Schenectady County

Schenectady teachers step up to challenge failure

Dozens of Schenectady teachers have accepted a challenge that could dramatically improve results on
Hamilton Elementary School teacher Susan Alviene works between periods with third-grader Tiffany Payne.
Hamilton Elementary School teacher Susan Alviene works between periods with third-grader Tiffany Payne.

Dozens of Schenectady teachers have accepted a challenge that could dramatically improve results on the school district’s standardized tests.

Superintendent Laurence Spring challenged every teacher and administrator to mentor one child who was scoring below a level 3 on the state tests. If all 1,300 employees did that, he said, the district would have a 13 percent increase in its passing rate.

At Hamilton Elementary, in the Mont Pleasant neighborhood, every teacher signed on.

There are 33 students at the school who scored below a Level 3 — the passing level — on the state math and English tests. Each has now been assigned to a mentor who will work with them throughout the school year.

Other students who scored poorly on just one of the two main tests will be tutored by paraprofessionals. Still others will get tutoring from the schools’ “experts and masters” — students who scored at level 3 and 4.

Principal Michelle Van Derlinden said she and others walked into Hamilton determined to take action after Spring’s speech.

He caught her attention when he roped off 148 chairs on the stage, representing the students who dropped out last year.

“That was really moving to us,” Van Derlinden said. “Wow, that’s a lot of kids.”

At the elementary school, she said, she doesn’t see discouraged children who have given up on school. But Spring says the seeds of dropping out are planted in the early grades, when students first begin to think they just aren’t any good at school.

For third-grader Tiffany Payne, 7, it’s simply a fact.

Math and English? “I’m not really very good at any of those,” she said.

She dreams of someday being able to answer the Problem Of The Day, a math question that students work on before class begins each morning. But for now, she finds the problems confusing.

English is tough too, she added, saying that she doesn’t try to answer the questions that teachers ask to test reading comprehension after each assignment.

Those are dangerous signs.

But teacher Susan Alviene taught Tiffany last year and she is certain the girl will do well in school.

“She’s a very bright young lady,” Alviene said. Tiffany is also eager to learn and enjoy school, she added.

time crucial

Van Derlinden believes Tiffany and her fellow students can vault into grade-level performance if teachers can spend just a little more time with them.

The mentors and students will spend 30 minutes together after school each week, filling in the blanks where a student never understood some crucial lesson.

“As you’re sitting there, you can see where they’re a little off,” Van Derlinden said. “Math is much easier, to pick up on the one piece that’s missing and fix it.”

English is harder.

“You read with them. You say, ‘Are you thinking about this as you’re reading?’ It’s a skill to teach. Make a picture in your brain. They take those techniques back to the classroom,” Van Derlinden said. “It gives you time to have that conversation.”

Participation is voluntary. Every teacher in the school — including the principal — volunteered, and every student who scored at level 1 or 2 has been matched with a mentor. Sessions begin this month. The next state tests are held in April.

By then, the teachers hope to make sure students truly understand math and English, rather than memorizing lessons.

“It’s really teaching them how to think,” Van Derlinden said. “You think out loud, so you’re modeling. It’s hard. What’s 3 plus 2 … OK, it’s 5. But you have to model it so they understand how to think out the answer. It’s just like teaching chess.”

Alviene plans to start with the basics of addition and work her way up, slowly, with Tiffany.

“You’re building on their awareness of the concept,” she said.

Van Derlinden and Alviene said they would gauge their success not by test scores but by student involvement. If the students remain eager and excited about the mentor classes, if other students complain that they don’t get a mentor, and if the students ask to stay with their mentor next year, the program will be a success, they said.

“It’s the essence of any great teacher. You’re connecting to the student, exciting them,” Alviene said. “We find ways to build on their successes.”

Van Derlinden added, “If everybody could really find that connection to school, our success rate would skyrocket.”

As for Tiffany, she’s hoping to learn so much that she can become a teacher someday.

“I want to help the class in math, because most of the class isn’t good at that,” she said. “I think it is going to be fun. I can learn more and help other people when they need help.”

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