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Taking the Achievement Gap Personally

March 12, 2012

by Steve Felano

For Dr. David McCalla, the academic performance and well being of the more than 2,000 students that attend Albany High School are sources of constant concern. McCalla has been the principal of the City of Albany’s only comprehensive public high school since 2009, and questions about how to close the institution’s achievement gap, expand educational opportunities, manage finite funding, and maintain a safe learning environment for students weigh on his mind day in and day out. As he sat in his office during a recent day of state standardized testing for students, it was clear he had been playing something akin to a game of chess with all of these priorities in his mind.

During any given week, McCalla divides his time between the coordination of resources, capital, parents, and staff to provide students of varying abilities with educational opportunities that best suit their needs. It’s a demanding task that sometimes goes unfulfilled, but it’s a function McCalla sees as vital to his self-described role as a “servant of the people.” Such a role requires long hours and infinite patience, and with McCalla, it shows. His calm demeanor is that of someone who knows what he’s trying to achieve is much like running a marathon through quicksand. Each step must be calculated, and it takes time to build the strength necessary to take each one.

McCalla is ultimately trying to save what is often characterized as a failing school. To accomplish this, he must move through barriers like outbursts of school violence and repeatedly negative publicity. He takes personally the fact that Albany High underperforms academically, and emphatically tries to frame the job of changing this reality as something that’s as manageable as it is daunting. Retreating to memories of putting his own three, now grown children through school, McCalla acknowledges a major obstacle to what he’s trying to achieve – the challenges posed by a high percentage of students in poverty.

Dr. David McCalla sits behind his desk at Albany High School/ Steve Felano

“My kids certainly had an advantage that many of these kids don’t have,” McCalla said. “They have to walk to school, and they don’t have parents who can help them or are knowledgeable about the process to make them successful…when you’ve never had anybody in your family who has been to college, there’s a serious disadvantage because you don’t even know what it takes to apply. I think that’s the piece that you see here at Albany High School.”

The opportunity to help educate high needs students is one of the main factors that convinced McCalla to become a school administrator in Albany several years ago. Similar opportunities at other school districts kept him teaching science and math to students in grades 5 through 12 for 13 years. With this experience behind him, McCalla – now 59 – remembers a time when being an educator wasn’t the central focus of his life. He graduated from high school at age 16 and had a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at 20. He went on to earn a master’s degree in school administration, a master’s degree in music education, and a doctoral degree in the same field. Following this, McCalla planned to go to medical school and become a radiologist, but something told him that particular career path was always going to leave him wanting in one area.

“I think the people aspect of medicine at the time, at least medical research, was a little bit much for me to contemplate years in a cubicle some place,” McCalla said. “I opted for a more people oriented career. With teaching, you have to be very flexible and also be able to read people and deal with their needs even though they may be younger. Every day is always different.”

It’s clear McCalla’s need for interaction with people and for variety in the workplace is one of the things that has kept him in the American education system for the last 35 years. The simple act of greeting others is a kind of daily communion for him. As he strolls down the hallways of Albany High School on any given day, McCalla will stop at multiple points to hold brief, casual conversations with fellow administrators, staff, and students. He’ll talk with them about their job responsibilities, families, and studies, and both parties almost always part ways with a smile. While conducting these hallway greetings, McCalla will often talk with his colleagues about other factors that have molded him into a longtime educator, and inspired him to stay positive when working through difficult issues at his school.

“I’ve been very moved by the commitment of many of our academic scholars to service for the less fortunate,” McCalla said. “This year particularly, two of our international baccalaureate students who are also basketball players…when we had the floods up in Schoharie County, they decided to go out on a campaign to collect bed sheets and linen for the less fortunate.”

Such efforts make McCalla proud of his students. This pride is what keeps him focused on a central problem standing in the way of academic success at Albany High, and it has to do with the number of students graduating from the school each year. “The challenge I see is the typical challenge faced by most American high schools in this country,” McCalla said. “The achievement gap is something that we in American education have been trying to deal with now for over 40 years.”

McCalla’s conclusion is supported by the numbers. The New York State Department of Education reports that from 2008 through 2010, the most recent years for which data are available, the graduation rate at Albany High School dropped significantly. In 2008, 61 percent of students earned a diploma from the school, 53 percent did so in 2009, and 47 percent graduated from Albany High in 2010. Moving in the opposite direction is the school’s dropout rate. It went from 12 percent in 2008, up to 21 percent in 2009, and climbed once more to 24 percent in 2010.

