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Head of the Class: Lean Penniman is ready to bring high-school to the Albany Free School.

photo: Chris Shields

Alternative Ed Grows Up

The Albany Free School will offer a high-school program for the first time this fall

The Albany Free School is important to Walt Fick and his son Josh. How important? “We are willing to drive 160 miles a day!” said Fick.

For the past three years, Fick has been driving 40 miles from his home in Tribes Hill, near Amsterdam, into Albany every morning to drop his son off for classes at the Free School. He makes the same round trip to pick his son up after school. Fick is elated that he will be able to continue this routine after Josh graduates from 8th grade this spring, because the Albany Free School will be opening the Independent Learning Center, which will offer students a high-school program, this fall.

Since 1969, the Free School, which eschews fixed curricula and compulsory classes in favor of self-directed educational exploration, has offered students like Josh and parents like Walt an alternative to the restrictions of traditional schooling. Fick reports that his son wasn’t getting the education he needed in public school: “He was ahead of the class, and ultimately they teach down. He was bored out of his mind. He became frustrated and irate at doing menial tasks, and ultimately he wanted a challenge and they weren’t up for it.” Students with learning difficulties and those labeled with ADHD also frequently find their way to the school.

Until now, however, the program at the Free School ended after grade 8, and high-school-aged students were left looking for other ways to continue an alternative education. “The only alternative plan [after 8th grade] was home school and to let him go to college from there,” said Fick.

“There are no educational alternatives for families that aren’t rich. This is very much needed in the community,” said Leah Penniman, who is heading up the Independent Learning Center. The Free School charges tuition based on each family’s individual income.

Penniman said that the school has a strong contingent of students from its surrounding neighborhood, the South End, and that about 50 percent of Free School students are from Albany. The other 50 percent come from myriad surrounding areas including Averill Park, Chatham and Schenectady.

Penniman said there has been demand for a high-school program from parents of Free School alumni for some time, and noted that several students who had returned to public school or switched to home schooling when they finished 8th grade will be returning now for the high-school program. Penniman said the program will be student-directed and be based on internships and real-life experience. According to Penniman, students will have the chance to mold their own education and to interact with an array of Albany businesses and organizations that will offer internships. “For the most part, people in Albany are receptive and volunteer-minded,” she said.

The addition of the high school could expand the strong community Fick says has grown up around the school. “It’s a really great, tight-knit community,” said Fick. “Everyone knows everybody. It’s like a family reunion when we see each other.”

Penniman said the high school currently has 16 students enrolled, and although its original deadline has past, it is still looking for five more. (For more details, see

As for the construction of Josh’s educational plan, Fick is fairly cautious. “He is still on the rebound from public school. He’s still trying to learn what he wants to do and what he can do.” However, after a moment of consideration Fick happily added, “He has shown a great interest in making films. I told him that would be a great idea; see if you want to do that. I think he is going to be the next Spielberg! I have all the confidence in the world about them producing a wonderful young man.”

—David King

What a Week

Military Intelligence, Meet Military Security

Shopkeepers in Afghanistan have found a new, albeit unwilling, supplier for their merchandise: American military headquarters. Computer memory drives containing sensitive military data have been popping up in shops around in Afghanistan. Information stored on the drives includes Social Security numbers of American generals and lists of American soldiers and their training. Other equipment available includes handheld global-positioning units and range-finding binoculars.

A Stewart of Another Ilk

When the DaVinci Academy in Utah sent out 500 invitations announcing that John Stewart would appear at its annual benefit dinner, it thought it had booked the Jon Stewart of Daily Show fame. It wasn’t expecting John A. Stewart of Chicago, a part-time pro wrestler and former motivational speaker. However, when a local newspaper called the TV host’s publicist, they were informed all he had scheduled on that day was The Daily Show. The school has offered refunds to ticketholders.

Think of Lee When You Fill Up

Last year was a good year for Exxon and its chairman Lee Raymond. The company recorded $36 billion in profit, the largest annual profit any public company has ever made. This year isn’t looking too bad for Raymond either, as he is taking home a $400 million retirement package, two years of personal and home security, a car and driver, and use of the company’s private jet. “Clearly much of his high-level pay is due to the high price of gas,” Sarah Anderson of the Institute of Policy Studies told ABC News.

