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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 25, 2011
Tech Valley built it, now will share it
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
Tech Valley High School is proud of its first class; 26 of the students who graduated in June are now heading off to college and two are going into military service.
“I’m not claiming perfection,” said Dan Liebert, the school’s principal. But, he says, the school is filling a current need and leading the way for the future.
Half of the 2011 graduates have chosen STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, said Liebert, compared with just 7 percent of graduates nationally.
“Go to the jobs page of GlobalFoundries,” he said, referring to the semiconductor manufacturer. “They’re looking for people who can work on challenging projects and collaborate with a global team…That’s what we’re preparing our students to be a 21st-Century workforce. It’s more than just content. We need to teach them to think critically, be creative, and communicate.”
The four Cs, he said, matter as much as the traditional three Rs that is, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic.
“We are extremely proud of our first graduating class in many ways,” said Liebert. “First and foremost, kids got an opportunity to articulate their life plan.”
All 28 graduates, he said, could have gone to college although two deferred to join the military. “We have Ivy League to community college and everything in between,” said Liebert.
The Ivy League acceptance was to Cornell. Sixty-eight percent of the 26 college-bound graduates are going to four-year colleges and 24 percent to two-year colleges, according to Michael McCagg, spokesman for the school.
“Students can go anywhere with a Tech Valley diploma,” said Liebert. “They are prepared for college and careers. Their Regents exam scores are stellar. Business and community agencies could not be happier.”
The school, which is a joint venture of two area BOCES, opened in 2007, drawing from school districts in seven counties. Tuition, comparable to other programs with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, was set at $18,000 with more than half reimbursed to local districts the following year.
The groundbreaking school, which has received national attention, uses a project-oriented hands-on method of instruction. Math and science might be combined in one project while mandarin Chinese and art are combined in another. “It reflects what they’ll need in the workforce,” said McCagg.
“We give students the reasoning behind what they’re learning,” he said. Instead of learning geometry from a book, for example, Tech Valley students have visited an aerodynamic manufacturer “to see how geometry is applied to a project.”
“A lot of people were skeptical about our school four years ago,” said Leibert. “They thought our students would never get into college….Quite the contrary.”
The school, said Liebert, has two fundamental missions build it and share it.
“We’ve just finished the first,” he said, “although we’re always in the process of improving it. Now, we need to serve as a model for 21st-Century teaching and learning.”
The class of 2011 started with 40 students; a dozen left. “We never told a student, ‘You can’t be here; you have to go home,’” said McCagg. “Kids applied to see what it was like.”
Liebert agreed. “In our very first class,” he said, “a lot of students were not certain of what the school would be.”
He also said that the retention rate in subsequent classes is over 90 percent. The Gates Foundation, he said, recently conducted a YouthTruth school culture survey that showed Tech Valley students have “extremely high satisfaction with the rigor of the program and in their relationships with teachers.” He added, “Parents are satisfied, too.”
Tech Valley would ideally like to have a stable enrollment of 160 students, with 40 students in each grade, rather than the 120 students it has now, said Leibert. He said he’s well aware of the financial straits school districts are now in as they cut back on sending students to Tech Valley High School.
Last year, the entering class was going to number just 17 or 18 students. “We offered BOCES scholarships,” said McCagg. One scholarship was offered to each participating district. “We picked up nine freshmen and two sophomores,” he said.
This year, 27 freshmen will attend, with no scholarships offered. “We’re holding our own,” said McCagg. The school starts on Sept. 7 when the 120 students will meet with seven area businessmen.
“Every entrepreneurial enterprise has to face these issues,” Leibert said. “The demand is only going to go up,” he said of the need for the sort of education Tech Valley provides. “We’ll have a tough couple of years getting full enrollment until the economy turns around.”
Liebert continued, “The key is…there’s 100-percent agreement, with emerging technologies in this area nanotech is exploding we need people capable of employment.”
District finances weren’t the major stumbling block in retaining the first class. Some of the original students left, both Leibert and McCagg said, because they found the curriculum too challenging. Others missed the organized school sports or missed their friends at their home school.
Josh DeNyse from Berne-Knox-Westerlo returned to his home school after his freshman year at Tech Valley because he didn’t like group grading and he wanted to play team sports. (See related story.)
Guilderland’s first Tech Valley student, Logan O’Neil, also left although she gave the Guilderland School Board a glowing report in 2008 of her first year there. “I like how we get to interact with the business community because it is exposing me to real jobs,” O’Neil told the school board.
She also liked the convenience of a computer for every student and that they used web portals to send e-mails to each other and their teachers, to post homework assignments, to post and discuss group work, and to get grades. She could not be reached this week for comment.
