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Promise Unrealized
By Shawn Stone
Photos By Joe Putrock

In the Albany City School District, minority graduation rates are among the worst in the state—and a symptom of problems at nearly every grade level

The main business of the June 1 meeting of the Albany City School District board was affirming a series of budget cuts. This unhappy prospect set a certain tone for the evening. A majority minority district plagued by poor test scores and dismal graduation rates was having to face making do with even less. A few weeks earlier, city voters had rejected the original budget; now, $2.5 million was being axed to create a leaner one, which, the board hoped, would be more palatable to the public. Additionally, after much wrangling among board members, $800,000 was taken from the school district’s reserve fund and used to reduce the tax increase to city property owners to just below 6 percent—as opposed to the 10-percent tax hike in the defeated budget.

In fact, there was a good deal of tense-but-polite wrangling among board members over a variety of items, including whether the district should hire additional nurses, and whether or not funds should be dedicated to hiring someone for a particular dual-language teaching position.

A number of board members expressed the hope that Gov. George E. Pataki, who had that afternoon announced that additional aid was headed to the even more troubled Buffalo city school system, would be coming through with more money for Albany. Owing to various state legal restrictions and the timing of when the state budget finally passes, however, the district couldn’t use this money for restoring programs or filling needed teaching positions this year. At least the extra cash would end up in the reserve fund.

The fear lurking behind all these discussions and decisions, of course, was that Albany voters would reject the revised budget, too. A defeat would result in the district being forced to adopt a contingency budget, which would entail considerably more drastic cuts in programs and services for the students.

Add to all this the fact that the meeting lasted more than three hours, and saw the resignations of one of the board’s members and the district’s superintendent, and one could almost say that that the meeting had no bright spots.

But that wouldn’t be true. The meeting began with the a special award to Diona Howard, the board’s student representative. The board members, with happy unanimity, agreed that Howard, an academic whiz who will be attending Temple University this fall, had “set the bar” for the position of student rep with her insight, dedication and hard work. For her part, Howard thanked them. As if more evidence of her dedication was needed, Howard explained that she would be part of a group of students who would be “walking from door-to-door, reminding people to vote” for the revised budget.

Howard had some other things to say, too, voicing her “concern and frustration about the Albany City School District.” How, she wondered, “did we go from wanting change to resisting change?”

Howard, an African-American, was primarily referring to changes in the high school Advanced Placement, or honors program, changes that would make these largely white-attended courses more accessible to minority student enrollment. Howard discussed her own experience: “There are not enough people of color in the [Advanced Placement] classes.”

She could have added that, by any measure, there aren’t enough people of color graduating from the Albany City School District.

Paul Webster is the school board member who resigned at the June 1 meeting. In his Albany office—Webster works for the National Education Association of New York State—the desk is buried in reports and printed e-mails with facts and figures related to Albany’s underperforming schools. In careful, measured sentences, he explains his frustrations with the Albany City School District.

“It’s unacceptable that there is a 33 percent graduation rate of African-Americans at Albany High School, [while] . . . 71 percent graduate on time in Schenectady, and 59 percent graduate on time in Troy.”

These minority graduation rates come from the Harvard Civil Rights Project, which, last February, published the report “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis.” It compiled graduation data from all 50 states, and New York edged out Ohio, Nevada and Florida for the dubious honor of placing dead last in both black and Hispanic graduation rates. The Civil Rights Project did its own analysis using New York state data, and the State Education Department disputes these figures, suggesting they are skewed low—the Harvard study pegs the statewide black graduation rate at 35.1 percent, while SED says it’s closer to 50 percent. Fifty percent, however, would hardly seem something to be proud of.

Also according to the Harvard study, approximately 75 percent of Albany students are minorities. This has been a long-term trend. According to data compiled by the University at Albany’s Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, at the end of the 1960s the Albany City School District was approximately 69 percent white and 31 percent black. By 1990, it was 46 percent white and 48 percent black, with Hispanics and Asians at around 3 percent each. By 2000, the district had assumed, more or less, its current composition. According to Webster, the district needs to better respond to these changing demographics.

“We need to give the teachers, nurses and educators the resources necessary to ensure that our children will meet the Regents learning standards,” Webster says, “and the standards set forth by No Child Left Behind.” No Child Left Behind is the Federal law that sets national standards for school achievement, and threatens onerous penalties for schools that don’t meet the law’s requirements.

As Webster explains it, the Regents learning standards for high school, which go into effect this September, require that every student pass five Regents exams. And recently released 8th-grade scores on the statewide English Language Arts tests do not point toward a happy future.

