Albany middle schools, public and charter, struggle to succeed

ByBrittany Horn

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As the school year draws to a close, an educational crisis continues to grow for the city’s middle school students.

Two single-gender charter middle schools are closing their doors due to continued poor performance, and one of the city school district’s middle schools may come into state receivership after more than 10 years of academic failures.

When the Brighter Choice Middle School for Boys and the Brighter Choice Middle School for Girls opened in 2010, they offered a sanctuary for students in West Hill, one of Albany’s poorest neighborhoods. The publicly funded, privately run schools were supposed to offer an alternative to parents who wanted something better for their children than the underperforming district middle schools provided.

But in the five years since they opened, the charter schools failed to fulfill their mission and after hours of emotional hearings this spring, the state’s charter review commission denied the renewal of the charters for both schools.

Meanwhile, one of the district’s public schools William S. Hackett Middle School, has been considered “failing” by the state for more than 10 years and will likely be named to the state’s new receivership program. Should the middle school receive this designation, the superintendent will have one year to turn around Hackett’s academic performance before an external receiver — like a charter school or non-profit — will be appointed to run the school.

The situation isn’t much better at the other public and charter middle schools in the city.

With few exceptions, the city’s district and charter middle schools reported proficiency numbers well below the statewide averages. In many cases, the scores have remained low, if not decreased, as Common Core learning standards were introduced into state assessments.

Some would say the numbers are an indicator of failure, but many working in these academically challenged schools say the test scores don’t tell the entire story.

View from inside

Walk into any of these academically struggling schools and a sense of failure is nowhere to be found.

Students squirm in their seats, eager to answer the next question their teacher asks or share their latest take on a reading selection. Children brag to their principals and teachers about the challenging math problems they’re working on. Kids are proud of the work they’re doing.

They are engaged in their schoolwork and excited to participate with their teachers. They talk about their future plans and where they want to go to college someday. For many, success in school is a path to a better future.

Hackett Principal Mike Paolino’s eyes light up when he talks about the “Moving Up” ceremony held every year for eighth graders and their parents. It’s a celebration of the students advancing on to the high school and taking the next step in their educational career.

“It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” he said, describing the Hackett Middle School auditorium packed with kids, parents cheering and snapping photos as music blares through the speakers. “It’s incredible.”

Research shows that developing the expectation of going to college and demonstrating social and emotional competency are key to making the successful transition from middle school to high school, said John Gasko, CEO of UChicago Impact, an Chicago organization that helps schools develop data-driven tools to improve.

These kinds of events, coupled with a positive and supportive school culture, are what these “failing schools” get right, educators say, and what the state and Charter Schools Institute often fail to recognize when evaluating them.

Since coming to Hackett five years ago, Paolino said attendance rates have increased more than five percent, statistics that Gasko said may seem small but make a huge difference in a child’s education.

“On average, 94 percent of my kids show up every day,” the principal said. “There are lots of things the school offers these children: food, shelter, safety… they want to be here.”

But Albany educators recognize that there are often circumstances far beyond their control that the state doesn’t account for when looking at standardized test scores, a tool used to evaluate both district and charter schools. It’s tough to quantify students who don’t have beds to sleep in or who hear gunshots outside their window, Paolino said, real issues his students face every day.

Varying academic levels in the same classroom can also affect student achievement, Myers Middle School Principal Kim Wilkins said. In some Albany middle school classrooms, teachers may have a student on a first grade reading level sitting next to a student on a tenth grade reading level in a seventh grade math class.

Bringing those two students together while helping them both succeed can be nearly impossible at times, she added.

“They all have their own things going on,” Wilkins said, mentioning physical differences and raging hormones among her students. “Then throw on top where they’re coming from — not just racial stuff, but socio-economic status… When things are shaking at home, they’re shaking at school.”

Scores are looking up, though. Paolino said Hackett students showed huge gains this year in Northwest Evaluation Association tests, an in-house tool used to track student improvement and achievement. For many students, scores reflected improvement equivalent to one to two years of schooling, he said.

This is important when considering the diverse student population, including special needs and multiple languages. Hackett currently serves 661 students in grades 6-8, with 13 percent of those students speaking 17 different languages and another 13 percent considered to have special needs, Paolino said. Eighty percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a key indicator of poverty.

Kelly MacNabb, a special education teacher at Hackett, said it’s hard for a student to focus on academic achievement when students may be responsible for paying household bills or dropping off their younger siblings in the morning before coming to school.

“The idea that (Hackett) is a crazy place with fights every day and teachers that don’t care… that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” she said. “Teachers want to see their students be successful.”

A single success

There is one middle school in Albany that is showing success.

KIPP Tech Valley, located on Northern Boulevard adjacent to a district middle school that closed in 2009, serves Albany children, as well as a few from outside the city limits. The charter is part of a national chain with sister sites in cities like Houston, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Since opening in 2005, the school has posted test scores at or above the state average, better than nearly all publicly funded middle schools in Albany.

Parents rely on the extended KIPP school day — 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. — that makes pick-ups and drop-offs more in-line with the average work day. By comparison, the public school day lasts from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. or seven hours.

That’s where a charter school like KIPP has an advantage, public school officials say, with a 9.5 hour school day that has time for homework completion, extra tutoring and extracurriculars built into it.

The school boasts that in one year at KIPP, students gain an additional 600 hours of instructional time or about an additional 86 traditional school days.

Once a month, the middle school also holds “Saturday school” for field trips and special activities without taking away vital class time.

