SARATOGA SPRINGS — Maple Avenue Middle School has seen a significant drop in the number of course failures and an improvement in test scores in the past year, according to Principal Stuart Byrne.
Byrne delivered the annual state of the building report to members of the Saratoga Springs City School District Board of Education during the regular board meeting Tuesday evening.
The middle school, unlike many of the district elementary schools, has maintained, and even increased enrollment numbers — up to 1,660 students from 1,637 in the last academic year.
Byrne pointed to the reduced number of course failures as an example of the school meeting the|district-wide goal to “raise the bar.” Last year, there was a total of 334 course failures, down from 448 courses failed in the 2009-2010 year, decreasing the percentage of failures from 2.71 percent to 1.95 percent between the two years.
The most notable improvement in test scores was a jump in eighth-grade English Language Arts numbers.
The school moved up from 10th to first in the regional rankings.
Like eighth grade, sixth-grade ELA scores improved in the statewide rankings, as did eighth-grade math scores. Seventh-grade ELA scores and sixth- and seventh-grade math scores fell slightly.
Byrne said Maple Avenue Middle School is working toward meeting the district’s four other goals — closing the gap, focusing on the power of literacy, building 21st century learners and cultivating powerful leadership.
Byrne emphasized the school’s increased focus on using the Student Council to promote student leadership and community service.
Some other 2011-12 school year initiatives include modifying science to have an increased writing component and integrating a new system called PlascoTrac, a program designed to reduce student absences and late arrivals.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Student enrollment in Saratoga Springs schools continues to decline, a trend district officials say is reflective of the sluggish housing market.
District enrollment dropped significantly between this academic year and last, down 106 students from 6,741 to a current total of 6,635.
“We have a projected enrollment decrease of 55 students next year, and home sales reflect directly on our projections,” said Thomas Mele, assistant superintendent for elementary education.
According to projections, the decrease will level off after next year, decreasing by just 58 students over a three-year period.
The report, compiled using city statistics and school data, showed similar findings to last year’s, including a decrease in students primarily at the elementary level — where two sections were eliminated this year.
“The trend continues that we’re not seeing an infusion of new students into the district because we’re not seeing homes being sold,” Mele said.
Homeowners are hanging onto their houses in the recession and younger families aren’t coming into the area, causing students to age out of the elementary schools, Mele said.
Attendance at the middle and high school levels remains steady.
The report also revealed that the GlobalFoundries chip plant project in Malta has not driven up district enrollment figures as many administrators predicted.
“We’re finding a lot of families are moving out of the district, presumably, I believe, to find more affordable housing,” Mele said.
Following Mele’s presentation, Angelina Bergin, director of human resource services, presented the annual staffing report.
The district has trimmed staffing in recent years from around 1,152 in 2005-2006 to a current total of 1,105. Five instructional and six non-instructional positions were eliminated across the district this year, down 11 from the previous year.
As enrollment decreases, so does the need for employment, but Bergin commended the district for avoiding layoffs as employment has shrunk in recent years.
“We’ve really skimmed staff quite a bit not to lay anyone off, and as enrollment goes down, so does our employment,” Bergin said. “The student to staff ratio has maintained stable without diminishing educational programming.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — The number of students in the Saratoga Springs City School District who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch programs has spiked in recent years, mirroring a national trend caused by the troubled economy. High unemployment rates and greater financial uncertainty have resulted in lower annual household incomes.
“There has definitely been an increase in how many students are eligible this year,” said Margaret Sullivan, the director of the district’s school lunch program.
Since the 1940s, the federally assisted National School Lunch Program — regulated and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has been helping to ensure that children from low-income households have a balanced and healthy meal during the school day.
Students in families of four that have a household income of up to $29,055 are eligible for free meals. Children in four-member households earning up to $41,348 annually qualify for reduced-price lunches.
Sullivan, who has worked in the school district for 14 years, said the number of students who qualify for subsidized lunches has risen dramatically in the past few years.
The rising number of students eligible for the discounted lunch program does not affect local school budgets because the federal program reimburses the cost of each meal. In New York, the state goes a step further by covering the difference to offer reduced-price lunches at 25 cents as opposed to the 40-cent rate found in most states. In Saratoga Springs, the regular cost of an elementary school lunch is $2.50.
“There’s no downside to us having more students in the program,” Sullivan explained. “Hopefully, now more students will be eating the meals we’re providing and doing better in the classroom. It benefits all parties.”
Saratoga County remains well-off compared to many other parts of the country. U.S. Census data shows the 2009 median household income in the county was $66,634, compared to the national median household income of $50,221. Census data also shows that 6.3 percent of people in Saratoga County live in poverty, versus 14.3 percent in the United States and 14.2 percent in New York state.
Despite this, the local school district’s free and reduced-cost school lunch program numbers mirror the national trend.
In an analysis of data from the Department of Agriculture, the New York Times recently reported that the number of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches rose to 21 million during the last academic year, a 17 percent increase from 18 million in the 2006-2007 school year.
At the end of the Saratoga Springs City School District’s 2006-2007 academic year, there were 1,155 students enrolled in the program. By May 2011, 1,347 students qualified — a 16 percent increase over a five-year period.
“I’ve noticed it. We have a lot more kids this year than before,” Greenfield Elementary School Cook Manager Judi Martone said. “The economy is really, really bad, and it shows.”
However, the troubled economy might not be the only reason the number of families participating in the free and reduced-cost lunch program has increased.
“I think part of it may have to do with the fact that the state now allows us to receive information on people whom they call ‘directly certified,’ ” Sullivan said.
Direct certification refers to a process conducted by state and local education agencies to allow children to receive free school meals without a household application, a requirement of the 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which has been phased in across the country. This is the first year the Saratoga Springs City School District has received the information this way.
“New York state now sends us an electronic file of people who receive particular state benefits such as food stamps, who automatically qualify for the free and reduced-cost lunch program, rather than each family having to send a letter to me,” Sullivan said.
Because the system is still in its trial year, families can still opt to mail in a form, but in the future, direct certification will automatically register children for the school lunch program. Updated information will be sent to the district three times per year.
“It makes it easier on the family. There can be confusion sometimes if they have to send the letter in,” Sullivan said. “It benefits the family and helps us provide benefits to people who should be getting those benefits, but maybe haven’t been in the past.”
Although the fact that more students are now enrolled in the subsidized meal program might represent a growing financial need in the community, it could also have a positive side by providing more children good nutrition they might not have access to otherwise.
“If kids pack a lunch from home, they’re usually getting non-nutritious food because non-nutritious food is cheap. They get Twinkies and other junk,” Martone said while taking homemade corn bread out of the oven at Greenfield Elementary School. “This is the best lunch they can get, and good nutrition is what’s going to help them settle down and learn in the classroom.”