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Giffin Memorial School Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and technology

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

School of Hard Questions

For parents in Albany, navigating the elementary education of their children can prove frustrating, complicated, and—though many avoid saying so—fraught with class politics

By Darryl McGrath


There’s a story making the rounds in one of Albany’s upper-middle-class neighborhoods that goes like this: Progressive white parents enroll their child in Giffen Memorial School, which is the impoverished and almost entirely black school in the South End.

A short time into the school year, the Giffen principal contacts the parents and gently informs them that their child doesn’t really fit in and might be happier in another school. The unspoken message is, “Another school where there are more children of his kind—white and middle-class.”

Without trying or even applying, the parents learn that a coveted spot in one of Albany’s three elementary magnet schools—the Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology—is open to them if they want it. So off to TOAST their child goes.

There’s another story to be told in Albany that also would be making the rounds, but for the fact that the parents involved in this tale have never widely discussed it. That story goes like this: Progressive white parents try to enroll their child in one of Albany’s three magnet prekindergarten programs, which use a lottery to select students who live outside of the school’s immediate neighborhood. The child doesn’t get into any of them. Then, people inside and outside of the school system approach the father—a well-connected politician—and offer to rig the admissions process for him. If he wants his child to get into a magnet prekindergarten program, that can be arranged. He only has to say the word.

The first story isn’t true, although it’s easy to find parents in Albany’s Center Square and Hudson Park neighborhoods who believe that it is. The child had enrolled in Giffen but never entered, and the principal didn’t arrange for the child’s transfer to TOAST. Instead, the parents had applied to TOAST through the lottery, and learned the day before school started that their child had been admitted there.

But the perception of Giffen in those dozen or so upscale blocks is so bad that parents on the best streets in Center Square find this story of an 11th-hour transfer arranged by the principal entirely credible. And dozens of parents who could be sending their children to Giffen are not doing so, despite the fact that it is the designated neighborhood school for much of Center Square and Hudson Park.

The second story is true, although the parents did not accept the guaranteed admission to the magnet school, and instead enrolled their child in the Albany Academy for Girls. But the offer to “game the system” was so blatant and so unexpected that the father in that family—Albany Comptroller Thomas Nitido—was taken aback, even in a city where gaming public systems has been a time- honored tradition since the 1800s.

Albany has such an astonishing array of school choices—general public, magnet public, private and charter—that you’d think there’d be something for everyone, and that the city would be full of happy families educating their children however they see fit. And there are undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands, of parents satisfied with their child’s place in the public schools.

But school choice in Albany also can be an agonizing process, driven by a variety of factors: perceptions and misconceptions; personal experience and the stories told by your neighbors; anecdotal evidence; and state statistics on school performance that might be getting better at a given school but still have a long way to go before they are good enough for many parents. Parents tell of trying two or even three schools in the Albany system before throwing up their hands and going private or charter.

Carolyn McLaughlin: “Is it the location that concerns parents?”

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

A snapshot of what this can be like for families throughout the city as they grapple with decisions about school has slowly, almost imperceptibly developed in the last few years in Center Square and Hudson Park. This 12-block stretch of largely affluent households and restored 19th-century homes is bordered by Empire State Plaza, Lincoln Park, Washington Park and Washington Avenue, and there’s been a baby boom here in the last few years. Older residents have moved out and younger families have moved in and given birth, and not-so-young families have adopted children. Pristine back yards that used to have birdbaths and shade gardens now contain swing sets and scattered toys.

Roger Bearden, president of the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association and the father of two young children, the oldest of whom is in Albany’s lottery-admission Montessori Magnet School, estimates that there are 100 children younger than eight years in the two neighborhoods, and many of them are not yet school age. He can think of one block on Chestnut Street that has at least a dozen small children.

“I know, from speaking to people in the neighborhood, there’s a real happiness about the resurgence,” said Bearden in an interview last spring. He spoke soon after a number of those people began holding informal meetings to discuss their upcoming choices and decisions about school.

“They are a lot of urban professionals, people who work for the state and a variety of professions, who are interested in Albany,” Bearden said at the time. “They’re choosing to live here. Right now, probably the major decision for people is, ‘Where is my child going to school, and how am I going to decide about that?’ I think many of these people are very committed to the Albany schools. They want to send their children to Albany public schools. It’s part of urban living.”

