SCHENECTADY – With six candidates on the ballot, Schenectady school district voters on Tuesday have a wide range of experience and backgrounds to choose from in school board members.
Two incumbents, a legal clerk in the public defender’s office, a community college employee, a Proctors education program manager and a former district teacher will square for a shot at three open seats. Parents of current, past and potentially future district students in all.
A public forum last week, as well as interviews with the six candidates, raised focused on the priorities of the candidates and some of the district’s most pressing challenges: how to combat racial disproportionately in suspensions, better engage parents and families, boost early age learning, and diversify district leaders, teachers and other staff.
The candidates all said they planned to bring more discussion and questions to board meetings than currently exists, and the two incumbents promised the public would hear more from them if elected to another three-year term.
Here’s a look at the candidates (listed in order they will appear on the ballot):
Hull has served one term on the board. Raising her daughter as a single mother, Hull said she understands the challenges parents face.
She said she has learned a lot about being a board member over the past three years and thinks she will be a more vocal and effective member if elected for another three years.
Like the other incumbent, Dharam Hitlall, Hull cites rising graduation rates and improving English language arts scores as evidence the district is making progress. But she also cites a wide variety of areas she sees a need for accelerated growth: reading and literacy skills, staff diversity, racial disparities in discipline and availability of early childhood and pre-kindergarten programs.
“There is more work, but we are moving in the right direction,” Hull said.
Hull said she is particularly interested in early childhood literacy and other basic skills. She said she wants every school in the city to have its own full-day program; a handful of schools only offer the much-less-popular half-day option. She also cited the value of partnering with outside organizations and education-related efforts, even to serve students younger than the district is actually required – naming early-age screenings in particular.
“I would love to see a way for the district to be involved with the community for screenings,” Hull said. “How do we work with people in the community, people with a vested interest.”
She said its critical to get parents interested and supportive of their child’s early literacy learning.
“We need to be working with parents and encourage them to get more involved so kids are on track and have a love for reading,” she said.
She also highlighted the racial disparities in suspensions and said she think some are getting suspended for “minor infractions.” She said the district needs to accelerate efforts to provide alternative forms of punishment.
She said the district’s perennial fight for increased state funding is key to lowering taxes and improving the overall education.
“The goal is to have people move into the school district,” Hull said.
Hooks grew up in Schenectady, like her mom, and has kids at Schenectady High School and Mont Pleasant Middle School.
She praised the high school and the wide range of programs and different activities but said the middle and elementary schools were lacking the level of options that interested students and engaged them in the broader school community.
“There’s so much the high school has to offer these kids,” Hooks said. “If we are preparing them for that why not give them a little taste of it.”
She also called for more hall monitors and security guards to help keep kids in class and behaving while in the halls and said she wants to see more teachers and smaller class sizes.
The district can also do a better job of engaging families, she said. Hooks suggested holding more events to bring students, families and teachers together and constantly changing the types of topics of the events. If district staff gets feedback from parents about the events they can work to always improve them.
She called for more creative student punishments, suggesting students could be required to participate in lessons on topics they weren’t interested in.
Hooks also has direct classroom experience in the district. She worked over two years as an instructional paraprofessional, assisting in different grades at Paige Elementary.
“Not every kid learns the same way,” she said. “You have to know each kid individually because not every kids is the same. They just aren’t.”
She is finishing a bachelor’s degree in accounting and said budget questions are her specialty. She has served as treasurer of her union local in recent years, which partly sparked her interest in pursuing a board seat, she said. Though, she hadn’t considered running for the position until reading about board openings in the past few weeks. Most of all she wants the district to get better at reaching the hardest to reach kids.
“I’ve always wanted to help kids in Schenectady,” she said. “I’m from here, I’ve seen the problems.”
Stephens moved to the Capital Region 12 years ago and has lived in Schenectady for the past five years. She has worked at Proctors for seven years, moving her way up from a start working in the box office to program management. Stephens manages education programs for the Capital Repertory, which takes actors into schools and students into the theater. She oversees a Proctors program that places around 30 interns a year
She emphasized the importance of the arts in engaging students and connecting them to school, citing the well-documented positive effects of arts education for students. A theater major in college, Stephens has long seen the importance of art in the schools.
“I’ve always wanted to not teach theater but connect theater to schools and students in different ways,” Stephens said. “If start to incorporate arts and design and theater, it will help with math scores, reading and literacy rates and retention. Art helps students find their comfort zone and realize everyone has their own story.”
She also said she wants to see smaller class sizes and said she wanted to learn more about the district’s classroom technology in the classrooms and how it needs to improve. She suggested inviting an eclectic list of experts to teach mini-seminars and specialty classes for students.
