When Schenectady schools opened their doors for a new year Wednesday morning, students got a peek at new lockers, classroom and, for some, a whole new school.
“At first I was a little bit disappointed,” said eighth-grader Zuri Keith, 12, who attended Central Park last year but was moved to Oneida Middle School, which reopened after major renovations this year. “But when I saw the school, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a new start; it’s so clean and fresh.’”
Mont Pleasant Middle School got a new sixth-grade wing, library and updated classrooms throughout the building, and Oneida, which had been shuttered since 2012, received a complete overhaul and renovation. Construction and renovation work is still underway at schools throughout the district.
As part of districtwide reshuffling of school boundaries and grade configurations, thousands of students and hundreds of teachers across more than a dozen city schools were moved to new school buildings. All sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students landed in one of three middle schools — all working from the same playbook.
Zuri and a classmate, Josie Casper, said they were impressed when they got their first looks inside Oneida during tours Tuesday night. They said the school’s new shine — which they admitted will ultimately wear off — would motivate students to push themselves academically and try to set the mold for what Oneida will become.
“I was excited to see the whole new school; it’s a new beginning,” said Casper, a 13-year-old eighth-grader. “It’s cool to be the first ones to experience the new school.”
Teachers too are excited about having a chance to work at Oneida. Rick DeCarr, a sixth-grade English Language Arts and social studies teacher, moved from Elmer Elementary School. He was also a teacher when FDR Elementary opened a few years back and said he is looking forward to helping to create a new learning environment and school identity at Oneida.
“From floor to ceiling, thought has been given to every room and space,” DeCarr said of the school. “When the kids come in, their eyes light up because they can tell this place was made for them.”
The three new middle schools will also welcome three new principals this year. Jeffrey Bennett, who came to the district midway last year as an assistant principal at Mont Pleasant Middle School, is the new principal at that school; Tony Farina, who has served as an assistant principal at Central Park Middle School, will head Oneida Middle School; and Tamara Thorpe-Odom, who worked at a special education school in Albany, takes the lead at Central Park Middle School on Monday.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to do good work,” said Thorpe-Odom, who was at Central Park to welcome students and their families Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. “Hard work but good work.”
As part of the transition, district and school leaders have developed a consistent middle school model shared across the three schools. Sixth-graders will be divided among two-teacher teams, with an ELA and social studies teacher and a math and science teacher. As part of Oneida’s complete overhaul, the two classes for each sixth-grade team — there are five — were connected by a shared inside door.
The new model helps ease the transition from elementary school to older grades, Superintendent Larry Spring said. When sixth-grade students stay at elementary schools — under the old boundaries, some schools served students from kindergarten through eighth grade — the transition to seventh, eighth and ninth grades can be more abrupt.
CENTRAL PARK MIDDLE SCHOOL
Name: Tamara Thorpe-Odom
Lives in: Albany
One of the newest faces in the district, Thorpe-Odom has deep experience in special education, which she focused on as a teacher in Albany city schools for more than a decade.
Most recently, she worked as principal for two years at the Neil Hellman School in Albany, part of the Parsons Family and Child Center. She has also served as special education director for New Lebanon and Chatham schools. She grew up in Albany and earned degrees from Mount St. Maryâs in Newburgh and The College of Saint Rose.
âIâve been in urban, suburban and rural schools,â she said. âAnd I can tell you: All parents want their kids to do well, and itâs all about making sure our students are successful.â
Thorpe-Odom will start officially in her position Monday, but she was in Schenectady on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning to greet students and parents. She said she was encouraged by large turnout at an open house event Tuesday and hopes to sustain that level of parent involvement throughout the year.
âWe want to encourage parents to come and be a part of the school community, be a part of their studentsâ education,â she said.
As the parent of a daughter entering sixth grade and two others, she will spend her mornings much like the families working to get a kid off to Central Park each day.
âShe told me to make [the students] feel comfortable, make them feel safe,â she said of her daughterâs first-day advice.
In seventh and eighth grades, the students move to a five-teacher team — with different teachers for math, science, social studies, ELA and special education. Students across the grades will also be scheduled into small classes that provide extra support in math and reading. The classes will be fluid as students move in and out based on test scores and other measures of progress and they will supplement, not supplant, their regular math and ELA courses.
The grades are also more isolated than they had been last year. Renovations at Mont Pleasant created a new sixth-grade wing and updated entire hallways of eighth-grade classes. The seventh-grade renovations are still in the works. And at Oneida, the grade levels are separated onto different floors. The middle schools all have similar social worker, counselor and school psychologist staffing as well.
