Improving Schenectady’s schools: Build strong foundation for reading, writing

Widespread urban poverty, combined with a high rate of renters' transiency, wreak havoc on the lives
Schenectady High School
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Schenectady High School

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There are about 9,500 students in Schenectady schools, about 70 percent of them minorities.

Of those, the majority live in poor neighborhoods where rentals predominate and, concomitantly, renters frequently move in, out and around.

Widespread urban poverty, combined with a high rate of renters’ transiency, wreak havoc on the lives of many young children and students and their families and on the district’s educational mission.

The insidious effects can be seen throughout the Schenectady school district, with a majority of students performing below grade level in English Language Arts and Math and an appalling 56 percent high school graduation rate.

As the finances of the city school district continue to worsen, likely its programs and personnel will be negatively impacted.

The future continues to look bleak.

In the face of this reality, far too many young children in Schenectady, without a strong foundation in reading and writing on which to build, will in the future find themselves denied the joys and benefits of advanced formal education, wide employment opportunities, and broad cultural enrichment — a condition likely to weigh heavily, negatively, materially and otherwise, upon their adult roles in different spheres and upon the city at large.

Overall, the state of educational policy-making and finance in New York does not bode well for Schenectady and its school district and for many other jurisdictions across the state.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to spearhead the state’s denying the Schenectady City School District all or a substantial part of the nearly $60 million to which it is entitled under the state’s 2007 Foundation Aid Formula.

Schenectady School Superintendent Laurence Spring’s appeals for relief to a wide array of political and educational pooh-bahs in Albany and to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, among others, continue to be ineffectual.

School superintendents and teachers unions and local officials and others throughout the state continue to protest against the status quo, largely to no avail. A modest softening of the state’s hard line appears to have occurred with the Common Core curriculum and testing protocols, in reaction to wide public protest.

The balance in state-local educational finance is not expected to shift significantly in favor of the latter anytime soon.

That stated, another potentially significant development at the state level with regard to educational policy appears to be underway: the adoption of a community-schools model, with such schools henceforth being the loci of medical and an as yet indeterminate array of social services available to Schenectady residents.

If the definition and provision and funding of those community-based functions are well thought out and implemented for the long term, this innovation could be of great help to poor(er) cities like Schenectady and their beleaguered school districts and most distressed families.

There could be significant benefit all round if the community-schools model devolved essential medical and social services to neighborhood school sites, as the governor and other leading officials in Albany seem to wish.

But why stop there with the community-schools model?

A further significant benefit from it might accrue all around if, by disseminating suitable information and providing attractive material incentives and rewards, strong encouragement could be lent also to building small communities within individual schools.

For example, in each school at each level, Pre-K, Kindergarten and Grades 1-3, and/or within individual classes at each level, within-school communities could be developed around the value of and methods for teaching reading-readiness and conversational skills and vocabulary integrated in school and at home.

Parents or other principal caregivers would learn by observing first-hand in school their youngsters being taught reading-readiness and conversational skills and vocabulary. That way, what they learn could be carried home by them (along with children’s books and supplies) to work there with their youngsters.

In this way and perhaps others, the emotional distance between school and home and teacher and parent or other principal caregiver could be lessened, lending encouragement to the development of bonds between and among them.

By participating in such an undertaking, the parents or other principal caregivers would have signaled their understanding that it is important that early on their youngsters get on the reading track and ready to accelerate along it.

By bringing the home into the school and vice versa, with parents especially adopting a vital role in helping to teach their youngsters to read and write, yet another benefit could be achieved — helping strengthen the bonds within family constellations and, in the process, helping their members better cope with the stresses and strains of family life. The knowledge that their children are able to read is likely to brighten their prospects and fulfill everyone’s hopes.

In Schenectady and other jurisdictions like it, the educational enterprise will require much creative, innovative, pragmatic thinking and action, along with more money from on high.

Alvin Magid of Niskayuna is an emeritus professor of political science at the University at Albany/SUNY and founder and executive director of The Reading Is Fun Program, an all-volunteer organization in Schenectady.

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