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Where All the Children Are Above Average

Plan to expand eligibility for Albany High School’s honors program has some parents concerned

If a C average is good enough to earn automatic admission to a high school’s academic honors program, then what value will that program have in the world beyond high school?

A large number of Albany parents have posed that question to Albany school officials in recent weeks, as Albany High School prepares to greatly broaden the admissions criteria for its acclaimed honors program.

The current admission standard is an average of at least 85 in a given subject area, although any student who asks to be admitted is allowed to enroll. Beginning next year, students with an average of 75 in eighth-grade English and a score of Level 2 or higher on the statewide eighth-grade English Language Arts exam will be enrolled in honors. Any other student, “no matter their past academic performance,” according to the Albany Public Schools website, will also be allowed to enter the honors program.

Under the new “all or nothing at all” system, honors students will also be enrolled in all courses in which honors are offered, instead of being allowed to select just one or a few honors subjects.

Parents whose children are either already in the honors program or hope to enter it from middle school are “confused” about the definition of an honors program that appears to be reaching down in an effort to be inclusive.

“That’s not to say that I’m not concerned about the kids who are lower- performing academically,” said Cyndi Myers, whose son is a middle-school student. “But you have to make sure you are preserving a true honors program for the kids who are performing at that level.”

As news of the change started to spread by word of mouth, an e-mail list that eventually reached nearly 200 parents circulated as a way for parents to ask questions, exchange information and to announce meetings—either those they held among themselves or those hosted by school officials in the last several weeks. Parents in the group said it included a diverse mix of people united by concern for their children’s education and frustration with what they perceived as prevarication by school officials.

“We have asked very direct questions in e-mails and in the informational evenings,” said Karin Maag-Tanchak, the mother of a Myers Middle School student and one of the parents instrumental in circulating the e-mail list. “It’s very difficult to get a direct answer.”

A number of parents resorted to contacting their child’s guidance counselor, and Maag-Tanchak said she was disturbed that this ended up being the only way that some parents felt they got satisfactory explanations of the changes. What about parents who didn’t know to take that route, or didn’t have the time to do that, she asked?

Some parents have already decided to transfer their child to a private school, she said. The numbers are difficult to quantify, but Maag-Tanchak said that anecdotally, it’s becoming more common to hear of parents who are either making the change or seriously considering it. She can think of maybe a dozen such cases.

Albany school officials at first appeared to be caught slightly off guard by the reaction to the planned expansion of the honors program, which comes at the same time that the high school will also be remodeled into four themed academics that will offer concentrations on citizenship, leadership, arts/communications and science/technology. The results of a lottery for admission to the new academies will be announced tomorrow (Friday, Feb. 11).

A $7.5 million, three-year federal grant made the restructuring possible. The school system developed the restructuring plan and the change to the honors program in response to the high school’s placement last year on the state’s list of persistently low-achieving schools.

“The reason we’re doing this is we need to raise the level of academic rigor for all students,” said schools spokesman Ron Lesko. “We want all of our students to think of themselves as students who can be challenged at a new level. We did have the questions about ‘dumbing down the curriculum.’ That is absolutely not the case. We’re asking students to rise to the level of our curriculum.”

School board president Dan Egan noted that the school is being asked to raise its performance at the same time the state is cutting funding to programs that could address low-achieving students, and that poor cities across upstate New York face the same dilemma. Still, the leading indicators of poverty and achievement speak to a critical need: The school’s four-year graduation rate stands at 54 percent, and slightly more than half the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

“I want to say it was a myth, but it was a reality: Albany High was two schools. We needed to change that,” Egan said.

But the e-mail campaign quickly caught the attention of Albany school administrators, some of whom found out about it because they have children in the school system and ended up on the email list. An initial rumor briefly spread that the honors program would be eliminated, but even after school officials hastened to dispel that rumor, concerns persist among a sizeable group of parents.

Egan said the e-mail campaign was a painful reminder that the school system could have done a better job of explaining the forthcoming changes. A public discussion of the divide between academic achievers and underachievers is never easy, and Egan said that parents had every right to complain that the language school officials used at a series of forums to explain the changes was circuitous and confusing. Egan attributed the confusion to an attempt to “please everyone.”

“I was at one of the forums, and I think people [from the school system] were talking out of both sides of their mouth,” Egan said. The restructuring plan is a good one, he says, and the board believes, based on available studies, that lower-achieving students will benefit from the honors program without impeding the higher-achieving students.

For now, the school board and administrators can only wait to see how the changes play out, and hope that the families of students at all levels give the new approach a chance.

“We’ve got to have buy-in from every family on every block in this city,” Egan said.

