SCHENECTADY – A so-called “reset” of the high school’s effort for a positive and healthy school culture wasn’t limited to expanded class times, a change that resulted in a student walkout this week.
The new schedule of four, 90-minute classes – a shift from eight, 45-minute sessions each day – was put in place to reduce the number of transitions and potential conflicts in the hallways, administrators said.
But that’s not the school’s only big change.
School officials say it’s now a “closed campus” that allows only seniors to leave the building during the school day.
For now, grades 9-11 are to remain in the building throughout the day.
The reset, administrators say, is a reinforcement of back to basics such as being on time and coming to school ready to learn in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s what new schools Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. said is a multi-faceted plan that also consists of the recent appointment of Dennis Green as the building’s acting principal.
A former assistant director of the Washington Irving Educational Center, and a former school counselor who’s starting his 17th year in the district, Green is considered an additional leadership presence in a building that needs it.
The City School District’s announcement of his appointment generated about 20,000 interactions on Facebook, indicating “a real positive energy,” said Soler, who described Green as “a true pillar of the community.”
In a recent interview with Soler, Green and executive high school Principal Christopher Chank, the trio discussed the administration’s excitement of returning to in-person learning after what they said was a “long” 18 months of virtual learning.
The administrators also discussed plans to address first-month incidences of violence that included a former student and another woman entering the building to assault a 15-year-old student.
There was also a separate assault involving two male students that was recorded on video.
Chank said consideration has to be given to the unusually large volume of students who are new to the building.
Unlike most years, when just the freshmen class of about 700 students were new to the building, this year about 1,400 students are familiarizing themselves with the building.
Sophomores are also new, while juniors had only spent about six months here during their freshmen year.
“The issues that we’ve had – the altercations, whether it’s a verbal altercation or something that escalates into something else, have predominantly happened with the ninth and 10th graders,” Chank said.
“When young people who are not fully in control of their emotions and things like that, sometimes they make those extra steps, especially when it’s fueled by something like a social media piece,” Chank said.
But the school official said he couldn’t sugarcoat what he said were several significant incidents that were unacceptable to administrators.
“I’m a parent of a senior here, so that’s unacceptable to me as a parent,” Chank said. “It’s unacceptable for our staff members to think that there may be people in the building that are not our students. So those are definitely things that we know we need to address.”
But Chank said he doesn’t believe violence was necessarily on the rise.
Soler said the high school has 54 doors. It has cameras that monitor each door, he said, but it’s impossible to have a guard at each one.
“One of the things we did was we set up security desks with cameras to be monitored more,” he said.
The district is also exploring alarms to “at least have some kind of auditory signal, as well,” Soler said.
But Soler said it should be kept in mind that the two women who entered the building and assaulted the teen were arrested.
“One was a 19-year-old who had just had graduated,” he said, adding a current student allegedly allowed the women inside.
Soler said the setup is no different from any suburban high school’s, the difference being the city district has to establish a culture among students where it’s not OK to allow a non-student to enter.
“But again, I think what gets missed is we did respond,” he said. “The two young ladies were arrested. There’s only so much we can do when something like that that happens.”
The alleged student assailant in the video that surfaced was disciplined according to the school’s code of conduct, Soler said.
“To say that we can have a 100% prevent proof environment where there’s no conflict, when we know we’re dealing with communities who, when you go out in the ‘hood, and they have conflict with each other, they handle it the way that they unfortunately handle it,” Soler said, noting his previous experience as a high school principal in an urban setting.
“They want to ‘knuckle up’ and fight and we have to teach kids: ‘No. You can’t do that.’”
Said Green: “All assaults or fighting, or any incidents of violence is unacceptable, and anytime you see it in a video, it hits even harder because you see it over and over again.”
A 1993 graduate of Albany High School, Green added, “But I don’t know that it’s any different than when I was in school. We can sit back as older people and say, ‘Back in my day we handled it a different way.’ But when you think about it, it just wasn’t recorded, and you didn’t have an opportunity to see it over and over.”
More broadly, Chank said there’s a natural level of anxiety as students returned last month.
Educators, he said, are happy to be back rekindling relationships with students.
But there have been struggles acclimating all of the students into the building, he said, adding that a positive so far this year has been minimal pushback from students regarding the facemask mandate.
Green said he’s held assemblies hoping to build stamina and remind students of how resilient they are in the face of the pandemic.
“I presented it as a tornado,” Green said of the disruption to their learning. “We have to work together to recover. Even some adults – we’re used to being at home for work, and it was a little bit easier to wake up and hop on a computer than get ready and come to school.” Soler said the changes will be carried out through June, at which time officials will “review, reflect, learning and adjust.”
He said the district walks a fine line in its work in that it doesn’t want the urban high school to reflect prison.
“That all too often is what happens.”
The new school chief went on to say that he views the high school as a key to the district’s and his own success.
“Graduation rates, attendance, all that stuff matters,” Soler said. “If we don’t succeed here, our elementary schools can do a great job … But if they get up here and they don’t graduate in four years and do the stuff we need to do, then you’ll be looking for a new superintendent in a couple years because they’ll get rid of me.”
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.