North country faces obstacles in establishing charter schools

JASON HUNTER / WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES Thomas R. Burns, district superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, poses for a portrait Tuesday in Canton.

Thomas R. Burns, district superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, poses for a portrait Tuesday in Canton.


About 92,000 students attend charter schools statewide, but efforts to establish the innovative publicly funded educational system have yet to gain traction in the north country.

Since the state Legislature approved charter schools in 2001, there have been more than 400 schools authorized by the state Board of Regents to operate. According to the state Education Department, 34 charter schools have opened and closed since 2001, leaving 269 in operation as of mid-September.

The majority of the schools are in the New York City area. There are none in Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence or Oswego counties. The closest such schools to the area are in Syracuse and Utica. According to area educators, none are currently on the drawing board for the four-county area.

The lack of a viable charter school is not because the idea hasn’t been considered, however.

Within the past five years, a group of educators in St. Lawrence County surveyed the community to gauge interest in starting a charter school in the north country.

The group looked for an avenue in which it could promote problem-based learning, a less structured learning environment in which students don’t rely on lectures and instead are involved in more hands-on activities, field trips and projects that use technology. A charter school seemed to fill those requirements.

“Problem-based learning is all the skills students need to learn to achieve great things in the world, in the workplace and in their lives,” science consultant at St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES David P. Lennox said. “The students are evaluated but not necessarily graded, just like we are in the real world.”

Because this type of learning isn’t available to students attending public schools, at least not in Northern New York, it was proposed a charter school be set up in Potsdam. One idea was to have the charter school implemented as part of Potsdam Central School.

Although the movement stirred early excitement among those in the educational field, it arrived stillborn.

Mr. Lennox, who campaigned for a north country charter school, said state funding is available for the development of new charter schools.

“We were looking at that as an avenue for funding,” said Mr. Lennox. “My plan was to have a school within a school, effectively within the public school arena, working with our public schools.”

However, when the state pulled out of funding such a project, the group of educators withdrew its application.


According to District Superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Thomas R. Burns, who was also involved with the charter school movement in the north country, the suffering economy in the region (and beyond) continues to hinder the ability of parents to go the nonpublic-school route for their children.

“The economic situation here has not been conducive to parents having extra income to spend on charter school tuition,” Mr. Burns said.

Because of this, enrollment numbers would be low. Since revenue comes to charter schools on a per-pupil basis, the group of educators was deterred from starting a charter school.

“Given the economy in Northern New York and the continuing drops in enrollment, this is a huge disincentive, rather than an incentive, to forming charter schools here,” Mr. Burns said.

According to Mr. Burns, the process involved with starting a charter school was an unforeseen paperwork venture the group didn’t plan to embark upon.

“A considerable amount of planning needs to be done prior to even submitting the application,” he said. “They had done some initial brainstorming but once they determined how much work was involved, they simply could not get it done with the few individuals they had.”

That being said, Mr. Burns is still interested in the idea of problem-based learning.

“We (at BOCES) have always been interested in the possibility of magnet programs or other regional, themed programs,” Mr. Burns said. “However, these types of programs do not have to be exclusive of the public school system, and in fact are not in other states and parts of the country.”

Mr. Lennox said he will probably not continue to pursue starting a charter school, but is still doing what he can to promote a problem-based learning program.

“I fully believe our education system needs to change and there are so many good models out there,” he said. “But trying to change public education is like trying to push a freight train — it is not easy.”


One of the obstacles faced in establishing a charter school in the north country is its rural nature, according to Stephen J. Todd, superintendent of Jefferson-Lewis BOCES. He said the area simply lacks the population concentration of urban areas to make a charter school geographically feasible.

“In rural parts of the state, our folks are more spread out and logistically it’s just harder to make it happen here,” he said. “The logistical challenges, at the end of the day, prove to be too daunting.”

He said the quality of public schools in the area has also served as a deterrent to any widespread movement to explore other options.

“People have choices that are serving their children well,” Mr. Todd said. “When you’re happy with these options, you don’t look for other options.”

He said in Jefferson County, there is a parochial school option — Immaculate Heart Central — that presents a viable alternative for parents.

“They are an excellent school and they dovetail nicely into what we do in the public schools,” Mr. Todd said.

