February 16, 2024

A TOAST to community schools: the heart of the neighborhood

Author: Emily Allen
Source:  NYSUT Communications
toast school albany
Caption: TOAST community school students in Albany show off their STEM projects to Board of Education President Vickie Smith, NYSUT President Melinda Person and APSTA President Laura Franz (from left). Photo by El-Wise Nosiette.

For many of us, it was a major accomplishment to learn to tie your own shoes in kindergarten. For kindergartners at Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology (TOAST), they’re already studying the laws of the Universe with hands-on physics experiments.

TOAST is a community school in the Albany City School District with a STEAM theme – science, technology, engineering, arts and math. NYSUT President Melinda Person recently took a tour around TOAST with Sen. Jim Tedisco, marking the third stop on NYSUT’s statewide community school tour to show legislators firsthand the tremendous value of investing in a school model that functions as a neighborhood center and supports the whole child and family.

“Our public schools, as the centers of our communities, are increasingly becoming the hubs where our students’ and their families’ basic needs are being met,” Person said.

As a community school, TOAST collaborates with a variety of community partners to provide extensive programs and services to its students, families and staff. All students participate in one or more in-school enrichment programs focusing on subjects from college and career readiness to gardening, and more than half of students are enrolled in one or more after-school programs.

In one classroom, budding STEAMsters sport kid-sized safety goggles as they learn about push and pull forces. They gather in a circle on the carpet as they conduct their experiments, record their data and compare notes.

Down the hall, fifth-grade engineers and inventors are working voluntarily during their lunch break in the Makerspace – a special STEAM room equipped with a 3D printer and filled with prototype materials such as clay and cardboard, glues and tapes, wires and washers. They’re designing west coast wind turbines that will float in water, stay upright and generate electricity without being tethered.

“The future is in this room,” said Sen. Tedisco. “They’re our future; their education is their future.”

And on the first floor, empty bags are waiting to be filled with food donated from the Regional Food Bank. President Person, Sen. Tedisco and school staff pack the reusable totes with nonperishables and fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. Extra bags are being sent home ahead of the school’s February winter recess so that students and their families have enough to get by for a week while the school is closed.

“In New York state, one in five of our school children lives in poverty,” Person said. “While community schools across the state look different depending on their individual community’s needs, they all have the same thing in common. They focus on removing obstacles to learning, such as hunger, so that students can be successful in school and in life.”

NYSUT is pushing for $100 million in categorical aid in this year’s state budget to double the nearly 400 community schools in the state.

“There’s been a lot of attention on student achievement and outcomes,” said Person. “But if we want to achieve those outcomes, we need to focus on meeting kids and their families where they are.”