—Darryl McGrath

Enough Ammunition?

Gun control advocates want local representatives to support banning high-capacity magazines

On Jan. 8 in Tuscon, Ariz., a gunman opened fire on an open constituents meeting held by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). The first shot struck Giffords in the head, critically wounding her, and 31 more bullets tore through the crowd, killing six people and wounding 12 others.

Thirty-two bullets were discharged in as few as 16 seconds thanks to the so-called high-capacity ammunition magazine that alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner used to outfit his Glock-19 semi-automatic pistol.

A proposed bill in the House, H.R. 308, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), is aimed at banning these high-capacity magazines in hopes of limiting the potential carnage a would-be shooter can cause. At the behest of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, local gun-control advocate Robyn Ringler has begun to seek the ear of House representatives to encourage them to co-sponsor, or at least support, this legislation.

“High-capacity ammunition magazines,” said Ringler, “are designed to make it easy to shoot large numbers of people quickly and efficiently without reloading.” Also known as ammunition feeder devices, these magazines can hold as many as 100 rounds of ammunition. Supporters of the ban point out that a criminal in possession of even a 30-round magazine can easily outgun police officers, who usually carry 10-round clips. High-capacity magazines have been used in many high-profile mass shootings, including Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and now, Tuscon.

For Ringler, Tuscon recalled what would become a defining time in her life: the failed 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the first gunshot victim she’d tended to as a young nurse at George Washington University Hospital, where he was taken for treatment. Her experience with the president and his family during his precarious nights of recovery led her to become a staunch advocate for gun control.

“So why?” said Ringler. “I have to ask why in 30 years our government can’t pass some kind of sensible gun-control legislation that would prevent this from happening again.”

H.R.308 would amend the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to prohibit the manufacture, sale, or distribution of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. The law would also prohibit possession of these magazines unless owned prior to the law’s enactment. A related bill, S.32, was introduced in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and currently co-sponsored by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), among others. Both House and Senate bills are currently in committee.

In addition to New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, supporters of the legislation include the Violence Policy Center, the Legal Community Against Violence, and the Brady Campaign, and Vincent D’Onofrio, who recently appeared in an ad promoting the bill funded by the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City.

“It’s really probably the least restrictive kind of gun control law you can enact,” said Ringler. “We’re not asking to ban guns. People can still have whatever weapons they want. They can still hunt, they can still target shoot, they can still defend themselves at home; the only thing we would restrict is the number of rounds of ammunition that could be in the magazine.”

The National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America have started their own campaigns opposing the legislation. The groups claim that existing magazines of this type that are already in circulation bear no markings indicating when they were made or purchased and that this could lead to difficult legal battles for law-abiding gun owners. They also question whether such measures will have any impact at all on violent criminals’ ability to obtain high-capacity magazines, which currently exist in great numbers in the United States.

To supporters of the bill, any impact is worthwhile.

“If we had had this law enacted before Tuscon, the shooter would have had to reload after 10 shots,” said Ringler. “He had a 30-round magazine. If he had been forced to stop and reload after 10, it would have spared half of the 19 people who were shot.” The shooter was reported to have been tackled as he paused to reload.

Ringler said she met with U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) on Friday to ask him to co-sponsor H.R. 308, which he has agreed to consider. Now, Ringler is preparing to meet with her own representative, Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.). Gibson, “an outspoken supporter of the right to bear arms and to protect one’s life, loved ones and property,” according to his campaign site, will need some convincing.

“I understand that [Gibson] is not prone to passing gun-control legislation, so I’m trying to get some support from people to go with me,” said Ringler.

Through Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts, as well as the mailing list from East Line Books in Clifton Park, which she owns and operates, Ringler is gathering a contingent of concerned citizens to voice their support for H.R. 308 and attempt to sway Gibson. In the first 24 hours after her plea went out, Ringler received 35 responses from people willing to accompany her or write letters to Gibson for hand delivery, as well as leads on up to 60 more potential supporters.

Ringler plans to continue to gather support through the next couple of weeks, culminating in her eventual meeting with Gibson.

“I think that he’s a reasonable person and I think that he would be surprised how little [the bill] restricts the freedom of the gun owner,” said Ringler. “And it really can save lives.”

—Jason Chura

Game Not Over

Local business survives robbery thanks to help from the community

A small store, formally an apartment building, sits on Mohawk Avenue in Scotia, its storefront sporting a dark purple sign that reads “Pastime Legends Video Games.” Inside, stacks of games, accessories and movies line the walls.

On Dec. 18, the Pastime Legends Scotia store was robbed. Joe Pirro and Emily Petrequin, a couple and the co-owners of the Scotia and Albany stores, were devastated.

