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A Crumbling School, a Test for the Future: Fate Unclear As Charters Grow

This is what a school on life support looks like.

The roof of the Philip Livingston Magnet Academy leaks. Pipes drip into classrooms. Windows are broken. Grafitti-covered desks are too small for most of the middle school students. The majority failed the state’s math and English exams.

Enrollment was 350 this past year. In the fall it will be just 250. The building once educated 950. Such a decline will likely shutter Livingston next June.

Across Northern Boulevard is a gleaming, new charter middle school. Almost all pupils passed the standardized state exams.

The fate of Livingston is the next chapter in Albany’s charter school story. Taxpayer-funded charters have changed Albany’s education spending equation. With more and more charter schools competing for students, a struggling public school can be too costly to maintain.

Until its future is decided, Philip Livingston will remain a symbol at the center of the debate between those who argue that charter schools place an unfair burden on public school systems and those who fight to expand the educational options for children who grow up in poor urban neighborhoods.

By 2010, the Albany City School District will have lost a third of its student population to charter schools. Closing Philip Livingston would be one way the district comes to terms with such explosive growth.

In 2005, $19 million for remodeling the school was shifted to other buildings in the district. This fall, Hackett Middle School on Delaware Avenue will reopen after a $34 million makeover. Off Whitehall Road, the 3-year-old Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School has a waiting list.

The mere discussion of Livingston’s closure is complicated by the emotions people hang on the places where children grow up. The fight over the 76-year-old school — on the fringe of the Arbor Hill neighborhood — has pitted parents, community activists and even the NAACP against each other and the district.

The choice faced by the administration is whether to prop up failing schools where charter schools are flourishing or invest in stronger schools in more affluent neighborhoods.

The district sent the wrong message to the community by allowing its school to deteriorate for so long, said Debora Brown-Johnson, president of the NAACP’s Albany chapter.

“It’s the choice issue for parents and for students,” she said. “If they believe they can get a better education in the charter schools, they will choose that option.”

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, President Bill Barnette went so far as to recommend that Livingston parents send their children somewhere else.

For Noelene Smith, a district parent who has fought to give the community a say in the school’s future, its loss will be irreplacable. “It’s an institution in that area. The school itself didn’t fail. The people in the school failed,” she said.

A recent state report found student morale was suffering because of the building’s condition. Poor test scores led to Livingston’s designation as a School Under Registration Review. The state can take over schools on that list if they don’t improve.

While some parents at last month’s graduation ceremony grumbled that the school should be shut down, most praised its teachers and said Livingston doesn’t deserve constant criticism. Parent David Crenshaw said the district bears only part of the fault.

“I put some of the blame on the kids, but I put most of the blame on the parents,” Crenshaw said.

Supporters focus on the bright spots such as Livingston’s removal from the state’s Persistently Dangerous Schools list, an 80 percent drop in suspensions and a rise in test scores.

New Principal Thomas Giglio recognizes the formidable challenge he faces. He said he’ll stress positive reinforcement for the students, rather than imposing harsh measures if they act out.

Academically, “we’re still below where we need to be,” Giglio said.

A decade ago, most Arbor Hill parents had to send their kids to Livingston. Now, they can choose among charter schools and a few spaces at the district’s other middle schools.

The 3-year-old KIPP Tech Valley Charter School stands out in a section of older homes where lawns are well-maintained but young people have shot at one another for drugs. The entire seventh grade at the charter school, which will add an eighth grade this fall, passed the standardized math exams and 91 percent passed the ELA exams.

KIPP parent Felicia Sales is grateful her daughter doesn’t go to a school whose students don’t get the attention they need. She understands the charter school has fewer children, but said the district has not made the proper investment in Livingston.

“They don’t talk about looking for solutions for making it better,” she said. “I don’t want my child to be in a school where they’re always focusing on behavior.”

KIPP had 226 children this year, and 300 in September.

Critics claim charter schools send problem students back to the school district, especially just before test time, but no district statistics prove that has occurred.

Albany Superintendent Eva Joseph last year proposed turning Livingston into a high school academy specializing in engineering, nanoscale and environmental science, but the school board rejected the plan.

There will be a few more students at Livingston next year than originally expected, but it seems clear that the district will not compete with charter schools. No renovation funds are budgeted. The school board approved a plan this week to send students on long-term suspension to Livingston in the fall.

The students will be educated in their own wing. Livingston does not lack for empty space. Waldman can be reached at 454-5080 or by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Students Improving on State Math, English Examinations

CAPITAL REGION — Local students improved their scores on math and English Language Arts tests as did students across the state, according to data released Monday by the state Education Department. More than 80 percent of students in grades three through eight achieved the math standards, which is an increase from 73 percent last year. The number of students meeting English standards increased from 63 percent to 69 percent. These standardized tests are taken by students during the school year and are graded on a scale of one to four with three considered proficient and four above average.

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