Schenectady County

Schenectady district shifts gears on more K-8 schools

After years of reorganization to create K-8 schools, the Schenectady Board of Education is suddenly

After years of reorganization to create K-8 schools, the Schenectady Board of Education is suddenly abandoning the effort.

Citing the cost to provide accelerated classes to smaller numbers of eighth graders, as well as the cost of building enough K-8 schools for every student, the school board is now investigating other options.

The board is leaning toward K-5 schools, with four middle schools. No decision has been finalized, but parents are struggling to keep up with the sudden shift.

Three parents came to a recent board meeting to complain. Others are holding PTO meetings to catch up and school board members have promised to explain themselves better in the upcoming months.

Barbara Metcalfe is frustrated with all the changes.

Her daughter was in the first class at Howe International Magnet School and given the choice to either stay in elementary school for an extra year or move on to Mont Pleasant Middle School as a sixth grader. Metcalfe decided to send her daughter to the middle school.

Metcalfe’s son, three years later, was told he had to stay in elementary school through eighth grade.

Other parents had children in middle school who were moved back to a K-8 school last year, when three additional K-8s were created. Others were moved from one middle school to another so that the district could close Oneida Middle School — a school the board is now planning to reopen.

“And now we’re going to make another change?” Metcalfe said. “I get a headache. Not again! We have to stop moving them around.”

Other parents are excited by the board’s new focus, because it would turn Howe, which currently is a pre-K school, back into an elementary school.

Which model?

But others want to keep their K-8 school. Parents told the school board last week that they were initially unhappy when Central Park International Magnet School was turned into a K-8 school. But, they said, they are now convinced that it’s the best model.

The problem is that no one knows which model is best.

Education researcher Rosalind Kotz, who has become active locally in Schenectady’s efforts to improve education, said researchers haven’t studied the issue enough to know for sure yet.

“There isn’t a lot of information on whether one is better than the other,” she said. “… there really is a need to focus on that middle school group.”

But are they educated better among their peers alone, or in an elementary school?

“It didn’t seem to matter either way, particularly,” Kotz said.

She criticized the studies because they had not controlled for differences among poverty levels, school size, and other variables.

Kotz said she thought having a strong principal was at least as important a variable as any other, suggesting that was why some schools in Schenectady have done better than others.

A few studies found that adolescents did better in K-8 settings — but that by ninth grade, there was no academic differences between them and the students who attended middle school.

Other studies found that adolescents had better attendance and fewer discipline problems in a K-8 setting.

At Central Park International Magnet School, there was a significant drop in disciplinary problems among older students in the K-8 building. Parents were also pleased that older students served as mentors for younger students, and said students did better in sixth grade because they did not have to switch schools as they entered puberty.

But in Albany, school officials found that a K-8 school is not a recipe for success with adolescents.

The school district has one K-8 school, as well as many K-5 and K-6 schools.

“It doesn’t seem to make a difference,” schools spokesman Ron Lesko said. “Anecdotally, some students have told us it’s easier to transition less. But in terms of academic data, no.”

So district officials are no longer worrying about what grade configuration is available for each student.

“Rather, we’re focusing on improving instruction in the classroom,” Lesko said.

In Schenectady, the school board is very concerned about the configuration of each building.

“My concern is with equity across the district,” board member Ann Reilly told parents at a recent board meeting.

Many parents complained, two years ago, because their children did not have access to a K-8 school. Students are chosen for Central Park by lottery.

Time and cost

But offering K-8 schools throughout the district could be unaffordable.

A report on the district’s options predicted that it would take more than a decade to turn every school into a K-8 building.

It would be “the most extensive and expensive option,” officials wrote.

The district would have to keep leasing buildings, and expand a building it currently leases.

In all, the district would have to expand six schools and renovate four others.

The state would cover only 70 percent of the costs to build new classrooms, while it will cover 97 percent of the cost to renovate existing buildings, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.

“That local share swings quite a bit,” he said.

Switching to a K-5 model, with four middle schools, would require only one building project: renovations at Oneida Middle School. And those renovations would be far less significant, because it would continue to be a middle school. Turning it into a K-8 building would likely cost much more.

Advanced classes

But board members were moved more by the student impact than the cost.

Most of the K-8 buildings would have three sections of each grade. But Woodlawn, Pleasant Valley, Hamilton and Howe would likely only have two sections.

That means it would be far more expensive to offer advanced classes to eighth-graders in those schools.

Typically, 5 percent to 10 percent of Schenectady’s students qualify for advanced classes, Spring said. In a smaller school, with just 50 to 60 eighth-graders, there would be no more than 6 students ready for ninth-grade classes.

“If there are only six students in the building that are looking to take algebra, that does not make good economic sense for us,” Spring said.

It costs the district $12,000 per class section — whether there are 30 students or 6 in the class.

Students who take algebra in eighth grade can usually manage calculus by 12th grade. But those who have to wait until ninth grade can’t fit the college-level math class into the typical high school schedule. Math classes build off each other, making it difficult to take two classes in one year.

Spring said he wanted to make sure students had that opportunity. And, he said, he did not want to create one school where all the “gifted and talented” students are sent for advanced classes.

“One school becomes the ‘gifted school.’ That becomes difficult on the other schools,” he said. “Moving accelerated kids out of the school is a loss to the whole school.”

He also worried that students left behind would not get the chance to choose to take an advanced class.

“To say, ‘This would benefit the 10 percent of the kids, but it’s not going to benefit you in any way so we’re not going to provide you with the opportunity,’ I think that’s a harsh thing to say in public education,” Spring said.

Building large K-8s would be the only solution.

“If we had the ability to create K-8s that were sufficient in size, I think the dilemma would go away,” he said. “However, creating K-8s that size doesn’t seem feasible. We’re trying to use the facilities we have and minimize our local burden.”

School board members have asked for more information on the K-5 model, which would include creating middle schools at Oneida, Central Park and Steinmetz. Mont Pleasant would also continue to be a middle school.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, officials will present a timeline for a referendum on renovating Oneida. The following day, the Long-Range Planning Committee will meet to discuss the K-5 option in greater detail. The committee will report back to the board regularly over the next few months.

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