Schools in Albany, Schenectady on "persistently lowest performing" list

Thumbnail image for Albany High SchoolThree local schools are on the "persistently lowest performing" list released today by the state education department: Albany's high school and Hackett Middle School; and Schenectady High School.

All three of these schools are up for "registration review," which requires them to implement a "major intervention" to turn them around (there's funding that goes along with these interventions). There are four intervention models: turnaround, restart, transformation and closure.

This is the second year in a row Albany High School has been tagged on this list. In July the state released a report that painted a harsh picture of the school. In September, the school district announced that the school would be broken up into four "themed academies" starting next school year.

Albany High School had a 53 percent graduation rate in 2009, according to state figures. Schenectady High School's rate was 56 percent.

It's hard to overstate the importance of improving these schools. First and foremost, the students deserve better. But the quality of these schools is also a key part of the health of Albany and Schenectady. It's anecdotal, sure, but we know a bunch of people who have moved out of Albany (or plan to) because of the schools (we'd actually like to see research on this question). A schools turnaround could go a long way to toward improving the overall health of the city -- by providing students with better opportunities, and holding onto to families who would otherwise leave.

Earlier on AOA:
+ Capital Region high school graduation rates 2009
+ Projected Capital Region school district per-pupil spending
+ Capital Region elementary school test scores


My wife and I live in Albany and are very torn about the school situation. On the one hand, Albany High has some programs available for gifted students that are unparalleled. On the other hand, if your child falls in the "middle of the pack" you wonder whether they will have a better shot (and more attention) at a suburban school. Ultimately we concluded that it would be best for our family to go to other schools and will be moving out of Albany as soon as we can. (housing market isn't helping).

I agree - all of us that live here need to do something. I saw Waiting for Superman and am so appalled by the state of our schools and how we are creating generations of people who are uneducated and unable to compete in the global economy.

I graduated from Albany High School in 1990 with a Regents/College Prep degree. I took tons of AP classes, had college credit before I went to Syracuse University, and participated in numerous activities (Yearbook, Latin Club, etc.). I even took 4 years of Latin there (my family had moved from Boston where I was attending the prestigious Boston Latin School). I realize AHS always had tracks, but I am so deeply saddened by how bad it's gotten.

I don't have kids, but I want to do something to help change this situation. Where do we start?

Breaking the school up into academies won't help unless there are staffing changes (or complete mindset changes) both at the teacher and administrator level. I was a part of turning around a failing school in another area, and it really does take a lot of work. The faculty not only has to be 100% on board with the proposed initiatives, but they also have to be provided with the necessary professional development and staunchly supported by the administration.

I hoped to bring my experience and success back to this area and have spent the last three months trying to help clean up the mess made by the Albany school system, including Hackett and Albany High. The number of stories I've heard from former students about how many teachers simply let the students do whatever they want while they read newspapers is so disheartening. The situation could never have gotten to that point without lack of proper leadership. I'm certainly not saying that every teacher and administrator in the district is bad, but I am saying that whoever runs these new academies is going to have to be wiling and able to engage these students in a way to which many of them are not accustomed.

Unfortunately, I've learned in these past months that no matter how much effort, passion, and skill we, as teachers, put into turning around student achievement that it's impossible to make progress without tangible support from a highly skilled administration.

By tangible, I do not mean verbal encouragement, although that's always appreciated when it's offered. I mean things like scheduled common prep time with our department or grade level teams. Regular, scheduled, documented time to speak professionally with other teachers about what works with students and what does not is invaluable to turning around a school. It also reduces teacher burnout by providing them with a peer support system and an influx of new teaching tricks.

Another way the administration supported us that helped was that they allotted scheduled time for individual conferences with the students who struggle with basic self management skills like being able to stay in their seats, using appropriate voice tone and volume during lessons, and not smearing their beauty products on other student's final projects. Instead of punishing them, which must never have worked with them if they're still exhibiting challenging behaviors, you can take the time to teach them the skills they need to correct the problem. People would be surprised with how much difference two 10 minutes sessions with a kid can make.

They also used data to asses our areas of weakness and made sure that all teachers had the subs needed to attend professional development sessions on relevant topics. After participating in some incredibly meaningless and poorly fit professional development in this area, I see clearly how integral this part of the administrative support was to generating positive results.

The faculty and admin would also have to change the entire culture of the district to prize success instead of failure. The students in Albany seem to have built a defense mechanism against failure in which they walk out of or sleep during standardized tests rather than give themselves a chance to try and fail. They also torment the peers who are successful until they no longer want to try. Many seem to revel in their own failure because it's something they can share with their fellow classmates.

