A schools capital project moving toward a December 2020 vote in Niskayuna could usher in a major overhaul of how the school district approaches education for students in the middle grades.
As the school board narrowed a litany of potential district reconfiguration options Tuesday, they kept open the possibility of either establishing a single district-wide middle school for grades sixth through eighth at one of the district’s two current middle school campuses or creating a district-wide fifth and sixth grade school and a district-wide seventh and eighth grade school.
All options the board charged its architect and financial adviser with developing into more detailed proposals included maintaining the foundation of Niskayuna’s five neighborhood elementary schools, serving the early grades.
The capital project, slated to go before voters in December 2020, aims to address growing student enrollment, improve outdated building infrastructure and enable a possible change in how grade levels are distributed across the district’s schools.
During Tuesday’s board meeting Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. presented about 20 different reconfiguration options for the board to consider; the ideas emerged through the work of an outside consultant and input from members of the public and district teachers.
“We heard the faculty loud and clear: they want modern spaces that allows us to advance teaching and learning in a future-ready format,” Tangorra said.
The board ultimately narrowed to its three options, which the district’s architect will return later in the winter with more detailed proposals for what the various options would look like. The board would then narrow further to a single proposal put up for voter approval.
The board’s discussion focused on the desire to maintain neighborhood elementary schools, keep district offices in a school building and develop a new approach for the middle level.
“In all the five-plus years I’ve been on the board, addressing the middle school model has been on your (annual review),” board member Rosemarie Perez Jaquith said to Supintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr., adding that a rethinking of the middle school model is limited by the district’s middle school buildings. “We have to address the middle school issue.”
The districts architects were tasked with focusing on three possible school configurations: keep the status quo but expand buildings to accommodate growing enrollment and potentially house pre-kindergarten students; establish district-wide schools for all fifth- and sixth-graders at one current middle and all seventh- and eighth-graders at the other middle school; and, create a single middle school for all of the districts sixth- through eighth-grade students.
The board ditched a handful of other options, including scenarios that would have converted a neighborhood school into an early childhood center and district office.
A move to centralized district schools for the middle grades could enable district administrators and teachers to overhaul how it approaches education at those levels. The single-building approach would foster more teacher collaboration, limit across-district travel for teachers, open up space for music and other programming and eliminate differences in middle school education delivered at different buildings.
While the board narrowed the possible reconfiguration options, lots of questions remain. While the board asked for details on creating one middle school campus, board members asked to study housing that district-wide middle school at both Van Antwerp and Iroquois. It’s also not clear if the district moved to a single middle school how it would use the middle school building not flagged to house that campus.
Board President Howard Schlossberg asked to consider making Van Antwerp the home of district-wide middle school, noting that its one of the most central schools in the district and is walkable from many homes. Faculty members had suggested housing the district-wide middle school at the Iroquois campus.
Board members also discussed leaving open the option to use the buildings for a pre-kindergarten program in the future.
The idea of creating a single middle school for students in sixth through eighth grade came from middle school teachers who argued a single middle school would enable new education approaches at that level.
Kateri Skinner, a middle school teacher in the district, urged the board to consider a model proposed by teachers to create the district-wide sixth through eighth grade middle school for all students. She said the district’s current middle school structure – two sixth through eighth grade schools each serving roughly half the district – does not enable the kind of targeted teaching students need at both the accelerated level and students who are struggling in class.
“What we need is a configuration which is future ready and will continue to serve our students and district 15, 20, 30 years from now,” she told the school board.