apthorpe said. “I never wanted to be average, and I attribute that to my upbringing in Mayville.”
Apthorpe said he left Chautauqua County chasing a pretty girl, his wife, Tracy, who he says is still his pretty girl today. Previously, Apthorpe was a high school social studies teacher in the Southwestern Central School District, as well as a social studies teacher at Honeoye Falls-Lima High School. Later, he moved into administration, and most recently, had been the superintendent of Frontier Central Schools.
Apthorpe said when he became aware Jamestown was looking for a superintendent, he thought of it as an incredible opportunity.
“To come back to the area that I love — an area I feel personally indebted to — I believe my professional experiences will allow me to help this community,” he said. “At the end of the day, I will have such great personal satisfaction having contributed to this community.”
Apthorpe said he lives in downtown Jamestown and loves every minute of it. He said he believes the area is going through a renaissance right now.
However, he said he is not unaware that the Jamestown community and the schools within it face many issues. Yet, Apthorpe said he is ready to get to work on them.
When it comes to the opioid epidemic, Apthorpe said some might think it’s only occurring here, but the problem is widespread.
“The opiate epidemic, for me, is probably the scariest thing as a superintendent,” he said. “Historically, we think of drug problems as teens, but this opiate epidemic, while it might have its roots in teenage years, the people who are dying of it more often are parents of young kids.”
When it comes to these issues, Apthorpe said there are two fronts on which he looks at it. One is the educational piece at the high school and middle schools.
“I’m really leaning heavy on it and talking about gateway,” he said. “The research tells us that very few kids just start taking heroin. Rather, there’s a road that leads them to that.”
However, the other issue of students losing their parents at a young age or being raised in a home with addicts is important to address as well, Apthorpe said. To support the students, the schools must recognize there is a social and emotional component at work.
“Kids can’t learn if they’re not emotionally safe,” he said. “So for young children that are growing up in these environments — we talked about this the first day — the very first person that a young child sees really sets the tone, whether it’s the bus driver, the hall monitor, the people who feed them breakfast … we need to reach out with love and welcomeness to those kids and keep them warmly embraced throughout the day.”
Apthorpe said the epidemic is disturbing, but he is glad that it is not being swept under a rug or hidden and that it is being talked about.
While Jamestown schools have had issues with discipline and violence in the past, Apthorpe said he approaches discipline with a two-prong approach. Safety is paramount for him in all school buildings, he said.
“I believe very strongly that schools are where students learn, if they don’t learn at home, what a public language is and how to act in public,” Apthorpe said. “That’s what I would expect from our kids in all of our buildings. Every district I’ve ever worked at, I’ve always expected that.”
He said safety is non-negotiable and he will not tolerate unsafe buildings.
However, Apthorpe said he understands that students are not adults and have developing brains. In cases of discipline, he said this should be taken into account. For example, if a student is caught with drugs, Apthorpe said the most he can do by law is suspend the student for a year.
“What I do is a second part of their suspension called an ‘early return option,'” Apthorpe said. “That early return option will have a whole list of things they have to do, and if they complete them, they can come back to school early. What those things might include is drug rehabilitation, psychiatric counseling, community service — things that if they do gives them the best opportunity to become healthy because we know we’re not going to punish kids out of drug abuse. We’re not going to punish kids out of violence behaviors — all that’s doing is kicking the can down the road to when they’re adults and then you’ve got really bigger problems.”
Social workers will help the kids if they are interested in the help, Apthorpe said.
Overall, Apthorpe said all kids can learn, all kids can be successful and all kids can heal.
When it comes to finances, Apthorpe is well-versed in is fair funding for Western New York districts, which has been an area of contention for Jamestown Public Schools.
“Having been around the state and understanding the complexity of state funding — I believe they make it complex so the average person can’t understand it, that policy makers in Albany would like Western New York’s status quo right now to be our new norm,” Apthorpe said. “And I’m not OK with that. In the last budget, for every dollar of state aid that went to Western New York, a dollar and a half went to down state.”
Down state has some of the wealthiest areas in the world, he said. Apthorpe said he is outspoken about fair funding for Western New York schools and “peeling back the onion.” He said it’s not more taxes that he’s after, but rather equitable distribution of the tax money that’s allocated for education.
ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS
Another challenge the district is facing is making sure English language learners, or ELLs, are reaching proficiency. Apthorpe said the expectation that students who are new to English and have just moved to the country should be taking the same tests and hitting proficiency a year after they get here is unrealistic.
“The state and federal government have these relatively new rules that I think are garbage that say if a child moves here from another country and doesn’t speak English, that after their first year here they have to take the same English exams as every third through eighth-grader who speaks English,” he said. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess that the poor child who has only been in the country for a year is not going to be proficient on an American English exam. So, when schools like Jamestown have that happen, they get labeled as a focus school or schools that need special attention.”
These labels can be hurtful to areas because real estate agencies and other can use the labels to describe the schools in the area and could keep people from coming in. These labels don’t represent the schools accurately, Apthorpe said. He said the district will address the needs of ELLs, not for the sake of the government, but to help the students learn the language and graduate so they can become productive, contributing members of society.
“I think that’s essential to our work,” Apthorpe said.