Every Breath You Take, Every Move You Make . . .

Residents of Brooklyn will be greeted by a sight out of Orwell’s 1984 beginning this week when they venture to certain parts of town. Large boxes with multiple cameras marked with the NYPD insignia have been mounted on lamp posts 30 feet above the sidewalks of some neighborhoods. 500 cameras will be installed around the city at a cost of $9 million. These cameras will join the more than 4,000 cameras already in place in New York’s subways and housing projects.

We’re All Just Straws in the Broom

Scenic Hudson takes to the riverbanks for the Great River Sweep

Finding strange items like a sunken barge or washing machines from nine consecutive decades sounds like a job reserved for anthropologists, but to volunteers working on Scenic Hudson’s Great River Sweep, it’s all in a spring’s cleaning. From April 22 to 30, the Hudson River’s roughly 315 miles will be peppered with 100 clean-up sites from Saratoga to Manhattan full of this year’s crop of volunteer garbage hunters.

Each year, members of the Hudson’s surrounding community, as well as some from afar, participate in this massive project, which has gotten bigger each year. It began in 1998 when a schoolboy wrote to Scenic Hudson. “My name is Josh,” wrote 6-year-old Josh Taubes. “I am writing to you because I see trash floating in the Hudson River. Is there any way you can help me?” That year, 1,000 volunteers began a commitment to clean the Hudson. Since then, an estimated total of 30,000 volunteers have collected more than 300 tons of trash from the banks of the river.

With honors from organizations from Clearwater to the Environmental Protection Agency under its belt, the Great River Sweep is now the Hudson Valley’s largest volunteer effort. Scenic Hudson’s staff spends months organizing the event and recruiting volunteers. According to Andy Bicking, director of education and volunteers, having a Web site ( “has made things much more efficient, but the best way to light a fire under someone is by word of mouth. Don’t underestimate that at all.”

Field coordinators—whose duties are to select sites, arrange trash disposal and recruit volunteers—are still being sought, as are regular participants. Prizes are offered for different tiers of commitment, chiefly based upon recruiting more volunteers and coordinators. Bicking describes this arrangement as “not so much a lure as it is a way to say thank you.”

Besides the support of notables such as actress and activist Meryl Streep and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the event is also backed by major business sponsors such as Clear Channel Radio and Citizens Bank.

There are many challenges the Hudson faces besides garbage. PCB contamination in the Hudson’s riverbed, for example, is still a huge issue. Scenic Hudson has been active with a number of other groups in putting pressure on General Electric, which is now under a federal mandate to eliminate the problem, largely thanks to those efforts. Scenic Hudson is also involved year-round in land preservation and clean-energy projects and was active in opposing a proposed cement plant near the city of Hudson.

What sets the Great River Sweep apart from Scenic Hudson’s other work is that it is a time when volunteers, many of whom have become members of the group and taken a pledge to support its environmental principles, can have a direct effect on the health of the river. There will always be those who litter freely. Still, according to reports from repeat volunteers, there is less and less trash each year.

—Jason Epstein



“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.


Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.

Loose Ends

Two local self-published books [“DIY Books,” Nov. 17, 2005], Saving Troy and The Long Stair, have defied conventional wisdom by selling enough to enter second print runs. . . . Infuriating Mayor Gerald Jennings, the New York State Legislature took out $322 million in state aid that Gov. Pataki had promised the city of Albany through 2038 from a local government aid bill, the Times Union reported Tuesday (March 28). Much of that money was to support the hotel portion of Albany’s convention center plan [“Convention Wisdom,” March 2]. The Legislature is offering one year of extra aid, and legislators disagreed with Jennings’ assessment that this move would kill the convention center project. . . . Publishing house Crown Books has donated $100 to the Albany Public Library in memory of the late author Rodney Whitaker, aka Trevanian [“Assumed Identity,” May 26, 2005], confirming his identity. A library spokesman told the Times Union they were “delighted” with the gift

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