One of the issues that most people agree on when discussing Amsterdam’s weaknesses is our school system. The lagging performance of the school district (ranked 80th out of 85th in last year’s Business Review School Report) has been cited as one of the major reasons that families with children pass on Amsterdam.
It’s clear that Amsterdam has a bigger challenge than most communities due to it’s percentage of students coming from impoverished families. A graph of school district ranking vs percentage of students eligible for reduced lunch, shows a clear correlation.
However, the graph also makes it clear that there are exceptions to the trend, which provides at least a glimmer of hope that with improvements to our districts programs and strategies, it may be possible to climb 10 or 20 ranking points higher. A jump in rankings would send a huge message to families in the region that something good is happening here. It’s difficult, however, to hold much hope when we hear so little indication from the Board of Education that they know how to accomplish this.
The last major change to our school system was the implementation of the magnet school concept. The idea behind creating a magnet school, as I gather, was to encourage voluntary de-segregation of minority students and to promote academic achievement. Under the magnet school program, parents are now allowed to pick which school they would prefer their child attend, subject to lottery system. Also, each school now has a themed curriculum.
With my children attending two different elementary schools, I’ve been able to get a glimpse at how the theme works into the schools’ curriculums. In my own estimation, the themes provide a nice form of enrichment to the student’s experience. But it’s hard to see how these themes affect performance on the cores subjects of math, reading and science.
Indeed, if you look at the test scores over the time period when the four elementary schools started the program (McNulty in 2006, Curie in 2007, followed by Tecler and Barkley in 2008) there appears to be no correlation in improvement for any school other than Curie. McNulty’s scores have consistently decreased. Both Tecler and Barkley showed upward trends which began before the magnet program was started. (Note: all schools showed a drop in scores between 2009 and 2010, which I believe was due to a change in NY standards.)
As far as the goal of equalizing the percentage of minorities in each school, this chart shows the relative percentages of Hispanic students registered at each school before and after the magnet program was started.
While implementing the magnet program brought in large amounts of grant money from the state, the data suggests that it has done very little to improve our school performance or diversity.
So what to do next? I see two questions that concerned residents need to answer. First, what new educational strategies are out there that could work for Amsterdam, and secondly, should we expect our existing officials and governing body to take the lead in studying and implementing new ideas, or does an external approach need to be taken?
One possible route which has been tried before, but may be worth taking another look at is to create a charter school. No doubt, the idea is controversial. The past two attempts to form a charter school in the Amsterdam area have failed. But I think the idea that Flippin presents as part of his Big A initiative is worth considering. His idea is to create a charter middle school that focuses on digital arts, engineering and alternative energy. I believe that having one charter school, which would have the freedom to develop and innovate its own systems of teaching, would introduce an element of competition which could spur the school district to become more proactive.
Reading through the news archives on what happened with the last charter school effort, it seems the difficulty with creating a charter school in Amsterdam lies in the fact that NY State looks at the financial impact of the new school on the district. Adding a new school was judged detrimental to the district back in 2004. No doubt, an additional middle school, one that would take students away from Lynch, would face a similar challenge. Flippin suggests funding the school at first through bonding as part of a more comprehensive economic revitalization program. This method may reduce the financial impact of the new school on the district. Another idea might be to convert the existing middle school or one of the existing elementary schools to a charter school, instead of creating a new one.
Another idea that has been in the news recently is the “Flipped” classroom concept which is based on the growing evidence that the amount of individualized attention that a student gets from the teacher is what makes the most difference in his or her academic performance. Basically the idea is for teachers to put all instructional teaching on video which the student would view at home. This frees up more time for the teacher to work individually with students in small groups during school time. In other words, the idea of what constitutes school work and homework is “flipped.” There are valid concerns about this method, and it’s difficult to tell whether it would be effective here in Amsterdam or not. But it’s ideas like these that need to be considered.
I’ve said more than once that I believe that my children will receive a good education in the Amsterdam School District. I am confident of that because I am committed to being involved in my children’s education. But in order for our education system to be seen by the wider region as a strength and not a weakness, we are going to have to introduce further changes to our system to increase our overall performance. Those of us who care enough about this issue are either going to have to press hard on our school board and officials to come up with and implement new strategies, or we’re going to have to find ways to go around them.