Rural students getting helping hand via grants

The students trickle into the classroom. They sit in a circle, some on top of desks, others in chair
Cobleskill-Richmondville High School French and Spanish teacher Francesca D’Amico-Bailey, left, conducts a "freshman forum" in her classroom last Thursday.
Cobleskill-Richmondville High School French and Spanish teacher Francesca D’Amico-Bailey, left, conducts a "freshman forum" in her classroom last Thursday.

The students trickle into the classroom. They sit in a circle, some on top of desks, others in chairs. It’s a relaxed, casual environment, and the teacher asks the students, all freshmen, to describe how they’re feeling in one word.

“I’ll start,” says the teacher, an energetic woman named Francesca D’Amico-Bailey. “Tired.”

The students raise their hands to answer. “Great,” says one. “Good.” “OK.”

Then D’Amico-Bailey announces her topic for the day: How to talk to a teacher when you feel you have been treated unfairly. Two students volunteer to act out a scenario. One of them, Alex Bagdovitz, plays the role of the student. He approaches the teacher, played by classmate Chelsea Rollins, and says, “I failed your midterm. I thought it was unfair because we didn’t go over the stuff [on the test].” Chelsea isn’t sympathetic. “Well, Alex,” she says, “maybe you should have paid attention, and then you wouldn’t have failed.”

D’Amico-Bailey is teaching this small group of freshmen how to communicate with faculty when there is a problem with schoolwork; she is aware that ninth grade is a crucial year and that freshmen who fail will have a difficult time catching up and graduating on time. “You want to avoid words like fair and unfair,” she tells her students. “If you say [you failed] because the teacher didn’t [go over the material], it’s very likely the teacher is going to point out where in the book it is.”

Alex takes D’Amico-Bailey’s advice. Quietly, he asks Chelsea, “Would you mind showing me what we did and when we did it?” he says. The students applaud.

Throughout Cobleskill-Richmondville High School, small groups of freshmen are meeting in classrooms just like this. These 20-minute sessions, called freshmen forums, are held daily during lunch. New this school year, the freshmen forums are funded by a “mini-grant” from the New York State Rural Education Advisory Committee, which looks for ways to improve the quality and accessibility of education in rural school districts.

projects get boost

The mini-grants fund projects that provide students with a bridge out of poverty, enhance the school’s role as a community center, build collaborative relationships between the school and area agencies or ensure a high quality of education for all children. Last year was the second year such grants were awarded; now, officials are waiting to see if funding is included in the 2008-09 state budget. In 2006, the Rural Educational Advisory Committee awarded $100,000; in 2007, $175,000. The maximum grant amount is $2,500, and school districts are expected to match the grants. Cobleskill-Richmondville is the only school district in the Capital Region that received funding.

The mini-grants fund a wide variety of projects. McGraw Central School in Cortland County, for example, started a Historical Living Museum, while Malone Central School in Franklin County created a program allowing students punished for inappropriate behavior to do community service in lieu of detention.

Cobleskill-Richmondville created the freshmen forums to help ease the transition from eighth grade into high school; the overall goal is reducing the school’s high dropout rate. Last year, the school averaged one dropout a week, according to Lynn Macan, superintendent of the Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District.

“We found that a lot of the students who did poorly as freshmen were more likely to drop out,” said D’Amico-Bailey, who helped create the freshmen forums and is one of about eight teachers who volunteers her time to lead a forum. “Before you know it, they’re 18 years old and a sophomore.”

lower aspirations

The challenges rural schools face are similar, in some ways, to those in inner-city districts.

“There is a lower level of wealth in rural districts,” said Ronald Brach, executive director of the New York State Legislative Commission on Rural Resources. “There is poverty, certainly, but also a lower level of wealth, or resources, to support each student. You have lower aspirations of families, of youth. They don’t know that they have options. They’re not as aware of them.” These districts, he said, often have a more difficult time retaining teachers and administrators.

Macan worked in the Niskayuna school district before coming to Cobleskill-Richmondville last July. Rural districts, she said, lack many of the opportunities common in suburban schools.

For instance, Niskayuna High School has a strong Career Exploration Internship Program that places students in job internships to learn about career possibilities. Cobleskill-Richmondville doesn’t sponsor a CEIP, although it is something the district is looking into. And an intern program can’t make up for the relative dearth of job opportunities in the area, Macan said. Cobleskill-Richmondville students can enroll in career programs at Capital Region BOCES, but they are faced with a drive of almost an hour. “At Niskayuna, kids go to BOCES and it takes about 15 minutes to get there,” she said.

