BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — As neighbors go, the Niskayuna and Schenectady school districts are about as different as can be.
On New York state’s 2011-2012 report card, the most recent available, 74 percent of Schenectady’s students were eligible for free or reduced lunch — a key indicator of resident poverty — while 8 percent of Niskayuna’s students were eligible.
In that same report card, the difference in dropout rates was just as stark: Only four students in Niskayuna failed to graduate because they dropped out, such a small number that the percentage was rounded down to zero. In Schenectady, it was 273 kids.
A final statistic tells the story of these students’ divergent futures. In Schenectady, 26 percent planned to attend a four-year college after graduation. In Niskayuna, the percentage was triple that: 78 percent.
One thing the districts have in common, however, is a core of people whose passion for education keeps them constantly in search of more and better for their students. On July 7, some of those people conferenced over breakfast.
They were brought together by an invitation from the Niskayuna Rotary, which hosts a breakfast meeting at 7:15 a.m. every Tuesday at the Blue Ribbon Restaurant on State Street. Their goal: to find ways to close the gap between the opportunities afforded students in the two neighboring districts.
Pedro Roman, principal of Lincoln Elementary School in Schenectady, was the guest of honor at the early July meeting. He worked to explain the unique challenges the district faces, as well as the opportunities it offers to its students. He knows; he was one.
Roman moved from the Bronx to Schenectady when he was 12 years old.
“I had a chance to meet many folks who were caring and wanted to help,” he said.
It mattered. His father was incarcerated, an experience shared by many Schenectady students. In one third grade class during the 2014-2015 school year, ten of the children had at least one parent incarcerated; six of those had both parents incarcerated.
“These numbers are very staggering,” Roman said. “Many of our students face similar struggles.”
Roman and his sister became the family’s first two college graduates, and vowed to find ways to give back to Schenectady. But not all kids are so successful. During the presentation, Roman described several reasons children struggle: hunger, behavioral or mental health issues, lack of extended learning opportunities during life outside the classroom. Some simply aren’t prepared to take on the challenges school presents.
But most of all, he said, the biggest obstacle is frequent changes in residence. This can happen for any number of reasons, but the result is the same: kids who never reap the benefits of any one school’s programs. And it’s a huge challenge. In any given class of 50 students who leave sixth grade at Lincoln, just five or six — seven on a good year — started at the school in kindergarten.
“That population of students is doing better than those [who] are mobile,” Roman said.
The answer to keeping kids in schools for longer periods of time is a complicated one, wrapped up in issues of poverty, mental health, and other troubling obstacles. But some small part of that solution may come from a model of school operation that’s gaining popularity nationwide: the community school.
Community schools, Roman explained, have social supports and health services built into nearly every aspect of the school day.
“They’re really integrated into the fabric of the school,” he said.
This includes taking an approach to discipline that involves learning strategies for facing frustrating situations, or pro-social skills. It involves searching out the causes of recurring absences and alleviating them, and it involves engaging entire families.
There’s even a family center at Lincoln where parents, who may not have had the most positive educational experiences during their own childhoods, can get to know the principal, teachers and staff in a more comfortable environment. The family center has comfortable couches and computers where anyone can apply for a job, fill out applications for social services, or seek health insurance.
“They can come and just be,” said Leigh Kleinklaus, Lincoln’s family and community engagement coordinator, who also spoke briefly at the meeting.
“We’re here to partner with these families,” she said.
Roman hopes the community school model will help anchor families to Lincoln Elementary — especially because among students who have stayed from kindergarten through sixth grade, the graduation rate is a bright and shining 95 percent.
So where does Niskayuna fit into all this? Well, running a community school requires volunteers, financial contributions and people with the skills to organize, fundraise, plan, and innovate.
That’s where the Niskayuna Rotary enters the picture, and where its members hope others will, too.
“In mature community schools, community organizations support the vision and mission of the school in various ways,” Roman said.
Sitting around him were people like Al Madrigal, a Niskayuna resident who runs the Reading Is Fun program, and Rotarians who have delivered dictionaries, computers, and educational software to Lincoln Community School for years.
These longtime volunteers are about to become even more important, as Roman is departing the Schenectady City School District for a new job downstate. He said he was leaving Schenectady to be closer to family.
Rotarian Robert Fox is one of the volunteers who has collaborated with Lincoln School for years. He said the meeting was all about making sure the club and its supporters were doing all they could to meet the needs of the Lincoln community.
“We partner with this specific school. We like them to give us feedback,” Fox said simply. He hopes his neighbors — in Niskayuna and Schenectady — who have even a few hours to spare will pitch in on the community school effort.
“It takes a village,” he said. “Even a little bit of time can go a long way.”