By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — About 60 people — most of them school staff or parents of students — turned out Tuesday night to learn about new state requirements for schools and to advise Guilderland administrators who will frame next year’s budget on priorities.
In response to a question from the gallery about whether one of Guilderland’s five elementary schools would be closed, Superintendent Marie Wiles said, “That is an important conversation we must have. Tonight is the start of that…We don’t want to make a snap decision until we have all the data.”
An overview of demographics in the district, presented by Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, showed that three of the district’s elementary schools — Lynnwood, Pine Bush, and Westmere — have roughly 400 students each, while Guilderland Elementary has close to 600 and Altamont has about half that.
Farnsworth Middle School for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades has close to 1,200 students and Guilderland High School has over 1,600.
Enrollment overall in the last five years has fallen off from 5,895 to 5,326 students district-wide.
Much of Tuesday’s presentation focused on new state and federal requirements that have resulted from New York getting Race to the Top funds and adopting Common Core Learning Standards. (See related story.) Stagnant state aid coupled with increasing pension and health-care costs along with a new state-set tax-levy cap have resulted in cuts to Guilderland staff and programs in recent years.
After the two-hour session, The Enterprise asked Wiles if administrators are considering closing an elementary school because of decreased enrollment as they draft the 2013-14 budget. “Probably for the next budget,” Wiles responded, referring to the spending plan for 2014-15. “We want to do it well, doing our homework, weighing all the interests.”
The figures presented by Sanders at Tuesday’s meeting, and available online at the district’s website, show that 144 fewer students who live in the district are going to private schools than five years ago, down from 455, or 8 percent, to 311 or 6 percent, probably due to the recession, Sanders surmised. This influx of former private-school students into the public system has kept enrollment from dipping further.
At the same time, the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, an indication of poverty, has increased from 313, or 6 percent, to 558, or 11 percent. The number of English language learners has also doubled from 94, or 2 percent, to 173, or 4 percent.
The age of residents in the town of Guilderland, the lion’s share of the district, according to 2010 census data, shows that the 0-to-5 age group is smaller than the 6-to-11 group, which is smaller than the 12-to-17 group, meaning it is likely school enrollment will continue to decline.
Sanders also presented a graph showing that building permits issued in Guilderland declined from being in the 40s five years ago to being in the 20s this year. He noted, though, that there are currently 337 building lots in town. “There’s a lot of capacity out there for new residential construction,” said Sanders.
Sanders also showed a map of the five elementary-school cachment areas. Altamont Elementary School, in rural western Guilderland — which is undeveloped because, outside of the village, there is little public water — covers 20.7 square miles while each of the other four segments, in more developed parts of town, cover less than 10 square miles.
“A mean of mediocrity”?
After talking about the promises and costs of Race to the Top, Wiles said, “We don’t want to sacrifice our beliefs and we don’t want to break the bank.”
It is most important to focus on preparing children for whatever lies ahead, she said, concluding, “If we don’t think about the future in a meaningful, powerful way, we will be very sad.”
Administrators then answered a score of questions submitted by those in the gallery, many of them focusing on new tests put in place this year to measure student progress as a way to evaluate teachers, a state requirement as part of the Race to the Top.
“The challenge is to engage students deeply without becoming a test-preparation operation,” said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton.
“This is all about striking a balance between things we must do and things we should do,” said Wiles.
She also said that, to reliably measure higher-order thinking skills, assessments should not be standardized but rather done “classroom by classroom.”
The new test requirements, said Singleton, have “everything to do with accountability,” rather than being based on research that shows the tests will improve student performance.
Some of the 700 school districts in the state need reform, said Singleton. With the broad-brush approach currently used by the state, he said, “You start to have convergence to a new mean…below our current standard…It may be a mean of mediocrity.”
“We’re waiting for the pendulum to swing the other way,” said Wiles, “and we’ll be ready…What makes Guilderland, Guilderland?” she asked, answering herself, “Our ability to weather the reforms.”
Wiles concluded, “Our great strengths are our highest expectations…That, frankly, is 90 percent of the battle…not to let them get…trampled in this Race to the Top.”
GCSD be doing?
With that, a slide flashed on the screen behind the panel of administrators, stating, “You have just heard a lot about what we MUST do in today’s educational environment. What do you think we SHOULD be doing because we are the Guilderland Central School district?”
Those in the gallery, seated at eight different tables, were asked to discuss this question and come up with three recommendations to present to the group.
