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Public gets first view of Niskayuna school reconfiguration options

Public gets first view of Niskayuna school reconfiguration options

Consultant to present school board with three options Tuesday night
Public gets first view of Niskayuna school reconfiguration options
Students attend their first day of school at Craig Elementary School on Sept. 6, 2016.
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer

The discussion over the future of how Niskayuna schools are arranged – what grades go to what schools – is set to hit the school board's table Tuesday.

A community committee made up of district staff, parents and residents has been working with a consultant to develop six potential scenarios for rearranging how grades are distributed across the district's eight school buildings this spring. Earlier this month, the committee's members ranked the different options.

Now, the discussion over how to move forward is headed to the school board, which will ultimately have the final say in how to proceed.

The community committee's favored option proposes converting Niskayuna's five elementary schools, now serving kindergarten through fifth grade, into schools serving pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. All the district's fifth and sixth graders would move to Van Antwerp, under the proposal, and its seventh and eighth graders would move to Iroquois – buildings that have housed two separate sixth through eighth grade middle schools.

The plan envisions reclaiming classroom space at Van Antwerp where the district's central offices are now housed and moving district administration to district's Hillside Avenue transportation center.

The committee's second favorite option would make the neighborhood elementary schools even smaller, ending at third grade, with fourth grades joining fifth and sixth graders at Van Antwerp.

The possible reconfiguration options offer a framework for how to remake the district's buildings as officials plan to ask voters in late-2020 to approve a capital project to overhaul and expand schools.

District officials are also projecting higher enrollments in the coming years, infusing more urgency into the effort to find more classroom space in school buildings nearing capacity.

Paul Seversky, a consultant who developed a study of the different reconfiguration options, also developed enrollment projections for the district: K-5 enrollments projected to grow from as little as 22 to as many as 243 students over six years; middle school enrollments projected to grow by between 35 and 100 students over eight years; and high school enrollment projected to grow by between 196 and 216 students over 10 years.

The project – a capital improvement plan to accommodate growing enrollment coupled with a potential reconfiguration of school buildings – also aims to remake how the district's students are taught, introducing more flexible spaces that promote collaboration, updating science facilities and beyond.

“We have to start preparing children for their futures not for our pasts,” Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra said at a public presentation of the reconfiguration options Thursday night. “That's the real driving force.”

Actual changes to what schools students should be dropped off at are still at least a couple of years away. Tangorra said the earliest he expected grades to be moved would be in the fall of 2022 – but likely later than that.

“That's probably optimistic,” he said of being ready for a fall 2022 implementation of new grade configurations.

In the meantime, the six options will go before the school board at Tuesday's meeting. Tangorra said he hoped the board would narrow the options down by the fall, giving district officials much of next school year to flesh out a set of options with its architects and financial planners. The board would then be presented more detailed plans of what a reconfiguration would look like under its favored options, including the construction work that would be necessary to facilitate a reconfiguration.

Tangorra on Thursday said he was targeting a December 2020 referendum vote on the capital project to support building renovations necessary for a chosen reconfiguration.

As he presented his study's findings Thursday, Seversky underscored the district's healthy housing market and consistently high kindergarten enrollments as he reiterated his expectation of enrollment growth. He said the reconfiguration options spelled out in the study could, and should, be adapted to fit local needs. He also warned that preparing for the district's future enrollment would come at a cost.

“You're entering a policy decision that is not a soundbite and not matter what you do there will be a cost,” Seversky said at the presentation. “Even the most lean option... has a cost to it.”

Seversky's study, which comes in at over 100 pages long, details the different reconfiguration options along with how many new classrooms he projects each building would need to accommodate growing enrollment. The study, which details the enrollment projections and current building capacities, also provides advantages and disadvantages for each option.

The roughly three dozen residents at the Thursday presentation offered a look at the kinds of frustrations people may have as more and more details of the project get decided: how will it impact transporting students, what becomes of the culture of neighborhood elementary schools, how does it impact sports and activities, and countless other issues that must be addressed and resolved.

“There are a lot of moving parts here that are going to get a lot of people wound up,” one of the residents on hand for the presentation said.

While Tangorra agreed that there will be plenty of details for people to be upset by as the district narrows in on a plan, he promised the district would communicate each step along the way and be willing to answer any questions residents may have about the project.

“Getting wound up is a foregone conclusion,” Tangorra said. “They may not like the answers, but they will have all the information.”

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