Posts Tagged ‘Big A’

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.


In the comments section of my last post, we began to discuss ideas for future business development in Amsterdam. I’d like to get into this topic in a little more detail because I believe that our current “default” strategy in this area is incomplete and out of date. I believe that there are great opportunities for Amsterdam to take advantage of the trends in the current economic climate, but to do so requires an entirely new game plan.

Our current situation has us relying on the Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency (AIDA) to lead in the area of business development.  AIDA’s benefit to the city can be seen primarily by the ten or so businesses that occupy the Edson St. Industrial Park which is administered by AIDA, as well their role in helping several other larger businesses within the city.

A majority of the companies in the park, such as Fiber Glass Industries, Breton Industries, Power and Composite TechnologiesSaratoga Horseworks,  Mohawk Sign Systems, and Fort Miller Company, are manufacturing businesses.  All the buildings in the park are very large in size, and I would venture to guess that most of the businesses employ 100 people or more (either at their Amsterdam locations alone or the total for all their locations).

Based on these observations, I think it is safe to say that our city’s “default” strategy for business development is currently geared toward larger manufacturing (ie “industrial”) companies. This is precisely what I believe needs to change in order to jumpstart our city’s economy. We need to broaden the scope of the types of businesses that we work to attract.

Most people are aware that manufacturing jobs have been declining in America. This graph illustrates just how steeply they have plummeted since 2001. Going forward, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the number of manufacturing jobs will continue to decrease.  Overall GDP of the manufacturing sector continues to rise due to increasing productivity (that’s a whole other topic), and no doubt manufacturing will continue to be an important and sizable part of our economy. But based on the employment numbers, it should become obvious that we cannot continue to look at only manufacturing companies to create jobs.

According to the BLS, the types of jobs that will be growing in numbers include those in the fields of healthcare, science and information technology (especially network systems, data communications, computer software and application engineers).  In the area of healthcare, we have St. Mary’s Healthcare as the largest employer in the area which provides a base for this industry in the region. My hunch is that this industry will continue to grow just fine in Amsterdam on its own.  What I don’t see is any progress toward or vision for attracting science or information technology jobs.

The other problem is the size of businesses that AIDA appears to be geared for. Crucial to creating new jobs are new business startups. According to research done by The Kauffman Foundation, most startups average between 5-8 employees, and the trend shows that number has been getting smaller over the past few years. What resources does AIDA have to attract and assist this type of small business?

Another emerging trend in businesses startups in the increasing percentage of sole proprietorships, otherwise know as self-employed workers or “freelancers”. According to the same research done by the Kauffman Foundation (cited above), single employee businesses now make up more than 27% of new business startups, and the number of multi-employee startups has actually fallen in comparison. So the question has to be asked again: what resources does AIDA have to attract and assist these types of new businesses?

The Kauffman Foundation sums up their research this way…

… policymakers’ focus on big changes in employment because of events such as a new manufacturing plant or the recruitment of a business to a community ignore the more important fact that our jobs outlook will be driven more by the collective decisions of the millions of young and small businesses whose changing employment patterns are not as easy to see or influence.

Given that idea, I believe our city can become more attractive to smaller science and information technology based businesses. Here’s what I believe needs to be done…

  1. Clearly define AIDA’s mission to focus on large manufacturing businesses (or other large businesses). Pursue integration of AIDA with the Montgomery County IDA to facilitate funding of larger projects.
  2. Create a separate entity to attract and assist small business. The incubator center that Flippin proposes as part of his Big A initiative is exactly what we need. While other incubator projects in the area have had less than desirable results, I think Flippin hits the nail on the head as to how this idea would be different:

    Where will companies come to occupy the incubator? They will originate from various venture and startup programs at local universities. The incubator will recruit firms from the surrounding area (even westward) as it will have what startups want: dollars to invest and space. The fact that funding exists acts as a big differentiator to other programs.