At my old school, we did things like academic pep rallies, poster competitions for the best test tips (with super-sweet prizes paid for by our Title 1 money or donated by local businesses), faculty/student mentoring, etc. We kept it all super positive and focused on achievement, even if the entire school failed our district benchmark assessment. At first, students thought it was cheesy, but in year two, it was such a part of the culture that they got into it.

At the end of year two, with all of the above in place (plus changing to a rotating block schedule and switching a few classes to single gender), we pulled our ELA scores up from a 35% pass rate to a 70% pass rate.

The urban areas of the Capital District aren't a lost cause, but we are going to need some amazing people to help turn things around. I hope that we get them.

Concerned area teacher,

All wonderful ideas, but accountability is a shared responsibility between the school staff (administration and faculty), the children AND THEIR PARENTS. If you refuse to ensure your children attend school regularly, or if you refuse to take responsibility for your child's actions, discipline and academic performance there's only so much recourse the school has at its disposal - it is an educational institution, not a one stop social worker/psychologist/babysitting service rolled into one. What is a teacher to do when calling a parent about their chronically absent child who is failing a course (for the second time) only to be told, "Go f--- yourself - don't you bother me"! If you haven't heard this yourself, I question how deeply you've been involved trying to educate the urban community. I'm not making this up, by the way, as I live with a high school teacher and similar tales of woe are a constant discussion at our dinner table. Personally, I think if you removed the 400 or so students from any of these schools who are simply there to avoid learning at any cost, and to cause trouble and raise hell (thereby influencing 750 other "sheep" to join in the dysfunction) you could probably raise the GPA of the school by one full letter grade. You would also stop spending a disproportionately large number of resources trying to save a disproportionately small number of ‘children’ who don’t want to be saved anyway. And let's face it - not everyone is going to college. Get these 'children' into job training programs where they stand a chance of making a living for themselves.

To be sure, some positive changes need to be made at all these schools, but to be fair I think the State is 'shooting' the wrong schools. Since quantifiable benchmarking via standardized testing occurs mainly at the middle and high school levels, I would submit that many of the so-called failures at these schools occur much earlier in fact, at the elementary level. This is where the fundamentals of education are instilled, and it is here that MANY students are failing to receive the skills they need to be effective learners later in life. If you haven't been taught the simple basics like reading, writing and arithmetic, and the ability to critically reason your chances at mastering the more complex disciplines is severely impaired. Foreign language and algebra, for example, are rather difficult if you can't identify a verb in a sentence or multiply fractions.

Ask a 9th grade student at these schools to find an inch and a half on a ruler. My bet is that more than 50% of them will be unable to do so. That's correct; more than 50% of these students cannot operate a ruler. I shudder to think how well they do with simple arithmetic and composition. These are basic practicalities and life skills that are not being taught, and these are things my parents taught me; so:

Let's put the onus of these discussions equally on both the schools AND the community. Only through mutual understanding and INVOLVEMENT will anything ever change. The state can keep reshuffling the deck and trying out new band-aids, but the same cards keep turning up over and over again and the same wounds remain. It’s not just the schools that are failing, it's the parents of these failing kids failing their children as parents.


I have dealt with underprivileged inner city youth long enough to have not mentioned parents in my equation for turning around a school district. In my old school, most of my students' parents knew little to no English themselves and many of them were in the country illegally (although most of my student had been born in the country). Between illegal status, addiction problems, lack of fundamental education, fear of governmental agencies, and constant moving due to their need to evade creditors or the law, in the 10% of cases where we could actually reach a parent, they were usually unable to help them self, let alone a child.

Here, yes, more parents speak English, but they remain in poverty because of addiction, lack of fundamental education, distrust of governmental agencies, and lack of basic life skills (like the ability to refrain from screaming at a child's teacher as a defense mechanism again personal failure). I would say there there is also a strong distrust of white teachers by both minority parents and students that I did not experience in my last district, which works against the process since most teachers in the area are white. The racial divide in Albany, especially, is much more jagged than I expected. It's disheartening and is yet another layer that bars the success of the area students.

Fair or not, it is a reality that most failing school districts cannot rely on parents as agents of change. In fact, at the risk of starting a chicken or egg debate, my opinion is that lack of parental support as a resource is the major factor that causes a school district to struggle in the first place.

