Using school space for higher good

No-rent home provides teaching opportunity for Superintendent Bob Horan’s students

Faced with a nearly 40 percent decrease in enrollment and a middle school at 33 percent capacity, Superintendent Bob Horan of Schodack CSD in upstate New York offered empty space to startup companies.

Instead of shutting the middle school down, the partnership offered the new high-tech companies a no-rent home to grow—in exchange for providing learning experiences and internshipsto K12 students, and professional development for teachers. The companies range from a research firm developing energy reduction software to a business that converts wastewater into electricity to an initiative building a solar-powered, wooden merchant vessel.

What led to Schodack CSD’s declining enrollment?

The declining enrollment in rural upstate New York actually does not have to do with people leaving the area but rather the opposite. A demographic study was just done that showed homeowners are not moving out of their homes once their kids have graduated. The average person was 45 to 50 years old and was not moving or having more kids. That means that there are fewer houses on the market for families to move into.

We moved our seventh and eighth grade students to the high school and will move our sixth graders to the elementary school in 2017. We needed to figure out how we could repurpose an 88,000-square-foot middle school building in great shape that was filled to only 33 percent capacity. Our numbers were expected to plateau at 890 in 2017 for a few years before moving up for the class of 2025.

With a new home construction project in town, we knew young couples would be starting families and the numbers would rise again.

How did the idea of sharing space come about?

We knew four years ago that we would need to do something about the middle school. The previous superintendent had warned the community that in five years we would need to close the middle school. I was challenged by the board to be creative, take a risk. Our taxes are based on the homeowners, not businesses.

I am very involved in the local chamber of commerce. I quickly saw there was a need for startup incubator companies. They have no money. After six months, most would run out of money and not get the chance to make their great idea work. We decided instead that the best use of the middle school’s space would be to provide opportunities for such businesses.

To work in the building, the businesses’ personnel all undergo the district’s security protocol as would any district employee. The district does not really have the finances to send teachers for curriculum training.

Schodack CSD, Castleton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

  • Superintendent Robert Horan
  • Schools: 3
  • Students: 920
  • Staff and faculty: 182
  • Per child expenditure: $10,027
  • Students on free or reduced-price lunch:19%%
  • Yearly budget: $21,724,754 (2015-16)
  • Schodack CSD

As part of the partnership, the businesses have to provide professional development training to the school’s teachers. From a financial standpoint, we bill them for the space they use and the companies bill back for professional development.

What were the overall goals for the collaborations?

It’s not all about money. It is an exchange of services. Hopefully, these young entrepreneurs get their feet on the ground. When they are filling out grants, they write “the school district” as a partner. It pushes the investor to take a second look at these companies because not only are they getting a company up and running but they are investing in the future education of kids.

Our students also get access to the companies’ equipment, and the employees can use the district’s 3D printer.

The second reason for the partnerships focuses on the goal that these companies will generate income. If they like the area and working with students, they may buy or rent vacant properties when they move and become part of the district’s tax base. They will create more employment opportunities.

Thirdly, if startups sell their companies within 10 years, they have to give a small percentage of the funds to the school’s education foundation to support academic programs. We sit down with representatives of each company to figure out the percentage.

It has been amazing to see the collaborations. Journalism students who want to try mock press conferences work with tech companies. Art students work with the tech people on graphic designs and on creating business logos and artwork. From that, various company leaders have also provided internships and real-world learning experiences to the students.

What types of companies have used the middle school spaces?

We have six incubator companies that are working out of the middle school with about 13 employees.

Solar Sal Project is creating a 40-foot, solar-powered merchant vessel built out of wood. When launched, it will stop at different places to drop off local produce along the Erie Canal. Students and builders interact as it is being built. The founder, a retired professor, uses the boat to explain physics, photovoltaics, the Industrial Revolution, the history of the Hudson River and other topics to students.

We are also videoconferencing out to other school districts along the canal so other students can ask questions. Once the boat is traveling on the canal, these students can come down from their schools, check the boat out and see what they can do to contribute and learn.

We also have the Open Source Initiative, which supports and promotes the open source movement. This organization started teaching teachers about computer parts, networking.

They volunteered their time to start a computer club for middle school students to learn how to take apart and put back together old computers ready to be thrown out. The student is then able to take the computer home. And students often volunteer during the school day to help with basic computer problems at the high school help desk.

The first startup, MICROrganic Technologies, is developing applications for wastewater treatment plants that create energy out of wastewater. And the company participates in STEM day and other learning activities. SmartKids NY is an in-school program that connects third and fourth graders to STEM using hands-on demos, experiments and presentations led by entrepreneurs and innovators.

Tumalow Energy Research is a technology startup developing software to help commercial buildings reduce energy costs during peak hours.

A new company is O’Malleys Oven. The gluten-free bakery’s owner uses part of the kitchen the school doesn’t use in afternoons. In exchange, she provides internships for culinary students and discusses cooking and baking.

Our local YMCA was also looking for space. In exchange, students can use the organization’s exercise equipment during the day. We leased a classroom to a local preschool that needed the space. High school students can come over and learn about early education and internships with the preschool.

What were the key requirements?

We wanted startups that go along with our “go green” initiatives or something that relates to one of the district’s programs to provide more learning opportunities to students and teachers. We do not bring in companies that are dealing with potentially dangerous chemicals.

The No. 1 concern of the board, the community and the teachers was security. Everyone coming into the program is treated like a teacher hire. The companies’ personnel undergo background checks and fingerprinting, receive school badges and are included in safety procedures such as fire drills. We introduce them to the fire and police departments. The police need to know who they are as we give the companies 24-hour access to the space.

How have the partnerships influenced the students and the district’s schools?

We decided to use an open concept layout plan as part of our capital project at the high school because of the success of these partnerships and the power of open spaces to inspire collaboration. We have been inspired to upgrade our K6 science classrooms and bring in more robotics to look more like real labs.

We have not forgotten about the fine arts. Art classrooms will bring in math and technology in different ways in conjunction with computer programming and graphic design.

The students are able to get a good look at what is involved in being in business, whether it is marketing or technology. On the other side, kids will tell the startups if they don’t understand their products, and perhaps indicate a need to simplify concepts for lay people.

I would like to see more schools use collaborations. Businesses want to be a partner in education. Many concepts these kids and teachers are learning from these companies are not in textbooks. It is a great opportunity for kids to gain confidence and experience.

Ariana Rawls Fine is newsletter editor.

Using school space for higher good