Class Notes: Challenges for everyone in new year

Back to school. Those words can cause feelings of dread in many students and joy in a small number

Back to school.

Those words can cause feelings of dread in many students and joy in a small number of others (like myself when I was in school.)

The beginning of the new year is about new challenges — new books to read, new math problems to solve, new friends to make. The Schenectady City School District faces some big challenges. The district will enter is fifth year as being a district in need of improvement. About one out every two students that enter ninth grade do not graduate in four years, according to the recent data. Only 72 percent of students passed English Regents exams according to 2007-08 data and the district is not meeting federal standards for English language arts and mathematics for black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities. White students are also not meeting math standards.

This is even as the number of districts identified as in need of improvement is declining statewide — down to 35 from 61 last year. State officials have attributed the decline to gains made in the grades 3 through 8 English language arts and math exams.

Also, Schenectady High School remains on the “persistently dangerous” school list. District officials did not even apply to be removed from the list because they acknowledged that the levels of violence had not decreased.

Because of these factors, the district will embark on a several months-long campaign to plan for a “top to bottom” reconfiguration of the high school in 2010-11.

School officials plan to ask the community for help as it undertakes this effort. This will be a monumental challenge given all the controversies swirling around the district with the arson charges against former facilities director Steven Raucci, the uproar over the reappointment of voters-ousted board member Linda Bellick and now the allegations that board member James Casino hosted parties for minors where alcohol was served.

While these controversies may be “sexy” and legitimate issues, they are a distraction for the board in tackling the serious issues of improving student learning in the Schenectady schools.

Board President Maxine Brisport wants the focus back on that goal. At last week’s meeting, she said she wanted to put all the distractions behind the board and create a culture of trust and confidence. “This job is about public service and not individual agendas,” she said.

She said if the district does not improve, community members will walk away from the schools.

“We have to work hard to change that perception. We are a public school system and a public school system without public support will not prosper,” she said.

All these controversies are drawing larger-than-normal crowds at Board of Education meetings. In the almost two years covering this beat, I have been to meetings where I was the only person in attendance other than school staff.

This is in sharp contrast to earlier this year when an effort to get the community to participate in “study circles” on how to improve the schools was abandoned because only 27 people signed up and organizers had expected 200 to 300 people to participate.

The budget hearings drew some people, but frequently they were staff or parents fighting for a particular program.

Most experts would agree that there needs to be more parental involvement in the schools. There is not involvement now — whether that is because parents are busy holding down two or three jobs, are apathetic or have lost faith in leaders.

The schools can be a big part of the revitalization of Schenectady. Its students need to graduate so they can go on to become productive members of society.

Maybe the new year will be a fresh start.

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