With total spending per pupil coming in at more than $24,000 at Albany High for the 2008-2009 academic year, tax payers are asking why school officials can’t seem to push the graduation rate much beyond 50 percent, and reduce the number of dropouts. State education officials are asking similar questions, and have threatened a state takeover of the school if administrators and staff can’t significantly improve student performance.

In the cross hairs of these heated queries is McCalla, who has an answer for why graduation and dropout rates are where they are. “We have a huge graduation gap based on race, we have a huge academic gap if you just look at racial disparities,” McCalla said. “The research is showing that they’re very directly correlated…we’re finding that the failure rates correlate even to places of where kids live…we have tracked it.”

This attribution of poor academic performance to racial disparity is not a new concept for educators and administrators in New York State. When the most recent round of high school graduation rates was released in early June of last year, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said although New York has some of the highest performing schools and districts in the country, the data highlighted a “stubbornly persistent racial achievement gap” that needs to be closed. If you ask McCalla how to accomplish this, he’ll draw upon his 27 years of experience as a public educator in Florida, and his 10 years of experience in New York State to come up with an answer.

“The facts are that high needs districts with high needs students need to hire more psychologists, more social workers, and more support personnel than somewhere else with middle class situations…the funding structure in New York does not lend itself to weighted student allocations,” McCalla said. “In Florida, it is…there is a weighted allocation based on the amount of needy students that they have.”

In McCalla’s opinion, the path out of academic purgatory for Albany High School lies in the example set by the state of Florida. He wants to see more state aid directed to his school based on the amount of needy students that attend classes there. McCalla calls this “focused funding,” or increased spending on efforts meant to specifically target academic deficiencies. His desire for such funding was fulfilled to a degree on February 22nd of this year, when New York State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. announced the restoration of a $3.3 million school improvement grant for Albany High School and William S. Hackett Middle School.

For McCalla, forms of state assistance like the school improvement grant are simply tools to address a deeper problem. He means to get Albany High involved in addressing the societal conditions and racial disparities that he believes feed the achievement gap at his school. McCalla wants his staff to partner with the parents of high needs students to ensure that the home environment and free time they provide to their children are conducive to academic achievement. “If we don’t have resources – people going to the homes, and after school programs suited and targeted for those areas – we’re not going to be able to see equality over time,” McCalla said. “You have to put more resources where there are less resources than normal to make a difference.”

Albany High School’s home school coordinators are the boots on the ground

Albany High School Principal Dr. David McCalla gets ready to review some documents at his desk/ Steve Felano

working to make McCalla’s vision of a parent-school partnership a reality. There are currently four of them – one for each of Albany High’s smaller learning academies, but McCalla says the school needs to hire more to adequately address the problems faced by high needs students. His message to these coordinators is that they have to help parents be parents. As this experiment has progressed, the dialogue between home school coordinators and parents about preparing students to achieve at higher levels has been mixed.

“Some of the experience has been you have parents who are difficult to work with, based on their own difficult experience with education,” said Lionel Harris, home school coordinator for Albany High School’s Citizenship Academy. “So it’s not so much what’s happening currently, but stuff that happened previously in their lives or when kids were younger…the philosophy of my work is I may never live to see the fruit of my labors. I’m merely here to plant the seed, provide a little water, and move on.”

Such personal philosophies are a big part of what drives home school coordinators to push on with their work, and each one is different. “Mine is ‘one at a time.’ You gotta go one at a time,” said Torrie Chapple-Chapman, home school coordinator for the school’s Discovery Academy. “The needs are so individual that everything has to be individualized and in a school where you have 2,000 kids, it’s not easy to do.

McCalla is pleased with what his home school coordinators have been able to accomplish, and has been moved by students at his school who show enthusiasm for higher education and graduate with multiple credits toward a college degree through advanced placement courses. These students make him excited about what the future holds for Albany High, a school that Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings says will be the focus of a new committee meant to better prepare students for degree programs and jobs in high-tech industries. Jennings announced the committee during this year’s state of the city address.

McCalla hopes state and local politicians will come together with educators to make plans like Jennings’ a reality. He would also like to see Albany High School move from 700 Washington Ave. to a new space available on the Harriman State Office Campus a few miles away – another move supported by the mayor. McCalla believes both initiatives would better position students at his school to compete for jobs in a global economy, and he is clearly happy to entertain questions about the legacy that might be left by the school he leads. However, when the question of personal legacy comes up, the principal of this high school in the capital of New York State provides a very different response.

“I don’t do a lot of self-planning when it comes to how I want to be remembered,” McCalla said. “When you are a servant of the people, which is what my job is all about…you don’t really have time to think about yourself. My legacy should be in the lives of people who are successful that came through the school.”  -30-


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