SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady City School District launched the first part of its City As Our Campus initiative Wednesday.
The move will give more Schenectady High School students a jump on their college education at SUNY Schenectady County, or their first step toward a performing arts career through a partnership with Proctors.
More of these partnerships are planned, school district officials say, as a way to provide students with additional paths to college or career or both.
The student leadership academies at the downtown performing arts center and the college are part of the structural redesign of secondary education unveiled two weeks ago by the district. Among other things, the redesign sought to improve student engagement and career pathways for them.
Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. recalled seeing a hum of activity downtown nearly a year ago as he arrived to take the district’s top post. He said he wondered about the high school’s place in that, and challenged his administrators to expand access and opportunities for the students.
“We had an early college program, we were sending a small number of kids,” he said. “So, how do we get more kids to want to be a part of this program? Sometimes it’s just capacity, footprint and access.”
The current enrollees in the college program include 17 who will be graduating twice this spring, once with an associate’s degree from SUNY Schenectady County and again with a diploma from Schenectady High School.
“How powerful is that?” Soler marveled.
Among that group is Emelyn Alejandro Martinez, 18, who is heading next to New York University.
“As part of the Smart Transfer program, I feel like it has helped me tremendously in completing a lot of goals especially as a first-gen student with immigrant parents,” she said. “A great deal of it was because of the staff and the Smart Transfer program as a whole.”
College was scary at the outset, she said, but it helped her gain a sense of independence and responsibility.
“The other piece of this is creating career pathways for the kids in high school,” Soler said. “So if you’re interested in the arts, why not come and study at Proctors? A traditional school setting’s not going to be able to give that rich experience.”
Christine Sheehan, director of education at Proctors, said:
“Proctors has had a long-standing commitment to education and so building an expanded campus here in our facility for district students is a logical and natural fit for us. Hundreds of careers in the creative workforce happen every month here as shows come in and out of our theaters.”
SUNY Schenectady President Steady Moono said the early college program is free for the high schoolers and will provide a good starting point in higher education, with guidance along the way from both high school and college staff.
“It introduces them much sooner to the process,” he said. “For those who will want to continue on, it’s a seamless transition.”
Moono also said mentorship is important — for the high schoolers enrolled at such a young age but also for some of the other students.
“I like to call them vision supporters, to help them through the challenges of navigating college,” he said. Many are first-generation college students with no family members who can provide advice.
The son of Zambian farmers was in that position himself.
“When I came to the United States I knew virtually nothing about college,” Moono said. “I was fortunate enough that I had two mentors in college that helped me, or else I would have given up. I didn’t even know what a credit was.”
Moono said SUNY Schenectady County is regaining some of the momentum it lost to the COVID pandemic.
“The last two years we have seen really significant decline in enrollment,” he said. “For the first time in three years our summer enrollment is up and our fall enrollment is looking really good, solid.”
He said the school has the physical and human infrastructure to handle an increase in Schenectady High School students taking classes and an influx of returning college students.
The Schenectady Early College High School Leadership Community will place 64 freshmen and 24 sophomores full time at SUNY Schenectady’s Center City location. The Proctors Performing Arts Leadership Community will include 25 students who will split their time between Schenectady High and Proctors.
Soler said the partnerships launched Wednesday do not lock students into a career or academic track but expand the options for both.
“We want kids to have that choice,” he said. “If you want to go right to work the hope is that these places look to employ you.”
Additional collaborations beyond Proctors and SUNY Schenectady will be announced, Soler said.
“This is just the start of this theme of the City As Our Campus, we have more partners knocking on our doors saying, ‘Hey, we’ll take some kids too.’ So stay tuned, this is just phase one, more to come.”