The state breaks scores into four different levels. There were 276 Albany eighth-graders scoring at Level 1 on the 2004 ELA exam; Level 1 is the worst (“shows serious academic difficulties”). Unless something drastic is done, Webster argues, these kids are in deep trouble.

“When they’re not meeting the standard, they’re not going to graduate on time—if they graduate at all. That spells crisis,” he says, adding that “the state education department said yesterday eighth-graders scoring at Level 1 will not graduate high school under the Regents learning standard—will not.”

Or, look at it from the perspective of which students do well. In 2003, of the 496 black Albany eighth-graders who took the math test, only 6 percent scored at the highest level, Level 4; of the 65 Hispanic students, only 9 percent scored at Level 4. Contrast this with the numbers for white students—of 195 test-takers, 26 percent scored at the highest level.

“The school district has surpluses,” Webster says. “We’ve ended each year, for the last three years, with more than a million dollars in surplus. . . . We keep talking about saving these monies for a rainy day? We have a typhoon here.”

(The catch with this, though, is that the state recommends keeping that surplus as a so-called “rainy-day fund.” And the financial arbiters who determine the district’s bond rating do not look kindly on too-small or nonexistent surpluses.)

Then there are chronic problems of absenteeism and kids just dropping out.

“It’s unacceptable that we have a 50- percent dropout rate,” says Webster. “It’s unacceptable that on any given day up to 1,000 Albany public school children are not in school.

“This district does not have a dropout prevention policy. This district does not have truant officers to find out why these kids aren’t in school and get them to school.”

Webster muses sadly: “There are many children—because I’ve been to these countries—in Third World countries in the Caribbean, that are in one-room shacks with tin roofs, with no computers and no electricity, and these kids score higher than our kids here.”

School board member Patricia Fahy is equally passionate about Albany’s schools. When asked what’s going well in the district, she’s genuinely enthusiastic.

“We have a brand-new math curriculum, we’re in our second year of it, and there isn’t a teacher that hasn’t raved about it,” Fahy says, adding, “I consider it the best [math] curriculum in the Capital District.”

She details plans to revamp the science curriculum this fall, and explains the extensive efforts—and expenditures—that have been made to improve the English curriculum. “We’re completely redoing our writing program; I think it’s a quarter of a million dollars we’re spending on the Columbia Writing Project.”

Fahy also stresses the need for the district to increase its otherwise limited pre-k programs.

“I’m a lunatic about it, and one of the biggest disappointments of my two and a half years on the board is that we have not been able to expand pre-k,” she notes, adding, “especially with the kind of poverty we’ve got” in the district. “The numbers are there, the research is there—academic pre-k programs work, and we don’t have enough of them.”

There’s one problem, Fahy explains: Pre-k programs are expensive. Consider, she points out, what a day-care worker is paid—$8-$10 per hour if “they’re lucky”—and contrast that with what a teacher salary would be. Despite this, she would still like to spend the money: “I’m not insensitive to the expense, but I think pre-k is something we really need to do.”

Unfortunately, this is a time of budget cuts, not budget increases.

Fahy also believes, however, in bricks and mortar. She supports the district’s ambitious, voter-approved facilities plan, which will see the replacement or renovation of almost every school in the district, and the construction of a third middle school.

It is, Fahy argues, a way to both keep the middle class and give a much-needed boost to the poorer neighborhoods where some of these schools are located.

The facilities plan is also a reason why, Fahy and others have argued, the district needs to run the high surpluses that Webster and others would rather spend on programs. The financial arbiters who decide the district’s bond rating look kindly on hefty surpluses—and a higher bond rating equals lower construction costs.

“Our plan will help to revitalize certain neighborhoods,” Fahy says. “We’re in a pretty discouraging time right now. More and more, the middle class are leaving. We’ve got to give people a reason to stay.”

In fact, she explains, “I’m hoping it will completely revitalize the school district. The people that I call the ‘drive-by departers,’ the people that never even walk inside our buildings yet make the decision to leave, I would hope it would affect that type of clientele.”

The new buildings, Fahy hopes, also will help improve the morale of both teachers and students. Right now, she notes, “we have numerous offices around the district where the offices were built into a converted bathroom or closet.”

Asked about the poor districtwide test scores, Fahy admits: “We’ve got a lot to do to get our scores up, but the more middle class we lose, I believe the harder it is. We have kids with multiple, multiple needs. Poverty’s gone from 55 percent to over 70 percent in just 10 years.

“I really believe that the buildings project is key to economic development,” Fahy says, adding, “I don’t see how this city moves forward if the building plan doesn’t move forward.”

We need to do more: Paul Webster.

