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Making the Grade

With the high school—and the entire district, for that matter—on the state “watch list,” AHS administrators, teachers and students seek new formulas for success

by Darryl McGrath on May 22, 2013

 

Stellar examples: (l-r) Criscione and Adler will leave Albany High for Harvard. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

A year ago, the Albany School Board was on the verge of filling the district’s two most high-profile positions: those of superintendent and principal of Albany High School. Even the district’s staunchest defenders—and they’re out there, although not always as vocal as its critics—likely would have agreed that those two positions, at that particular time, were the most important decisions in recent memory for the city’s students, families and taxpayers.

The school board’s choices for the two vacancies were neither predictable nor “safe.” The new superintendent, Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, was an outsider who would also be the first black woman permanently appointed to the job. The principal, Cecily Wilson, was a soft-spoken young woman, a graduate of the high school 17 years earlier who had come back home to Albany for her career, whose main experience was in elementary education and who looked at first glance not much older than some of the students in her new assignment.

It’s not easy to turn around a troubled high school in a troubled school district, even if given several years; millions of dollars of targeted funding for enrichment programs and academic support services; and the goodwill of the people. It’s almost impossible to do so in one year, in an impoverished city during a recession, with the loss of millions of dollars of state aid to the district in the last five years, the attrition of faculty and staff; and a state-mandated spending cap, even when understandably impatient families want a miracle in time for their child’s graduation.

So how is Albany High School doing, one year after it secured a badly needed change of leadership amid an unspoken but palpable hope by teachers and parents that this time around, things might really be different?

Not as great as everyone would like, but nowhere nearly as badly as some might have expected. There are bright spots—the two top seniors in this year’s graduating class are both going to Harvard, and are both National Merit Scholars, and they’re just one example of many accomplishments by students in the school. There are also the bleak spots that could test even the most optimistic long-range view, especially when weighed without an intimate understanding of the data-collection techniques of the New York State Education Department and current research on turning around schools that have publicly been identified as severely troubled.

So at the end of this first year of major change in leadership and direction for Albany High School, the fairest approach might be to suspend the figurative version of ordinary letter grading and go to a pass-fail system. By that measure, those working to change the school’s culture and improve the most common assessments of its performance would urge the public to give Albany High School a passing grade, even as those same educators anxiously watch, as one of them put it, for the “needle to start an upswing.”

“Research would suggest that to see a significant change in educational outcomes, you need five to seven years to do so,” says Vanden Wyngaard. “And that’s what I would expect. It appears that the high school has stabilized. At the same time, the community, the school board, myself, Ms. Wilson, are anxious to see quick changes in a shorter time period.”

The State Education Department issues an annual assessment of the leading indicators of the performance of every public K-12 school in the state, a review known as the school’s “report card.” As with any survey, poll or other assessment, the numbers can be interpreted in many different ways, and the same report can be depicted as a beacon of hope or a benchmark of despair, depending on who’s selecting which points for the discussion.

In reviewing Albany’s state report card, two factors must be considered: Yes, the school and the entire school district, for that matter, have been on the state education’s watch list for three years now. The term to describe that special status used to be “district/school in need of improvement,” but the state now uses the kinder, gentler phrase “focus school” or “focus district.” No matter what term is used, the designation delivers the same grim message: A “focus” school or district is one in which the students are not meeting the minimally acceptable standards in dozens of assessments, ranging from standardized test scores to attendance to graduation rates.

But here’s the catch: The school report cards that just came out for the 2011-2012 school year are based on data that is now a year old. Real change could be taking place, but no one will know that probably for at least another year, and probably more like another three or four years. That’s scant comfort to a family whose child is about to start a four-year trek through Albany High School.

 

Well adjusted: (l-r) Criscione and Adler credit Albany High with giving them the foundation to move on to an Ivy League school. Photo by Erin Pihlaja. .

The high school’s graduation rate has hovered at 52 percent for several years. The number of students qualifying for the free-lunch program—a common benchmark of poverty—actually went up in the high school between the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, from 35 percent to 45 percent. The number of teachers in the high school has gone down since 2009, from 196 to 154—a reflection of state budget cuts and a decision by the school board to reduce payroll through attrition. It goes without saying that it’s difficult to hold the average class size to the generally accepted ideal of fewer than 20 students if you have 42 fewer teachers in the school now than a few years ago.

“You have to keep saying ‘It’s going to change over time,’” says Albany School Board President Alex Streznewski. “You have to highlight small successes.”

The board is very pleased so far with Vanden Wyngaard’s performance, whose decisive management style has “energized the district,” Streznewski says.

“She definitely has her pulse on our type of district,” says Streznewski, who has a son in 9th grade at the high school and a daughter at Hackett Middle School. “Her interest is in urban education, and we certainly present that challenge. She gets it—she gets that these kids can learn.”