Other students suffered from what Liebert called “travel fatigue,” having to commute from their home schools. And still others were disappointed in their grades.
“Some kids came here with straight As. When they saw their grades drop or their parents saw their grades dropped, they left,” said McCagg.
No grade inflation
Only 20 percent of the graduating class had an A average, that is, of 90 or above. Thirty-two percent had grades between 80 and 84 while 40 percent had grades of 85 or higher.
Grades, McCagg said, are based on content, critical thinking, citizenship, technology literacy, collaboration, innovation, communication, and self-direction.
He has put together a portrait of the school to send to colleges along with student applications. “We have to tell colleges the grades may be a little lower, but that doesn’t mean the learning is less…Our teachers are very strict,” said McCagg. “We had to show the admissions officers an 85 here would be higher somewhere else.”
Scores on the standard college admission tests administered by American College Testing (ACT) and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) bear this out.
Out of a possible 800 points in each section of the SAT, the average score for the Class of 2011 in critical reading was 560 (compared to a national average of 501), in math was 535 (compared to 515), and in writing was 513 (compared to 493).
On the ACTs, in which each subject is graded on a scale of 1 to 36, the Tech Valley composite score was 25.1 compared to a national average of 21.1. The Tech Valley highest average score was in reading, at 26.1, compared to a national average of 21.4; the benchmark score for college readiness in 21.
Serving interests across the board
The Tech Valley students are moving on to study a wide variety of subjects at the next level.
“Serving across-the-board interests is our mission,” said McCagg. “We want to prepare students for a career of their choice.”
He cited one student, Zach Wellstood from Greenville, who, because of studying Mandarin Chinese at Tech Valley High, decided to pursue linguistics at New York University.
McCagg also noted that this year, a teacher of English from Tianjin High School in China, Zhiheng Yin, will be at Tech Valley to teach Mandarin Chinese; she is being hosted by a faculty member.
“The real world is more than just knowing things,” Wellstood said about his Tech Valley education in the school newsletter; his favorite class was English.
Colleen Bates of Voorheesville (see related story) is going to Canisius College in buffalo to study animal behavior; her favorite subject was pre-calculus.
Joey Chase of Greenville who wants to be a mammalogist, will study biology at Cornell University. He said in the newsletter that the most important thing he learned at Tech Valley is: “There are people in real life that you get along with, and there are those that you won’t get along with.” His favorite class was human biology.
Jesse Feinman of Guilderland plans to become a combat rescue officer in the Air Force. He said Tech Valley taught him “that the military is a viable option.” (See related story.)
James Hazzard of Sharon Springs is going to Johnson & Wales University with the goal of opening an aquarium resort. He says he learned “organization, time-management skills, and being self-directed” at Tech Valley High.
A.J. Pelland of Lansingburgh is pursuing a degree in autobody repair at Hudson Valley Community College. He wants to become an auto mechanic. “I’ve really learned how to collaborate with my peers,” he wrote. Tech Valley High, where his favorite classes were art and technology, taught him “how to do things outside of the box, instead of taking the easy way out.”
Chelsea Naylor from Brittonkill, wrote, “I was the dorky, nerdy girl with the mis-matched clothes, the braces, and the messy hair.” When she decided to attend Tech Valley, she said, “I didn’t expect what was about to happen. I was instantly accepted by my peers, knowing they just liked me for me. I went through an entire transformation, both physically and mentally. I see myself in a totally different light now, a confident, eager individual about to take on the world.” Naylor is going to the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine to study marine biology.
“An education incubator”
The school has 13 teachers, including a special-education teacher; a wide range of students are instructed.
Tech Valley High opened in the fall of 2007 on a business campus Rensselaer Technology Park in Troy then moved in the fall of 2009 to lease classrooms in East Greenbush at the University at Albany East Campus where it has about a dozen rooms that were formerly used by a pharmaceutical company.
“We left one lab as it was,” said McCagg. “The students use laptops; everything is WiFi. They download reading packages and projects are submitted online.”
He went on, “All work is done through projects.” Students use a design lab to build their projects, which can range from a solar oven to a robot.
The design lab has a CNC (computer numerical control) machine, donated by local businesses, which students use with computer-aided design programs to develop their projects. Freshmen, for example, learn about angles and geometrics by designing a miniature golf course and then “take that to the design lab and make the physical hole,” said McCagg.
“People are shocked,” he said, when they see how small the school is. It is on the second floor of a building with a first floor occupied by Taconic lab rats; the basement is used by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
The location, McCagg said, “allows us to work with all sorts of experts.” He went on, “UAlbany has a cancer research center around the corner.”
“We’re an education incubator,” said McCagg. “We’re sharing what we learn with other schools…offering professional development for their teachers so they can incorporate project-based learning.”