By Zachary Matson
NISKAYUNA — At a board meeting last month, Niskayuna High School administrators spelled out the severe challenges faced by a trio of students, each of whom is well behind on credits and facing family and emotional problems.
“These are real people that exist in our halls,” said John Rickert, the high school principal. “It’s not something that you just hear about or read about; these are actual people who we want to help reach their learning outcomes.”
Student A (they were not identified further) is in his second year of high school, is failing all of his classes and failed two summer school classes taken before the school year started. The student has an absent father and mother struggling to get by, and no one in the family has earned a high school diploma.
The student has good attendance and is working with a social worker, psychologist, mentor and special education teacher, but he is still finding it difficult to move forward in school.
“We have essentially thrown every intervention we have at this student, . . . and he still has no credits,” Rickert told the school board.
Student B, in the third year of high school, didn’t finish sophomore year courses or attend summer school and is now failing all classes. The student suffers from anxiety and depression, receives counseling services and works with a social worker.
Student C struggles with drug abuse, truancy, verbally aggressive tendencies and has been suspended multiple times. Currently failing four classes, the second-year high school student had just one-half credit under his or her belt.
The students are emblematic of a larger group of youths with intensifying needs and struggles, which school leaders are struggling to address.
In the short term, school officials are envisioning a new position that would coordinate — as a case manager of sorts — services provided to students most in need of focused intervention. The ideal person for the job, they said, could also provide direct instruction in one-on-one or small-group settings.
But looking beyond next year’s budget to what kinds of plans the school could put in place over the next five years, the educators concede they are searching for what programs would be a good fit for Niskayuna, or what they could access through BOCES or other school districts.
“We were kind of at a loss of what to put up for years two through five,” Assistant Principal Eva Jones said at the board meeting.
While the school and district officials didn’t draw a direct line between rising poverty rates and the students who were highlighted, Niskayuna has seen a marked increase in students who are living below the poverty line in recent years. School officials did cite research that demonstrates students in poverty face challenges that negatively impact their ability to learn.
In 2001, fewer than 3 percent of Niskayuna students districtwide qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, which is based on each students’ household income level. Last school year, 12 percent of students qualified for the free or reduced-price lunches. At the high school, the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches has grown from 4 percent in 2010 to 13 percent this year.
“Whether there is a direct correlation or not, what we do understand is the effects that poverty has on students’ ability to engage, the effects it has on students’ cognitive ability, the effects it has on families, the effects that, overall, it will have on instruction,” said Assistant Principal John Moskov.
Nearly every district in the region has seen an increase in the percentage of students living in poverty over the past 10 or 15 years, and Niskayuna still pales in comparison to the Schenectady school district, where 78 percent of students qualify for the free lunch program.
But the threefold increase at Niskayuna over the past five years has the district looking at ways to maintain one of the best graduation rates — 95 percent last year — in the region.
“In the face of this demographic shift, and talking about how the needs have intensified, the district has still been able to maintain its exemplary graduation rate,” said Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr.” We want to ensure that continues to happen.”
What’s in place, what’s to come?
The high school currently works hard to meet students where they are, starting with close partnerships with the middle schools and extending through graduation. The three principals work alongside counselors, social workers and others to track the needs of individual students.
“I would say there is a good continuum in place, so now … we have to continue to look at either what can we create or what’s available through partnership that we can meet some of the needs, where maybe the students aren’t working out so well with the support programs we do have,” Rickert said.
And the district works with other school districts and BOCES to place students in outside programs. But over the past few years, the numbers of those outside options have declined, as the total demand for access to them has increased across nearly all districts.
The proposed coordinator position, presented to the board for early-stage budget planning, would oversee as many as 30 or 40 struggling students. Moskov said he could name a dozen students off the top of his head who would likely fall on that person’s caseload and receive close personal instruction.
The case manager position would be in constant communication with student teachers, support staff, social workers and counselors and would serve as a liaison to parents.
The coordinator would also provide direct instruction to students and help bolster their time management and study skills, focusing on those in greatest need or who are furthest behind.
“We are hoping our coordinator can do all of those pieces in a more cohesive manner,” said Jones, the assistant principal.
She said the school and district still have more research to do, looking at programs other districts offer that Niskayuna could send students to or replicate within the district. The educators also talked about increasing outreach and engagement efforts to families, floating the idea of holding “back to school” nights in neighborhoods and developments in which students live.
Ultimately, the school’s staff and faculty are focused on connecting individually with each student they teach — to both make students feel cared for and to meet their specific academic needs.
“We know that every student learns differently,” Rickert said. “When teachers look at the students in front of them, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach; you can’t come to the classroom each day and say I’m gonna teach this way no matter what . . . it just doesn’t work that way.”