The recent contested election for the Blind Brook Board of Education sparked a lot of conversation in the community, both within and outside the halls of BBHS. On May 17, the candidates’ campaigns came to a close with the election of Samantha Smith and Richard Buzin to the open BOE seats. Yet, while one might have expected Smith’s and Buzin’s landslide win over Naomi Riley to end discussion of the campaigns, that was not to be. The next day, on May 18, Riley created a post in the Rye Brook Residents Facebook group that attributed several controversial statements to longtime math teacher and Blind Brook Federation of Teachers union President, Nicholas Bianculli. Focus recently sat down with Mr. Bianculli to discuss Riley’s post and some of the issues raised in the BOE campaigns.
Bianculli explained that he had reached out to Riley before the election in his capacity as union President, to correct factually inaccurate statements she had made during her campaign regarding Blind Brook’s alleged lack of curriculum, to discuss important concerns she had raised, and try to identify common ground. Bianculli stated that he was puzzled and dismayed that Riley had taken their private conversation–he emphasized that their discussion was not an interview–and disclosed it in a public Facebook post without his knowledge. His disappointment was exacerbated by her post’s misleading and simplistic portrayal of his comments, because she presented them without the necessary context and nuance. As a result, the comments Riley attributed to Bianculli appear to be absolute, black-and-white accusations of Blind Brook students, parents, faculty, and administrators, when, he explained, they were in actuality no such thing.
For example, when asked about Riley’s statement that Bianculli “readily acknowledged that teachers have been ‘lowering their standards’ in recent years, particularly since Covid,” Bianculli explained that it was Riley who raised the idea that standards had been lowered, and he had countered by explaining that teachers were meeting students where they are–whether academically, socially, emotionally, or in terms of executive functioning. If students post-Covid need remediation that they didn’t need pre-Covid, then teachers would have to adjust their expectations to get students to the place they needed to be. Bianculli emphasized the need to understand whether, to the extent learning loss exists post-Covid, the problems are specific to Blind Brook, or whether they are problems faced by districts everywhere. Bianculli explained that it was no one’s fault that student achievement was “frozen” in many ways between March 2020 and September 2021, and it isn’t just a Blind Brook problem. It is critical to understand the nature of any problems or learning loss, Bianculli explained, because that informs the kind of solutions that should be considered. He reiterated that learning loss due to Covid was certainly not unique to Blind Brook, and it is unfair for anyone to imply otherwise.
Likewise, Riley’s Facebook post attributed to Bianculli the statement that “[s]tudents at all levels have stopped studying and handing in homework.” Asked about this, Bianculli rejected the “absolute nature of that comment” as “pretty ridiculous.” In his classes, he acknowledged that he has seen more students failing to hand in homework post-Covid than pre-Covid, which has forced him to try to figure out why this problem is occurring, and reevaluate the extent to which the homework he assigns was necessary and appropriate. Post-Covid there are maturity and skill gaps, resulting from learning loss during remote learning, and he characterized this as an “everywhere issue” that he knows teachers in other disciplines face. While he appreciates Riley bringing this issue to the forefront of discussion, he cautions against taking a generalization and turning it into an absolute statement, when there are a lot of contextual aspects to consider. Indeed, he recognizes that some students thrived during remote learning because certain anxiety-inducing aspects of school, such as social stress, were removed. Again, he emphasizes that this isn’t a question of Blind Brook failing to step up, this is a problem all districts face, and it isn’t helpful to try to place blame on the BOE, faculty, or administrators. Nevertheless, Blind Brook–like every district–needs to address the issue, and he appreciates Riley bringing attention to it.
Riley’s Facebook post also claimed that Bianculli “says the parents of Blind Brook students just want their kids to get A’s and so the teachers have accommodated that desire with significant grade inflation.” Bianculli makes the point that all parents want their children to excel in school. However, he says that he did not state or imply that parents only want their kids to get A’s without doing the work to earn those grades. He believes there has been pressure on teachers to inflate grades, and that this was a problem that predated Covid. Over the years there have been conversations about grade inflation with various BBHS administrations, but he is aware of only informal conversations with the current BBHS administration. Bianculli believes that there needs to be a frank discussion among the various stakeholders about what grades really mean, before there can be a conversation about grade inflation.
Bianculli emphasized the need for broader, more nuanced conversation among Blind Brook stakeholders about the various issues, and the importance of getting all stakeholders to work together, collaboratively, to have the difficult, honest conversations that are necessary to meet the challenges that the district faces. Finger-pointing and blaming will never yield constructive solutions, he noted more than once. Bianculli also applauded the BOE for hiring Dr. Michael Curtin, the new Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, because he believes it is critical for someone to have “a birds eye view” of curriculum and to be able to help teachers understand what the needs are and help articulate best practices. Bianculli is optimistic that Dr. Curtin will be the right person for the task.
Asked what message he would like to leave Blind Brook students and parents as the school year comes to a close, Bianculli said “We’ve all been through a lot. This has not been easy for anybody. And we all need to take a deep breath, we all need to take a step back and say, ‘where are we, collectively… what have we done well, what do we need to work on, what do we need to improve, and where do we go from here?’” He reiterated that the education of Blind Brook students is a partnership and it requires us all to be collaborative, honest with each other, and respectful of one another. If we can’t engage with each other respectfully, understand each other’s positions, and if we are at each other’s throats, blaming each other, then we can’t find common ground, and we won’t grow. Have some empathy for each other, he urged.
As we look ahead to a new school year and a post-Covid era, this seems like good advice for the whole Blind Brook community.