By Shawn Stone
Photos By Joe Putrock
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
board member Patricia Fahy is equally passionate about Albany’s
schools. When asked what’s going well in the district, she’s
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
Fahy also stresses the need for the district to increase
its otherwise limited pre-k programs.
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
need to do more: Paul Webster.
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
regard to Albany, Paul Webster is, as they say, “outta here.”
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
And by “doing something about the schools,” he doesn’t mean
building new buildings.
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.”