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Heatly School. Photo by Teri Currie.

One Schoolhouse No Longer
By Travis Durfee

Growing class sizes are forcing the Green Island School District to consider the end of an era—in which grades k through 12 all were educated in one building

To say the Green Island School District is small would be an understatement. Roughly 315 students attend grades k through 12 in the district, and all are housed in Heatly School—a simple, 73-year-old brick building at 171 Hudson Ave. in the Village of Green Island, population 2,500. Though a one-building, k-12 schoolhouse is a rarity in this day and age, Heatly is not the only school of its kind in the state; similar institutions exist in a few remote school districts in the Adirondacks and on the coast of Long Island.

But what makes Green Island’s situation so unique is its location in the Capital Region. Heatly is the only public k-12 school in the area, and an oddity when compared to the, by comparison, leviathan school districts of Troy and Albany. The influence of the district’s size shapes its unique character.

The district provides no busing, and had no lunch program up until a few years ago (now lunches are shipped in from the cafeteria at neighboring Cohoes). Believe it or not, the district’s budget votes were still being conducted by a show of hands until the village received its voting machines in the early 1990s.

The population of each grade averages in the mid-20s at Green Island, and each is housed in a single classroom except for fifth, which has 32 students and uses two. In Heatly’s north wing, which houses grades 4, 5 and 6, teachers of the four core subjects—math, science, English and social studies—stay in one classroom and give lessons for each grade.

Administrators at Heatly praise the school’s small class sizes and the unparalleled one-on-one time teachers can give their students.

“Our school provides a unique opportunity for students who struggle,” said John McKinney, the district’s assistant superintendent. “In a larger school, a struggling student might get intimidated and won’t ask a question when they don’t understand something. But in a smaller school, students are less likely to get intimidated, less likely to get lost.”

High school classes, which are held on Heatly’s second floor, get broken up a bit for developmental reasons. But by the time the students reach the upper grades, their years together have woven them into a tight-knit bunch, McKinney says. McKinney adds that, in terms of percentage, student participation in the school’s two service organizations, Key and the Students Against Destructive Decisions, and in Heatly’s drama club, is much higher than in larger schools.

“Smaller-school participation rates tend to be very high,” McKinney says. “Students don’t feel excluded as they may in a larger school, which tends to be more exclusive.”

There is no doubting the Rockwellesque qualities of the Capital Region’s smallest school district, but the future of Heatly School is in question. The district and the village are both growing. No matter how many times administrators slice the space inside, the school itself is overcrowded. Thus the question has been raised: Can the Green Island School District afford to keep Heatly as a k-12 school?

Currently, a committee represented by business, government, education and parenting interests is trying to determine if the school district should “tuition out” its high school students to a neighboring district.

The community of Green Island explored the idea of tuitioning out its high school students once before, in 1998, but that study was found to be generally inadequate. On March 11, the committee will view presentations from two new companies, and will later decide which one they want to study the feasibility of Heatly’s k-12 structure.

If you call the Heatly School after 3:30 PM and ask for a press person, you’ll most likely get a sigh, maybe a laugh, from Herb Perkins.

As the superintendent of the Green Island School District, Perkins often takes on the role of district secretary in the afternoons, answering questions and taking messages—when he’s not making a mail run, that is. But it’s not as if Perkins takes on multiple tasks alone.

Aside from his responsibilities as assistant superintendent, McKinney also works as the district’s business manager, director of special-education programs, and transportation manager for athletics and BOCES. Both McKinney and Perkins say it is common for administrators to wear a number of hats, like their teachers who instruct multiple grades. But in the past few years, the facilities at Heatly have been adapted for multiple uses as well, and the school is nearly out of room.

“We have created rooms out of storage closets, split rooms, we’ve reclaimed bathrooms,” Perkins says. “We have some serious space issues, and it seems we are always trying to accommodate by creating new space out of nothing.”

Considering the alterations made to the building over the past few years, Perkins says there is not much left to change. The gymnasium, small enough that the center circle of the basketball court overlaps the three-point lines, also makes for an auditorium and construction site for the school’s theater club. But the space is too small to host a production; these are carried out in the Cohoes Music Hall.