It’s also part of the dilemma faced by the Albany school system, notes Paul Webster, who was elected as a reformist member of the Albany Board of Education in 2001, and later resigned from the board. That dilemma, as outlined by Webster and other observers of Albany schools: How does a school system fulfill the dual role of addressing the urgent needs of so many poor children, while also attracting and keeping middle-class parents? And, as an extension of that question, how does a school system achieve a diverse student population when there are fewer and fewer white children in the district?

The state’s statistics on the Albany system indicate that some middle-class parents aren’t waiting for the answers. In the 2003-2004 school year, 51 percent of the children in Albany schools were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Two years later, in the 2005-2006 school year, that percentage had increased to 61 percent—a figure that could suggest that more poor families are moving into Albany but also strongly suggests that a growing number of middle-class children are leaving Albany, or at least leaving Albany schools.

In neighborhoods like Center Square and Hudson Park, that trend has a direct effect on Giffen, the neighborhood school. Despite citing the “walkability” of their neighborhood as a strong draw, many of these new parents are driving their children to private or magnet or charter schools rather than sending them to Giffen. And for many of these families, Giffen isn’t exactly walking distance for small children: Most homes in Center Square and Hudson Park are closer by at least a half-dozen city blocks to TOAST, which sits at the western end of Lincoln Park on Delaware Avenue, than Giffen, located farther downtown at South Pearl Street and Morton Avenue.

For these parents, Giffen is a neighborhood school that they describe as disconnected from their neighborhood, from their expectations for their children and from their way of life. And this perception persists, even though Giffen has made laudable gains in its academic performance in recent years and several of its results on the state’s latest “school report card” are close to or even slightly higher than comparable scores at the more highly sought TOAST.

Perceptions are difficult to change. In a city where fully one-fourth of the school-aged children are not attending Albany public schools, Giffen is a neighborhood school whose student body contains virtually none of the most privileged children within its assigned area.

“I haven’t met anybody who sent their kid to Giffen who lives in Center Square,” says Jeffrey Gritsavage, a civil engineer with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and currently the president of the Lark Street Business Improvement District. Gritsavage and his wife moved to Center Square from Northville in Fulton County in 2003, and their son is the child widely but erroneously believed to have been transferred from Giffen to TOAST by Giffen administrators. Gritsavage’s son did end up at TOAST, but has since transferred to Albany Academy.

The administrators of TOAST and Giffen schools declined to comment for this story and asked that the school system’s central administration speak for them. School Superintendent Eva Joseph says that she had never been contacted by a group of parents seeking to meet with her on the topic of how and why certain schools become designated as neighborhood schools.

“When those kinds of questions are asked, they are always given very deliberate consideration,” Joseph says. “This question is not one that has been raised as an immediate issue.”

The school system, she adds, has “quality open-enrollment choices,” and in her opinion offers an array of options for all families.

“Any school that is not a magnet school could be sought for open enrollment,” Joseph says. “I think we’ve really grown up in what our schools represent for all families. I think there are quality open-enrollment choices. We have been very aggressive in reaching out to families in those Center Square/TOAST areas, to be sure that families in that TOAST area didn’t just know about the lottery, but knew how to go about it.”

For their part, parents say that concerns about neighborhood schools can be an immediate issue when your child is approaching school age, but that it’s difficult to galvanize parents’ movement to address dissatisfaction with a neighborhood school and sustain the momentum of such a movement as individual families land their children in a satisfactory school. A successful school placement for one child, the birth of a second child, and the ongoing schedule of daily life make it difficult to keep school choice and neighborhood schools a pressing issue.

Bearden, the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association president who participated in a number of discussions and meetings by parents on this topic last spring, says he hasn’t been to such a gathering since his oldest child got into the Montessori Magnet School.

“We’re happy with this,” Bearden said.

Middle-class white parents who are still reviewing their options pick their words very carefully when talking about school choice and school demographics in Albany, visibly conscious of the fact that they are white and sometimes speaking critically about schools with student bodies that are largely black.

“I think that for some white parents, whether they fully realize it or not, their responses and reactions to Albany schools—there is a racial factor to it,” says Mark Mishler, who is a past co-president of the Albany City Council PTA, the citywide parent-teacher association. “Every single school in our school district is majority African-American. So when some parents go and look, I think that is a factor. But I don’t want to make that a theme.

“We need to make all the schools do better,” Mishler adds. “And by the way, all the schools need to do better—including the magnets. Giffen is a far better place than it was 10 years ago. And there’s a long way to go.”

