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Four Incumbents, Three Challengers Compete in Byram Hills Board Race
For the first time since 2017, residents in the Byram Hills School District will have choices in the annual Board of Education election.
With four of the seven seats up for grabs in the May 17 election, including the final 13-plus months of former longtime board member Ira Schulman’s term, the race has attracted seven hopefuls. Four sitting board members – current Vice President Jason Berland, Mia DiPietro, Lara Stangel and Melissa Jacobs, who was appointed in March to fill the vacancy – are running as a team as three challengers, Tiziana DiDonna, Scott Meyer and Danielle Orellana are on the ballot as well.
The top three vote-getters win the seats carrying the full three-year term while the fourth-place finisher will serve the unexpired term.
Berland, a litigator, is completing his first term on the board. He has been a soccer and baseball coach in the community and joined the Armonk United Soccer Club as a division coordinator and member of the management team.
Within a year, Berland joined the Byram Hills Education Foundation (BHEF), where he chaired the Fundraising and Grant committees before becoming chairman of the board for the next four years.
Running for school board was a natural progression for him in 2019.
“Simply put, I love our schools and feel so fortunate that my three children have had an opportunity to be educated in Byram Hills,” Berland said of his why he’s running for re-election. “My wife, Faith, and I chose to move to our district for the same reason as almost everyone else – because of the top-notch academics. From the moment we arrived in town a decade ago, we made it our mission to jump in, head-first, into as many volunteer opportunities as we possibly could.
School districts everywhere have had unprecedented challenges the past two years because of COVID-19. Berland said Byram Hills was able to open for grades K-6 in September 2020, something he is proud of the administration, teachers, staff and board for having accomplished that feat.
However, there are children, especially the youngest students, who will continue to need extra social and academic support and school leadership is cognizant of this, he said.
In 2018 and 2019, Byram Hills established a district-wide wellness initiative to ensure there is focus on students’ mental well-being.
“Because of this collaborative push to do a better job focusing on mental-health, school start times were pushed back so students could get more sleep, schedules were changed so students could focus on less classes for longer periods of time, and the list goes on and on,” Berland said.
The district also recently implemented additional social-emotional learning initiatives, including a K-5 social-emotional curriculum in 2021-22, and a partnership with the University of Michigan’s Depression Center to train faculty and collaborate on programs to support students.
Berland said Byram Hills remains one of the top districts in the state while consistently remaining under the tax cap. An example of that excellence is how the high school became a National Blue-Ribbon school in 2020, high rates of acceptances its students receive to top-tier colleges, high ratings in language arts and other programs and others awards and recognitions.
Byram Hills must ensure students with special needs are supported and that no student slips through the cracks, Berland said. He has supported new math and reading curriculums that are more inclusive of different learning styles, adding an assistant director of special education and multiyear programs such as StartUp and Global Scholars so students can explore independent interests.
It isn’t a secret that Byram Hills isn’t a very diverse district. However, Berland said the administrators and teachers “do a wonderful job teaching kindness and promoting an environment where all students are encouraged to listen to varying points of views. At the end of the day, our children will be kind and welcoming if parents model kindness and open-mindedness at home, as education is a collaboration between school and home.”
In a second term, Berland said he will focus on having the district enhance its fields and athletic facilities
Berland said he believes there is increased interest this year in the race because of increased awareness on the importance of school board given the nation-wide turbulence. He views the heightened interest as healthy as long as candidates are aware of the responsibility of the role.
He said the decision to run as a team with DiPietro, Stangel and Jacobs is because each demonstrates their commitment to education and students’ well-being and brings varied experience to the board.
“Most importantly, all four incumbent candidates sometimes have different opinions and points of view on issues, but each values and encourages respectful dialogue and effective communication with administrators and with the community,” Berland said.
The daughter of Italian immigrants, Didonna was the first in her family to go to college, graduating from NYU. As a school psychologist in the Pelham School District, Didonna said she often interacts with other districts throughout the region.
That perspective combined with the fact that she moved to the district two years ago from Valhalla has Didonna believing she can lend a different voice to Byram Hills.
“I just know that I have skills to offer,” said Didonna, who served as SEPTA vice president in Valhalla. “I kind of feel like why keep them to myself. I’m a public servant and have kind of been one my whole life.”
Didonna said there’s no question that Byram Hills is a perennially high-achieving district but she would like the schools to focus on resiliency and independence of its students and making sure once they graduate, they have the tools to handle an increasingly complicated and diverse world.
By tracking how the graduates have done, it could help the district make better decisions for the current students.
“We have to keep our eyes on things like are they handling their mental health once they’ve left us, are they able to sustain the rigors when they are leading much more independent lives,” Didonna said.
