Giving every Schenectady student a chance to attend a K-8 school would require vast renovations of the district’s small and overcrowded buildings.
But school board members have directed the long-range planning committee to figure out what it would take to accomplish the task, citing a wealth of new studies that support the K-8 model.
After a full-day meeting on a Saturday last month, the school board agreed to fully investigate the idea.
“K-8 is what should be looked at,” board President Cathy Lewis said.
It wouldn’t be cheap. But she said the board spent most of the day studying “the realities of our situation” and learned that keeping the current elementary schools wouldn’t be cheap either.
Superintendent Laurence Spring said the district clearly has to begin a major series of renovation projects. Since the district can’t escape the costs of renovation by avoiding the K-8 model, board members said they want to know if such a model is possible.
Spring presented the board with many studies indicating that students do better in school if they stay in a K-8 model. A New York City study in 2010 found that middle school students’ scores go down 7 percentage points on standardized math tests, as compared with students in a K-8 building.
Another study, tracking students in New York City and Florida, found that middle school students “experience a sharp decrease in their learning trajectories and continue to struggle, relative to their peers who attended K-8 schools, through grade 8 and into high school.”
Parents of students in the district’s K-8 schools have also spoken highly of them, and some parents whose children were not placed in one of those schools complained that all children ought to have that opportunity.
At Central Park K-8 Magnet School, parents protested the switch to K-8, but quickly changed their mind after the older students flourished. The eighth-grade students behaved better than the teenagers at the district’s middle schools, and mentored younger students, who also behaved better. School officials speculated that the teenagers were trying to behave better in front of younger children, who looked up to them.
Spring said anecdotal evidence also suggests teenagers do better “in smaller groups” rather than in large middle schools.
But the school board hasn’t decided to switch to K-8 schools yet. Board members have simply asked the long-range planning committee to fully investigate the pros and cons.
One con: with only a small group of teenagers in each building, it would be harder to offer advanced classes because so few students would qualify to take them. Also, offering science labs, technology classes and other electives could be expensive, since the district would have to buy equipment for each school.
“That’s definitely something for us to wrestle with,” Spring said. “That’s definitely one of those things we’re concerned about. We don’t want to sacrifice the opportunities.”
No matter what the board decides, major building renovations must happen soon.
“These buildings need an awful lot of work,” Spring said. “They need more work than we are feasibly going to be able to do in one, two or three building projects.”
The work is so vast that he has told the board to plan what it wants the district to look like in 30 years — because that’s when the building projects will finally be completed.
Spring said the capital projects might not be an impossible expense. Because Schenectady is a poor, small city, it qualifies for a maximum of 96 percent state aid for capital projects. That means taxpayers would pay just 4 cents on every dollar of renovations.
But the aid comes with many limitations. Each building has its own aid limit, among other rules, Spring said.
The district may have to entirely replace some buildings, which are nearing the end of their “useful life,” Spring said. And the district’s student population is slowly growing.
“We’ve got some real dilemmas to think about,” he said.
The district’s building-condition survey, conducted nearly two years ago, made it clear that most of the city’s elementary schools need major renovations simply to provide a basic education.
The schools were built long ago, before the district began offering physical, occupational and speech therapy, small classes for students who are not fluent in English, specialized tutoring sessions for students who fall behind in reading and many other programs.
While most of the buildings have enough classrooms, they simply don’t have the space for those extra programs. Some students are meeting in closets for counseling sessions and ESL classes, and taking physical therapy in cafeterias.
Most of the buildings will need “major upgrading and renovations” simply to continue to be used, according to the survey.
But some buildings are essentially hopeless.
Fulton Early Childhood Center “does not have the capacity to function as anything beyond an early childhood center. Yet, even this function is a stretch for this building,” the survey said. It added that even if the district renovated it, it wouldn’t be worth it.
“It would be left with an inadequate building on an undersized site,” the survey said.
Lincoln Elementary School is also not recommended for renovations.
“Lincoln is a school building that has little future potential beyond its current use,” the survey said.
Other buildings could be redesigned, and in some cases there is room to expand on site or upward, to a second story.
While the long-range planning committees looks into the details, Spring is planning a community meeting for after the holidays. He wants to brief the public on the plans and what it would mean, both financially and educationally.
“We need to make sure we get much broader participation from people who wouldn’t typically come to a community meeting at the school,” he said. “You can only do these kinds of projects with voter approval.”