IHC is a private Catholic school system in Watertown started in 1881 by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who remain involved in its operation today. The school system receives no state aid, although public school districts do provide students from their home districts with books and transportation. Its primary funding comes from tuition and support from Watertown’s four Catholic churches.

The system has about 250 students enrolled in grades kindergarten through sixth and an equal number in grades seven through 12, according to Robert Piddock, IHC’s director of advancement. Even though it is a religious school, it also offers a strong secular curriculum, with a quarter of its students being non-Catholic. It serves the entire Jefferson County area.

“We get students from Belleville Henderson to the south, Carthage, Indian River. It’s much more than just the Watertown city area,” Mr. Piddock said.

Mr. Todd said that while the parochial schools are a good fit with public schools, he does have some issues with the charter school movement, which can be overseen by colleges or a nonprofit organization, but can also be run by private corporations.

Charter schools can be more selective than public schools in regard to students enrolled there, he said, and he questions the transparency of a school that, while relying on taxpayer funding, designs its own educational programs.

“I have always personally been a little uncomfortable with a for-profit entity being involved with a public entity,” he said. “If public dollars are being used, it is important to know that these dollars are going for a public purpose.”

He also expressed concerns about potentially drawing resources away from public schools at a time when districts are already struggling to meet budgets.

“The challenge is when a student enrolls in a charter school within the territory of public schools, it does draw resources away from public schools,” Mr. Todd said. “The idea of introducing another system that competes for funding often presents financial challenges to the public schools.”


Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, has made her opposition to charter schools known, most notably by pushing against a $500 Education Investment Tax Credit proposed in the 2015 state budget by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for parents earning less than $60,000 a year who send their children to private schools. It never made it past negotiations.

Mrs. Russell said charter schools were supposed to be a relatively short-term experiment in the state to allow educators a chance to try new educational approaches and figure out better ways to educate disadvantaged children, with the goal of closing the education gap between these students and students in more affluent areas.

“That was a laudable goal, but it’s now been hijacked by people who are turning it into a moneymaking enterprise,” she said.

Mrs. Russell said despite the goal, the gap has not narrowed and students in charter schools have fallen further behind their public school peers.

Her challenger, Republican John L. Byrne III, Cape Vincent, said in a prepared statement that he supports charter schools and the Education Investment Tax Credit.

“Charter schools allow for the same type of innovative practices as our public schools,” Mr. Byrne said. “They allow teachers to adjust their curriculums as needed depending on each student’s individual needs. They foster an environment to create their own unique identity like public schools.”

He said the tax credit provides scholarships to children of low- and middle-class families and also provides funding for public and private education.

“While we are very blessed to have such strong schools here in the North Country and do not have any charter schools locally, they do play a role in the development of our youth in other communities across the state,” Mr. Byrne said. “Albany should be doing what it can to help provide as many opportunities for our children to succeed and charter schools are certainly one avenue to do that.”

Mrs. Russell, however, claims that some charter schools have hired teachers without college degrees or formal training, or minimal training in the content they are teaching.

“The authority given to charter schools was to come up with best practices and then have these adopted by the rest of the education system,” she said. “They were given a tremendous amount of flexibility in order so that they could have the ability to do something innovative and outside the box. Now, that flexibility has been used to degrade the educational rigor in these schools.”

“Charter schools have just been overtaken and twisted into something beyond what was originally envisioned,” Mrs. Russell added.

Mrs. Russell’s position has drawn fire from New Yorkers for Independent Action, a well-funded political action committee that has launched negative ads against her in her re-election campaign against Mr. Byrne.

“The charter school system has really been a big-money enterprise run by corporations where they pay the administrators obscene salaries at the expense of the caliber of faculty and staff and, therefore, at the expense of the students’ education,” Mrs. Russell said. “Many charter schools don’t hire staff with the type of background and training that you would expect in a public school system.”

“Their test scores are nothing to write home about and they have historically excluded children with learning disabilities, or other disabilities, from their schools,” she added.

That formula short-changes public schools, as financial resources that could go to a public school system are diverted to charter schools.

“It further concentrates these students in the public school system, who at the same time are being deprived of funding in order to fund these schools,” she said.