Making sure the district is stressing cultural proficiency is another area she would like to explore. Since Byram Hills does not have a great deal of diversity, Didonna said partnering with other districts to increase students’ exposure to a wider set of people should be considered.
While the district does well in teaching respect, learning it and living it are very different things.
“That’s very different than children having an opportunity to live a life where their contemporaries are different than them,” Didonna said. “Then they just grow to respect them because they have lived shared experiences.”
Byram Hills has a highly distinguished faculty and staff but Didonna said she would like to search for ways to attract teacher candidates from a wider population.
Didonna lauded the district as one of the leaders at bringing back students to school in grades K-6 for the 2020-21 academic year. She is concerned about the kids who aren’t top students who may have regressed or not progressed as much as they could as a result of the pandemic.
There may still be consequences academically stemming from the pandemic for years to come, Didonna said.
“In general, even pre-pandemic, it must be tough to be a struggling or even an average-achieving student in a high-achieving district like this, which is why tiered support is of particular interest to me and, of course, why developing the whole child is that much more important to me,” she said.
Didonna said she’s pleased the district has a Sustainability Committee and has goals of reaching zero waste.
“I think we have the opportunity to foster children’s connection to nature that they understand and value it intrinsically because if they value it, when they grow up… they’re going to be able to capitalize on that and in turn will help us sustain this environment,” Didonna said.
She said the four incumbents running as a team likely makes it more difficult to break through, and it also signals that the current board may not be open to change. Didonna mentioned that the district does an excellent job educating children and the board is understandably proud of their record.
But in the remaining days before the vote, Didonna pledges to do her best to have voters familiarize themselves with her and are aware of her priorities for the district.
“It’s wonderful to be in a district now where kids have so much guidance in every area and are provided so many opportunities along the way to kind of figure it out,” she said.
It has been important for DiPietro to be involved and volunteer for her three children’s schools. She served on the board of the Byram Hills Preschool Association for several years, is an active member of the PTSA and spent many years as a class parent. She continues to be a member of CHILD and the Working Parents Committee in addition to being a Girl Scouts troop leader.
Now DiPietro, who is a senior HRIS specialist for Marsh McLennan managing computer systems that deliver, track and support corporate learning, is running for a third term on the Board of Education because she cares deeply about serving the community where her three children attend school and her strong belief in public education.
“Each of my children, just as each child in the school district, has his/her own set of strengths and skills that need development,” said DiPietro who grew up in South Africa and later attended Scarsdale High School. “I have and will continue to fight tirelessly to provide an environment where these skills will be developed and nurtured.”
She credited the entire school community with collaborating to make sure that K-6 students returned to school the September following the onset of the pandemic, making it a model for many other districts.
Student performance remains at outstanding levels with impressive college acceptance rates and standardized test scores. In 2019, the last year the English Regents was given, Byram Hills was ranked first in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties, DiPietro said. There are, however, always areas to bolster.
“I am a big fan of continuing to add new elective and enrichment programs K-12 which are accessible for all students,” DiPietro said. “As a district we want to keep the rigor and performance high while always ensuring the social and emotional health of the students.”
DiPietro said the district works hard to welcome every family to the district regardless of their background and bullying is rejected. However, those are issues every district struggles with in some way.
“The different cultures represented in our district should be, and are, celebrated,” she said. “I am very supportive of parents and children working together to share their cultures and traditions with their fellow community members.”
DiPietro said one of the areas where she’s most proud of the board is carefully planning for infrastructure improvements through the annual budget. There are projects planned for every summer to maintain the facilities and make the schools safer, more comfortable and energy efficient.
The district has been replacing windows, including most recently at the high school and Coman Hill Elementary School, and installing mew lighting and generators as well as air-conditioning more spaces.
Going forward, DiPietro would like to see improvements made to the fields and outdoor recreation areas used by children.
“Over the past six years, the Board of Education planned prudently to avoid the need for any major improvements that cannot be funded within our budget limits that have seen a minimal tax increase,” she said.
To encourage greater environmental awareness and sustainability, the district encourages easy recycling for students and faculty and has begun looking toward phasing in electric buses, DiPietro said.
The idea to run with her fellow incumbents as a ticket is because DiPietro said they make a great team. Despite what the public may see at the board meetings, there are many times when board members have differing opinions, but a consensus is eventually reached respectfully. Considerable time is spent in executive session where divergent views on legal and personnel matters are hammered out, but that each member understands their personal opinion may not be what’s best for the district.
“Above all, I cherish the trust that the Byram Hills community has placed in me and my fellow board members,” DiPietro said. “It is no secret that parents and parents to be move to Byram Hills because of the superior educational experience that is provided to every student.”