Mishler cites the Albany schools’ decision to work with the National Urban Alliance, which provides professional development and teaching strategies to teachers, as both a recognition of the need for improvement and a sign of progress in the classroom.

System-wide, Mishler says, “Things are not where they should be, but I think things are getting better. The process of getting better needs to move more quickly. Parents talking together is always a good thing, but wouldn’t it be great if there was an active group of parents who are concerned—wouldn’t it be great if they could connect with another active group of parents whose children are in the South End and who are also concerned about Giffen?”

“Whatever is available at TOAST should be available at Giffen,” adds Carolyn McLaughlin, Albany Common Council representative from the 2nd Ward. “This whole discussion begs the question: Is it the location of the school that concerns parents? Giffen is located in the heart of the South End, an ethnically diverse community. The South End is also an economically diverse community, albeit, perceived as a predominantly poor community coupled with other social challenges. Is it because of their challenges that parents believe their children cannot receive a good education at Giffen?”

Black middle-class parents—often overlooked in a discussion that tends to categorize parents as “privileged equals white, underprivileged equals black”—speak more frankly about the demographics of Albany schools than their white counterparts. They are also more likely to describe why their reactions and concerns are more about economics than race.

“We were shocked to find out that our local school was Giffen,” recalls Jeff Horne, a former Center Square resident who is black and who moved to Niskayuna with his wife and three children last year.

Simply put, neither black middle-class nor white middle-class parents want their children attending schools that have majority populations of poor children, because the correlation between poverty and poorer school achievement is well-documented. It’s not about race, it’s about income, but that’s a difficult message to convey when it comes from the privileged speaking about the poor.

“Test scores . . . the transitory nature of the students: kids in, kids out . . . location: it’s not our neighborhood,” says Doug Ebersman, a Center Square resident and neighborhood activist who is white, when asked why he would not consider sending his toddler daughter to Giffen. “Being around some poor students doesn’t bother me for my daughter. It’s being in a school where the entire population is impoverished. It’s not a diverse environment. Albany High School is diverse. Giffen is not.”

Jeff Horne: “We realized none of our neighbors had their children in public schools.”

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Actually, Giffen is not, as some describe it, “entirely” poor. The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch in a school is one generally accepted measure of the income level of those students’ families. At Giffen this year, 82 percent of the students are eligible for free lunch; at TOAST, it’s 52 percent. Still, 82 percent is an overwhelming majority, and middle-class parents have a difficult time getting past that statistic.

The Hornes briefly enrolled their oldest child in Kipp Tech Valley, a charter middle school in Albany where Jeff Horne is an administrator in charge of helping students begin planning for college. But as they settled into Niskayuna, they found that the public schools there met their needs for all three of their children, who are now 13, 10 and 7.

Horne’s narrative of his family’s educational odyssey through Albany schools sounds similar to those recounted by middle-class white families. They moved to Albany almost seven years ago, living first in a condo in Center Square and then in the home they bought on Lancaster Street. Horne and his wife, Shawn, are Brooklyn natives who relished the upstate version of city living: the easy access to cultural events, the array of shops and cafes, the twilight chats with neighbors from their stoop, and the walking-distance commute to work.

They arrived in Albany in late spring, so their oldest son attended the last week of first grade as a visitor at Giffen, but did not enroll. The Hornes considered those few days a trial observance, and quickly decided they wouldn’t be back the next year.

“I’d heard things about it, about the kids not being up to speed there,” Horne recalls. “But we met with them, and everyone assured us, ‘We have a great program.’ ” Still, the Hornes were put off by the South Pearl Street setting of Giffen, which struck Horne as “kind of seedy.”

“After all the effort we’d put into Nate, it just wasn’t what we wanted,” Horne says. “Once we started talking to our neighbors, we realized none of our neighbors had their children in the public schools.”

Eventually, the Hornes enrolled their two youngest children in the Albany Academy kindergarten and pre-K. When they didn’t get a lottery slot for one of the three elementary magnet schools for Nate, Jeff Horne started an aggressive letter-writing campaign to various officials inside and outside of the school system, explaining that he and his wife were new residents and did not consider Giffen a viable option. Horne is unsure if Nate was selected from a waiting list, or if the letter-writing campaign got results, but Nate got a slot in TOAST just as the Hornes had resigned themselves to having him at least start the school year at Giffen.

Jeff Horne ended up working as a teaching assistant at the Albany School of Humanities, another of the magnet elementary schools, and eventually became the Albany City School District representative for TOAST on the Albany Common Council, as well as a member of the system-wide shared-decision-making team for the public schools. Shawn Horne threw herself into life as a TOAST parent, and became president of the PTA there.