Mrs. Russell also believes charter schools negatively affect enrollment at parochial schools near where they are established.

“Every time a charter school opens, a parochial school closes,” she said. “I think we have a strong affinity for our parochial schools in the north country, so that would also be a deterrent for charter schools coming into the area.”


One alternative to attending public school in the north country is attending a private school, such as Little River Community School, located five miles south of Canton adjacent to Birdsfoot Farm.

The school, which is accredited by the state Board of Regents, began admitting students in 1999. The four-student school grew into a 12-student school within the first year. The school now teaches 41 students.

“It’s been growing very slowly, incrementally,” said Steven A. Molnar, director and teacher of the four-room school.

The school’s philosophy reflects back to the problem-based learning model Mr. Lennox attempted to introduce in Potsdam.

“I think the families really embrace our philosophy and complement that with their home life,” Mr. Molnar said. “We’ve got values of caring for people, caring for the planet and learning how to be sustainable, and I think they leave here with strong basic academic kinds of skills mostly because of the small class sizes.”

Mr. Molnar said parents and teachers develop individualized curriculums with each student. Along with learning basic skills — such as math, reading and writing taught in classes of four to eight students or even individually — students come together several times a week for democratic-style group discussions. They also participate in many hands-on activities, including working on Birdsfoot Farm and going on field trips.

Enrollment numbers increase every year despite the suffering economy, Mr. Molnar said.

According to the school’s website, tuition at Little River costs $5,138 per school year, or $571 paid monthly over the nine-month school year.

“We try to make it as affordable as we can,” he said. “We have a low tuition which means our teachers get paid significantly lower than a public school.”

Mr. Molnar said his school is successful because, since it doesn’t receive money from the state, it doesn’t need to follow as many regulations.

“Since we aren’t asking for money, we get the independence. A charter school probably gives up some independence because at the end of the day, they’re still a public school and they still have the mandates a public school has,” he said. “Is it going to work for everybody? No. And I wouldn’t even suggest using this model for others because we’re such a small school. The families put out a lot to be here and we recognize that.”

Job fair Monday in Canton will connect job seekers with employers

CANTON — More than 20 employers, mostly in the health care and education-related fields, will participate in a job fair scheduled for Monday at the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services Center, 40 W. Main St. [Read more…]

New north country agricultural academy secures $200,000 in state funding

State Sen. Patty Ritchie looks at sheep with Natalie Chambers, left, a senior at Heuvelton Central School and president of the Northwest Tech FFA chapter, Thursday during a tour of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Learning Farm in Canton. Ms. Chambers spoke to the New York State Senate Agriculture Committee in Albany. Photo by Jason Hunter, Watertown Daily Times.

State Sen. Patty Ritchie looks at sheep with Natalie Chambers, left, a senior at Heuvelton Central School and president of the Northwest Tech FFA chapter, Thursday during a tour of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Learning Farm in Canton. Ms. Chambers spoke to the New York State Senate Agriculture Committee in Albany. Photo by Jason Hunter, Watertown Daily Times.

Starting next school year, 15 to 20 high school seniors from St. Lawrence County will have the chance to attend a full-day agricultural program at the newly-created North Country Agricultural Studies Academy. [Read more…]

STEM scholarship offers NNY students opportunity

CANTON – A full scholarship offered by New York state to attend college for science, technology, engineering and math related fields could be an important launch for north country students.

The state offers a full scholarship to the top 10 percent of graduating high school students to attend SUNY schools for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and who pledge to work and live in New York for five years following graduation.

State Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, is encouraging area students to consider the STEM scholarship as a good step into their future.

“The north country is home to many high-tech industries and world-class universities,” Mrs. Russell said in a statement. “This scholarship is an excellent opportunity that I hope driven young people will take advantage of so they can write the next chapter of development in the region.”

Last year, statewide, there were 553 recipients for the scholarship totaling $2.796 million.

For the north country region, including Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Clinton, Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties, there were 15 recipients totaling $84,208.

Students looking to receive the scholarship must graduate in the top 10 percent of their class; attend a SUNY, CUNY or statutory college including Cornell and Alfred Universities; and must maintain a 2.5 grade point average or higher each semester.