And KIPP’s test scores reflect the added class time. In the 2013-14 school year, KIPP students achieved proficiency on the state English Language Arts tests — students scoring either a 3 or a 4 on state exams — nearly at or above the statewide average. Its math scores topped the statewide average for proficiency by several percentage points, as well, according to state data.

Teachers at KIPP support the rigorous demands of an extended school day because they say the results are tangible. Every day, they play a direct role in making their students better, and through continued check-ins and assessments — a large part of KIPP education — teachers can make changes on the fly and adapt to their students’ needs.

“I’ve come to demand their very best,” fourth-year teacher Corey Wright said. “Eventually, kids have to run the classroom because they’re going to run our society.”

For Wright, urban education is “as tough as you want to make it.” He’s passionate about the challenges his students present each day, but even more excited about the room for growth. He believes that in setting the bar high, students have no where to go but up.

“That’s what life is about,” he said. “It’s not failing — it’s how you react to that failure.”

Sustainable schooling

So could the KIPP model be applied in other schools successfully?

Many argue no, due to limitations on public schools through union contracts and state requirements. Some charters already have the extended day, but don’t show the same results.

Those familiar with the Albany community note that there are factors like poverty and racial inequities far outside the schools’ control that must be solved in the city before the education system can truly flourish.

But experts say most urban middle schools — charters and district schools alike — aren’t fully reaching their students and engaging their “student mindsets” or who these kids want to be someday.

Primarily, poor minority students have never been asked what they want to be, Gasko said. He also serves as a managing director of the Urban Education Institution at the University of Chicago, which does extensive research into educating inner city youth.

And by not getting students to think about what they can become and what lies ahead for them, students aren’t engaged in the schooling they receive, Gasko said.

This student population doesn’t understand why learning about math and reading will one day make a difference in their lives, Gasko said, so schools need to show kids why these subjects matter and how they will connect in their careers.

“It’s no longer enough for middle schools and high schools to be about high school attainment,” he said. “The future of America is predicated on getting as many kids to college as possible.”

But the playing field isn’t equal when the schools serve different student populations.

The Albany district argues that it handles more students with special needs, like educating students in English as a second or new language and those considered mentally or emotionally disturbed, than the cities charter schools.

Charters, on the other hand, say their primary focus is students with tough, economic backgrounds and minority students.

Albany Community Charter School, which educates students grades K-8, reported that 1 percent of its students were considered ESL and only 3 percent were considered students with disabilities in the 2013-14 school year. Eighty nine percent of students, however, were considered “economically disadvantaged,” according to state data.

Compare that with the city school district, where Hackett Middle School — serving grades 6-8 — reported 10 percent of its students as ESL and 16 percent of its students with disabilities in 2013-14.

Albany city schools Director of Communications Ron Lesko said the district tracks why students return to district schools from charter schools. Consistently, parents report that their students were kicked out or told their needs couldn’t be met at the charter schools, he said.

KIPP also does not accept new students into its seventh and eighth grades to promote tight-knit classes.

But the public school district doesn’t have that option — as per public school requirements, the district must accept everyone who walks through its doors.

Charter schools deny expelling students for any reason. Dustin Mitchell, executive director of KIPP Tech Valley, said in his 10 years at the school, he has never expelled a student. That’s not to say that kids don’t leave the school — like the city school district, KIPP struggles with student transiency, as many parents may relocate for jobs or other reasons.

On average, about one-third of city district students change addresses every year and about 60 percent of district’s students have moved between schools for reasons other than grade advancement during their schooling.

Research shows that multiple transfers between schools were associated with a higher rate of disciplinary incidents, significantly higher rates of absences and significantly lower GPAs than students who remain in a consistent school environment.

And the greatest indicator of how a student will perform in college is their GPA — not a state assessment score or SAT score, Gasko said.

Teaching what’s right

When Hackett Principal Paolino came to the district from Guilderland, he said he believed he was a good educator. Five years at Hackett, however, showed him that he will always have a lot to learn.

Though scores haven’t improved at Hackett like the district and the state would like, Paolino said he can’t help but wonder what the focus of his school should be sometimes. He glanced at framed pictures of his own two sons, not quite in middle school yet, and wondered aloud. He spoke of respect, integrity, honesty — the qualities he said he wants his own kids and Hackett middle school students to learn, in addition earning proficient reading and math scores.

But he worries that too much focus on test scores will take away from the education he believes will help students lead the world one day.

Educators agree that all of Albany’s students are their responsibility — the city’s kids are everyone’s kids, no matter their zip code or the particular school they attend.

The diversity — and the challenges — are what make the Albany city students special, Paolino said. And though change may take longer than the state approves, it’s work that Albany educators, at both charter and district schools, are willing to do.

Giving up on these kids would be the greatest disservice of all, he said.

“Every kid wants the same thing,” Paolino said. “They want direction. They want some success and they want to know they’re going to be OK.”


State test scores

2014 state test scores; proficiency is determined by scoring a 3 or 4 on the state test.


6 percent proficient in ELA

6 percent proficient in math


16 percent proficient in ELA

11 percent proficient in math

North Albany Academy (scores include grades 3-8)

5 percent proficient in ELA

4 percent proficient in math

Albany Community Charter School

20 percent proficient in ELA

27 percent proficient in math

Brighter Choice Middle School for Boys

11 percent proficient in ELA

18 percent proficient in math

Brighter Choice Middle School for Girls

15 percent proficient in ELA

12 percent proficient in math

KIPP Tech Valley

29 percent proficient in ELA

43 percent proficient in math

State average in 2013-14

31 percent proficient in ELA

36 percent proficient in math

Source: State Education Department