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“This testing is based on the theory that all kids go to college. That’s misleading,” —John Polnack, principal, Philip Livingston Magnet Academy. Photo by Chris Shields.

Tough Love—or Tough Luck
Albany’s poorer-performing public-school students face a double whammy: stiffer academic requirements—and budget cuts that may make them impossible to achieve
By Kathleen Fazio

Marco Frazier is an 18-year-old junior at Albany High School. After attending eight different schools and being held back in a couple of grades, he said he is now motivated to tackle tough graduation requirements, get out of high school and study to become an architect. He represents a growing number of students helped along by programs in Albany aimed at motivating them to stay in school and meet demanding standards.

“I have to do it,” Frazier said one day recently at Albany High School’s Abrookin Vocational Technical Center, where he takes classes in architecture and woodwork. He still has to pass a few Regents exams to graduate. “It’s definitely making me work harder,” said Frazier. “I don’t want to be here at 20. I want to be in college.”

Like it or not, getting through school is tougher than it used to be. The road to graduation is paved with standardized tests and public reporting of test scores so that everyone knows who’s making it and who’s not. The state and federal governments’ hope is that students, teachers, parents and administrators rise to the challenge of improving the performance of poor students. But the reality is that almost three out of four students in Albany are already behind their subruban peers when they enter their first classroom, and they require more time and individual attention, which are costly, person-intensive efforts.

And now, Gov. George Pataki is proposing cuts in aid just as the state prepares to implement its most demanding learning and graduation standards, which many teachers and principals consider “too much, too fast.” In Albany, the cut would be large, and some education advocates say the Albany School District is already underfunded by the state. So, Albany taxpayers may be asked to make up for these cuts, without benefiting from appreciable increases in services.

The district has adopted many remedial programs in recent years to help struggling students like Frazier, and they seem to be having some positive effects. More high-school students are staying in school, although many beyond the traditional four years, and scores on the fourth-grade tests are improving. Still, the district still has a long way to go in getting low-performing middle- and high-school students to meet state standards.

“Do we still have schools seriously struggling? Yeah,” said Albany School Board president Pat Fahy, adding that poverty is not an excuse, but it is a major indicator of performance.

Albany voters may be asked to increase the property tax levy up to an estimated 11.3 percent—the largest increase in the past seven years. A portion of this increase would make up for state school-aid cuts proposed by the governor, but the estimated property-tax increase may come down if the state Legislature successfully overrides a promised veto by the governor to restore most of his proposed cuts.

“I definitely think kids can do it.
. . . [We] just have to push them.” —Mary Ellen Milos, teacher, PS 18. Photo by Chris Shields.

“It’s a double whammy . . . so underfunded and cut,” said Fahy. A sore spot for school-board members is that Albany, a “high-need” district in the eyes of the state because it is less able than the average district to meet its students’ needs with local resources, receives only 28 percent of its revenues from the state, far below the state average of 44 percent. “It just shows the respect people have for poor kids. . . . They’re playing games on the backs of schoolchildren. . . . This is a tax shift, a trickle-down tax increase,” said Fahy.

For a district with higher-than-average student needs, “the state share of its expenditures should be greater than the state average, not less than the average,” said Trudi Renwick of the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute. “This means that Albany is putting in a lot of local effort because they’re trying to spend what they should on students.” The majority of Albany school revenues come from local property taxes.

Facing an $11.5 billion deficit, the governor proposed in January to cut state school aid by $1.24 billion. For Albany, this would mean a 12-percent cut in aid for next year, reducing state aid to $37 million. The most controversial cuts proposed by the governor include eliminating pre-kindergarten and class-size reduction—programs initiated by the state several years ago because of the mounds of evidence indicating that they help kids, especially the poorest, perform better in school and in life.

The education budget expected to be voted on yesterday (Wednesday, April 30) by the Legislature would restore $1.1 billion in school aid. Pataki has vowed to veto this plan, but the Legislature said it expects to have enough support to override. If the Legislature is successful, the Albany school board promises to pass the savings along to taxpayers.

In its proposed $138.8 million budget, the Albany School Board restored most state aid cuts, including $1.1 million for pre-kindergarten, keeping all 470 slots open, and $1.15 million for special-education costs, as well as adding almost $800,000 to meet state mandates. The board did not restore class-size reduction funds. The remainder of increased costs are due largely to uncontrollable increases in retirement, health care and salary costs, and some minor educational improvements (e.g., extended days for grades 7-12, three nurses, and calculators).