But working for the school system, whether as a volunteer or an employee, consumed their lives, Jeff Horne recalls, and raised the question of how much would get done, and how many enriching and fun extracurricular activities would draw parents and children into the schools, if not for the PTAs. Too many times, Horne says, parents heard, “No,” or “We can’t do that,” from school administrators before they heard “Yes.”

Jeff Horne finally quit his job with the ASH school and became an administrator at the new Kipp charter school. The Hornes both became frustrated with what they describe as the school system’s inadequate handling of their middle son’s learning disability.

The Niskayuna school system “is just another world,” Horne says. “It seems things happen without much effort. And it seems there are so many things happening to choose from. The opportunities are really good, and the distractions are less.”

And so, for parents who decide the neighborhood school isn’t right for their child, the lottery-admission magnet schools become an elusive prize. Getting your child into one of Albany’s three elementary magnet schools, which use a lottery system to admit children who live beyond the school’s immediate neighborhood, is “completely luck,” as one Center Square parent puts it.

Alice Oldfather, who lives with her husband on Chestnut Street and whose son got a lottery slot at Montessori, says that “if he had not gotten in, he would be in a private school right now.”

Giffen “was not going to be an option,” based on the information she and her husband had acquired about the school, Oldfather says. At the same time, they wanted to avail themselves of the public schools, both because of the cost of private school, which can be as much as $14,000 a year, and because of their feeling that public schools were part of their decision to live in an urban neighborhood.

“I felt that our chances [with the lottery] were so slim, I was resigned to private school,” Oldfather recalls. “And then he got in. We felt like going to Montessori, no question. Our greater commitment is to the community.”

The school system’s three magnet schools are open to children who live within a half-mile of each school; if one child in a family gets in, either through neighborhood preference or the lottery, then the siblings of that child are given preference for admission. The lottery is a fully randomized selection overseen and conducted by an outside consultant; there is no formula used to achieve a particular balance of race or economic factors at any one school, according to information provided by Ron Lesko, the spokesman for the Albany public schools.

In response to a question about how “catchment areas” are defined for particular schools, Lesko was less precise when discussing non-magnet elementary schools—the schools popularly referred to as “neighborhood schools,” which include Giffen.

“The catchment areas for non-magnet elementary schools were designated by the Board of Education in the early 1970s and revisited by the board in the early 1990s, where appropriated, when the district introduced the magnet schools,” Lesko wrote in response to a reporter’s question about how the school system calculated or defined catchment areas.

That question of how school boundaries for neighborhood schools are drawn becomes a critical issue for families who bought a house in Albany before they had children and didn’t give a lot of thought to whether they fell within the automatic half-mile “catchment area” for a magnet elementary school. That question becomes a huge issue for families once they realize that their neighborhood school may look very different from their neighborhood.

“I wouldn’t send my child to a school that had 60 percent underprivileged children in the class,” says Tom Nitido, who lives on Providence Street in Albany and whose neighborhood school is School 19. “But because Albany has such a small African-American middle class, race becomes synonymous with class.”

Nitido and his wife wanted their daughter to go to a prekindergarten program, and because School 19 didn’t offer pre-K, last year they launched themselves into learning about the lottery system and the three schools that used lottery admission.

“Our daughter could have gone to any of the three,” Nitido says. “You have to rank them in your order of preference and it gets a little tricky because you have to know how many open slots there are at each school outside of the neighborhood enrollment. And it was made very clear to us during the meetings that there were very few openings at any of the magnets for people who lived outside of the catchment areas who were nonminority.”

The Nitidos’ daughter was not selected for any of the three magnet pre-K programs, but “it was pretty quickly clear that it was not, strictly speaking, a lottery system, that there were ways to gain access to the schools,” Nitido says. “It was made clear by people in and out of the school system that access would be available if we wanted it. It made me uncomfortable, and it was certainly not a privilege I was going to avail myself of.”

Nitido adds that he can fully understand how a parent would be tempted to do so, however, and that he might have been tempted to accept an offer he didn’t consider entirely above board, had he not been able to afford a private school for his daughter.

Says Nitido, who doesn’t foresee sending his daughter back to the Albany schools after prekindergarten, “If some people are gaming the system, the answer is not to just stop gaming the system, but fixing the schools so that people don’t want to game the system.”

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