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Priorities emerge as Schenectady district moves toward strategic plan

Priorities emerge as Schenectady district moves toward strategic plan

Smaller class sizes among public's priorities
Priorities emerge as Schenectady district moves toward strategic plan
Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring addresses residents in the Eastern Avenue neighborhood.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

SCHENECTADY -- Smaller class sizes, increased behavioral support, greater staff diversity and more expansive academic opportunities are emerging as top priorities as Schenectady City School District officials begin to make sense of public input.

As part of a strategic planning process launched this fall, the district has hosted dozens of focus groups and created an online “thought exchange” that allows parents, teachers and others interested in the district to post suggestions and rank other ideas.

District officials plan to use the ideas to help shape changes to the district’s mission and vision and set the outlines of the types of programs the district will focus on in the coming years.

Summaries of the focus groups and a review of the online thought exchange show that a few top issues are beginning emerge as priorities. Reducing class size appeared to score wide support among parents and teachers.

“Reduce class sizes,” one post on the thought exchange demanded. “Because doing so can result in stronger relationships and improved student performance.” That was the second-highest-ranked suggestion on the thought exchange.

Other posters suggested current class sizes in the district was getting in the way of effective teaching.

“As the classes have grown, I feel my ability to provide what each student needs has been compromised,” one wrote.

Like many of the suggestions – including adding social workers and guidance counselors and increasing academic offerings for students – lowering class size comes at a significant cost. District officials have tried to hire subject-area specialists in recent years that push into classrooms during certain times of day in an effort to effectively reduce class size for key subjects like math and reading.

But the initial results of the planning process suggest demand still exists to further lower the number of students in each class.

During one of the parent focus groups in September, a group of parents asked for more consistent communication, an expansion of offerings for students, better behavior controls – and without creating major disruptive change like a recent redrawing of school boundaries.

“That was the big thing I heard, there needs to be more consistency,” parent Kimberly Miller said after a focus group session in September.

Other top priorities from the focus groups and online program included increasing mental health supports for students, many of who have to grapple with the trauma caused by living in poverty, as well as finding ways to improve communication with the guardians of students and do more to support families.

“So many students are struggling with mental health issues,” one poster wrote. “It is getting in the way of learning and teaching.”

Another set of recommendations suggested the district do more to expand the types of academic offerings available to students, both in an effort to give students more career-oriented programs to learn in as well as to give students more subjects that may find interesting and engage with.

The feedback also underlies some of the central disagreements in the district. The most popular post on the thought exchange as of Friday, for instance, raised the specter of social promotion, passing a student on to the next grade even if they haven’t demonstrated proficiency.

“We pass students even if they are not prepared for the next grade level, setting them up and their teachers up for failure,” the highest-ranked post read.

Teachers have raised complaints about the practice in recent years, arguing it lowers student ambition and sends a message that students can ignore school and still advance with their classmates. Superintendent Larry Spring, on the other hand, has said other interventions can be more effective and cited research that shows students who are held back in school are far less likely to ultimately graduate.

Many of the posts appeared to come from teachers and other school staff: “Stop requiring staff members to participate in meetings that are irrelevant to their role,” said one post. Others asked for more time and better training to help them implement a raft of new initiatives the district has taken on in recent years, including an effort to develop so-called trauma-sensitive schools, where educators operate to address the needs of students and families experiencing trauma.

The online thought exchange will remain open until later this month. After collecting public input, district officials plan to sort through the information to highlight what priorities to pursue. Officials plan to bring a plan for moving forward on the strategic plan to the school board in February. The district plans to listen to input along the way, officials have promised.

In a video on the district’s website, Spring said the public input part of the strategic planning process aims to learn from parents and others about the kinds of programs they want most for their kids.

“As we engage in that planning, we think that it is extremely important that we continue to have your inputs and thoughts as the plan begins to take shape,” he said. “(We want to make sure) we are shaping ourselves and doing for your children what you most value and think public education should be doing for you and your family.”

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