The board also would like to expand current services, further reduce class sizes and provide more remedial help; however, the impending budgets cuts could make this impossible.

“I haven’t seen any indication that doing well on these tests is indicative of success in life.”
—Joe Witazek, principal, PS 18 Photo by Chris Shields.

“I wish we did have more intervention before kindergarten, more pre-k slots,” said Fahy. “That one issue alone has been devastating for us. There is no way we can eliminate pre-k. . . . It’s so unfair . . . so personally devastating, it’s almost cruel.”

Fahy’s discontent will be echoed by tens of thousands of educators expected to turn out for what is expected to be a huge protest at the state Capitol on Saturday (May 3).

Saturday’s rally “is not just about this year’s cuts,” said New York State United Teachers spokesman Dennis Tompkins. “It’s about the need for New York state to commit more funding to education and higher education. That’s why we’re bringing tens of thousands to march in Albany on Saturday.” It is the belief of educators, labor, and good-government groups, he said, that “education should be treated as an investment, rather than an afterthought.”

Faced with proposed aid cuts and inflationary costs, districts statewide have been anticipating property-tax increases averaging 13 percent. Many urban districts are a lot worse off than Albany; for instance, Troy may ask voters to approve a 37-percent increase.

While Albany’s school aid has more than doubled under Pataki, the poorest districts, which tend to get more overall state aid, will correspondingly get the largest cuts under his proposed budget. Many feel this is particularly unfair because it is the poorest schools, with the most challenging students to educate, that now need the most help to raise achievement.

A consortium of 200 education groups—the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE)—found that Albany would lose more aid than the average district under the governor’s proposal. AQE also found that districts with schools identified as “in need of improvement,” or “failing,” under the federal education-law overhaul (the No Child Left Behind Act), are already underfunded, and the situation is getting worse. Albany has three schools on the list: both of the middle schools and the Arbor Hill Elementary School.

“We need the governor and Legislature to adequately fund public education in New York state. We can’t expect our children to meet higher standards with fewer resources,” said Albany School Board member Paul Webster. “We have three schools on the No Child Left Behind list, many [of whose students] do not graduate, and we have to continue to fund programming of the last five years. This is no time to rest on our laurels.”

About eight years ago, the New York state Board of Regents, like most other education policymakers nationwide, decided to make a diploma more meaningful. The board revised curriculum standards for all grades, and phased in tougher fourth- and eighth-grade standardized tests and graduation requirements. The state and federal governments use standardized test scores to determine whether students are “proficient” in subjects.

The most recent school-district report card issued by the State Education Department (an annual list of student progress on the state’s standardized tests) shows slight progress for Albany schools, but large gaps in performance among poor and nonpoor students and among black and white students.

The state’s fourth-grade English-language arts and math tests are more demanding than former state tests, requiring students to write and explain their answers rather than simply check off multiple-choice answers, as in the past.

In Albany, only 39 percent of African-American students met fourth-grade reading standards last year, compared with 73 percent of white students, and only 40 percent of “economically disadvantaged” students met the standards, compared with 69 percent of nonpoor students.

However, two Albany elementary schools—PS 18 and PS 20—gained some favorable attention recently for being among the most improved on fourth-grade test scores in the state. This means 20 percent more students met standards in 2001 than in 1999.

Eighth-grade students take standardized tests in math, science, social studies, English-language arts and sometimes language exams, as well as local exams. Eighth-grade test scores are curiously low: Only 15 percent of eighth-grade students at Philip Livingston were found to be proficient in math and reading and writing in 2001-02.

All high school students in New York state must pass five Regents exams—English, math, science, global history and geography, U.S. history and government—with a score of 65 or better. These minimum requirements replace the local diploma, which did not require that students take any Regents exams, which were traditionally reserved for the best students. The new requirements have been phased in over the past several years, but full implementation may start with this year’s sophomore class. Because of statewide gaps in performance, however, the Regents may delay the requirement that students score a 65 or better, keeping the standard at the current 55.

Among students who entered ninth grade in 1998, 63 percent met the graduation requirement for the English Regents exam. Among that group, only 53 percent of black students and 44 percent of Hispanic students met the requirement, compared with 80 percent of white students.

Federal rules require schools improve regularly or be placed on a schools “in need of improvement” list. Besides being somewhat embarrassing, this can increase costs for schools.

Failing schools must allow students to transfer to another public school of their parents’ choice, although only a handful of parents in Albany have so far requested information. If on the list a second year, a school must then offer—and pay for—tutoring from a public or private vendor, even though the school itself may offer such help. In both instances, the school must pay for transportation.

