Twenty-six years ago, Oneida Middle School was recognized as a U.S. School of Excellence.
The school that has been a family to many, with current staff members having attended as students, will close at the end of June — a victim of budget cuts and the changing configuration of the Schenectady City School District.
“It’s sort of like your family is being ripped apart and you have no control over making changes — like a relative is dying and you can’t do anything about it,” said Karmen McEvoy, who has been principal for the last six years.
“We are a good school. I have phenomenal staff. I have supportive families. It is heartbreaking,” she said.
McEvoy said she can understand the reason for the closure: The district will save $1.3 million and officials were forced to make $5.3 million in cuts because of a budget gap.
“It all comes down to money and that’s the sad part,” she said.
The closing is also partly a result of the reconfiguration of the district’s schools over the past six years. In 2006, it began moving sixth-graders back into elementary school buildings because of research suggesting they learn better in a primary school setting.
In 2009, school officials merged Howe Elementary into Central Park, creating a K-8 school, and expanded King Magnet School to grade eight.
The K-8 options have proven popular with parents. But the changes left Mont Pleasant Middle School with just 550 students — far short of the thousand-plus the building was designed to accommodate when it was a high school.
There are 600 seventh- and eighth-grade students at Oneida, and 150 to 200 of them will be transferred to Mont Pleasant. The others will go to Central Park International Magnet School and King Magnet School, or Paige and Zoller elementary schools.
After Oneida parents indicated their preferences, school officials gave priority first to students within walking distance of a school and second to those who would need busing but lived within the school’s attendance zone. A lottery will be used if there are more requests for a school than capacity.
Facing the change
Oneida seventh-grader Felicia Timson, 12, is going to Mont Pleasant Middle School. “I don’t mind actually going to a different school, but it’s pretty upsetting not going here and having to be separated from all my friends,” she said.
She heard there was more fighting at Mont Pleasant.
Seventh-grader Zoe White, 13, will attend Central Park International Magnet School if she is selected via the lottery. But she said there could be advantages to ending up at Mont Pleasant. “I’ve heard that has all the advanced programs,” she said.
Some residents have criticized the decision to close Oneida, saying the district is closing a school in a “good neighborhood.” One parent at a PTO-sponsored meeting in February expressed fear that area residents would sell their houses or send their children to private schools instead of Mont Pleasant.
School officials countered that a bigger school might mean more opportunities for sports, accelerated classes and other programs.
The staff described Oneida as a close-knit family.
“I’m really going to miss the staff. The students will be going with us wherever we go, but I’ll miss the camaraderie and working relationships we’ve established with our teams over the years,” said science teacher Lisa DiVietro, who attended Oneida and has been teaching there since 1982. McEvoy, the principal, was one of her students.
“My boss is my former student. It’s only awkward when I think about it and I tell the kids,” DiVietro said.
McEvoy said the culture has changed since she was in school. Students were more polite back then. “I don’t think we cursed. I don’t think we talked back,” she said.
Students are also more transient and the neighborhoods less stable than when she started teaching. The curriculum is largely the same, although there is more emphasis now on testing.
DiVietro said Oneida teachers started reward programs like limo trips for good behavior — well before such things were implemented district-wide.
She recalled traveling to Washington when Oneida was recognized as a U.S. School of Excellence in 1986. Few schools attended the ceremony because of the weather. “There was a huge snowstorm and we were the only plane that got out,” she said.
The school also received a Partner in Education National Award in 1993 and was a first-place winner in the New York State Regional Mathematics League from 1984 to 1990, according to the district website.
Former Assistant Superintendent Gail Smith, who served as principal from 1992 to 1998 and was an assistant principal for two years before that, said Oneida led in innovation.
“It always embraced the philosophy that every student could learn to the highest levels,” said Smith, who retired from the district in 2002.
Oneida pioneered some concepts that were considered cutting edge at the time, including special education students in regular classrooms and using technology. Smith recalled that staff pitched in to help wire every room in the school so it could have access to a computer, which was not common in the early 1990s.
Smith also touted the school’s gifted-and-talented classes and theater and music programs. Students would put on musicals such as “Oklahoma!” and abridged versions of Shakespeare plays. For three consecutive years, students from the school participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City.
The school also embraced the team teaching concept that is so prevalent today in middle schools, where the core subject teachers share students and collaborate on projects.
