#teacher | Niskayuna teachers give input in middle school debate

Niskayuna teachers opened the door last week to a potential overhaul of the district’s middle school configuration, outlining the limits of the district’s current model and possible advantages to a change.

As it plans a major capital project to address building infrastructure needs and accommodate projected enrollment growth, the school board is also considering whether to change which buildings house which grade levels.

Two options under consideration, narrowed from a longer listed developed by a consultant last year, would dramatically alter what the middle school grades look like in the district: One option would consolidate all middle school students, grades six through eight, into a single school; another option would divide the middle grades between one fifth- and sixth-grade school and one seventh- and eighth-grade school.

Niskayuna currently has two middle schools, each serving the district’s sixth through eighth grade students: Van Antwerp and Iroquois middle schools.

Leaders of a committee tasked with studying the academic and instructional advantages of the different middle school models, as well as gathering teacher input, on Tuesday presented to the school board.

Kateri Skinner, an Iroquois Middle School math teacher and member of the committee, said teachers have long sought to overhaul the district’s approach to middle school and that teachers widely felt a new model could set up changes that would benefit student learning.

“The desire is there, absolutely, the desire to do something different than what we are doing,” Skinner said during the presentation to the board last week. “There is a lot of central agreement on if we do something different there is potential to provide more high quality programming than what we are currently doing and isn’t that the goal of any district.”

In a survey soliciting input from teachers on the advantages of the different middle school models, responding teachers were more likely to give positive marks to advantages they associated with changing the middle school model. A change would help building a stronger middle school community, foster more teacher collaboration and development, ensure program consistency for all middle students and give educators greater flexibility in scheduling classes.

Educators highlighted the current scheduling limitations of the two middle schools and the fact that the two schools offer varying programs and services to students as major drawbacks to the current model.

Even if the district does stick with the current configuration of grades and buildings, Skinner said, teachers want to see the district adopt a new approach in the middle schools.

“There is a desire no matter what configuration you want to present to the community, there is a to re-envision our middle school program,” Skinner said.

Some parents, though, have raised concerns in recent months about deviating from the current configuration of schools.

Those parents have highlighted their support for the district’s neighborhood elementary schools – something they don’t want to be disrupted by a configuration change at the middle schools – as well as outlined concerns over student transitions from one school to another and increasing transportation challenges for families.

The committee that studied the academic component of a potential configuration change also offered research that would support a decision to maintain the current middle school model.

Russell Moore, a Niskayuna parent and former educator in North Colonie schools, said the committee’s literature review of research into middle school showed that the research doesn’t proscribe a single model that’s best for middle school. He said it ultimately comes down to the kind of academic program a district and school staff build for students.

“Your program is what matters,” said Moore, who worked as a middle school principal when in North Colonie. “The quality of your program has a greater impact than any configuration.”

Summarizing a 15-page analysis of the research, the committee leaders outlined the need to build community within a middle school, offer students chance to explore interests and hold students to high expectations.

“You are not going to find a definitive statement ‘This is what middle school needs to look like’,” Moore said.


Niskayuna Community Forums on School Configuration 

Both forums will be held at the Niskauina High School Little Theater

Jan. 22 at 6:30 p.m.

Jan. 25 at 10:30 a.m.

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