Waite: Schenectady schools will benefit if poor test results inspire ire

Stacey Watson the father of two students at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School speaks at a ceremony Wednesday, December 21, 2022.

Stacey Watson the father of two students at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School speaks at a ceremony Wednesday, December 21, 2022.

The superintendent was expecting more outrage.

After no eighth-grade Schenectady students passed the state math test this spring, and with just 12% of students in grades 3-8 passing the exams, Schenectady City School District Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. thought people might have come to his office, fired up and ready to help.

“When those results came in, no one came banging at my door to say ‘how can I help?’” Soler said during a meeting with The Daily Gazette. “If we’re serious about this, I’d get everybody knocking. We should have had people upset, but there was nobody.”

Therein lies the problem for a school district with high-needs students like Schenectady. Too often, their troubles and their deficits go largely ignored. Rather than choosing to invest in such districts, too many families simply choose to abandon them. If we’re ever going to see districts like Schenectady perform as well as other districts, this has to change.

In less than a year and half at the helm of the district, Soler has already helped implement many good ideas that could move Schenectady in the right direction. As part of his #SchenectadyRising mantra, he has introduced the concept of community schools, implemented extended instruction hours and developed innovative approaches to curriculum and career pathways. But it’s all meaningless if stakeholders continue to disengage.

As a graduate of Albany High School who now sends my daughter to the City School District of Albany, I have a personal stake in historically disadvantaged school districts like Schenectady. And I can tell you what happens far too often in places like Albany, Schenectady and Troy. Many families, fearful of sending their kids to a “bad” school, move out of the city once their kids reach school age. They move to Bethlehem to Voorheesville to Clifton Park. They send their kids to “good” schools.

I know many factors, including taxes, influence people’s decisions to move. But there’s no denying that many families leave because of the school districts. It’s a troubling trend that goes back generations.

Honestly, I get mad whenever I think about it. On a gut level, I react to the feeling of abandonment that arises from fleeing neighbors. We’re not good enough for you?

And I bristle every time I read a story about a fight inside Schenectady or Albany high schools, knowing how it will advance the narrative that these are troubled and hopeless districts.

More concretely, I get mad because the migration fuels the cycle of inequity. Property taxes account for 21.5% of the Schenectady district’s budget. While state and federal aid are meant to fill in the gap, districts like Schenectady can still be left behind. For instance, Foundation Aid funding, upon which districts like Schenectady depend, was not historically fully funded until the settling of a lawsuit in 2021.

The 2020 New York Times podcast “Nice White Parents” addressed head-on the impact of shifting demographics in public schools. The five-part series focused specifically on one historically disadvantaged middle school in Brooklyn that suddenly saw an influx of well-to-do white families. Once in place, the white families began imposing their will, pushing for more resources and programming that met their needs.

However, things began to change once the white families started truly listening to the rest of the school community, and once they became aware of their own implicit biases. They began to see firsthand how the school was disadvantaged – and feel some of these disadvantages themselves. Then, rather than view themselves as white saviors who could create the school in their image, they began to more fully enmesh themselves in the school community. Ultimately, they began advocating for the school community as a whole.

In the end, the podcast concludes that integration is a powerful force for good in schools as long as the balance doesn’t tip toward the wealthier families’ interests. The podcast concludes that, if wealthier, whiter families are truly part of a community and willing to use the influence that, sadly but realistically, comes from their outsized status, the entire school community is better served.

The Capital Region’s schools would benefit from more families of means remaining in historically disadvantaged districts.

Let’s face it: In our area, we still basically have segregated school districts. Just look at the demographics. While districts like Shenendehowa and Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake have Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) enrollment at roughly 30% and 10%, respectively, and economically disadvantaged populations hovering at about 10%, according to U.S. News and World Report, city districts like Albany and Schenectady have 80% BIPOC enrollment, and nearly half of their populations are economically disadvantaged.