As for the more severe tracking you suggest, I've personally gone back and forth on that issue since I myself was in high school. Where I stand right now is that I've seen the transformational power of education at work, and I think that every child deserves at least until they are 17 to try to turn their mindset around enough to pursue higher education. Let's face it, a college degree is now the equivalent of the worth of a high school degree 50 years ago. There are very few well paying careers that one can enter from high school. Not everyone of the academically struggling students can be a sanitation worker or go into facility maintenance because there just simply aren't enough of those positions open to sustain a community's wage requirements. There is also the mind-broadening aspect of higher education to consider. Many people of poverty have had a very singular and often negative view of the world. Pursuit of higher education exposes people to other experiences of life, gives them the tools for social empowerment, and establishes a network that they can use in pursuit of a higher paying career. A low income, undereducated, struggling community usually remains as such without the influx of the new ideas and life skills that accompany higher education.

I do also, however, think that the origin of educational difficulties is the elementary school (well, actually, I think it's true origin is the home environment, as I elude to above). Unfortunately, as a secondary education teacher, I can't speak to what's happening in the area Elementary schools. What I do know is that they enter middle school significantly below grade level, test score wise, content knowledge wise, and basic school skill/etiquette wise. They already seem defeated about education and used to failure. It's disheartening but not unworkable, especially at the middle school level. We just need the right mix of people to help it happen.


I agree with nearly everything you are saying. I just hate to see a very good bunch of teachers be terminated because of a misguided State scheme to somehow "remake" the schools, or because a majority of teachers are white and can't somehow "relate" to the student demographic. While, for example approximately 70% of the students at Albany High are black, the world is a great big place with a wide range of colors and shapes. We all have to find some way to get along, and unless you plan to live your entire existence in the ghetto (a sad possibility I suppose), the rest of the world can be fairly unforgiving of such intolerance and myopia. Racism is unfortunately a door that swings widely in both directions. It also has no place in the classroom. It is indeed a shame that there isn't more diversity in the schools, but the situation is as it stands, and there's no debating the qualifications (some of the most rigorous in the nation) of the teachers currently employed by either of the school districts mentioned. While I'm sure there are apathetic teachers out there, these incidents are isolated and I think most teachers try to do their jobs as best they can. Empathy, though does have its limits.

If, in fact, the "jagged racial divide" that exists in Albany is so acute, I have often hypothesized that Livingston should be updated from a facilities standpoint, and staffed with an all-black administration and faculty; perhaps reopened as a charter school in cooperation with the public school system. This would address one of the primary concerns of 'the community', many of whom vocally express the fact that Albany High is elitist, and non-inclusive due to the overwhelmingly white complexion of the administration and staff. Students currently enrolled at Albany High would then be given an alternative to attending a school staffed by "old white teachers" (as a spokesperson for the NUA (National Urban Alliance) once told the faculty at Albany High...BTW, where did those hundreds of thousands of dollars go, paid to the NUA for what purpose??? -- point to the end results please). No one would be forced to attend either school, but merely be given an alternative. White students could attend Livingston; black students could attend the current Albany High. Courses and curriculum would be the same.

If anything, it would make for an interesting experiment, and we have nothing more to lose than we've already lost. Certainly it makes for a more locally "attuned" solution than what the State has come up with thus far. And I'm sorry, but tracking is in my opinion, the ONLY method of ensuring children get the type of education and attention they need. Sticking everyone in the same room, and somehow hoping the smart kids' intelligence will rub off on the dumb ones is misguided at best.

We've remixed the pot many times (at least in Albany) - we've been through numerous principals, superintendents, and school board members in rather quick succession. It seems none are more successful than any other. Perhaps more focused and radical solutions are called for.

This can't be, with my taxes increasing yearly for local schools (not to mention the death of the Star rebate). There are alot of problems but throwing more money at the situation is by no way a solution. Holding teachers accountable, specifically the bad ones who need to find another line of work. Also the students, when you have teachers getting assaulted, fights with multiple participants, some students do not belong. After several offenses (or less depending on the gravity) an alternative needs to be found so that the other kids get their needs fulfilled. Finally I do agree parents need to be responsible also, I spent time in the summers doing flash cards and reading (much to my chagrin back then) and my parents always checked to make sure what my homework was and that I did it.

The "students" deserve better? you must be kidding. I coached swimming in Albany High in the past and the students I encountered were great because they, and their parents cared.
Let's rephrase this and say that the teachers deserve better than the current crop of ignorant parent-less "students".
With the corporate takeover of or educational system (charter schools), the City Schools will become nothing more than special education (expensive and labor intensive) schools. But the investors in charter schools will make a profit and that is important, no?

Thank you both concerned teacher and R for a thoughtful dialogue on this difficult issue. My husband and I have chosen to stay in the city, and our oldest child goes to an Albany City School. I think concerned area teacher's ideas are exciting because it doesn't completely rely on parental involvement. I know this is important, but it's hard to imagine how the culture of poverty can be changed in a few years by increasing school funding. Thank you both for your energy and hard work.

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