After being appointed just over two months ago to temporarily fill the board vacancy, Jacobs now hopes to earn a longer stint on the board.
Jacobs served six years on the Byram Hills Education Foundation (BHEF) to obtain grants and said she is prepared for a decision-making role to give back to the district and community and work toward maintaining an exemplary school system.
“By working closely with so many aspects of our schools, I have become well-equipped to understand the challenges and opportunities that the board addresses regularly, and I welcome the opportunity to be a part of that important work for our students and school community,” said Jacobs, a former Pleasantville School District teacher who is a substitute teacher around the county.
Jacobs said the district did a stellar job opening school for grades K-6 in September 2020, a testament to the administration, faculty and staff. The district worked with the BHEF, to buy and use Viewsonic technology, successfully training teachers to use hybrid and virtual models for continuity of education during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, there may be learning gaps and the district must find ways to help struggling students bridge that gap, she said.
“We need to continue to use our schools’ varied assessment data to evaluate what adjustments need to be made to programs and curriculum to address students’ academic and social-emotional needs, making sure that no child slips through the cracks, and using the best educational tools available to ensure that all students can succeed,” Jacobs said.
Byram Hills remains among the top school districts in the region, with 82 percent of students admitted to Tier 1 and Tier 2 colleges, and it is consistently among the top 10 districts in the region, with students capturing a wide variety of awards and accolades.
To ensure every child goes to school in a welcoming environment, the district incorporates character education and social-emotional curricula, some of which is based on the Challenge Success student survey results and evaluations, Jacobs said.
“We should continue to listen to our students and their experiences, using programs and resources to ensure that all students feel valued; all members of our school community should understand that each individual is different, and we must be respectful and inclusive of every child, no matter what the background,” she said.
Jacobs said sustainability practices at Byram Hills have been in place for years to encourage students to reduce, reuse and recycle as well as compost. A new K-5 environmental science grant that the board recently approved from the education foundation is another way the district is addressing green initiatives, particularly with the youngest students. Educating students about green lifestyle practices and its impact on the planet may be most important, she said.
Jacobs said that she is proud of what the current board has accomplished and its commitment to all students in this district. Each incumbent has a different professional background and viewpoints, and has had years of leadership and experience being involved in the district.
“The community should understand that the incumbents are not running as a ‘ticket’ but as four individual, incumbent candidates who strongly believe in each other and are well-known to the Byram Hills administration, faculty and parents,” Jacobs said. “Past experience and commitment to our own district is essential to being a productive, progressive board.”
Meyer was motivated to run after the youngest of his two children was having difficulty with reading when he was in kindergarten during 2019-20. He became an avid researcher on reading and dyslexia, and while he found Byram Hills to have some decent programs in place, he was underwhelmed by how they addressed his son’s situation.
Improving the reading for the district’s elementary school students by new teachers in the primary grades would have training in the science of reading and monitoring the results would be Meyer’s priority.
“I just felt like they weren’t teaching reading correctly,” said Meyer, who works in finance. “They chose some programs that sort of follow the science of reading but the teachers aren’t trained in the actual science of reading.”
While the district did a good job at getting the elementary students back to the classroom for the start of 2020-21, Meyer said there will be learning loss, some of which might not be fully understood yet. He said about 18 states have used COVID-19 money from the federal government toward reading programs and Byram Hills should strongly consider a similar move.
Meyer said he believes the Byram Hills community is an accepting community despite the lack of diversity. Particularly impressive are the children, who he finds to be the most accepting.
However, the community has its challenges for parents, including being able to say no to their kids, and there are those in the community who came from more modest means.
“Most of the people who live in Armonk have the benefit of their parents’ success,” said Meyer, a Byram Hills graduate. “So to me, wealth is kind of handed down from generation to generation by assets. I have a crutch, my kids have a crutch, but not everyone has a crutch.”:
Byram Hills does not have many serious building infrastructure needs, but the athletic fields need some upgrading, something the district must address in the short term, he said.
If elected, Meyer said he would look to help bolster some of the extracurricular activities, particularly for students up through fifth of sixth grade.
When he entered the race, Meyer said he was initially unprepared for residents reaching out to him to ask him where. He entered the race on an issue that was close to him and his family. He was taken aback when the four incumbents in the race began billing themselves as a team. For a school board race, Meyer said he doesn’t understand how that can practically be done.
“There’s no way we can share all the same thoughts and visions, so why not run on what we feel strongly about, not that we were sort of handpicked because the last few years it’s been unopposed so they’ve just been picking who they want on the board,” Meyer said.
Meyer said he’s proud of the district’s performance and to call himself a district graduate. He does not want to change what is a very strong and successful district. Constant improvement is what Meyer hopes to help the district achieve.