Teacher Mat Manning. Photo by Teri Currie.

A speech-therapy room was constructed in what was once a boys’ bathroom in the school’s basement. Labeled crates of teaching utilities rest upon a painted, plywood-shelving unit covering a row of urinals. Prior to its current existence, the room had been used as a darkroom for the school’s photography program.

Two teachers instruct the ballooning kindergarten class, which is currently around 28 students. A hallway outside the classroom has been modified into Heatly’s kindergarten annex; a special activity room is filled with easels and other playthings to break up the group when the need arises. The extra kindergarten space was created in a hallway that is required, by law, to be turned back into a hallway.

“When you create space and chop up space like that, you never get the kind of space you need,” Perkins said. “You’re trying to adapt for what you need and it never seems to work well, and every time we do this it is at the taxpayers’ expense. If we would have done this as a renovation project, we could have saved the taxpayers money.”

With the populations in the lower grades growing and a new housing development still drawing residents with school-age children to the island, the district was considering a full-on building renovation late last year, but stopped to revisit the tuitioning issue. The district had once before turned down a $10 million proposal to maintain the school’s structure by building an addition, and before it brought another remodeling proposal to the voters, it wanted to put the tuitioning issues to bed.

“On the benefit side [of tuitioning], it could be that there is a savings on overall school taxes, or they stay level, versus an increase dealing with the alternative,” said Terrence Dingman, director of operations with Lydall Industrial Thermal Solutions Corp. in Green Island, who is on the tuitioning committee. “The potential downside that I’ve heard is more just the community spirit, the fact that your child goes to a school in the community from start to finish . . . and the quality of life that that provides.”

Dingman and others note that the tax hikes carried by the businesses and residents of Green Island could be hefty if the school were to adopt a multimillion-dollar renovation project. But Nick Normile, the school’s guidance counselor, says the downsides of tuitioning will be felt most by the students, not the taxpayers.

“I think it’d be a disadvantage to the kids educationally and socially,” says Normile. “They may have more choices, but I don’t know that being elsewhere offers a better situation than the students have here. But ultimately the choice is the community’s.”

At the end of the school day, Josh Jordan, a junior at Heatly High School, makes his way to the other end of the building to pick up his younger brother, third-grader Nick. Jordan says his parents and grandparents graduated from Heatly, and hopes his brother will be able to graduate from the school as well.

“I hope he’d be able to go all the way through,” Jordan says. “I like it here and I think a lot of people do, as well. It’s really nice to have such a small community.”

McKinney can relate. Before he held multiple administrative positions with the school district, he was a teacher and a student at Heatly. He grew up in the community and graduated from Heatly, and his parents did as well. He is one of a number of people currently working at the school who’ve seemingly spent their whole lives involved with the school in some manner.

Becoming sentimental, McKinney remembers the community’s reaction to the 1977 flood as it threatened the school. A number of community members, some of them with no children in school, came to the aid of Heatly’s two custodians, moving equipment out of the basement and preparing sandbags to fend off the swelling water that eventually destroyed the Green Island Bridge.

“The water didn’t come into the school, but it was lapping at the doors,” McKinney said. “People held watch overnight.”

Perkins says the community’s link to Heatly school won’t be overlooked in the study to decide whether to tuition out the high school students. Whichever group is chosen to perform the study will be instructed to solicit community opinion and to consider the intrinsic value of the school to the community.

Perkins says the tuitioning issue is in its most preliminary stages, and he’s unsure of when a decision will be made one way or another. But he stresses that the community will have the opportunity to be involved throughout. The group conducting the study is required to solicit information from the community, and before the issue is brought to the voters there will be a number of forums where the public can express their concerns.

“We need to determine what is best for the students [in grades] nine through 12, the upcoming ninth through 12th graders, and the community, and find a balance there,” Perkins says. “What we don’t want to do is just ‘get rid of the high school kids’ so we have more space. First we find out through the study what is best . . . and what comes out of that will determine if we are a k-through-eight or a k-through-12 school.”

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