Schenectady teachers speak out on restructuring

Four Schenectady High School teachers criticized Superintendent Eric Ely at Wednesday’s Board of Edu

Four Schenectady High School teachers criticized Superintendent Eric Ely at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, saying he is not listening to their input on the proposals to restructure the troubled school.

Ely shot back a litany of concerns about why the restructuring is necessary — the persistently dangerous school designation, a 55 percent graduation rate and a 20 percent freshmen failure rate, which he said almost guarantees those students will not graduate in four years. In addition, Ely said the attendance rate is only 81 percent and in a building of 3,000 students, about 1,700 have been suspended at least once.

Colleen Morris, a 10-year science teacher, told the Board of Education she was particularly concerned about Associate Superintendent Gary Comley leaving his post at the end of the academic year before this restructuring happens.

“We feel he is the best thing to happen to us in years,” she said, alleging that it may not have been his choice to retire.

Of particular issue is the rotating schedule at the high school. Ely reiterated Wednesday that he would not accept any plan that retains the schedule. The schedule consists of eight rotating days designated “A” through “H,” and students in full-year courses meet for six out of those eight days, sometimes at different times of the day.

Ely said the modular schedule limits the classes in which students can enroll. “We spent a quarter of a million dollars trying to schedule it last year. Seventy percent of our students got what they asked for,” he said.

Ely added that despite the rumors, nothing else besides dumping the modular schedule has been set. Another idea being discussed is having a separate academic “house” for freshmen.

Ely assured the board that the district is conducting focus groups to get input on changes at the high school. District officials are inviting community members to provide ideas on the restructuring process at an open meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the high school library.

Morris said she is concerned that a traditional day with a greater number of shorter, 42-minute periods would mean more time with students passing in the corridors to get from class to class. “More time in the halls, more fights,” she said.

English teacher Tim Owens, who has a quarter-century of experience, shared Morris’ concerns about the hallway violence, bringing up the incident in which an 18-year-old student stabbed a 16-year-old student in the leg before the start of classes Tuesday. Owens said he was not able to proceed with teaching until the stabbing victim was taken to the hospital and custodians cleaned up the blood in the hallway.

Owens also said he does not like the idea of eliminating classes grouped by ability. Students in an urban school come from a wide variety of backgrounds, so this will not work, Owens said.

“Some of our kids read at elementary school level, while some of them read at the college level,” he said, adding the analogy that a basketball coach would not be expected to field a team with just anybody who showed up on the court.

Board member Jeff Janiszewski pointed out during the meeting that there have been slightly less than 200 violent incidents that had to be reported to the state to date at the school, compared with nearly 400 at this time last year.

Sara Telban, who has been teaching English special education for seven years, said the administration is not listening to teachers who are on the front lines and have the most experience.

“Regrettably, teachers are often used as scapegoats for failed programming or administrative errors in the district,” she said.

Ely said the administration shares the teachers’ concerns about Comley retiring. “From our perspective, it is certainly what we would not like to see.”

Janiszewski added that despite accusations, the board did not force out Comley. In fact, Comley was one of the administrators whose contract the board in June extended through 2011 — an action several in the community criticized because they felt the new board taking office in July should have decided these employees’ future.

Board President Maxine Brisport said she was concerned that the teachers believed their input was not being heard.

Board member Gary Farkas also shared that concern. “I don’t like being told this is a done deal,” he said.

Board member James Casino said he believes the school district should get tougher with parents who are allowing their children to miss school. “We have to press criminal charges,” he said.

Ely said some change is needed and input will be heard.

“Our kids are basically why we exist as a school district. It’s not for the comfort of the adults in a school district,” he said.

Ely has said previously that the district must fix the high school or federal education officials will come in and dictate a plan to the district.

The district applied for a $6.8 million, three-year Department of Labor grant to help with the restructuring effort, but the grant recipients have not yet been announced.

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