ELIZAVILLE–Siana Botts graduated this year from Tech Valley High School, the regional high school at the University of Albany campus in Rensselaer.
Tech Valley was founded in 2007; the 28 students of the Class of 2012 were only the second cohort to have spent four years there. The school prides itself on project-based learning, on a well-rounded education that emphasizes math, science, technology and 21st-century work skills, and on grades that evaluate a student’s entire academic performance.
Siana, whose home school district is Germantown, first heard of TVHS the summer after 7th grade, when she attended a Tech Valley day camp. She liked the technology-based camp, but talk of the school at that time “seemed like a rumor,” she says.
Then, in 8th grade, she was called to the guidance office. So were Spencer Buhler and Suma Hussien, two of the top students in her class, “so I knew I wasn’t in trouble,” says Siana. Instead, the students were offered the opportunity to apply to TVHS.
Students apply to TVHS and are selected by lottery. The home district currently pays $11,312 per year for each TVHS student, some of which is subsidized by the state.
Further, TVHS tuition is figured into a district’s five-year average participation in BOCES Career and Technology Education, explained Andrew DeFeo, the BOCES assistant superintendent who oversees CTE and TVHS. “If a district sends seven students to Tech Valley in one year, the bill is based on the average number of students that district sent over the last five years,” he said. “This stabilizes the budget and smoothes out the peaks and valleys.”
Not all districts in the county are pleased with the TVHS arrangement and some, including Chatham, have indicated they may not send students to Tech Valley because of the cost.
Siana attended a TVHS information session and “fell in love with it,” she says. The school offered hands-on learning and group collaboration on projects, not just “sitting listening in a class for 40-minute periods.”
Once at TVHS, Siana found a “normal” high school curriculum, in which subjects were often combined. For example, freshman year she took GAME (Global and Media Exploration), a combination of English and Social Studies. Junior year she took “Inventing America: U.S. history and English, and PhA2T, physics and algebra 2 trig.
She also took four years of art and two years of Mandarin Chinese (a graduation requirement).
All the courses were collaborative, she says, and “nearly 100% team based.”
Siana also learned a lot from “J-term.” TVHS has no classes in January; instead, each student works on an individual, self-directed project. Each year the project becomes more complicated. Her sophomore year, Siana shadowed a kindergarten teacher in Germantown. Junior year she interned with the lighting manager at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany.
“Senior year is the big ta-da,” she says, a project introduced in the fall that lasts all year, with January for the main internship. “I was lucky enough to intern with one of the editors at the Times Union.” In addition to two essays and a journal of her time at the TU, Siana’s project was a proposed insert for the paper for high school seniors, answering questions about college, with tips from a college student. She presented this to a panel of judges.
Siana (a Welsh name) also learned how to speak up at TVHS. On the first day of freshman orientation, the new class was divided into groups–“I didn’t know anybody”–and assigned a one-day project. At the end of the day they had to present that project to the whole class.
From then on, students regularly made presentations, not only to their classmates and teachers but also to visitors, including educators, businesspeople and politicians. “There was no way to be shy,” says Siana; “you had to learn to speak up or you wouldn’t be heard.”
Siana’s extracurricular activities included founding the TVHS yearbook. Last April she and her grandparents traveled to China in a TVHS group. They paid for the trip themselves.
Another TVHS graduation requirement is 100 hours of community service. Over her four years, Siana volunteered at the state museum in Albany, read to the elderly in a local nursing home and helped organize a local library.
In the fall Siana leaves town again, for New England College in Henniker, NH. “It was the only college that had all the majors I would ever be interested in, and it offered the best financial package,” she says. She goes in as an elementary education major, with a possible second major in management or a minor in photography.
If the best of Tech Valley was the culture–it was fun to go to a close-knit school with other motivated students–the worst was what Siana and others, she says, saw as the dilution of that culture as the school more than doubled, from about 50 students in two grades to 125 students in four grades; the goal is 160 students.
And then, there was getting up at 6 a.m. for the 90-minute ride to school. The home district is responsible for bussing its students to Rensselaer.
But what Siana really wants to tell other students about Tech Valley is this: “Take a chance on it if you have the drive to push yourself. You may have lower grades to begin with–these are college-level classes. I feel bad for people who leave freshman year because their grades go down. Even if your GPA drops, keep pushing–it’s worth it.”