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Tech Valley: A work in progress

Experimental high school’s grades mixed

Sunday, February 19, 2012
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— When Tech Valley High School opened in 2007, officials envisioned it as a place to prepare students for high-tech jobs at new and expanding technology companies in the Capital Region.

Five years later, that’s still the vision.

And it’s a vision officials feel positive about, even though the school is at about 75 percent of capacity. The school, based at the University at Albany’s East Campus in Rensselaer, has about 125 students in grades nine through 12 — about the same number it enrolled last year. That falls short of its current enrollment goal of 160 students.

Mike McCagg, a spokesman for the school, said that enrollment had stabilized. “Has enrollment curtailed in some districts?” he said. “Yes, but we’ve also seen some schools ramp up enrollment.”

Tech Valley has a heavy emphasis on project-based, collaborative learning and partnerships with area businesses. There are no sports, though students are permitted to participate in their home districts. There is no music program, but there are extra-curricular activities including informal guitar and drumming clubs. And last year students mounted a theater production for the first time — something they’ll do again this year, when they put on “The Producers.”

The students are drawn from the 47 districts that comprise the Capital Region BOCES and Questar III BOCES — an area that includes Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, Schoharie and Rensselaer counties.

Officials at schools throughout the Capital Region gave different reasons why their enrollment at Tech Valley had lagged.

Some said it was difficult to pay for the program, while others cited a lack of interest. Others said that the long drive to the Rensselaer campus made the school less appealing, especially for students interested in playing sports and participating in after-school activities.

Price issue

The Scotia-Glenville Central School District currently sends two students to Tech Valley — a senior, who will graduate in the spring, and a sophomore. The district is committed to seeing the sophomore graduate, but doesn’t plan to send any more students, largely because of costs.

Tuition at Tech Valley this year is $12,000 per student; school districts receive partial reimbursement from the state based on their BOCES aid funding, which varies from district to district.

But Scotia-Glenville Superintendent Susan Swartz said that even with the reimbursement, paying for students to go to Tech Valley represents a challenge. “We’re so concerned with where we’re going to be budgetarily,” Swartz said. “Even with the minimal restoration of state aid, this is going to be a very difficult year for schools.”

Robert Hanlon, a spokesman for the Scotia-Glenville district, said that after state aid and a transportation reimbursement have been factored in, it is costing the district $17,746 to send the students. “Is that a value we want to put on this, for two kids?” he said.

Transportation is another big issue, Hanlon said. Ideally, schools in Schenectady County would share buses, but this has been difficult to coordinate due to different start times.

In a recent interview, Tech Valley principal Dan Liebert acknowledged that the recession has hurt enrollment.

“In the fall of 2008, with the economy slowing down, we had fewer districts sending us students because of their budget issues,” Liebert said. He added, “I have no doubt that two years from now we’re going to have full enrollment.”

The Schalmont Central School District currently has two students enrolled, a junior and a senior. Audrey Hendricks, Schalmont spokeswoman, said the school is willing to send new students but that there hasn’t been a lot of interest in recent years.

“They’re provided with the information, but they’re choosing not to go,” Hendricks said. “There are benefits to going, but there are drawbacks, too. They miss out on sports and extra-curricular activities.” She said that the Schalmont students at Tech Valley generally don’t return home until about 3:45, and that most sports practices begin immediately after school ends at 2:30. “It’s a 45- to 50-minute drive.”

No-go and go

Some local school districts, such as Schenectady, Niskayuna, Shenendehowa, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Guilderland and Duanesburg, do not send any students.

Niskayuna graduated one student from Tech Valley High School last year, but sends none now. A spokeswoman said Niskayuna offers a “vast array of electives” and that students need not leave their home district.

Other districts reaffirmed their commitment.

Schoharie Central School District currently sends three students, and superintendent Brian Sherman said he didn’t anticipate any cutbacks. The Board of Education, he said, remains committed to sending one additional student each year. “It’s an alternative program for students that really want to be hands-on problem-solving and oriented toward technology,” he said.

The Questar III BOCES schools send far more students to Tech Valley than the Capital Region BOCES schools. Capital Region BOCES, which covers Schoharie, Saratoga Albany and Schenectady counties, currently sends 30 kids; Questar III BOCES, which covers Rensselaer, Columbia and Greene counties, sends 85 students. The district that sends the most students is Averill Park, which currently sends 14, including eight freshmen.

“We get more students from Questar, but we don’t know why,” McCagg said. He said many of the students in the Questar districts have long drives, and noted that districts have taken steps to make these drives more pleasant — one district, for instance, installed WiFi on a bus.

Distance might account for some of the disparity between BOCES districts. After all, Tech Valley High is based in Rensselaer County.

But differences in how the program is funded might also play a role.

Capital Region BOCES bills districts on a per student basis, but doesn’t reimburse them until the following year, But Questar III BOCES includes the cost of Tech Valley High with its career and technical education programs, and charges districts based on a five-year average of how many services the district uses.

Sherman said that the Questar III BOCES approach would make it easier for schools to send students to Tech Valley by making “it easier for us to plan for those expenses.”

Idea mill

Capital Region BOCES Superintendent Charles Dedrick said his agency is moving toward adopting an averaging system, but that the change is still a few years away. He said that Tech Valley High School is meeting its bottom line and serving as an incubator, by developing practices for other schools to model. Over the past couple years, more than 500 educators have toured the facility to learn about project-based learning.

“I see it as a terrific place for teachers and administrators to come and learn, too,” Dedrick said. He said he expects enrollment to pick up once the economy is better. “I have superintendents tell me all the time that they feel terrible that a student wants to go there and because of the financial conditions right now they just can’t.”

McCragg said that Tech Valley sees a steady stream of visitors who are eager to learn more about the school’s innovative practices and bring them back to their own schools. “We have an open invitation to school districts to come to the school,” he said. “We’ve had superintendents here, and guidance counselors here. We do professional development.” He said the district recently provided training to 15 middle school teachers from Schenectady.

“Schools know we exist,” McCagg said.

Original dreams

When legislation creating Tech Valley High School passed in 2005, officials spoke of a school that would enroll roughly 400 students. When it opened, Liebert said he expected to have a waiting list of students, and that they were targeting students who are “ready, open and curious.” The school’s first freshman class had 40 students, but enrollment has since dropped to about 30 students per freshman class.

“We were the new, exciting thing on the block,” McCragg said. “Nobody knew what we were.” He noted that 130 eighth-graders attended a recent open house. “We’d love to have more students,” he said. “Could we handle 400 students right now? If we could get 160, I think that would be good. We’re fine where we’re at.”

One common misconception is that Tech Valley is only open to top students. “We don’t take only top students,” McCragg said. “We have students of all levels and abilities. We take students who can learn in this environment — that doesn’t always mean students who get straight As.”

One recent project for freshmen and sophomores involved designing a miniature golf course. The students visited a golf course, took measurements, and eventually developed a digital model, as well as a physical model. McCagg said the project taught them geometry and presentation skills.

McCagg said that the school’s initial goal of cultivating students to work in the area’s burgeoning technology sector has evolved somewhat. Though many of the school’s graduates have gone off to college with the goal of pursuing careers in technology, others have entered the military and one student is now studying theater. The majority of graduates cite communication as one of the biggest skills they learned, and McCagg said the school is focused on “preparing them for the workforce, and giving them the skills that are necessary to do the job.”

Tech Valley High School belongs to the New Tech Network, a nationwide linkage. The school also offers courses in writing, history and literature.

 
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