Cathy Corbo, president of the Albany Public School Teachers’ Association, says that Vanden Wyngaard is “moving things in the right direction.” She gives enthusiastic ratings to Wilson’s first year at the high school, adding that “I think the faculty and staff were starving for strong leadership.”

Wilson’s predecessor, David McCalla, had an uneven three-year tenure in which his judgment and decision-making presented the school district with some unwelcome distractions. While principal at the high school, McCalla became romantically involved with then-school-board member Melissa Mackey, who became pregnant with McCalla’s child. The premature infant died at Albany Medical Center the day she was born in December 2011, and the couple announced the baby’s death in an obituary in the Times Union that named both parents. The relationship presented an awkward conflict of interest, as school board members approve the appointment of principals and McCalla thereby was, in effect, dating one of his bosses. Mackey lost her bid for reelection to the board a month before she gave birth. McCalla was eventually moved to a job in the district’s back offices.

Wilson graduated from Albany High School in 1995, went on to Princeton and New York University for undergraduate and graduate studies, and then came back to her home city. She quickly rose through administrative ranks in the elementary level and served as principal at Sheridan Preparatory Academy before she was appointed in 2011 to head the High School’s Leadership Academy. She was named interim principal last June and soon after that, the board permanently appointed her.

“I have high hopes for Ms. Wilson and high hopes for our new superintendent,” says Rene Dixon, who, along with Maria Harple, is co-president of the Albany High School Parent, Teacher, Student Association. “Change takes time. And honestly, can a big change happen in a year? I think not.”

Wilson has taken over a school that is trying a number of ideas, not all of them uniformly popular. The board’s decision two years ago to divide the 2,200-student high school into four “academies,” each of which focuses on a different concentration of study, is one attempt to deal with larger-than-ideal class size. The feeling is, if you can’t make the classes smaller, at least you can make the aggregate feel smaller and more personalized for teachers and students. Another change at almost the same time, which greatly expanded access to the school’s honors program, triggered sharp criticism by a group of activist parents who accused the school system of watering down its standards in an attempt to be inclusive. But academic partnerships with the State University of New York’s Albany campus, Hudson Valley Communty College and the College of St. Rose are right in line with current thinking on the importance of preparing students for college while they are still in high school. Schenectady County and Hudson Valley community colleges have also been conducting “instant admissions days” at the high school to help students learn on the spot if they might qualify for admission.

 

The students’ picks: (l-r) Teachers Houlihan and Plumadore in the halls of Albany High School. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“It’s a huge system; you’re trying to make a shift throughout the entire system,” Wilson says. “There are definitely days that are tough, but I think what always grounds me and refreshes me are our kids and our staff. Both components keep me going.”

This landmark year at Albany High School closed on a celebratory note, with the news that the two top students in the senior class—valedictorian June Criscione and salutatorian Hillel “Hilly” Adler—are both going to attend Harvard University in the fall. Both are also National Merit Scholars. This is not the first time by a long shot that top students in the class have been accepted to top colleges, but it is the first time that the top two will both go to Harvard.

For an interview for this story, Criscione and Adler invited two teachers they feel know them best: math teacher Margot Plumadore, who is also the secretary of the teachers’ union local in Albany, and Jen Houlihan, who coordinates the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate program at the high school. In an unexpectedly informal conversation that moved away from individual academic achievement and focused more on the philosophy of what makes a great high school, the two students and their teachers offered candid insights on the ideas they think work best. All four talked about the value of small group settings that allow students and teachers to get to know each other.

“Part of the problem with [standardized] testing and the evaluation of teachers is it gets into the way of building personal relationships with students,” Criscione said. “It’s really important to look at this as not only a collection of test scores, but a collection of relationships.”

Adler said he does not expect to feel at a disadvantage at Harvard; instead, he said, “Going to Albany High School has made me more well-rounded, more accepting.”

Plumadore and Houlihan are both mid-career teachers. Both said they believe their colleagues are committed to helping all students succeed, but that those same colleagues are feeling the stress of state-mandated standardized tests. As Plumadore put it, “We’re trying to save students, one at a time here, and every time you lose instructional and interaction time with students, it sets you back.”

Both teachers expect to be at Albany High School long enough to know if the combination of new ideas and new leadership will lift the school from the stigma of the state watch list. It remains to be seen if the district can somehow effect one major change that research and practical experience have shown can help students succeed. It is, quite literally, one thing that money can buy for a school system, and money is one thing that the Albany City Schools do not have to spare. And that one thing is smaller class sizes.

Plumadore got her first glimpse of the power of small classes as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., where classes never had more than a dozen students, and the teacher sat at a table with the students instead of standing in front of the class. She said she has never forgotten the power of that small instructional setting.

“I’ve thought about this since my first year of teaching—what could make me a better teacher?” Plumadore asked rhetorically. “And from the very first year, I’ve thought, the magic bullet is a better teacher-to-student ratio—smaller classes.”