Asked about the school’s dropout rate, Fahy says that “everybody has a different definition of dropouts.” While not defending the school district’s not-very-good record, she notes that Albany has “a turnover rate of 250 kids every year at the high school.” “And,” she adds, “unfortunately, some of those kids who do turn over are counted as dropouts, even though they’re often moving to a different school.” Fahy also argues that a low-income student population generally has very high transience rates.

“Our most stable population is at School 19—it’s one of our most stable populations because it has about the least amount of poverty of all of our schools,” Fahy explains. “In the fourth grade, they had 20 new kids start this year—and that’s like one-fourth of the number of kids in fourth grade at School 19.”

Asked if frequent turn - over of students is an issue, Susan Fowler, a first-grade teacher at School 18, in the Delaware Area neighborhood, says yes: “I probably gained and lost six [students] this year.”

Not surprisingly, this complicates the teaching—and the testing.

“We find, on our [state-mandated] fourth-grade tests, a big part of our problem is that we don’t have the same kids from kindergarten” through fourth-grade, she explains. For example, Fowler says that “this year we had [only] seven kids, or six kids that had been there from kindergarten and first grade.”

“You try to get [the students] prepared, she says. “You might have done a great job, but now you’ve got these new kids—who knows where they were [before].” Whether the transfers come from out of state or from within the district, Fowler says, there’s no way of knowing if they have been attending school regularly.

Just as dismaying a problem, however, are the budget cuts.

The writing program that Fowler and her colleagues were trained to teach, Literacy Collaborative, was designed to work best in the context of small class sizes. The program, which involves working one-on-one with each student in “writer workshops,” has an excellent reputation for succeeding in inner-city schools.

“It’s not that I won’t be able to use it,” she says, “but the point was to have small classrooms, and small class sizes. . . . And now budgets are cut, and we’re now losing a first-grade teacher. So now we’re back up to 25 kids.”

Fowler’s class size this year has averaged around 17 students. She’s been teaching for eight years, and she noticed a difference in better being able to tune in to each child’s needs. It also gave her a glimpse of what could be: “If we had [only] 13 or 14 kids per class, I think our kids would be geniuses. . . . Because they’ve got it. I don’t believe they don’t have the ability—I know they’ve got it.”

As important as smaller class sizes, however, is parental involvement. At School 18, Fowler and her colleagues try to reach out to the parents.

There are a few common problems. One, many of her students’ parents are working “two and three jobs,” often at night, which makes parental involvement logistically difficult. Two, the parents have had their own bad experiences with school, either as students or parents, and are slow to trust their kids’ teachers.

With often-suspicious parents, Fowler explains, “we try to get them in for the fun stuff like community dinners and talent shows, so that hopefully when we talk to them about academic problems, they’ll listen.”

Whatever the stresses and strains, Fowler “loves” her job: “People always say to me, maybe you should go teach in Bethlehem, or something, but I feel like [Albany] is where my heart is.”

With regard to Albany, Paul Webster is, as they say, “outta here.”

“Where are the papers saying I live now?” Webster says, as he opens a copy of the Times Union and turns to a page of charts listing the highest-performing local schools. The answer is Niskayuna, and Webster points out that school district’s consistent high rankings.

“There’s no mystery as to why my wife said, ‘This is where I’m going to live, and, I’ll meet you there.’ ”

What about the Albany schools?

He says: “Are there wonderful things going on in Albany? Yes. Is the staff dedicated? Absolutely. The school board needs to do more.”

Webster says when it comes to the school board, that it’s a matter of “shared responsibility.”

“I admit I failed,” he says with a mix of anger and regret. “I failed to convince three other people that we needed to do more about dropouts, that we needed to do more about our attendance, that we needed to do more about these test scores, that we needed to do more tutoring and after school programs.”

Webster is particularly disappointed that there is no school-based health plan. Albany, he suggests, is a district with many, many kids without health insurance, kids whose academic performance can be affected negatively by any number of health problems. “Why,” he asks, “do 290 other districts, including some in the Capital Region, have school-based health centers and we don’t?”

What about the future?

Webster pulls out the statistics. The total Albany population under 18 is around 19,100. There are only 9,000 kids in the public schools.

“So those other 10,000 kids are going to the charter schools and the private schools,” Webster notes. “That means half of the children in Albany do not attend our schools, and there are reasons for it.”

He adds: “You’re not going to reverse the high rates of poverty in some neighborhoods, and the misery index faced by the people of Albany, without doing something about the schools.”

And by “doing something about the schools,” he doesn’t mean building new buildings.

“You’re not going to attract the middle class back with those scores,” Webster argues. The facilities plan is “not going to attract people back with these overwhelming rates of failure. . . . The middle class understands and recognizes the crisis, and they’ve got two options. Private school, or move.”

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