SCHENECTADY Standing in the middle of a circle of residents Tuesday night, John Yagielski introduced himself.
The interim city schools superintendent told those present that he was interested in helping the district and one of the ways he knew how to do that was to listen to the community.
“I’m here to do a lot of listening,” Yagielski told about two dozen in attendance at the first of several scheduled community forums. “I really want to know what you think about your schools, what you think I, as the new superintendent, should be doing to help us and, in particular, to help our community feel better about district leadership.”
Over the next hour and a half in the gym at the Carver Community Center, residents went over a series of issues they felt were important: crowding at the high school, diversity in education and staff, public schools versus charter schools and communication with and between parents.
As staff took written notes, Yagielski appeared to take mental notes, referring back to previous comments, committing to addressing issues and inviting more comments.
By the end, some in attendance thanked him just for being there.
Yagielski took the reins of the school district July 1, setting the task to rebuild bridges with staff and the community perceived as lost during the tenure of the previous superintendent, Eric Ely.
Ifrecak Singh told of recently moving to the district from Albany. She was considering sending her two high-schoolers and one middle-schooler to a charter school in Albany.
What was important to her was choices.
“I want more options as a parent,” she said. “I don’t want to just throw my child into a school just because that’s where they live and I don’t know what the curriculum is.”
Yagielski encouraged her to look into Schenectady High more and meet with some of the people in the school.
“There’s no question it’s a large school,” Yagielski said, “but I think you might be surprised.”
Yagielski, who came to Schenectady having previously headed the Shenendehowa Central School District, said he was also still learning everything the school has to offer.
Resident Walter Simpkins suggested more interaction between older and younger students, with students from other schools visiting the high school to get a better idea of what it will be like and better prepare them.
He also said he believed the curriculum had lost its relevancy to students. He thinks there should be more cultural education.
“People have to know who they are and where they come from to get the values,” he said. “Values come out of understanding who you are as a people, as a group and the contributions made to the world.”
Incoming sophomore Tara Riley attended with her grandmother, JoAnna Jackson.
Riley, 15, said there should be better preparation for students entering high school. She suggested that students’ hands were being held too much in middle school, and then it was like they were thrown into a shark tank.
Yagielski listened to many of the comments, turning to the new speakers while standing within the circle of chairs. At one point, he sat near Riley and listened to her from there.
Riley spoke of building the curriculum around the students, making them want to learn.
“If you just push them into that, then they’re not going to want to go to school,” she said.
Riley also had praise for the school district, speaking of a school that prepares students for college and a school counselor talking with her daily to ensure that her grades don’t slip.
With that, Yagielski motioned back to Singh.
“You picking this stuff up?” he said.
Yagielski approached a quiet member of the group, saying he wanted to know what she thought. Barbara Fisher said she was just listening.
Later, Fisher asked about the diversity rate among teachers. The number is seen as low.
Singh responded that the issue was not the number but the efforts to increase the number of minority teachers, the recruitment.
Yagielski said he has looked at that and more must be done.
“I can tell you that I think we need to really go back and make some significant revisions to do real recruitment of minorities,” Yagielski said.
He also said it’s not something that can be done overnight. Relationships with schools must be built. A good foundation must be laid: “We’re going to be talking to that.”
At the close of the forum, Yagielski said he wanted those present to say something they liked about the district.
Jackson, Riley’s grandmother, talked earlier about the need for parents and family members to get involved.
“What I find positive is just the fact that we got here and we’re able to express some ideas,” Jackson said.
Fisher, whom Yagielski had asked directly for her thoughts earlier, told the interim superintendent the meeting showed that he was open to suggestions.
“This means a lot,” Fisher said.
“I know that it does,” Yagielski responded, “and I care about what the community thinks, I do. It’s your school. It’s not my school.”
Three more forums are scheduled, each from 7 to 9 p.m.: July 27 in the Price Chopper Community Room, 1639 Eastern Parkway; Aug. 3 at the Fulton Early Childhood Education Center, 408 Eleanor St.; and Aug. 17 at the Schenectady Library, McChesney Room, 99 Clinton St.