  3. In addition to an inventory of the larger structures and property available for business use, an inventory of smaller spaces, including rentable space (such as in the Clock Tower and Noteworthy buildings) must be made available online and updated regularly.
  4. In order to attract self-employed entrepreneurs, fund the formation of a co-working facility such as this one in Fort Collins,  Colorado.
  5. Form a business organization similar to a Chamber of Commerce, but exclusive to the city and which facilitates more structured networking between businesses, markets the city’s business opportunities, and serves as “welcome wagon” to new businesses moving into the area.

I believe these initiatives will put our city on the right track to taking full advantage of the emerging economy. Other ideas? Post them in the comments section!

Big A for Amsterdam

Posted: November 25, 2011 in Economic Development, Vision
Tags: ,

I’d like to take a good look at an initiative (dubbed “Big A”) for getting Amsterdam growing again that was recently proposed on Flippin’ Amsterdam. I would urge anyone who holds out any hope for revitalization in Amsterdam to read through the entire post and consider it. The ideas behind the proposal are ones that have all been discussed before or have been adopted in other cities; however I think this is somewhat of a breakthrough for Flippin to combine everything into a cohesive, actionable plan.

The idea starts with the formation of a public/private corporation (“Big A”) which will be responsible for the economic revitalization of Amsterdam. What Big A will do is fund projects in five key areas:

  1. Preserve existing housing stock and drive residential development in the city for the 20-34 crowd.
  2.  Develop the Southside as a residential and commercial mixed-use destination
  3.  Invest in alternative energy as a revenue driver for the city and attract renewable energy start-ups (leverage the locks on the Mohawk)
  4.  Create a digital arts and engineering (focus on alternative energy) charter middle school
  5.  Establish an incubator center around digital arts, alternative energy and nanotech


Overall, I believe these proposals are right on target to make Amsterdam economically competitive again. They build on Amsterdam’s strengths and address the weaknesses. They also fit well with the direction of the NY Tech Valley initiative and the trends in the global economy.

The $3-$5 million price tag that Flippin estimates, which a majority is proposed to be funded by public bonding (borrowing), will no doubt scare some people. But Flippin rightly points out that there is usually no debate when the city bonds for things like demolition of old buildings or other projects that are understood to be “essential”. I believe investing in our economic future is essential. If the furnace in a house breaks down in the middle of winter, the homeowner will no doubt borrow money to fix it rather than risk freezing to death. Amsterdam’s economic furnace is broken down and we are facing an economic winter.

An important aspect of this plan is accountability, and I think Flippin’s ideas for this will go a long way in helping people to trust this initiative. First, he proposes that the agency has a 5 year charter. I’m not sure if that means the agency will only exist for five years, or only use public funds for 5 years, but either way, that’s an important aspect because it avoids creating a new government dinosaur (ie like AIDA) . The other control he suggests is providing public funding in yearly increments ($500,000 to $1 million per year) based on performance, all of which makes perfect sense.

Frankly, the greatest challenge in this whole proposal is selling it to the people of Amsterdam such that it wins an approval in a public referendum. The past mayoral election shows a city evenly divided on the future direction of the city. Flippin advocates “destroying and disrupting” the current thinking on economic growth and the institutions (ie AIDA) that are charged with stimulating economic growth. While I completely agree that our thinking has to change radically, the militaristic analogy, when extended reveals a problem. It’s usually understood that an offensive effort requires an overwhelming advantage in order to overrun a defending foe. That advantage is simply not there. I believe it will require a whole lot of persuasion to rally our residents around this plan. The past behavior of simply labeling people as “against change” or other less than flattering names will simply backfire again. The case for advancing this plan must be presented in a positive, persuasive way, such that a solid majority of voters believe and trust the initiative. If it’s not accepted at first, then it needs to be presented again in a different way and many more times if necessary until it finally takes hold.

I hope to post more comments on the individual proposals soon!