Academy of Health Sciences expands student capacity

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AHS principal Wanda Perez-Brundage with a student and their family member. (Photo: AHS)

 Academy of Health Sciences started the school year in a new building–the former Terrace Garden Lanes bowling alley–in the city of Rochester. The site has allowed the charter school to expand its capacity with 100 more spots for students.

“We’re really excited that we’ve been able to take a space that has really not been serving the community at all,” says Wanda Perez-Brundage, principal and founder of AHS. “A lot of us on the little more mature side of the spectrum might remember bowling there years ago, but it had been vacant for quite some time. It has taken on a brand new life certainly now with students and teachers and other staff inside.”

Students from grades 5 to 8 are in a program focused on making connections into the health and science fields, often cited as fast-growing job markets. According to long-term projections from the New York State Department of Labor, jobs for health care support staff, such as nurses, orderlies, physical therapist aides and medical equipment preparers, are predicted to grow by 32 percent from 2020 to 2030 in the Finger Lakes region. 

“As we have all learned at this point, the health sciences are critical to our lives,” says Perez-Brundage, referencing the COVID pandemic. “So it’s important we make sure our students have connections and exposure to this critical career pathway.”

That health science focus includes, for example, events such as the College and Career week, in November. During that week, students will meet workers from Rochester Regional and Strong Memorial hospitals, Common Ground Health, the Exercise Science department at RIT, and more colleges virtually.

While middle school might seem like an early time to consider college and career, Perez-Brundage says this was a careful decision made during the inception of the school. Recent reports have shown a decline in reading and comprehension in middle grades, which can be crucial for development and affect high school studies.

“We wanted to be able to give experiences that are outside of what (students) would normally be exposed to,” the principal says. “Exposure to professional environments and other careers that they might not know are part of the health sciences is what builds a thought process in them.”

AHS intends to grow that thought pattern by empowering confidence in students and helping them envision their future. For example, last year, a scholarship through ESL provided $10,000 for one eighth grader for their eventual time in college.

AHS was first chartered in 2018 and opened its doors to students a year later. Last year was its fourth in operation and the first year graduating students to high schools.

The new facilities have opened up around 100 additional spots for students at the school, which already has about 100 per cohort. The school aims for class sizes of 25 across its staff of 47 which have subject specializations of ELA, Math, Science, Social Studies, Physical Education, Music, Spanish, Special Education and ELL learning.

AHS’ academic goals, as outlined by the school’s annual reports, are lofty. Benchmarks for students attending AHS for at least two years include:

■ 75 percent scoring “Proficient” on the New York State English Language Arts and Math Exam,

■ 50 percent reading at or above grade level as defined by performance on the American Reading Company IRLA benchmark assessment,

■ Outperform RCSD students on ELA proficiency by at least 15 percent,

■ 80 percent of students will be at/above the 50th percentile on the NWEA Reading and Math or make at least 5 percentile points of growth per year.

In addition to those goals, 75 percent of students in grade 8 who take the Common Core-aligned Algebra Regents exam will pass with a score of 70 or higher.

“We’ve set some very ambitious goals, there’s no doubt about that. And we don’t apologize for those. We know our students are fully capable of that,” Perez-Brundage says, pointing out some suburban districts have not met those goals yet either.

According to the 2021-2022 school year annual report, those goals remain unachieved or unable to be assessed at this time.Twenty-nine  percent of students were achieving the IRLA goal. 53 and 38 percent were achieving the NWEA reading and math goal, respectively.

In that same year, across all tested grades, AHS had 20 percent of students across all grades score at least a 3 or 4 (which is considered “Proficient”) on the ELA assessment, and 9 percent on Math.

While those values are both higher when compared with the average for schools in the Rochester City School District (13 percent for ELA and 4 percent for Math), they are still well below the average scores for schools across all of New York.

Researchers have long stressed that the standardized testing system is flawed, especially when comparing pre, during and post COVID results. Growth-based grading, based on a student’s individual growth, is instead favored by some educational reformers.

“Our biggest measure of success is knowing where every student is coming in,” says Perez-Brundage, referring to the school’s system of diagnostic testing. “Even if that student has not reached proficient status or on grade level status on the NYS test, we’re seeing them grow at least 1 year, but many times 2 or 2.5 years of growth within the school year.”

For example, she describes a student at a second grade reading level in fifth grade and working to get to a grade eight reading level in time before high school.

AHS’ founder is well-experienced in charter school operations. From 2006 to 2014, Perez-Brundage worked as an assistant principal and principal in the Washington D.C. area at the Friendship Public Charter School and DC Bilingual Public Charter School.

In Monroe County, charter school enrollment has soared in the past 16 years. From 2006 to 2022, students attending charter schools have increased from just over 700 to 7,000. In that same time frame, public school enrollment dropped by nearly 19,000 students.

Perez-Brundage is aware of the criticism that is often levied against charters. Run by private groups, this category of schools receives taxpayer funding but is often not subject to the same levels of accountability as public schools in its operations. Critics also say success is achieved through exclusionary student acceptance policies. Students who are accepted are displaced when they shut down (charters have a reputation for heightened number of closures as well).

However, Perez-Brundage thinks these criticisms are not applicable to her school. For instance, funding is not at the same level as public schools. AHS still required grants, in-kind and monetary donations and cooperative work with community partners, especially when moving buildings.

AHS’ acceptance policy is also simple and non-exclusionary; it just requires living in Monroe County. Most students currently attending the school would have been taking classes at a RCSD facility instead. In the 2021-2022 school year, 94 percent of AHS’ students were Black or Hispanic and 90 percent were economically disadvantaged.

Charters have the advantage of being nimble and can work quickly to adjust to student needs, Perez-Brundage says. Further, she believes AHS is a place where educational creativity and new approaches can thrive alongside district schools without taking away from them.

“I am not someone who tries to pit district schools versus charter schools,” she says. “I am a teaching veteran of district schools in Maryland, I attended district public schools throughout my education, I fully support them in the process of what they’re trying to provide.”

“I come from a background where those different schools tried very hard to work together on behalf of students because I believe the funding truly belongs to the students,” the principal adds. “Every school is different, every student’s needs are different, so we just hope people think (AHS) can help them fulfill that need.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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