CAPITAL REGION — School districts across the Capital Region have shed students by the thousands since the mid-1970s. But the students in today’s classrooms have become far more diverse and are expected to grow more so. In many ways, the changes have come slowly – inching forward over decades.
The demographic changes, however, have moved much faster than the diversification of school district staffs, curricula and the creation of programs aimed at combating racial disparities in suspensions, academic scores and graduation rates. And in the coming years a new state accountability system will hold school’s more and more responsible for how all student groups perform in the classroom and on the graduation stage.
There are 38,312 fewer students in the Capital Region today than there were in 1976. And today’s students are far more diverse.
(This analysis is based on state Education Department public school enrollment data reported by race and ethnic origin. The Capital Region figures were based on all districts in seven counties: Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga, Montgomery, Fulton, Schoharie and Rensselaer.)
'Changing faces of education'
In 1976, nearly 95 percent of the region’s students were white; 4 percent were black; a half-percent were Hispanic; and a half-percent were Asian. In 2018, 70 percent of the region’s students were white; 9.5 percent were black; 9 percent were Hispanic; 6.5 percent were Asian; and 4.5 percent were multiracial.
Schenectady City School District’s student body has moved closer and closer to racial parity: 30 percent of students are black; 21.6 percent of students Hispanic; 21.4 percent of students are white; 19 percent are Asian; and 8 percent are multiracial.
The families of Schenectady students speak over 20 different languages at home. Spanish is the most prevalent language spoken besides English and other home languages include: Arabic, Chinese, Creole, Ga, Pushto, Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, French and many others.
In 2016, the Greater Amsterdam School District for the first time had more Hispanic students than white students. In Schenectady schools, the number of Hispanic students surpassed white students in 2018.
In Fort Plain over the past decade, Hispanic student enrollment has nearly quadrupled – from 12 students in 2008 to 46 students this year.
Only 19 of 59 Capital Region school districts started this school year with more students than they did last year. Since 2005, total enrollment across the region has dropped every year but one: in 2016, 24 more students across the region were counted than the year before. Just seven districts in the region have more students this school year than they did in 2005.
Some suburban school districts are projecting student growth in the coming years and have framed large capital projects in terms of growing student enrollment. North Colonie, which passed a $106 million bond in 2017, gained 149 new students this school year and has seen enrollment grow 8.6 percent since 2014.
Niskayuna, which is planning to take a capital project to voters in 2020 and has projected enrollment growth over the coming years, increased its enrollment this year by two students and has grown 4.4 percent since 2014.
Fewer students, more dollars
Districts with shrinking enrollment are “held harmless” each year, guaranteeing they see an increase in funding regardless of how many fewer students they are educating. As a result, many rural districts appear to be receiving more funding than a state funding formula says they should get.
The average per-student cost of educating youngsters grows as districts work to provide a shrinking student population a basic curriculum across grades and subjects.
Every school district in the state of New York spends on average more per student than the national per-pupil spending average. Some point to this as evidence New York schools have plenty of money while others argue it’s unfair to compare New York schools to other states.
An eye on disparities
Districts across the Capital Region show wide disparities in how minority students perform on state tests and how often they are suspended.
During the 2015-16 school year, black students in Niskayuna, Mohonasen and Guilderland, all districts with at least 100 black students that year, were at least four times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates. In Saratoga Springs, black students were at least nine times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white students.
School districts increasingly are being held accountable for the outcomes of even small student subgroups. Just 30 student results over two years is enough to make districts accountable for the performance of student subgroups.
E.J. McMahon, analyst at the Empire Center
“The discussion on the state level, the discussion of public school funding has been dominated by demands for much, much more, we need more… what that ignores is that there are fewer kids in the schools.”
“The most current data we have on whether regions are attracting young families is this enrollment. If you enrollment is sinking steadily, which is the case across much of upstate New York… especially in rural areas enrollment is dropping very sharply and that speaks to a shrinkage in the number of young families, and young families are the future, without young families, or a shrinking number of them, those communities are on their way to physically dying if they don’t reverse that trend.”
Michele Downing, assistant superintendent in Greater Amsterdam School District
“We know the benefits: we need to prepare all of our students, this is what we see nationally, we want to teach our children to pay attention, have respect for each other, build empathy, have students learn from each other, from different cultures. It can be pretty powerful in the classroom.”
Oliver Robinson, Shenendehowa superintendent
“We think about that type of (demographic) shift in a fairly short window that’s fairly significant, and I expect frankly this community to continue to become more diverse.”
“We talk about mirrors and windows. We want to have classroom experiences that serve as mirrors for kids, so every kid can see themselves in the types of books (and curriculum) we use. The second part of that is the window: we recognize our kids will leave Shen and go into a much more diverse higher education environment, a much more diverse work environment, so we want kids to have a window to much more diverse worlds. So as we embrace diversity and inclusion it makes our education experience for students that much richer, kids are exposed to cultures and people that 10 years ago we weren’t even talking about.”
“There’s a dearth of (staff) diversity within our schools, there’s a total lack of diversity within the schools' and that’s something we’ve been focused on for a long time. The ideal is to have schools and classroom personnel that reflect the changing faces of education.”
Larry Spring, Schenectady superintendent
“Diversity is always a real strength. You’ve got kids who grow up with different belief systems, different values, different customs, and they walk into these environments together as kids before they are culturally indoctrinated to believe or to assume that one particular belief or culture is the right way for things to be. They start interacting with kids who just have a different way of doing things… it’s not only really helpful for kids to learn those things about other cultures, to be sensitive and responsive to people from other places, people different than them; what it does, it inoculates kids against that cultural self-centeredness that you can have when you grow up in a mono-cultural type of place.”
“We also have to recognize that the largest segment of our population has a particular history that has put them in a position where they have had to bear a particularly heavy burden in our society. The largest segment of our students is black, the black population in the United States has borne a particularly heavy burden in our nation’s history.”
Angelicia Morris, Director of Schenectady County Human Rights Commission
“When diversity comes to town we are all challenged to grow. I think in the Capital Region, many of the districts are no longer white, they are getting browner and browner, and as diversity comes to each town and village, we are all forced to grow.”