The Enterprise listened to a conversation at the first table, among three parents, Gail Kelly, Carmen Valverde, president of the high school’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association, and Christina Anagnostopoulos; a third-grade teacher, Kate Tymeson; the district’s music supervisor, Lori Hershenhart; a middle-school counselor who is also president of the teachers’ union, Maceo Dubose; and the school board president, Colleen O’Connell.
Bob Hanlon, from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, served as the facilitator.
The conversation started with shared concerns about the increase of class sizes in recent years as teaching positions have been cut.
“It’s stressful for the teacher,” said Kelly.
Dubose said classes at Farnsworth topped 30. “The large number takes away from the ability to give individual attention,” he said.
One of the reasons she wanted to work at Guilderland, said Tymeson, was because “we are very focused on teaching the individual student.”
Close to 20 percent of the students at Guilderland Elementary where she teaches are English language learners, coming from foreign countries, she said, and the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches has increased, as has the number of students with special needs.
“It’s much more challenging to meet the needs of individual students,” she said.
Students’ abilities to focus may also be affected by “things we may not know,” said Dubose, for example, a parent losing a job.
Valverde said that class size varied from school to school with some at Altamont being as low as 17 or 20. “What I’m thinking is not close schools but combine them,” she said, explaining, for example, that students in the first three grades could be grouped together in one school, saving on services and resources.
“That levels class sizes but probably increases transportation,” noted Hanson.
Valverde said her oldest child, who is in college now, received a very different education, a better one, than her sixth-grader. “That is very sad,” she said.
“But other districts are in the same position…What has happened is not a conscious decision the district has made; it’s just lack of resources,” said O’Connell.
Dubose recalled colleagues saying “wow” when he first got a job at Guilderland. “The district still has a great reputation,” he said. “We should look at ways to maintain the program.”
“Part of this shift in who we are is from the mandates,” said Tymeson. “I feel like we’re not taking a strong enough stance in how we comply.” She said that Guilderland needs “to stand up for what we believe,” for example, developing its own assessments rather than using standardized tests.
Hirshenhart sympathized with Tymeson that it must be hard for her to see her third-graders sit down at a computer to be tested. “You know it is not a best practice,” she said.
“I think we could publicly make a firmer stance,” said Tymeson.
“My son came home in tears after that computerized test,” said Anagnostopoulos,
O’Connell lamented the “paradigm shift” in professional development. Before, she said, “We helped good teachers become great teachers. Now, we’re teaching how to assess instead of teaching the latest and greatest.”
“We’re trying to keep up with what the state keeps handing down,” said Dubose.
Anagnostopoulos talked of how “stressed out” her third-grade son is with the testing. “How important is it for him to be there that day?” she asked. “Does it help him or is it for the teachers and everyone else?”
“It’s supposed to show growth,” said Dubose.
Kelly said that her child, also a third-grader, got “very nervous about the computerized test.”
Tymeson said that the standardized test given to her third-graders this fall asked them to divide decimals when they don’t even know what decimals are.
“The bottom line is, politicians don’t trust people like Kate,” said O’Connell,” referring to Tymeson.
“For many students, concluded Tymeson, “the enormous growth isn’t in the test.” Growth for a third-grader, she said, can be for such important things as adjusting to a new country, coming to school happy, or learning to play with a classmate.
“We have to have a stronger backbone,” she said of Guilderland creating its own assessments.
The 60 or so participants then listened to facilitators from each of the eight tables list three points on what Guilderland should be doing. The lists will be posted on the district’s website.
Advice included reaching out to the community — involving colleges and businesses as well — for solutions; retaining high standards and not “dumbing down” while teaching a wide variety of students well; keeping the human touch while improving technology, including distance learning; meeting mandates in a way that is good for students or fighting mandates since the Race to the Top may be more of a race to the middle.
Call to action
The session ended with a call for community members and faculty to “advocate for students,” as the superintendent put it.
“We can talk all we want in this room; it may not make a difference,” said Wiles.
Six-page brochures were distributed that list contact information for key legislators as well as give advice on how to write letters and be effective in meetings.
“Use the media,” urged Wiles.
She and O’Connell both stressed the importance of lobbying against the Gap Elimination Adjustment introduced in 2010 to help close New York’s $10 billion budget deficit. This budget year, Guilderland, which has an $89 million budget, lost $4.1 million in state aid because of the adjustment.
“Use our elected officials to do away with that piece,” said Wiles, “Take us out of the bubble of Guilderland to our bigger world.”
O’Connell said that teachers, staff, and community members are needed to do effective lobbying.
“In a time with limited financial resources, I’m gratified…to have human resources,” O’Connell told the crowd.