Schenectady County

Better middle schools is Niskayuna goal

More accelerated courses for students and hands-on project learning are among the recommendations th

More accelerated courses for students and hands-on project learning are among the recommendations that Niskayuna school officials hope to implement in the coming years to improve its middle schools.

The Board of Education has been discussing changes to Van Antwerp and Iroquois middle schools for the last few months based on a consultant’s report in December that said while the schools were good, there was room for improvement.

School officials like the idea of project-based learning, where students work in teams on projects that cut across subject areas such as math, science, English and social studies or health, physical education and family and consumer science.

Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio said that in a school that has this approach, the schedule is designed in such a way to have common blocks of time. Teachers would have planning time to design these projects.

For example, Salvaggio said the students at Tech Valley High renovated a park as one of their projects. District officials are planning a visit to the school to see how it incorporates project-based learning.

Salvaggio said the school should reach out to businesses and local organizations and the greater community. Parents have expressed interest in volunteering with the school district through the Future City competition, where students design and build models of cities of the future or robotics projects.

Students have to be involved in the process of coming up with projects, according to Salvaggio.

“It’s really important that you have a meaningful problem for them to solve and they have input into that selection,” she said.

Board member Jeanne Sosnow said she would like to see more accelerated courses, including opportunities for middle school students to take high school classes or other kinds of enrichment. Right now, that is only done on a very limited basis with math and some foreign language. Salvaggio said perhaps another foreign language could be added at the middle school.

Because the district doesn’t do much acceleration at the middle school, Salvaggio said it is difficult for students to take all of the upper-level classes at the high school.

She suggested that perhaps the earth science and living environment class could be offered to eighth-graders. They would need to add an extra laboratory period to make it fit the requirements. Other ideas are to offer a pre-engineering class in eighth grade where students can earn high school credit, and accelerated art and music courses, according to Salvaggio.

School officials are also trying to tackle the problem of how to incorporate ensemble music into the regular school day. Middle school students from Van Antwerp and Iroquois are bused to the high school to practice before school.

“They start out their day at 7:30 in the morning and then are going to 3:30 with their class work and potentially after-school activities,” Sosnow said.

There would have to be separate ensembles for Van Antwerp and Iroquois.

Niskayuna Friends of Music Co-president Diane Smith worries that splitting the ensembles in half will weaken the quality.

“Our bar will come down in performance,” she said.

Another issue is whether Niskayuna will keep both middle schools. Board members won’t have a discussion about grade configuration until October.

Board Chairwoman Deb Oriola said fiscal constraints will be a factor in what recommendations from the report can be implemented.

“This would be great if we had a lot of money,” she said.

Board member Barbara Mauro said the board has to make a compelling case for whatever decisions it makes about the academic program. “We’re not just going to have change for the sake of change,” she said.

Meetings to discuss the future of the middle schools are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, Sept. 25, Oct. 2, Oct. 9, Oct. 16, Oct. 23 and Nov. 6 in the auditorium of Van Antwerp Middle School.

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