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Schenectady's Success Academy: Less is more

With fewer students, program yields better results

Sunday, March 23, 2014
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Success Academy for Middle School Students located at Steinmetz school has changed its program with half as many students in each class. Here, Tom Hopkins teaches a Social Studies class on Friday morning.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Success Academy for Middle School Students located at Steinmetz school has changed its program with half as many students in each class. Here, Tom Hopkins teaches a Social Studies class on Friday morning.

— Less turned out to be far more at Schenectady’s Success Academy.

The program, for students who failed in middle school, was scaled back in this year’s budget. The smaller, reorganized program is now having much more success.

Already, it has turned around more than 30 students who failed last year.

Success Academy for Middle School Students used to take in 80 or more students each year. The goal was to help them finish two years of school at once so they could catch up with their peers.

By the numbers

Some stats from Schenectady’s Success Academy:

43 students

86% attendance rate

77% passing math

88% passing English

But failing seventh-graders often stayed in SAMSS until high school, spending two years in the program and still entering high school a year behind their classmates. Many managed to earn some ninth-grade credits, but not enough to skip to 10th grade.

This year, the program took in only 40 students. And they went without the computerized learn-at-your-own-pace software that all failing students have used in the past.

Superintendent Laurence Spring cancelled the $171,500 Plato software contract last year, calling it ineffective.

Most students do far better with a teacher than a computer, Spring said, pointing to dismal results districtwide when failing students used Plato.

At the Success Academy, 13 of 21 eighth-graders who used Plato passed the ninth-grade math Regents exam. But in other subjects, Plato didn’t seem to help.

Last year, the best result among high school students who used Plato was in global studies, where students who studied with the computer had a 38 percent pass rate. The worst result was in English, where none of the students who used Plato managed to pass the exam.

Spring said the strong math exam scores weren’t enough to justify keeping the software.

This summer, the district’s new director of special education, Rita Levay, and others redesigned the program to build on strong teachers, not computers.

“A lot of it comes down to good teaching, and that relationship,” she said.

They decided to cut class sizes to 10 students per teacher, and added a full-time reading specialist. (Last year, that specialist had been half-time.)

“One of the primary problems was their reading level was low,” she said.

They also decided to accept just 40 students, down from 80 in previous years, and carefully chose students who seemed like a good fit for the intensive program.

Those with behavior issues could attend, for example, but those with severe mental-health needs could not, she said, “because we didn’t have the support system to wrap around them.”

Levay is firm on not taking everyone.

“We’re not going to take just any kid who walks in the door,” she said. “We spent hours going over the kids.”

Many overage students were rejected.

“A 16-year-old in eighth grade would not be appropriate, if the kid is staying until this date and then walking out the door.”

But other overage students were accepted “if you wanted to really be here... if you’re willing to give it a shot,” she said.

The difference, she added, was whether the students said they might or would leave on the first legal date to drop out.

“Maybe” earned them a chance in the program, she said.

But after the revamped program began, she added three more students who personally appealed for admittance.

“Kids came down and advocated for themselves,” she said. “‘I know my friend is in SAMSS, I know it’s working.’”

She was impressed — and hopeful that their interest meant it was working.

Now results are coming in.

“The reading is improving,” she said.

As of February, the latest month for which the district has complete data, the attendance rate was 86 percent.

“Which is really good,” Levay said, noting that the students were at high risk of skipping school due to their academic difficulties.

In math class, 77 percent are passing. That’s about 33 students.

In English, 88 percent are passing.

“That’s a big deal,” she said. “The staff has done an amazing job.”

But the program still isn’t meeting the original goal, to catch kids up by having them finishing two years in one.

Levay said “a couple” of students will jump from eighth grade to 10th grade, rejoining their peers. Most will be promoted to the next grade, passing but not catching up.

Among those jumping straight to 10th grade is Schenectady’s new starting basketball player, Tobias Holmes.

Holmes failed eighth grade last year, but entered SAMSS determined to succeed. He finished his eighth-grade work and dove into ninth-grade classwork by the middle of the year.

This winter, he also became the first eighth-grader to play for Schenectady. The 14-year-old moved up from the modified team when coach Eric Loudis decided he was ready.

There were concerns about his academics — but Holmes had already come so far with SAMSS that by February it was clear he would enter 10th grade in the fall.

But that success is rare.

Levay is now considering how to better help more students catch up.

She’d like a program for all students who fail.

“How can we think about that differently?” she asked, noting that the need starts in kindergarten.

There, children who are held back often are ready for first grade by November, she said.

“So then what do we do?” she asked.

She will plan that program next summer.

For now, she’s planning next year’s academic journey for the eighth-graders in SAMSS now.

She might add a ninth-grade section to the program to give existing SAMSS students another year of small classes before entering the high school. “Our goal is, how do we really successfully transition them to high school?” she said. “We don’t want to just cut off the support.”

 
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