Slice of investment now feeds dividends

How do you measure the value of an education?

Test scores are often touted as the simplest way to do that. We’d like to take a more personal look at the education of a single student. We had a small part and a front-row seat that gave us a glimmer of understanding about Tech Valley High School.

The insight is relevant as a contingent of the Guilderland School Board is skeptical about spending $22,914 for four students — roughly $5,700 each — to attend the regional high school. Next year’s Tech Valley tuition is $12,990 per student but Guilderland would get 55.9 percent back in state aid.

Comparatively, the cost per student at Guilderland is $18,480, which is below the state average. The tuition for an out-of-district student to attend Guilderland High School, calculated by the state for regular-education, as opposed to special-education, students is $13,575 — so attending Tech Valley High School is cheaper than attending Guilderland High School.

Tech Valley High School was launched in 2007 when times weren’t so tough, and the plan depends on local school districts sending students; many districts have withdrawn since the Great Recession, seeing it as a luxury they can ill afford.

But let’s look beyond the numbers.

Most of what gets publicized about Tech Valley High School has to do with science, technology, engineering, and math — known as STEM. The student we worked with at The Enterprise during her senior year in 2012, Xena Pulliam, may well have been good at those subjects — she was the valedictorian of Tech Valley and the co-valedictorian of her home school, Berne-Knox-Westerlo — but her passion was for writing.

We’ve had many excellent interns at our newspaper over the last quarter of a century, most all of them at the college level, but working with Tech Valley High School was unique. The school took far more care and had higher expectations than any other institution we’ve worked with.

The process started with a site visit from Pulliam’s faculty advisor; she wanted to see our business in operation and understand how Pulliam would fit in and what work she would be doing. My first surprise was that she was a physical-education teacher; that’s how I became acquainted with the Tech Valley concept that all teachers shape all parts of a learner.

This is different than the usual pigeon-holing done by most schools where an aspiring writer would be mentored by a journalism teacher or an English teacher. The next surprise, which dovetailed, too, with the Tech Valley team approach to work, is that Pulliam was not just to work with the editor as other interns have before and since but also to spend time with different staff members. Our graphic designer, for example, showed her how he readies pictures for print.

Different, too, was the fact that the site visit was guided by a series of written questions, covering such topics as Pulliam’s responsibilities and learning goals. Very specific lists included such points as “initiative,” “interpersonal skills,” “technical and problem-solving skills,” “maturity and responsibility,” “work ethic and desire to learn,” and “attendance, timeliness, and presentation.”

At first, on looking at the paperwork, I thought it would lead to a regimented conversation. Just the opposite occurred. The questions provided a meaningful framework in which to discuss such nebulous terms as responsibilities and goals.

As her internship unfolded, I learned about a Tech Valley education from Pulliam’s approach, not just to writing but also to how she covered stories. Her first assignment was to cover Farnsworth Middle School students participating at a Future City competition. Because of the questions she asked, Pulliam discovered the Farnsworth students, through their projects, had “learned about other cultures” and about “working with others on how to solve issues,” as she quoted the students.

Pulliam reported on the prizes the Farnsworth team had won at the end of her long article, having showcased instead their learning process.

As part of what Tech Valley called her “work-based learning experience,” Pullliam kept a log of her hours on the job as well as a journal with her thoughts about what she was learning. This led to more self-reflection than any internship we’ve worked with.

Pulliam was breathtakingly honest in her journal accounts. “All of my writing experience lies within creative writing,” she wrote in her journal on her first day at The Enterprise, “and I was excited to try this new style out but it seemed like the whole staff had really high expectations for me and I really didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t really want to come off as incompetent but I had no clue what I was doing....”

A week later, Pulliam wrote after a staff lunch out, “I love how nice, easygoing, and funny the staff is because they all make me feel very welcome and only on occasion do I still feel like a high school student who’s working there, instead of their peer.”

She also wrote about how she overcame the awkwardness she first felt working in an open newsroom and making phone calls. Pulliam’s final challenge was writing a first-person article — a perspective she relished “because I know exactly what’s going through my own head,” she wrote in her journal.

The front-page article was on Chinese students visiting Guilderland High School. The topic was close to her heart since Pulliam had visited China herself as a Tech Valley student, having studied Mandarin Chinese as the school required. In her first-person narrative, Pulliam drew on her own recollections of visiting China and hosting a Chinese student.

Her article began with a question Tech Valley students frequently ask their principal, Daniel Liebert: “Why do we have to learn Chinese?” His answer is that the business community was polled to see what language would be most beneficial for students to learn, and the overwhelming response was Mandarin Chinese.

Pulliam, as a freshman, resented this as she had already studied Spanish for three years, but her article goes on to detail the richness she found in making Chinese friends. Her lengthy article concludes, “What we learned went beyond the sort of business acumen our principal had originally envisioned. Studying Chinese has helped us understand both another culture, and another way of life.”

She was able to understand her principal’s goals, and go beyond them — all in a constructive way.

The conclusion of the internship involved a lengthy assessment form, with thought-provoking questions and finally, in March of Pulliam’s senior year, a panel review of her work. I can best liken it to the oral exams for a doctoral degree.

A panel gathered at Tech Valley High School, made up of teachers, Pulliam’s parents, myself, and her mentor for another internship she had completed at Zone 5, a communications agency, where she kept a blog on her college-search experience.

With great poise, Pulliam gave a lengthy and animated presentation on what she had learned from her internships. As the panel members questioned her, the back-and-forth exchanges were both riveting and revealing. Pulliam’s insights and honesty spurred my own. I came away feeling as if I had learned as much from the experience as Pulliam.

We don’t fault the school board members at Guilderland, or anywhere else, for being careful with their dollars. They have been forced to cut so much in recent years that they must safeguard what is most essential in education.

From our experience with Tech Valley High School, we would argue that preserving this form of education and allowing it to progress is worth every penny.  Part of the mission of Tech Valley High School is to serve as a model for other institutions. If students are forced to withdraw, there will be no such model, there will be nothing like this for public schools in general to emulate.

Especially with Tech Valley High School moving to be near the Nano College, in Guilderland’s backyard, it would be a wise investment to support the school, and learn from it.

As a society, we need people who have learned: how to work with others yet think for themselves, how to take what they’ve been taught and apply it productively to the world around them, and how to go beyond and bring the rest of us with them.

This is what we saw from our front-row seat, and we’re still applauding.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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