“I just want to improve a couple of things, and then once we improve those things, okay, what’s the next thing,” he said.
A passion for education is in Orellana’s blood. She opened a pre-school and day care center with her mother before helping establish a business with her family and later becoming a real estate agent, Orellana was a science teacher for 12 years in the White Plains School District.
The pandemic highlighted her desire to get more involved in her children’s education and that of their peers.
“Education is always in my heart,” said Orellana, “and I think going through COVID and having a stronger presence in my kids’ academic life, the homeschooling took parents to a different place. It lit a bit of a fire in me to get back involved and I did.”
A key challenge is how the district bridges the gap for those students who had learning loss and challenging the middle of the road students. Orellana praised the district for getting the younger students back in school following the onset of the pandemic, but consistent monitoring of performance and test scores must continue to identify those who may have lost ground. Classroom performance and grades must also be evaluated.
“I think the schools are doing a good job of communicating to the parents that students can go anytime to the guidance office if they’re having difficulty,” Orellana said. “So I think they’ve been really great in offering that.”
She would also like to see the schools offer some more after-school tutoring even though there are many students who are tutored privately.
Orellana said the district does a good job welcoming all families and students to the district, but there admittedly isn’t much diversity. From personal experience, Orellana’s children are Hispanic and have had a good experience at Byram Hills.
Recent real estate trends have seen many new families move into the district, and if that were to continue, Byram Hills will have to closely monitor their space needs.
Orellana complimented the district on sustainability and green initiatives with an emphasis on those practices at every level.
Other issues Orellana would like to work on if elected include lifting the average student to fulfill their potential.
She doesn’t make much of the unofficial partnership among the four incumbents tor run as a team, instead highlighting the qualities that she can bring to the district.
“I’m not worrying about them or focusing on them,” Orellana said. “They’ve done a great job, but this isn’t a career position, so just like any other committee it’s time for a change.”
Stangel is another two-term incumbent who is running for re-election. She is a licensed master social worker who has specialized in the area of mental health and wellness for about 28 years.
“I have decided to run for a third term because I am deeply committed to ensuring the Byram Hills School District continues to provide its standard of excellence in education to every child in our community,” said Stangel, who has previously served as Byram Hills PTSA vice president of education and president and was education foundation trustee, a few of her many roles helping the district. “It has been a privilege to serve the community in this capacity and I would be honored to continue my service for another three years.”
Stangel said the entire district did an outstanding job returning the K-6 students to school full-time in fall 2020. Using the latest in technology, such as ViewSonic, the secondary-level students were supported in their hybrid schedule.
Looking forward, Byram Hills is strongly committed to supporting the social-emotional needs of every child, Stangel said, by continuing to enhance the Emotional Wellness Support Team. That includes the addition of a K-2 social worker at Coman Hill Elementary School and a guidance counselor for grades 3-5 at Wampus.
The middle school now has three guidance counselors and a psychologist, and a social-emotional curriculum that includes Student Voice Circles, Student Directed Learning and an x-pod support period, she said.
The high school guidance department works with the teachers and administration to provide outreach to parents to support students, Stangel added. It uses the Challenge Success Framework to promote mindfulness of social-emotional well-being to support students’ learning and success.
Stangel said Byram Hills High School is consistently ranked one of the top high schools in the state. It is continuously at the top in Regents English exam results, and this past year 82 percent of high school graduates were accepted into Tier 1 and Tier 2 colleges, the top 11 percent of schools, she said. The celebrated Authentic Science Research program had four students recognized as Regeneron Talent Search Top Scholars, and there are the Global Scholars and the new Entrepreneurial Program.
“The Byram Hills Board of Education continues to support the development of strong programs that are the hallmark of a Byram Hills education,” Stangel said.
She said that the district is dedicated to cultural proficiency and having an environment that supports diversity and inclusion
Over the years, Byram Hills has maintained and enhanced its facilities, including recently installing air conditioning in all buildings and renovating athletic fields, Stangel said. The district continuously surveys its buildings to look for repairs and capital improvements and will soon start a three-year project to renovate the high school library and lecture hall, she said.
Stangel also said the district for many years has partnered with the PTSA on green practices and sustainability such as making recycling and composting stations available, which helps educate students, and has installed reusable water fountain bottles and stressed plastic reduction. The district plans to phase in an electric bus fleet to comply with a state mandate.
Although the incumbents are running as a team, Stangel said she is an independent candidate who supports her fellow incumbents because they have extensive experience and a record of service to Byram Hills.
“I’m proud to be part of a district that celebrates all children,” Stangel said. “A district that constantly strives to provide all students with a safe, nurturing environment while simultaneously maintaining a standard of excellence in innovative pedagogical pursuits.”
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/