SCHENECTADY — Middle school academics will be standardized and high school students will have an opportunity to join a learning community that aligns with their interests next school year under a secondary school redesign plan unveiled Wednesday by the Schenectady City School District.
The redesign plan, intended to create more equitable learning outcomes and bolster graduation rates by better engaging students, comes after months of behind-the-scenes work by district leaders, including an assessment of current learning models, a survey that received more than 1,000 responses and numerous stakeholder meetings, including those with current and soon-to-be high school students.
“I just want to let the [school] board know that we were really intentional about what you’re going to see. We think it’s the right way to move forward and we’re excited,” said Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr.
Under the plan, incoming high school freshmen will be enrolled in a freshman leadership academy that will focus on building bonds between the graduating class, as well as project-based learning and character development through social and emotional learning.
Students in the program will explore future learning opportunities through a variety of electives, including those in business, the arts, math and sciences.
From there, freshmen will choose to enter into one of five leadership communities at the high school, including visual performing arts; STEM; business, marketing entrepreneurs; humanities, communication & advocacy; and distance learning.
Curriculum for each leadership community is still being finalized, but program drafts are available on the district’s website.
There will also be an opportunity for students to enroll in off-campus learning communities, including those at Steinmetz Career & Leadership Academy — which will only be open to those in grades 10 through 12 under the redesign — and a performing arts program that will focus on dance, theater and vocal classes at Proctors Theatre.
The district is also expanding its existing partnership with SUNY Schenectady by extending the Early College Smart Transfer program to include 64 freshmen and 24 sophomores. Under the expanded program, which allows students to earn an associates degree while enrolled in high school, students will be taught by district staff at the college’s downtown campus.
The district is looking to implement the redesign in phases and will be forming additional partnerships with community organizations in the coming months to phase-in new programs in future academic years. The students belonging to the class of 2026 will receive the full experience of the redesign, but conversations are underway about plans for those graduating in 2024 and 2025 to join leadership communities, according to Deputy Superintendent Lynne Rutnick, who oversaw the redesign effort.
“It’s really a pathway approach to come to school and say, ‘I want to find my purpose,’” she said. “Not all students know their purpose when they leave high school, and that’s OK, but we want to at least provide them an opportunity to look at their strengths and interests.”
The ultimate goal is to bolster graduation rates, which have been on the rise in recent years but remain inconsistent between groups of students.
High school graduation rates for the class of 2019 were 70%, which improved to 76% and 80% for the class of 2020 and 2021, respectively, according to state data.
But discrepancies remain between students of color and those that are white. Just 7% of Hispanic graduates and 9% of Black students graduated last year with an advanced regents diploma compared to 19% of white students, according to state data, and white students have overall higher graduation rates than students of color.
To help address the discrepancies, the district will be standardizing academics at its three middle schools beginning next school year to ensure students are learning the same material, and unifying bell schedules for those in grades six through eight.
The district will also be rolling out new learning programs that will focus on providing behavioral and academic support for middle school students, and an AVID program — Advancement Via Individual Determination — that focuses on closing opportunity gaps.
AVID, which is already in place at the high school level, essentially prepares students to become students by teaching them essential skills on how to study and take notes, and how to balance academics with extracurricular activities, according to Kurt Redman, assistant director of secondary programs.
“As students get older, [AVID’s] more targeted to students who are capable of going to college but may be first-generation college students and may not really have the background of being prepared,” he said. “So it helps them in exploring colleges, getting on college campuses, researching what they’re interested in, all the way through the financial aid and application process as well.”
The district is now preparing to hold a series of public forums with parent liaisons and school administrators to raise awareness about the changes and is in the process of completing a district-wide building condition survey, which will determine where the freshman leadership academy takes place and class size moving forward.
Work is also ongoing to establish more community partners to expand the learning communities in the years ahead.
“All means all, which means we’re going to give quality programming to every single student,” Rutnick said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.