That appealed to Alex Pidwerbetsky, a physicist with Bell Laboratories now living in New Jersey, who was able to skip eighth grade in 1973.
“It was actually that program that allowed me to accelerate and basically go as fast as I want to, basically in science and math,” he said. He also recalled the plays the school performed.
Eighth-grader Willa Pisarski, 14, was in one of those productions, as the white rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland.” Even though she is graduating, she feels bad that her little brother will not get to attend Oneida. “He’ll be going to Mont Pleasant, which is a lot farther from our house. Otherwise, he would have walked to school,” she said.
Oneida also boasts some notable alumni, including John Notar, vice president/general manager for Nike European Team Sports, and Dr. Philip Marion, a national leader in rehabilitative medicine and disability management.
Another famous alum is Casper Wells, an outfielder in the Seattle Mariners organization.
Former home and careers teacher Pat Barney recalled Wells and a multimedia school project he did describing himself in the past, present and future.
In his report, Wells said he wanted to play Major League Baseball, Barney said in an email. She added that she’s followed his career “with interest and remembrance of that boy who knew his career goals and was willing to do the work to achieve it.”
Signs of age
The building hasn’t physically changed much in the past few decades, according to special education teacher Leticia Boulay, who has been working there for the past five years and also attended Oneida.
She recalled touring the building with the principal when she was hired and being hit with a wave of nostalgia. “I remember going up to the home and careers rooms and they looked exactly the same — the white metal cabinets hadn’t changed,” she said.
The district’s building condition survey rated Oneida as unsatisfactory because the roof leaks, the parking lots and walkways are in poor shape and the brickwork is in need of repair. Staff members came in on their own time over the summer to paint the walls and give the rooms a makeover, according to secretary Debbie Fresoni.
Now, the question is what to do with the soon-to-be-vacant school. Ellis Medicine is interested in the property. Hospital leaders have had informal conversations with school officials, according to Ellis spokeswoman Donna Evans.
“We’re landlocked. Having a sizable piece of property adjacent to the hospital would provide us some flexibility, some breathing room, some options for the future,” she said. Evans added that it would be far too premature to say whether the hospital could reuse the building or would have to raze the site.
County historian Don Rittner said he hoped the building could be converted to condominiums or apartments, citing the old Riverside School on Front Street in the Stockade as one example of a successful renovation.
Rittner suggested that the building might make good residential housing for doctors in residence. “They keep weird shifts. It’s very hard for them to go home, especially if they’re on call,” he said.
The original 18-room Oneida School was built in 1923 at a cost of $236,534. From 1926 to 1929, the school was expanded with shop rooms, art rooms, a library, cafeteria and more classrooms, according to the Schenectady City School District’s 2004 report celebrating its 150th anniversary.
Early in its life, it was a quasi-technical school, according to Rittner. “They actually had a tailor, a barber and cobbler and other artisans used to come in and teach, part-time, their craft,” he said.
The building stayed as a technical school until World War II. “All those artisans had to be used for the war effort and never just got back into the schools,” he said.
The school was a junior high, with seventh through ninth grades until 1974, when sixth grade was added; it was dropped in 2009.
Librarian Donna Phillips said it has been a “bittersweet adventure” to uncover the school’s past — including a yearbook from 1929 that showed the championship baseball team with the coach in knickers and “young men who were only 14 or 15 years old but looked like they could have played for the Yankees.”
During World War II, students did their part for the war effort. Issues of the school’s newspaper The Boulder, which gets its name because Oneida means “standing stone,” have articles about students giving blood to the Red Cross and doing “commando training” in the gymnasium.
McEvoy said the staff is frustrated because they don’t know to which building they’re going, what grade they’ll be teaching or with whom they’ll be working.
“They’re angry. They want to be heard. They don’t feel like they’ve been heard. They don’t feel like the district has supported us,” she said.
McEvoy knows her next role: taking over the alternative education program at Mont Pleasant.
Literacy coach Michele Stewart-Mannino, who also attended the school, said change is always difficult. “As hard as it is, I would rather see a building close than teachers lose jobs or students lose programs,” she said.
Still, it’s tough to say goodbye.
“The last day here is going to be very heartbreaking,” McEvoy said. “It’s going to be hard to walk through the doors for the last time and shut them.”