Making the Grade: Examining the Valley’s High Schools
The economic downturn has forced educators throughout the region to do more with less. Here’s a look at how four local schools are helping their students succeed with innovative programs and special services. Want to know how your child’s school measures up? Check our chart, which lists stats for 65 Valley high schools
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Germantown High School
Academics and community are intricately united in smaller, more rural school districts, such as Germantown in Columbia County. The entire Germantown Central school district contains 606 students, and one building houses classes from kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade.
“We watch a lot of the kids grow up, from the day they first enter kindergarten to the day they get their high school diploma. That’s pretty special,” says Germantown High Principal Karol Harlow.
And it makes for hands-on administration. “The other day, a parent called us to say her first-grader had lost a lens from her eyeglasses in the playground and couldn’t function without them,” says Harlow, whose high school students span 7th to 12th grades. “Our elementary school principal wasn’t available just then, so I put my coat on and took the first-grader out, and together we searched for her lens. Luckily, we found it. Then the custodian found a little screw and helped put her glasses back together. That’s the way it is around here — as a principal, you’ve got to be ready for anything. We’re not hidden away in some remote office,” laughs Harlow.
Academically, the school offers the full range of standard high-school studies — plus advanced courses, too. “We’re too small for a full-fledged honors program, but we have Advanced Placement courses in topics like English and U.S. history,” she adds.
Germantown High also has a special link-in with Columbia-Greene Community College, located in Hudson. “It’s an arrangement where some of the kids take courses like English, poly sci, Spanish, and calculus here in our building for about one-third of the cost they’d pay at Columbia-Greene. And they get credits for both high school and college,” says Harlow.
Also, early this year, the district plans to launch an online program in which kids can take several elective courses that otherwise might not be available “live” at the school.
Germantown plans, too, to offer a GED high school equivalency program for students who can’t, for whatever reason, attend regular classes and still qualify to graduate. “We’ve been approved by the state for it, and already have about eight students interested, so that will be an added educational option,” she says.
Motivating the students and staff, plus getting parents involved, is key to supporting the kids, Harlow says. “It affects the overall school climate. So we do things like have parents’ visiting day. We don’t mail out the first report card of the year, parents come in to get it, and they go around and meet all the teachers — that’s for all the students’ parents, from K to 12. Everyone gets to know each other, and if the kids are having a problem, it can be dealt with sooner rather than later.”
Germantown also seeks to keep staff abreast of the latest teaching and motivational techniques, says Harlow.
“For instance, a number of teachers went to a professional development day where the topic was to be ‘Improving Regents Exam Scores.’ They expected to come away with new test-taking strategies. But it turned out to be more about ways to get kids motivated, and we’ve adopted some of the ideas in the classrooms. For instance, when teachers give a test, it was suggested that after about 20 minutes, everybody stop and take a ‘brain break,’ then begin again. Things like this help kids learn — and helps boost their test scores, so it’s a win-win situation.”
Germantown, like all school districts, lives under the seemingly endless shadow of possible budget cuts.
“Last year, the local population was down a bit, and we had a number of reductions to our staff,” notes Harlow. “We’re attempting to do more with less.” Fortunately, she says, they haven’t as of yet had to cut any sports or extracurricular programs. “But we’ve had to be more careful; like if only a small number of students sign up for a particular class, we might not offer it.”
For the most part, she says, Germantown High kids do tend to buckle down and learn, and have fun while they do it.
“We seek ways to reward kids for achieving. Sometimes a school can get bogged down — not in the reward part, but in the ‘consequences’ part.” For instance, in the last school quarter, she says, “Every eighth grader passed every class. So we made a big banner with every student’s name on it, and it’s hanging in the cafeteria. We had a breakfast for the kids and congratulated them.”
A sense of unity plays out in other ways, too. Harlow says that during the recent holidays, one of the school’s clubs auctioned off a Christmas tree and handmade ornaments as a fund-raiser. The person who won it was a school staff member, and he displayed the tree in his office.
“Then we heard about a local family we knew, who couldn’t afford a Christmas tree. He offered to give it to the family, and it helped them have a happy holiday,” she says.