About 300,000 students in New York attend rural schools; 400 of the state’s districts are classified as rural, meaning they have 2,500 students or less. “Many of these districts have less than 1,000 kids,” said Dr. Lawrence Kiley, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York.

population loss

Rural schools throughout the state are seeing a significant decline in enrollment, largely because upstate New York is losing population. One of the Rural Schools Association’s goals is encouraging rural districts to find more efficient ways to deliver services. Merging districts, consolidating administrative services and collaborating with municipalities are possibilities, he said.

Another goal is seeing rural schools take on a more prominent community role. Many schools already sponsor programming for the community, Kiley noted.

“What about establishing school-based health and dental clinics?” he said.

Some districts, such as Newcomb Central School District in the Adirondacks, are so small and isolated it may be tough to merge with another district. But the expansion of broadband Internet access could help, he said.

Cobleskill-Richmondville High School began designing its freshmen forum program last spring.

“I don’t think a lot of freshmen understood the matriculation process,” said Marc Weiss, who teaches economics and global history and helped develop the freshmen forums. “Some students don’t know how to ask for help.”

“The old adage was, ‘Throw them in the water and let them sink or swim,’ ” Weiss said. “Well, we don’t want them to sink anymore.”

In high school, Weiss said, students have more responsibility. They aren’t just taking classes; they need to accumulate credits in order to graduate and prepare to pass Regents exams. One of the overall goals of the freshmen forum is to get more people involved in the students’ lives. They also provide practical information, such as how to use a locker, and a basic orientation. Every five weeks, the teachers who lead the forums look at their students’ grades and formulate a plan for the student. Perhaps most importantly, the forums provide a place where students feel comfortable discussing their concerns with an adult.

“We had a lot of problems with last year’s freshman class,” said D’Amico-Bailey, who teaches French and Spanish.

So far, teachers are noticing a difference. First-quarter grades this school year were better than grades a year ago. There are fewer discipline problems. The school also decided to separate freshmen for lunch, rather than grouping them with sophomores, juniors and seniors. This has reduced the number of discipline problems, such as fights, during lunch.

“These kids are months ahead, in terms of recognizing what needs to be done,” said Cobleskill-Richmondville Principal David Zachar. “They used to find out through trial and error.”

At another freshmen forum, social studies teacher Bob Gould tells his freshmen that he wants to talk about “destructive decisions.” “Some of the decisions you make on a daily basis are going to affect who you are,” he says. “There are a lot of drugs in the area. There’s a lot of alcohol in the area. If any of you wanted to get involved in these things, you could find them.” He tells them about an old friend who developed a drinking problem as a teenager and was sent to rehab during his junior year of high school. “He’s a nice guy, but he has trouble maintaining relationships,” he says. “This kid could have gone to a Division I school and played soccer, but he drank it all away.”

Gould asks students what they would do if they found out a friend was involved in alcohol or drugs. One girls says she would tell someone. Another girl says she spoke directly to a friend who was drinking. “He knew it was wrong, and knowing it was wrong helped,” she says. “He doesn’t do it anymore. I’m not sure telling someone would have helped unless it was really extreme.”

After the forum, Gould explains his approach. “We’re supposed to talk to the kids about issues,” he says. “My personal belief is that the forums should be an avenue to address topics that pop up. As I walk down the hall, I can hear what the kids are talking about. I could hear them talking about drinking. On the first day of school, would I talk about this? No. I try to get them to feel like they’re in a safe, comfortable place.”

not a typical district

Cobleskill-Richmondville isn’t a typical rural district, Brach said, noting that SUNY-Cobleskill is in the community, which is larger than many of the state’s rural districts. There are about 650 students in the high school. The district itself covers about 180 square miles.

Zachar said the school will sponsor the freshmen forums next year, but it may tinker with the program a bit. Right now, teachers are volunteering their time. (The mini-grant was used to purchase resource materials for the program.) Perhaps next year, he said, the forums won’t meet every day. “I can see [teachers] burning out on it,” he said.

The Rural Education Advisory Committee was created by the New York State Legislature in 1990, at the request of the Legislative Commission on Rural Resources. Members are appointed by the governor, Legislature and commissioner of education to four-year terms.

Rural issues sometimes get short shrift, Brach said. Urban and suburban schools usually have more people advocating for them, more groups and organizations speaking on their behalf. “They have a stronger voice,” he said. With rural schools, “You do not have a broad base of ancillary support.”

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