When weather looks bad across the Capital Region, Jim Niedermeier, principal of Tech Valley High School in Albany, wakes up before 4:30 a.m. and fires up a spreadsheet.
With students transported to Tech Valley from school districts as far flung as Cobleskill-Richmondville to the west, Berlin to the east, Shenendehowa to the north and Taconic Hills to the south, Niedermeier tracks over 30 districts as they post weather delays or cancel school. His spreadsheet calculates what percentage of the school’s students won’t get their regular transportation to school because their home district is closed.
He said if approximately three-quarters of his students’ districts cancel, he will close Tech Valley, which sits in a quiet corner of the SUNY Polytechnic campus in Albany. But if only a few districts are closed, school is on. And even students who are stranded at home are expected to show up for class.
“Calculus class goes on whether there is a snow day or not,” Niedermeier said earlier this week as he welcomed students to school. “The students who are on a snow day can participate at home. They are able to still contribute to the group whether they are here or at home.”
Relying on technology, students stranded at home follow the class online and can participate through countless messaging and collaborative work programs. Tech Valley’s curriculum builds on a series of projects students work on individually and in groups. Designed to teach students skills they would need to support the regional growing technology industries, the school focuses on improving soft and professional skills. The headaches involved in transportation and bringing students together from a wide area sometimes serve as important lessons.
“A lot of those logistical challenges are a good way to show kids what it’s like in the workforce,” Niedermeier said.
Tech Valley, serving around 130 students from 31 different districts as their full-time four-year high school, is one of the few regional high schools in the state, authorized by special legislation passed over a decade ago.
Support of the idea of expanding regional high schools – in the model of Tech Valley but also as new combined high schools for multiple smaller districts – is widespread in some corners.
The Capital Region BOCES Superintendents’ Legislative Committee included an expansion of regional high schools as one of its four legislative priorities this year, supporting legislation to authorize school districts and BOCES to band together to establish joint high school programs.
The Board of Regents, in their annual list of legislative priorities, endorsed setting up a legislative advisory committee to hash out what regional high schools could look like. Al Marlin, a spokesman for the New York School Boards Association, said the association supports regional high school bills and think it could be a path to “increase academic offerings.”
“Lots of places in the state, I think, would benefit tremendously from setting up regional schools,” said David Little, executive director of the New York State Rural Schools Association.
But legislation to advance regional high schools – either through a committee that would recommend a process of with a bill that already outlines a process – has failed to advance through the state Legislature.
The state’s biggest teachers union opposed a bill last year sponsored by state Sen. Catharine Young, a Republican from south of Buffalo, which detailed authorization for school districts to form regional high schools. Young filed a similar bill at the start of this year’s legislative session, outlining how local voters would have to endorse efforts to form a regional program. Ultimately, observers believe, the union’s hand is likely only strengthened this year after Democrats took control of the Senate on the strength of teachers union support in the fall.
“We have opposed the bill in the past, and we are reviewing the current bill,” said Damien LaVera, a spokesperson for New York State United Teachers.
School districts in New York state for decades combined and merged as thousands of small local schoolhouses gradually consolidated into the districts of today, which still number in the hundreds. But those consolidations have tapered off in recent years, even as enrollment has continued to slide in many districts.
“I’ve got less money, I’m just trying to recover program I lost during the Great Recession, I’m not even dreaming of adding in programs that are just a matter of course in (bigger districts),” Little said of the thinking of leaders in rural districts. “The only way to provide that is to combine resources.”
He said small rural districts could maintain their elementary and middle school programs while combing forces with one or more neighboring districts for a high school program.
While at a small high school just providing the core curriculum can stretch resources thing, larger schools benefit from smaller marginal costs for each student and can offer a wider variety of classwork and extra programs.
Regional high schools would be better positioned to sustain Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, multiple foreign languages and the technology that has proliferated in public education. The combined high schools would be governed by joint boards made up of officials from the various districts involved.
The benefits of regionalization and joint programming is already implicit in a lot of the Capital Region’s education infrastructure. BOCES districts manage scores of shared services, both administrative and academic; P-Tech schools have expanded as a focus on college-in-the-high school programs has grown; and, individual districts have opened the doors of their own facilities to students across the region at places like Mohonasen’s Center for Advanced Technology.
This school year, Duanesburg Central School District hosted teachers from Sharon Springs, Schoharie, Middleburgh, Cobleskill-Richmondville and Berne-Knox-Westerlo school districts for combined training on a set of new academic standards established by the state Education Department. People from the districts also plan to work together to develop revised curriculum plans based on the new standards that could be used in the different districts.
“Instead of doing it in pockets we are doing curriculum and rollout as a group,” said Frank Macri, Duanesburg school superintendent. “It’s all districts pooling resources, getting staff together and developing sound curriculum… It’s regionalization in its purest form of working together.”
But its not clear how far districts would go even if lawmakers granted authorization for regional high schools. Teachers will highlight concerns about staffing changes and demand fealty to preexisting contract promises. And local communities often resist anything that looks like relinquishing control of schools. Some rural superintendents didn’t return message asking to discuss regional high schools.
For his part, Macri, now in his second year in Duanesburg, said he was too focused on operating the district to weigh the potential pros and cons of participating in a regional high school.
“I’m still really in the grass of making sure I do right by the district,” Macri said. “So, it’s not something I put a lot of time and effort into thinking about at this moment.”
A culture of trust and stewardship
At Tech Valley High School, which is jointly run by Capital Regeion BOCES and Questar III, a BOCES for counties east of Albany, students start arriving on a smooth day at 7:30 a.m. The school days starts at 7:50 a.m. with “advisory,” the class in which students stay with the same teacher for all four years.
During advisory, the classes, made up of students from all grades, catch up on how things are going and work to build what Niedermeier called a “culture of trust” that sustains the school. Since Tech Valley’s students hail from all over the region, he said its important to instill trust with one another and stewardship over the well-being of their schools. Over time, the students form a shared culture at their small school.
“Having kids from all the different districts, you get to see a little bit of everything,” said Ian Jensen, a junior from Middleburgh. “The different cultures from different towns all mix into one culture.”
“In freshmen year, you can tell a difference, but now we all act the same,” said Mylea Braun, a junior from Schalmont.
The students said they made quick and close friends at Tech Valley and connect over a common interest in a program that emphasizes using technology and teamwork to answer questions about real-world problems.
“At Tech Valley, I’ve met my closest friends,” Braun said.
Niedermeier, the Tech Valley principal, said he thinks that students everywhere can benefit from more regional options. He acknowledged the value people invest in their local schools and programs. But Niedermeier said ultimately educators needs to think collaboratively to provide students choices and programs that fit different needs.
“Sometimes you have to acknowledge that we can do more stuff together than we can do alone,” he said.