Achieving Excellence: Schools Can Do More By Sharing With Each Other
Increasing Educational Opportunity — and Possibly Property Values — with a New School Model
Public education, like all public assets, is under tremendous fiscal pressure. Slashed school district budgets often lead to schools cutting courses. That can mean anything from not teaching the latest computer science to stinting on the range of languages offered. And if you cannot afford to send your child to private instructors or tutors for these subjects, your kid will be behind the curve vs. children who attend schools that do offer more variety. In New York’s Ulster County, enrollment has fallen in the past half decade and the county’s students have grown poorer, as well as more ethnically diverse. All of these factors put financial pressure on the schools, especially as they seek to give their students the leg up they need to compete in an economy that’s shifted toward white collar service work.
But Charles V. Khoury, District Superintendent of Ulster Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), who wrote a recent Discussion Brief for the Benjamin Center on solutions to this problem, says he has an idea for maintaining and even increasing the quality and variety of classes for all students in Ulster County. It’s called the Quasi-Magnet Model. Unlike, say, New York City, which uses magnet schools that focus on core subjects like science (and only teaches those classes to students of that particular school), a quasi-magnet system silos areas of specialization—a school within a school—then shares those classes across all districts within the county. Khoury says Ulster County’s eight school districts (or other school districts facing similar challenges) should work together to determine areas where each district could specialize—and then open those opportunities to all students in the county.
“The idea comes from when I worked at a high school in New Jersey that produced multiple Tony Award winners. That was a school of only 400 students, yet it was a magnet for parents to move nearby so their kids could study the arts. Imagine if there was a kid in a school nearby, not in that district? They would have benefited by coming to our program.”
Selling the Area — Increasing Property Values via Education
Khoury says Ulster County has challenges but it’s also attracting the next generation of young people who’ve “discovered” the area. “A city like Kingston is attracting artists and coders moving up from Brooklyn. They’re pulled by the lower cost of living, and to the outdoors. But even couples without kids yet would look around on where to buy a house and they want to put their children in a competitive place. If they want to interview the superintendent and that administrator can say, ‘Your child will be able to take advantage of not one, but eight school systems’ catalog of offerings,’ you have a much more powerful message.”
Khoury says the first driver of property values is the quality of education. It’s why a town like New Paltz has more costly, more coveted real estate. But he says the Quasi-Magnet model could spread that prosperity more broadly throughout Ulster County.
Study Course Cuts — Then Cooperate
As for what to teach cooperatively, Khoury says administrators need to discuss the courses they have that are on the bubble. “Maybe my school district has 10 kids to study physics C, or only a handful to study calculus B or C. That might not be enough in a given year to teach these courses.” But he explains that if administrators are discussing course offerings under pressure because of low enrollment and then weigh the student population that might enroll across the entire county that can lead to a collective effort to retain the courses.
It’s important to stress that these aren’t just courses for academically gifted students, Khoury says, because these aren’t the only kinds of classes that are under pressure to be cut. “What puts your child in a competitive place is a diversity of courses, what feeds their interests and nurtures those interests, and oftentimes the lightbulb comes on for a child with electives, like the arts. If we cut these we’re not allowing the spark to be lit.”
Fighting Against Fiefdoms
Naturally Khoury says parents and students — as well as administrators — fear dilution of their local school identity. And especially administrators fear budgetary control under a quasi-magnet model. So at first he imagines districts trying a pilot model, where they cooperate on just a few individual courses shared across adjacent districts. “This way they can see that we’re not talking about lessening anything of what makes each school distinct; we’re just increasing opportunities for the students.” Khoury says that going slowly will also allow schools to figure out their area of specialization more naturally. “Ellenville High School has an excellent TV production studio, and maybe another school doesn’t. Do they want to barter with an adjacent district teaching something they can’t offer?”
Transportation vs. Bytes
While Khoury admits the biggest hurdle for some courses will be transporting students to and from classes taught in other districts, he says parents and administrators shouldn’t discount the potential to teach components of these courses online. “There’s everything from edX to MIT teaching online. You don’t teach the whole course this way, but perhaps the class meets one night a week and another portion is online. It’s already being done by high schoolers nationwide. Why wouldn’t we want to offer a hybrid that takes advantage of technology as well as in-person instruction?”
Khoury believes powerfully in schools as loci of community involvement, but he also stresses that schools need to evolve. He says that counties need to understand that they’re competing first on education, not just on jobs. “What’s the first thing parents ask? ‘What are the schools like?’ That’s universal. Now we have the chance, through cooperation, to enhance what Ulster County schools offer.”
Read Charles Khoury’s entire brief, “Sharing Educational Programs: A Quasi-Magnet Model for Ulster County High Schools,” published in cooperation with the Benjamin Center and the Ulster County School Boards Association as part of an ongoing series, A 2020 Vision for Public Education in Ulster County, that seeks to promote countywide, regional thinking in the service of enhancing educational delivery and outcomes.