U.S. Census data show that people of color are overrepresented in poverty numbers compared with their populations, and we know poverty can impact performance in school. So is it any wonder that outcomes in districts like Schenectady and Albany lag behind whiter districts?

Is it any wonder that students in Schenectady and Albany are behind statewide averages on standardized tests or that their four-year graduation rates fall well short of other districts – Schenectady and Albany have rates below 80%, while whiter, less economically disadvantaged districts like Shenendehowa and Niskayuna and Burnt Hills sit above 90%?

Poorer outcomes in a school district then make people less likely to want to send their kids there. In turn people with means leave such a district, and the cycle goes on.

Discussions about the effectiveness of charter schools may very well have merit. But the charter school experiment hasn’t exactly gone well in the Capital Region over the past two decades. We need solutions that actually work at scale. Otherwise, what, we’re just going to continue to accept that large segments of our population have to settle for poorer performing schools?

The good news is that experts have identified ways to address performance gaps, and Soler seems to have embraced the right strategies.

While research remains mixed on whether extending the school day or year can truly bridge achievement gaps, there is consensus that if instruction is done effectively, more hours in school helps.

So there’s reason to be optimistic about Schenectady’s new approaches to learning, whether it’s the hiring of a math director or the introduction of career pathways to help focus and motivate high school students’ educations.

And there’s reason to like the community schools initiative that the district launched this past week. It not only extends the school day, but it’s also an attempt to turn schools into community hubs where families are granted resources ranging from food to emotional support. The initiative could also let school buildings be the places where important conversations facing Schenectady as a whole are held – from discussions of addressing poverty to food deserts to the lack of childcare.

Of course, a big reason many families choose not to send kids to a district like Schenectady is a perceived safety risk. But from the addition of community resource officers to advanced security software to added mental health staff that’s meant to help prevent situations from escalating, Schenectady isn’t lagging behind other districts in terms of proactive approaches to school safety. I think we all have to be honest with ourselves about what’s contributing to our belief that some school districts are safer than others.

Going forward, Soler says, the district is hoping to renovate facilities that haven’t been meaningfully upgraded in decades. We’ll learn more in the new year, he promises, but the hope is to be able to expand in such a way that would reduce crowding at the high school and offer modern amenities throughout the district to give students the tools they need to compete with other districts.

All of this has the chance to turn Schenectady schools into places of real opportunity that set students up for success and improve academic performance. These are also the kinds of changes that can help a community feel proud of its schools – I feel uplifted every time I pass Albany High School, which is undergoing a massive $179.9 million renovation. Construction, after all, it’s a sign of concrete investment.

It’s important to note that leaders in Schenectady face the extra hurdle of earning back community trust that’s been eroded after two high-profile scandals in the past decade-plus, including the former superintendent’s resignation in 2020 amid sexual harassment allegations.

But my hope is that as changes come to Schenectady’s schools, more and more families choose to stay. At the very least, I’d hope families don’t move out of Schenectady solely to avoid sending their kids to its schools.

I worry, though, that too many will continue to leave Schenectady behind. As a sign of the challenges facing the district, consider that Schenectady has launched a tutoring program. Tutoring has been identified by researchers and policy experts as being one of the single most important tools to help bridge achievement gaps.

The problem for Schenectady? The district doesn’t have the staff to run the program at full capacity. The district had been hoping to enroll 10% of its students in tutoring this year.

“We’re not there,” Soler said. “We’re not close.”

The district is reaching out to community partners such as the Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA, but so far not enough people have applied.

I know hiring is rough across the board right now, especially for in-person, school-based jobs that disappeared during the pandemic. Still, even if myriad factors are at play, it’s frustrating that Schenectady can’t get this important program going at full steam due to the fact that there aren’t enough people willing to take on the task.

I hope, when you hear that, you start to get a little mad.

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: Andrew Waite, News, News, Opinion, Opinion, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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