The longer a school stays on the list, the greater the consequences, requiring staff and curriculum changes, and ultimately state or private takeover.

Many educators say they agree with the goals of tougher standards, but in the same breath, commonly refer to them as “too much, too fast.”

A high school teacher who asked not to be identified said a common phrase among teachers is, “We’ve raised the bar so high, now everyone is walking underneath it.” He continued, “I think this is a serious misjudgment on the part of the Board of Regents and [state education] Commissioner [Richard] Mills. If anything, they’ve gone in completely the wrong direction. We need to give our kids more options, not less.”

A big hurdle both high-school students and teachers mention is the quantity of material they must get through. Before even taking the biology Regents exams, students have to clock 1,200 minutes of lab time, and if they don’t, they have to start all over again the following year. Students who miss classes cannot pass the course, and therefore cannot take the Regents exam.

In the first two years of high school, students are supposed to pass three out of five Regents exams, but many cannot. During former school Superintendent Lonnie Palmer’s tenure, the district installed a vast array of remedial programs, offering varying levels of the same subject. But impending budget cuts will make it impossible for schools to expand such programs. Because of tailored classes, grade delineation is becoming more vague for a portion of students, and the increased individual attention and classes to accommodate student needs is costly.

Preparation for the dreaded Math A Regents exam, which all New York students must pass to graduate, is a prime example. Math A blends algebra, geometry, probability, statistics and some trigonometry, and is supposed to be taught over the course of a year and a half. Albany High School Principal Mike Cioffi said some students might need three to four years to get through this requirement. “That’s going to be tough,” said Cioffi.

Jeffrey Crawford, a 16-year-old sophomore at Albany High School who will take the Math A exam in June, said, “It’s not really too hard, but you have to remember a lot of stuff. . . . You have to remember stuff from last year.” Of his classmates, Jeffrey said, “They’re ither doing really well, or they’re not.”

Some teachers say the workload has resulted in a watered-down curriculum, which will make similar college courses difficult for students. Also, having to retake classes and do remedial work can prevent students from taking electives like art and music.

Philip Livingston Magnet Academy Principal Dr. John L. Polnack said many of the seventh-graders who arrive at his school need intensive remediation before taking at least five standardized tests in eighth grade. That means reducing some classes to 10 to 12 students, which requires more teachers. And it gives teachers only 18 months to prepare students. “That’s not much time,” he said.

“We have a lot of students who are not great readers, but they are still pretty smart,” he said, adding that some excel at chess and others are great artists, talents that are not tested but are encouraged at the school through numerous after-school programs. “This testing is based on the theory that all kids go to college. That’s misleading,” said Polnack. “Plumbers and craftspeople make a very good living at very good wages.” He concedes that the testing has helped focus attention, but insists that the stakes and sanctions are too high.

Partly in response to more demanding fourth-grade tests, Albany’s elementary schools have added more reading and math teachers, retrained other teachers, honed reading and math programs, and increased remedial efforts—all of which will continue but not be able to expand if Pataki’s budget cuts go through. Test preparation now starts in third grade, and the district hired more reading teachers at a cost of $400,000 for first-graders “so no child is going to leave first grade without reading,” Fahy said.

PS 18 principal Joe Witazek credits one-hour, daily literacy blocks at his school for much of its success this past year. Teachers and reading specialists meet an hour a day to prepare students for the reading and math tests. Students needing extra help meet in smaller groups for more time. “It really has broadened their learning, and our teaching,” said Mary Ellen Milos, a fourth-grade teacher for more than 20 years. “I definitely think kids can do it. . . . [We] just have to push them.”

One of PS 18’s great fortunes is its small size. Enrollment is low, class sizes are relatively small, and teachers know nearly all the students. Once the district finishes its school facilities plan, all schools will have less than 500 students, except the high school.

Witazek sees benefits to the testing. “It has made us take a closer look at what we do and why,” Witazek said. “{Although] I haven’t seen any indication that doing well on these tests is indicative of success in life.”

Many parents and educators worry that more demanding standards will discourage at-risk students and drive up the dropout rate, but to date there is no such indication of that at Albany High School. In fact, the official dropout rate is decreasing and the number of students graduating each year is increasing, according to Palmer. Still, it is often difficult to pin down where students go when they do leave, and whether they are “true dropouts,” said David Abrams, Albany City School District’s director of instruction. For instance, the dropout rate does not include students who seek GEDs or who are incarcerated.