For a high poverty area like the north country region, going to college could be tough to picture for many students, but schools in the region are beginning to push these STEM fields early in students’ education which could set them up for opportunities like the state’s scholarship.

“Considering the high poverty level in the area this scholarship could be a great opportunity for students who may not have the ability to go to college,” said Lisa J. Blank, the new STEM director for the Watertown City School District. “You are talking saving kids around $30,000 a year.”

Thomas R. Burns, superintendent of the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, agreed that the scholarship makes college more accessible for students.

“By providing a full SUNY tuition, the scholarship would increase the equity for student access to college,” Mr. Burns said.

Mrs. Blank has worked with several area school districts including Sackets Harbor, Lyme, General Brown and Belleville Henderson to set up programs in science, technology, engineering and math and apply for grants from the Department of Defense Education Activity.

Mrs. Blank recently helped Watertown schools secure a $1.25 million grant from DoDEA to set up STEM programming in the district.

The grant money will be used for teacher training in technology, implementation of video lessons on the computer that can be bought or developed by teachers and several technology-based extracurricular activities, including robotics clubs for elementary pupils and engineering clubs for middle and high school students.

The funding can be applied to 14 clubs.

The money also will buy two new laptop carts each for H.T. Wiley Intermediate School, Case Middle School and Watertown High School, as well as a new virtual learning system.

Mrs. Blank also put schools in touch with STEM programs including Project Lead the Way, which provides STEM curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Mrs. Blank also helped Lyme Central School District connect with the Full Option Science System program which provides hands-on learning science curricula for kindergarten through eighth grade.

“Seventy percent of the instruction is hands-on which increases kids’ interest in science,” Mrs. Blank said. “It is important to get kids interested in STEM at elementary school and middle school levels so they are on the right path for knowing what they want to do when they graduate high school.”

Stephen J. Todd, superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis BOCES, said anything that encourages students to go to college to become STEM coordinators would be good for north country schools.

“There is a shortage of teachers in this area particularly in STEM related fields,” Mr. Todd said. “I think this scholarship is a wonderful thing for the state as a whole. It is a good incentive for students to go into STEM instruction which could benefit our schools.”

Mr. Burns said it is important that the scholarship requires commitment from students to stay in the state after graduation.

“Requiring the recipients to sign a service agreement to stay in New York in a STEM-related field not only promotes STEM-related careers but contributes to better economic development growth while helping to limit the out migration of young people to other parts of the state and country,” Mr. Burns said.

Both BOCES facilities offer career and technical classes for students attending member schools.

“We have been working on many career-focused programs at the BOCES, and again there are some possibilities with this scholarship to insure that students are both college and career ready when they leave high school and college,” Mr. Burns said.

Mrs. Blank said the only concern Mrs. Blank said she has heard from students was that there are not enough fields that apply as STEM-related under the scholarship guidelines.

According to the New York State Higher Educational Services Corporation, the agency that provides information on scholarship and financial aid options, some approved programs under the scholarship guidelines include computer science and programming, agricultural engineering, industrial and manufacturing engineering, solar technology and mathematics and statistics.

“In the long-run, this scholarship will benefit all New Yorkers as we encourage and cultivate tomorrow’s industry leaders and secure a bright economic future,” Mrs. Russell said.

According to the state Department of Labor the median wage for workers in STEM occupations in the north country region is $59,641.

The STEM occupation in the north country with the highest median wage is a physician’s assistant, $103,685, which employed 200 people in 2015.

The next highest median wage for the north country was earned by environmental engineers, $85,216, which employed 80 people in 2015.

The lowest median wage was earned by architectural and civil drafters, $31,250, which employed 80 people in 2015.

Scholarship requirements

Be a legal resident of the state and reside here for 12 months.

Be a high school senior/recent high school graduate who will be enrolled full-time at a SUNY or CUNY college, including community colleges and the statutory colleges at Cornell University and Alfred University, beginning in the fall term following his or her high school graduation.

Be ranked in the top 10 percent of his/her high school graduating class of a New York state high school.

Be matriculated in an undergraduate program leading to a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

Earn a cumulative grade point average of 2.5 or higher each term after the first semester.

Execute a service contract agreeing to reside and work in the state for five years in the field of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

By Richard Moody, Times Staff Writer