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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 11, 2007

We need to prepare our students — all of them

Tech Valley High School is looking for students and teachers. The innovative new school will open in the fall — not a moment too soon. We need to learn from the mistakes made in Austin, Texas.

Last year, we reported on a case study of the 1990’s tech boom in Austin, a capital city with a state university to which Albany is often compared.

"The kind of contours of Austin’s economy before the boom were similar to ours," said Judith Saidel who co-wrote the report for the University at Albany’s Nonprofit Executive Roundtable.

"The boom was not positive for all," the report said. While the per-capita income in the Austin area shot up 29 percent — the highest in the United States during the 1990s — low-skilled and under-educated workers, unemployable in tech jobs, benefited little.

Making things worse, the report says, the constant stream of new people to the area — the metropolitan population went from three-quarters of a million to 1.3 million during the decade — caused the cost of living to rise exponentially.

Austin’s deteriorating minority neighborhoods, black and Hispanic, "remained largely unchanged," the report says. A European Union study cited in the report notes, "Austin has the highest racial income inequality of all comparable regions in the U.S."

According to the report, some employers were unaware of the untapped labor force in Austin, instead hiring from outside the area. On Austin’s impoverished east side, the unemployment rate reached 14 percent.

"My profits were being limited because we hadn’t focused on a sustainable community," said one chief financial officer interviewed by the roundtable. "There was a lot more labor, it just wasn’t properly educated or prepared."

As the Albany area readies for a tech boom that may or may not explode, the new high school is a necessary first step.

Tech Valley High School, a joint venture of two area BOCES, will open on a business campus — Rensselaer Technology Park in Troy. It will draw from 48 school districts in seven counties. The project has a grant from New Technology Foundation, which wants to replicate the success of New Tech High School in Napa, Calif., opened a decade ago. That school has no textbooks and no library but offers a technology-rich environment.

Tech Valley High School, though, is about more than modern equipment. "It’s inquiry-based learning where students pick a topic to study and work together as a team to solve a problem," said Nancy Andress, a Guilderland administrator who is on the new school’s advisory team, chairing a committee on content and outcomes.

She modestly describes herself as a "host," and says the committee is not made up of "the typical cast of characters to plan a school." The group includes representatives of local businesses, as well as educational leaders such as the vice president of the University at Albany College of Nanoscience and Engineering and the dean of the School of Engineering at Hudson Valley Community College.

"They have their finger on employability and skills that are needed in the real world," Andress told us.

While learning at the new school will meet state standards, Andress said, "This school is hoping to engage students in a different way than stand and deliver." Evaluation will be different, too. "Students will reflect upon and assess their own work," she said.

Projects will straddle different subject areas and the curriculum will be student-centered, Andress said. "The best starting point for learning is when students are generating their own questions," she said. "Brain research shows concrete experience is the most powerful and natural way of learning."

"It’s another opportunity for a youngster to learn in a different way," said Barbara Nagler, who heads the Capital Region Board Of Cooperative Educational Services.

"It’s not intended to be a school for the gifted," said Andress. "They want a diverse population, including students with disabilities."

The school will be small; the freshman class will have up to 48 students. Eventually, Nagler told us, there will be 400 students in grades nine through 12.

Two years ago, the Guilderland School Board was wowed by student Max Ebert, then an eighth-grader at Farnsworth Middle School, who attended a summer camp that was a forerunner for Tech Valley High School. With great enthusiasm, Ebert told about learning how nanochips are made, about building robotic vehicles and operating them with lasers, about disassembling and reassembling a computer.

Ebert’s father said he was "able to see the energy created by this group of kids as they got together...The direction of some lives will be changed by the experiences they had," he said.

We don’t doubt it. But 400 students is a small number compared to the need for such training and innovation. While students from each of the school districts we cover — Guilderland, Voorheesville, and Berne-Knox-Westerlo — are eligible to apply, very few, if any, will go.

But the sorts of ideas and ways of learning being generated by Tech Valley High School, even in its planning stages, can and are being used in our schools at large.

This week, for example, the Voorheesville School Board heard a proposal for an innovative course that would combine economics, government, and English studies as high school seniors shadow school administrators or town workers.

BKW, more than a decade ago, blazed the way locally with a tech-prep program that prepared students with marketable skills.

The Guilderland School Board has set a priority this year to develop a district-wide technology program. On Tuesday, the board heard a presentation on what is now offered in math, science, and technology.

Setting such a priority, said school board President Richard Weisz, let the staff know, "We’re going to give them money for dessert, too...We still have to educate the community. We have to educate ourselves, too."

"I would encourage you to dream big," said board member Peter Golden.

Andress stressed the need for partnerships with area businesses, research facilities, and government. We hope the community is listening and answers her invitation.

We were particularly heartened when Demian Singleton, math and science supervisor at Farnsworth Middle School, said that there is a need not just for Ph.D.s but for tech-savvy graduates of two-year programs or high school programs.

We don’t want to repeat the problems outlined in the report on Austin’s tech boom, where much of the local work force didn’t benefit. The gifted students in wealthy school districts will succeed with or without Tech Valley High School and the innovation it inspires.

We need to prepare our students — all of them — for a fluid future if we are to progress as a whole society.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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