Seneca House joins Farnsworth confederacy

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Farnsworth Middle School has a fourth house that now officially, like the other three houses, has a Native American-inspired name: Seneca.

Tuesday night, the school board heard a report on how the fourth house, or school within a school, would be run — without any added expense.

Farnsworth was built in 1970, back when the concept of a child-centered middle school was ground-breaking. The school had undergone no major renovations until the current $20 million reconstruction project, which added 18 new classrooms, configured as a fourth house, and a new gymnasium.

The suburban middle school draws from five district elementary schools, serving students in grades six, seven, and eight. Enrollment is expected to peak next year at 1,418 and then begin to decline to just over 1,200 in 2010-11.

Most students stay in their assigned houses for their entire three years at Farnsworth, with the same classmates and faculty, making a big school seem small. Each of the three houses currently has its own house principal, overseen by a single school principal.

In February, an ad hoc committee of parents, teachers, and administrators had strongly recommended that the new space be used not as overflow classrooms but rather as a fourth house. The committee outlined three approaches.

The top priority involved hiring a new house principal at an estimated annual cost of $125,000. The second choice involved creating a smaller house with a re-assigned administrator for $51,000. And the third choice, which involved hiring a secretary for the fourth house, would have cost $35,000.

During the February presentation, Gloria Towle-Hilt, a seventh-grade social studies teacher, said that a house at Farnsworth is like a neighborhood, a homeroom is like immediate family, and the teaching teams are like extended family.
"Students need to be known and well-nurtured," she said.

The school board allotted no funds for administering a fourth house in the district’s $76 million budget for next year, which voters passed earlier this month.
While praising the plan presented to the school board Tuesday night, Superintendent Gregory Aidala said, "It wasn’t a simple task. The only string we put on was we will not provide additional funds."
William Aube, one of Farnsworth’s three house principals, outlined the plan. "A fourth house was created without hiring any additional staff," he said.

Each house will have 300 to 400 students, arranged in sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade teams. Each house will have a full-time school counselor, a half-time social worker, a house office, a house secretary, and a shared house principal.

Hiawatha, Tawasentha, and Seneca will each have a house principal; each of those principals will also be assigned to one grade level in Mohawk House.
"House principals will no longer be associated with one particular house but rather with the teams they’re assigned to," said Aube.

This summer, students will learn their homeroom assignments, and the names of their school counselor and principal.

New students, sixth-graders coming from elementary school, will be assigned as always, Aube said, based on recommendations from their schools.
"We take fifth-graders from all five elementary schools and create new families," said Aube. "It’s important to mix children from the entire Guilderland community."

The seventh- and eighth-grade teams that are now in place, as sixth- and seventh-grade teams, will stay intact from one year to the next, Aube said. Some groups will move from one house to another as a team.
The counselors and principals will become "common denominators," he said, attached to the same children.

Choosing a name
The original charge, when the Farnsworth houses were named in 1970, was to have groups of three, Nancy Clum-Dolan, an advisor for the student council, told The Enterprise earlier. One proposal was to name the houses after three astronauts; another was to name them after three Presidents, she said.

Ultimately, three Native American-inspired names were chosen:

— Mohawk, for the eastern-most tribe in the Iroquois confederacy;

— Hiawatha, for the Onondagan leader credited with organizing the Iroquois confederacy, described in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem; and

— Tawasentha, for the vale, located in Guilderland, that is part of the setting in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.

Gabby Formica, president of the middle school’s student council, told the school board Tuesday about how the name for the fourth house was chosen.

Students submitted Indian-related names with background information, she said, and the list was narrowed to three in January:

— Seneca, for the western-most tribe in the original Iroquois confederacy;

— Nokomis, for the grandmother who raised Hiawatha, as described in Longfellow's poem; and

— Atatoraho, a warrior who was evil but became good.
Students voted, and chose Seneca. Formica had said earlier that student interest in the name selection was high. "A thousand kids voted, across all the teams," she said.

Tuesday, the superintendent asked Formica if it had been a close vote.
"No, it was really, really, really obvious," answered Formica, because no one would have been able to pronounce the other names, she said.

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