“They came at night and crowbarred our back door,” said Pirro. “We’re tired, and it broke our spirits for a while.”

The robbers wiped out between $15,000- $20,000 in merchandise, including all of the newly released games in stock. This was a hard hit for a small business that literally started from nothing but the love of video games.

The day of the robbery, customers came in as usual. One woman was buying a $4 game and saw that the cash register was damaged. Joe told her that he didn’t have the correct change due to the robbery, but would get as close as he could and reimburse her for the rest.

“She started crying,” Pirro said. The woman left Joe her $16 in change. Throughout the day, people from the Scotia community donated to the much-loved store.

Nine days later, the perpetrators returned before Joe and Emily could install a new security system. A Mobil employee from across the street saw the robbers trying to smash through the front window of the store, and chased them off, but they still have not been caught. However, Pirro, Petrequin and the Scotia Police believe they know who committed the crime and are compiling evidence against them.

The Scotia community has come together to help Pirro and Petrequin get back on their feet. After three weeks of renovations and $10,000 of new merchandise, their store is up and running again.

Pastime Legends offers a free hangout spot for local teens and a time capsule for adults who feel nostalgic for their childhoods. Pirro and Petrequin also host gaming tournaments in-store and at Proctors in Schenectady. This year they hope to be involved in Exile, the area’s largest LAN tournament.

They host free in-store tournaments, and as many as 70 people have crammed themselves into the tiny store to play. “This [robbery] couldn’t take away from all the connections we made,” said Pirro. “We like to not focus on business so much and focus more on community, fun, and having a good time.”

—Elyse Beaudoin

Distress Call

State funding cuts are sinking SUNY, object students, professors and unions


Some 300 people rallied outside the Capitol on Friday, protesting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed funding cuts to the State University of New York.

The preliminary 2011-12 budget calls for an almost-10-percent drop in SUNY funding—more than $100 million. Over the past three years, SUNY’s operating budget declined by $585 million—about 30 percent.

“This is an attack on the middle class,” said Lee Cutler, secretary and treasurer of the New York State Union of Teachers.

The protest was aimed at the governor, the Legislature and University Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

“We remain deeply concerned about our mounting fiscal challenges and how they will impact our ability to provide a quality experience and education for our students,” Zimpher stated on Feb. 1.

The Feb. 3 demonstration was peaceful, save for the beating of drumsticks on coffee cans, the rattling of percussion instruments and the chanting of phrases like “Fight, fight, fight; education is a right,” and “Think ahead! Don’t cut higher ed!”

Passing cars honked in solidarity, while police patrolled on bikes, astride draft horses, on foot and in cruisers. In glaring sunshine, marchers waved banners and carried signs.

“Think education is expensive?” one read. “Try ignorance.”

“Stop giving our education money to Wall Street,” said another.

Cuomo’s policy “favors the rich,” burdening those with the least power, said doctoral candidate Stephen Pampinella. The state’s pain shouldn’t be “shifted onto students and working people,” he said.

Tax the wealthy instead, insisted students, professors and members of the New York State Union of Teachers and the United University Professionals.

“I’m supporting the millionaire’s tax, which would bring $4 billion into the state’s general fund,” 109th District Assemblyman Bob Riley said. “Some of it could go to SUNY and some of it could go to state workers.”

The state’s temporary surcharge on high income earners is expiring. If New Yorkers earning over $200,000 a year continued paying a surcharge, SUNY’s aid could be restored, suggested NYSUT vice president Andy Pallotta.

“Let it not be all the students who do all of the sacrificing and all the millionaires doing the cigar smoking,” he said, denouncing billions of dollars in slashed subsidies to SUNY’s teaching hospitals and Medicaid.

“What’s going to happen to patient care in this state?” he asked. “The uninsured and underinsured—where will they go for health care?”

Every year, students pay more, but get less for their money, the demonstrators complained.

The university is phasing out their French, Italian, Russian, Theater and Classics departments by 2012. Due to layoffs, there are fewer full-time faculty remaining, protesters griped. Some classes are so overcrowded that students must stand; just booking a conference with your advisor can be challenging, they said.

With so many canceled courses, students can’t amass enough credits to graduate on time. On top of all that, the chancellor last week proposed tuition increases for the next five years.

There is some consolation. The state’s Tuition Assistance Program is budgeted to rise from $824 million this year to $843 million next year, said Jeffrey R. Gordon, spokesman for the New York State Budget Division.

Patrick Lyons of NYSUT, said it will be almost impossible for his children to afford SUNY.

“You’re already faced with financial ruin when you graduate from school,” he said. “Then you get out and try to find a job.”

—Laurie Lynn Fischer

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