What appears to be happening is that while the actual number of dropouts is decreasing, a growing percentage of students is taking longer to graduate. Of new high school students in 1998, only 40 percent graduated within four years.

“Are we losing some? Absolutely,” said Fahy, who said the State Education Department has not helped schools prevent or recapture dropouts. “SED hasn’t spent two minutes on what to do with kids who aren’t making it.”

Still, determining whether more-demanding graduation requirements increase the dropout rate may not be possible for another year or more, as it’s the current freshmen and sophomores who will have to pass five Regents exams with a 65 or better, unless the Regents delay this requirement.

Many educators point to the effects of being raised in poverty: lack of value in education, high student mobility, absenteeism, greater demand for one-on-one attention.

“Kids don’t come to school with thousands of hours of lap reading. So we have to do those things other schools might not,” said Arbor Hill Elementary School principal Bob White, who is trying to heed SED Commissioner Mills’ advice to superintendents: “Don’t bring me excuses, bring me results.” Arbor Hill Elementary School expects to be removed from the failing list this year.

“It’s a challenge,” said White.

The same challenges are apparent to PS 18 Principal Witazek, who came in November from Burnt Hills, a well-off suburb in Saratoga County, where only 8 percent of students get free- or reduced-priced lunches, compared with 94 percent at PS 18. While teachers are comparable to Burnt Hills, he said, education here is affected by severe poverty-related issues.

In Burnt Hills, parents regularly visit the school, travel with their kids, support their education, and provide stable homes with computers and books on hand. At PS 18, Witazek finds many children move often and have only one parent who lacks the inclination or is unable to visit the school or support his or her child’s schoolwork.

“Taking these tests is not going to close that gap,” said Witazek. “I don’t know if we’ll ever close that gap,” he said, adding that smaller classes and parental involvement would definitely help.

At Albany High School, attendance is a major problem among lower-level classes. Teachers there say many students in the lower-performing classes are disadvantaged because they do not seem to have someone checking their homework, and some seem hungry and tired. And poorer schools see a higher degree of transience.

“Home life really affects school life,” said Marco Frazier, who rattles off the names of eight different schools he has attended in several area districts.

An Albany High School ninth-grade teacher’s attendance ledger from a recent day showed only about half of her students in one lower-level class having been present. Other ninth-grade teachers considered this pretty normal. The teachers said classes start large in the beginning of the year, but after Christmas break, they regularly see a sharp decline in attendance in their lower-performing classes. A high school senior who asked not be named said he has witnessed this drop in class size. He looks forward to it, because the halls are less crowded. “I can’t wait,” he said.

The ninth grade starts out with about 800 students, about 18 percent of whom are repeaters, but by 10th grade, enrollment numbers are down about 25 percent. Some students move away, some attend the vocational school full-time, some move into residential programs, some seek GEDs, and some drop out, according to Tara Mitchell, spokeswomen for the Albany City School District.

Many schools find ways to support students beyond the classroom. For instance, PS 18’s nurse has a supply of clothing on hand, some students attend TLC (tender loving care) classes, and teachers serve up a pizza party after fourth-grade state tests. “You try to get the best out of them,” said fourth-grade teacher Mary Ellen Milos. The district would like to expand a social- services support program for families now offered only at Philip Schuyler Elementary School, but this would cost millions of dollars that the district does not have.

“Can schools do it all?” asked Witazek. “No. Bigger issues need to be addressed on a political level,” meaning poverty. A lot of society’s problems, he said, are imposed on schools.

Albany has dedicated increased resources in the past five years to help nudge along its lower-performing students. The district has reduced the average class size, provided intensive remediation and more one-on-one attention for students at risk of failing, increased before-and after-school programs, and restructured schools and curriculum—many of which are costly propositions.

The district is trying to create smaller learning environments within all of the schools. The high school, which can be intimidating for incoming freshmen, created a ninth-grade academy in which freshmen attend primary classes in a small section of the school. They are divided into smaller groups of about 120 each, sharing a core set of four to five teachers. The school board included funding in its proposed budget for a 10th grade academy.

The high school now is also allowing about 60 ninth-graders to take career and technical classes at the Abrookin Vocational Technical Center. Abrookin offers a range of trades, such as architecture and woodworking classes, which have motivated Marco Frazier to consider architecture as a career. The goal is to “keep them motivated, start earlier,” said Dale A. Getto, assistant house principal at Abrookin.

“As expensive as it is, the one-on-one attention is the most effective stuff you can do, inside of the school,” said Fahy. “What’s the cost of a dropout to society? In my view that’s significant.”

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