All students in Niskayuna schools will come together beginning in fifth grade in the coming years under a new middle school configuration adopted by the school board Tuesday night.
The change is still years off, but the district plans to shift its middle school program from two 6-8 schools to one districtwide 5-6 lower middle school and a 7-8 upper middle school as part of a major capital project planned to go to voters in December.
Board members on Tuesday night reached consensus around the new middle school configuration and vowed to push forward with the long-planned capital project despite a raging global pandemic and an uncertain economic future.
“There’s nothing new here, we have been talking and learning and debating this for years,” Board President Howard Schlossberg said during Tuesday’s virtual board meeting. “To the people who say we should stop talking about the future, I say we cannot.”
Board members and district officials in recent days have said they have a duty to move ahead on major renovations and additions at the district’s buildings — pegged at between around $55 million and $80 million — to update the buildings ahead of a projected increase in enrollment.
Some district residents, though, have raised questions about the wisdom of asking voters to support a capital project potentially amid an economic and health crisis.
Citing the “paradigm shift” caused by a global pandemic as well as “the significance of the changes proposed” and the financial uncertainity of local and state budgets, one parent in public comments this week urged the board to table a decision on the capital project.
“Please table the decision on any change to school configuration and stop sending our precious tax dollars on overpaid consultants and focus your efforts on the current situation,” Niskayuna parent Evan Brooksby said in a comment submitted to the board this week.
Board members on Tuesday shared their views of which middle school model was best for the future of the district, with board members also considering a status quo option and an option to establish a single districtwide 6-8 middle school. That option would have resulted in repurposing or closing Van Antwerp and building a major addition at Iroquois Middle School.
Van Antwerp’s old age and significant infrastructure needs will come at a premium — around $20 million worth — just for the district to upgrade to standard conditions. While the board agreed to move forward with the 5-6 and 7-8 buildings configuration, district officials still plan to analyze the pros and cons of using Van Antwerp or Hillside Elementary as the home of the new 5-6 school; the 7-8 building would likely be housed at Iroquois.
The district’s teachers for year had singled out the middle school program as in dire need of improvements and called for a format change that would enable new and innovate approaches to teaching middle school students. The programs offered at the two middle schools are not equal and students are forced to go to the high school early in the morning for certain music rehearsals. Board members cited the views of teachers ahead of their decisions and said the teachers deserved “great deference” because of their education expertise.
“The teachers have voiced loud and clear they already have been doing the best they can with the current setup… it’s time for a change,” board member Jennifer Zhao said at the meeting.
The board also discussed the middle school configuration during a special meeting Monday night. At that meeting, Marie Digirolamo, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, outlined the benefits of moving to the 5-6 and 7-8 buildings model.
Digirolamo said the change would allow fifth grade teachers — who know must teach all core subjects as elementary teachers — to specialize in a smaller number of academic subjects; the change would also bring all teacher of the middle grade levels into the same building, easing collaboration and training.
She said the model would enable fifth grade students to start taking classes in subjects like technology, global languages and family and consumer sciences, subjects they are limited in taking at the elementary schools, progressing students through required middle school subjects. That early start would then let students begin accelerating into high school classes by eighth grade if prepared. The schools could also move music rehearsals into the school day.
Some parents have raised concerns that adding the extra building would create the stress of an additional transition for students. But district leaders have addressed those concerns by arguing social workers and counselors could move with students and that bringing all students together earlier in their academic lives could diminish the stress associated with meeting new students come ninth grade.
“It’s a location transition, but I know these students, I know my friends, I know my counselor, that’s how you mitigate those transitions,” Digirolamo said at Monday’s meeting.
The changes are still years off for students: district officials and their consultants will know return to the drawing board to detail specific plans for moving forward with the change in middle school and the broader capital project, which will touch all buildings in the district. District officials still plan to put up a referendum on the capital project for voter approval in December.