But the three middle schools will also look to create their individual school identities, while still retaining the character of schools with long histories. In search of old school tradition, Farina said, he has reached out to people who attended Oneida before it was closed in 2012 as part of a deficit-cutting shakeup. He invites community members with ties to the school or interested in what it has become to come by for a look.
“There is a lot of feeling for this building, a lot of people who went here or worked here and saw it close,” he said. “We want people to come in; we want people to enjoy the school.”
Just as his fellow principals are doing, Farina is soliciting teachers to start clubs, eyeing the possible creation of a comic book club, cooking club, guitar club and more. As he walks into the school’s new library, with two-floor ceilings and massive hanging light fixtures, he points to where he plans to have students hang artwork or begin an annual collection of class portraits.
And the students will get a chance to shape the character of the school: Farina plans to let students have a say in what Oneida’s new mascot will be, and will solicit proposals and student artwork as part of a schoolwide project.
“I have no idea,” Josie said when pressed to identify a potential mascot.
MONT PLEASANT MIDDLE SCHOOL
Name: Jeffrey Bennett
Lives in: Oneonta
Bennett brings both an education and business background to the table as he takes the helm at Mont Pleasant, where he became an assistant principal midway through last school year.
He has worked in education for 18 years as a social studies teacher, school counselor and assistant principal. When he wasnât in education, he has worked in the restaurant business, at one point owning a deli with his wife.
âI like the challenge, I like whatâs happening in the school district â the forward thinking with the creation of the three middle schools,â he said. âThere is a great opportunity in middle schools to cultivate that love of learning.â
Bennett is focused on the school environment at Mont Pleasant, striving to establish a climate where students want to be and where they feel they are able to learn. As he walked through the newly renovated halls of the school, he explained how each grade level will have more freedom to do collaborative activities in their own spaces.
Highlighting a new multiuse space off the new third-floor library, Bennett said he plans on shutting down the bell schedule for the last few days of the semester and giving students a chance to participate in group research projects and other activities.
âThey can work on whatever they are passionate about, whatever they care about,â he said.
“For some reason, I just thought a moose,” Zuri said, adding that she would love to be the mascot if the role came with a “nice, clean suit.”
“Maybe something that represents a new beginning,” Josie said.
Schenectady’s transition to three middle schools comes as the district opens school this year under its new school boundaries — the result of a years-long process of redrawing the district map in an effort to eliminate the highest concentrations in single schools of students coming from an impoverished background.
As the district looked at its potential new elementary and middle school boundaries, it aimed to create schools with relatively even distributions of free and reduced-price lunch students. As time goes on under the new boundaries, Spring said, he will keep an eye on an internal measure of how at-risk schools are. Taking into account poverty levels, state test scores and other factors, the district creates a measure of school risk level. With the new boundaries, the differential between the most and least at-risk schools in the district should narrow, he said.
ONEIDA MIDDLE SCHOOL
Name: Tony Farina
Lives in: Niskayuna
Farina, who joined the Schenectady City School District in 2002 as a high school science teacher, worked as assistant principal at Central Park Middle School for five years and as interim principal last year at the Fulton Early Childhood School.
Of the three middle school principals, he was the first in place and helped organize what the common foundation of a middle school education in Schenectady will be. But he also looks forward to building a new school identity at Oneida, hoping to engage students with new clubs and leadership opportunities. âItâs not that they are going to Oneida, itâs that they are Oneida,â Farina said.
He lives with his in-laws in Niskayuna but has also spent time living in Schenectady, where he taught high school science before moving to an administrative job. His overarching goal?
âI told the teachers that this is a place to take the best things you remember about middle school and make it come true,â he said.
Farina is also likely to be busy working the phones this year: He has committed to calling all of the schoolâs roughly 260 sixth-grade parents just to check in, and started by scheduling 10 calls for Wednesday. But the call list wonât stop with the sixth-graders or one time through.
âThen it will be on to seventh and eighth grades and back again,â he said.
“Based on where you live, based on your ZIP code, that shouldn’t be an automatic disadvantage for kids,” said Spring, who spent Wednesday touring a half dozen schools on his way to visiting every classroom in the district in the first week. “Every building will have roughly that same percentage [of risk], and there is no place you are automatically advantaged or automatically disadvantaged.”
Spring said district officials will continue to tweak class sections over the next two weeks as they figure out what students enrolled last year won’t be coming back this year and what students are entering the district. Parents have continued to register kids for schools this week — the time of year that Spring said is one of the most volatile for estimating district enrollment.
The first days of school are about returning students to a routine; they know what comes next.
“I was really excited and then I thought: ‘I know there are going to be tests; I know how this is,’” Zuri said, explaining that she and her classmates were still working out their “inner excitement” for the new year.
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.