Schenectady County

Tech Valley class of ’12 shuns ranking students

Tech Valley High School in Rensselaer graduated its second-ever class this year.

Tech Valley High School in Rensselaer graduated its second-ever class this year.

The class of 2012 didn’t have a valedictorian or a salutatorian, but according to seniors Nate Hileman, whose home district is Schalmont, and Kate Berdan of Schoharie, that was partly a decision of the senior class. The decision disqualifies students from receiving scholarships that would otherwise go to the first- and second-ranked students, but there are benefits to not having a table of ranks.

“No one really feels the need to put themselves in second or seventh place or something like that,” Berdan said. Hileman said he was glad that it wasn’t a competition.

Tech Valley High School was created by special legislation in 2005 and began operating in 2007. It was spawned by two BOCES organizations — Capital Region BOCES and Questar III BOCES — and it serves the areas covered by the two BOCES districts, including Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga, Schoharie and Rensselaer counties.

Of 125 students, 27 were in this year’s graduating class. Junior Alysha Gagnon of Cohoes said that the small size of Tech Valley was part of what drew her to choose it over her local high school.

“It’s much smaller, which I prefer. It’s more personal,” she said.

Tech Valley’s campus is very small — the entire school is contained within a single hallway at the University at Albany’s East Campus, in Rensselaer, in a building that the university bought from a pharmaceutical company in 1996. The classrooms are spacious, though. There are rooms dedicated to storing technology equipment, like the EYP Fabrication Laboratory (“Fab Lab” for short), which contains a machine that can create three-dimensional objects from digital models.

The two BOCES districts are responsible for overseeing the operation of Tech Valley High School and for providing services that the school needs to exist, like payroll and communications. The students’ home districts provide transportation to the school.

Tech Valley emphasizes project-based learning and the involvement of students with local business, technology, government, and higher education.

Tech Valley High School spokesperson Mike McCagg notes that the school has partnerships with more than 100 businesses in the Capital Region. These businesses are actively involved in shaping the curriculum.

Schalmont’s Nate Hileman said one thing he liked about Tech Valley was the focus on project-based learning.

“All of the projects made sense — we were able to apply what we were learning and make it real,” he said.

Student Sam Walczyk of Brunswick enthusiastically explained one such project: For a class on spatial literature (SPLIT, a combination of language arts and geometry) students were asked to design their own miniature golf course. The class was divided into eight teams, and each team was tasked with designing one hole for the course. The class took a field trip to a miniature golf course to study its construction, and then used geometric principles to construct holes with realistic obstacles.

Upperclassmen review projects completed by the younger students and provide them with advice for improvement. The actual content of the projects is very free-form, according to Berdan. Teachers provide students with a goal and some suggested sources for research and leave the meat of the project for students to accomplish.

Tech Valley has a “J-Term,” when classes are suspended in January and students are asked to pursue a project of their own design, with support from the business community. For seniors, these projects are large and comprehensive, Berdan said.

“This is a wonderful thing,” she said. Tech Valley encourages students to find internships or to do job shadowing, she said. For her junior year J-Term, she worked at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany spending time with a doctor and with the chief of infectious diseases. For her project she developed a pamphlet for patients on staph infections and MRSA, a staph infection that is resistant to antibiotics.

“I’d been thinking about getting involved with medicine, but I wasn’t sure. I had a lot of lab experience, but no field experience. Working at St. Peter’s helped me realize that I want to go into the medical profession,” she said.

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