SCHENECTADY — After months of preparations, the Schenectady City School District is prepared to welcome students back and move forward with changes designed to better engage students and create learning pathways that officials hope will bolster graduation rates.
The changes will be most noticeable at the high school, where incoming freshmen will be automatically enrolled in the district’s first ever Freshman Leadership Academy when classes begin Wednesday.
Unveiled earlier this year as part of the district’s secondary school redesign, the freshman academy is designed to build community among peers while giving students the chance to explore future learning opportunities.
Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr., in an interview this past week, said the goal is to create a new learning experience for students, which includes sectioning off a portion of the high school for freshmen only, which he said has been shown to increase the number of credits students earn, increasing the chance of graduating on time.
“We’re really trying to give that freshman group a different experience than what’s traditionally been there,” he said.
Once students complete the leadership academy they will have an opportunity to enter into five leadership communities beginning their sophomore year. Opportunities include: visual performing arts; STEM; business; marketing entrepreneurs; humanities, communication & advocacy; and distance learning.
The district will also be expanding its footprint to include portions of the downtown as part of its “City as Our Campus” initiative.
The initiative includes an expanded partnership between the district and Proctors Theatre through Capital Region BOCES that will see students receiving hands-on learning in theater production as part of their day.
Students enrolled in the district’s Early College High School program will be taking class at SUNY Schenectady’s Center City campus, located at 433 State St. The program, which allows students to earn an associate degree while in high school, will include 120 students, up from 75 last year.
SUNY Schenectady President Steady Moono said he is excited about the expanded program and the idea of welcoming high school students to campus, which he said is crucial to ensuring every student interested in high education gets an opportunity to pursue a degree.
“It’s really bringing the students to college and taking the college to the community,” he said.
The secondary school redesign is just one of several things the district is hoping to unveil in the coming months in the hopes of better engaging students and breaking down barriers that stand in the way of education.
The district is currently working to finalize a community school initiative that will see city schools become community hubs, offering weekend services, extended hours to help with child care needs and services that will tackle issues around mental health and food insecurity.
Soler said the district has identified five schools that will take part in the initiative and hopes to unveil more details sometime later this fall. He said the district is finalizing contracts with community organizations and is working with building leaders on how to roll out the programming.
“Some of that kind of slowed us down a little bit, but our hope is to have everything in place by Oct. 1,” he said.
Soler said the district is also finalizing plans to expand its My Brother’s Keeper program, a mentorship program for young men of color launched by former President Barack Obama.
The program came to Schenectady in 2018 and the district announced plans to expand the program earlier this year in the hopes of connecting students with mentors to help guide them through their academic and life journey.
Soler said the program has mainly focused on high school students, but the goal is to expand the presence to the district’s middle schools and to eventually create a program for female students. The district, he said, is in the process of finalizing its action plan for the program moving forward.
The goal of the new programs is to better engage students by allowing them to pursue pathways that interest them, which Soler said will help improve graduation rates and ensure students have a sense of direction once they move onto the next chapter of their life.
Schenectady High School’s graduation rate was 80% in 2021, below the state average of 86%, but a 14-point improvement from the 2013 academic year, when the graduation rate was just 66%, according to data from the state’s Department of Education.
Soler said much of the focus has been put on changing the high school experience for freshmen, but noted the district is looking into ways to revamp education in the hopes of bolstering engagement.
The district is also looking into partnerships with other organizations to create additional pathways and to extend the city as a campus model.
“I know there’s more conversations on that,” Soler said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.