Stephens also emphasized supporting teachers with training and manageable class sizes.
“We need to make sure teachers feel they are doing their best work and not feel like they are pulled in so many directions they can’t do their work,” Stephens said.
She said greater and more transparent discussion is important.
“I was the kid in class who always asked questions, because I knew other people had those same questions,” she said.
(Both incumbents said some questions and issues discussed outside of school board meetings – sometimes by email – should be more thoroughly restated during public meetings.)
“I don’t think you are meeting your obligation if you don’t share that you are learning things outside of those meetings,” Stephens said.
Rivera, who lost an earlier attempt for the board, spent around 10 years as a middle school teacher in the district before joining New York State United Teachers, where she oversees 200 teacher-training facilitators across the state.
She moved from teaching to broader education policy and advocacy to help “systemic change,” she said. But she still misses the everyday evidence of making a difference present in the classroom.
During the candidate forum, Rivera raised the issue of social promotion, essentially moving students to the next grade even if they haven’t met all expectations for doing so. Teachers have criticized Superintendent Larry Spring for permitting social promotion; Spring has defended the practice by citing research that shows students are less likely to stick with school and graduate if they are held back.
But Rivera said if the district is going to advance students who still need significant remediation, teachers and administrators need to develop a clear plan for how to support that student as they transition to the next grade with lingering deficits.
“If a student is just being moved to the next grade level without a plan for making that student successful for the next year, that’s when I would be concerned,” Rivera said.
She hopes to use her knowledge of education issues to boost public discussion and press district leaders to think about initiatives and challenges in new ways.
“I pose a lot of questions and those probing questions are to help us think about things in different ways,” she said.
“It’s important to have a good understanding of education. Education is very complex, especially when you add the human component of it,” Rivera said. “I (would) bring in a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge, and at the same I understand there a lot for me to learn.”
Rivera, who has lived in Schenectady for over 20 years and has two daughters who graduated from the high school, emphasized the importance of establishing a “strong foundation” in the early grades.
A mother of four – including a district graduate, high schooler, middle schooler and kindergartner – Haynes has regularly expressed concerns about student discipline, arguing the district wields a too strong hand and doesn’t do enough to provide more “constructive” punishment.
She speaks openly about her own children’s experiences with the district’s disciplinary process: her daughter, a high school sophomore, is currently serving out a long-term suspension, which Haynes said restricts her daughter’s academic progress. She argues out-of-school suspensions are used too much for too many students and disproportionately for black students.
“It’s happening way too often and it’s not teaching kids anything,” she said of out-of-school suspensions. “If you suspend a kid for skipping class, how are you helping that kid be in class?”
Instead she thinks the district should dramatically increases its use of alternative disciplinary methods like peer mediation and other forms of “restorative” discipline.
She called for a detailed analysis of how many students were being punished and how for different infractions under the code of conduct.
Haynes also embodies a debate brewing at the national level. Her youngest son, a kindergartner, attends an Albany charter school. Haynes said she doesn’t send her son to a district school because of concerns with suspensions and racial bias. During the candidate forum, none of the five other candidates supported charter schools; at least one said, “it’s hard to understand” why a charter school parent would run for the district school board.
But Haynes, a Schenectady High School graduate, defends her choice to send her son to a charter school, saying it would be easier and preferable to send him to a local school.
“I feel that him being in a charter school is the best decision right now,” she said.
Haynes, who has worked as a legal clerk in the county public defender’s office for seven years, wasn’t afraid to criticize the current board on critical issues.
“I think it has been a lot of talk and not a lot of actions,” she said.
Hitlall is seeking a second term, but his name is on the ballot for the first time. Three years ago, he mounted a write-in campaign after too few candidates signed up for the ballot and won an open seat.
He cited signs of progress – graduation rates, removal from the state’s list of schools at risk of a takeover and others – but he also committed to pushing harder for more progress if reelected.
Hitlall is also thinking about early education with a 3-year-old son edging toward school age. If state funding continues on the same positive trajectory as the past two years, Hitlall said the district would be able to cut property taxes more and invest in early childhood education.
“I would like to see the money go to early education, to pre-k and kindergarten,” he said. “That’s where I want most of them money to go.”
He said the district needs to do more to reach out and connect with parents. But the parents have a responsibility of their own, Hitlall said.
“It’s not just the district, it’s the parents too,” he said, acknowledging that many parents have a lot going on. “They need to understand it’s for their kids’ future.”
Hitlall also said the board as a whole needs to engage in more public discussion around a myriad of issues and said questions about policy and other issues considered during board meetings are sometimes addressed prior to meetings.
“The way I see it stuff is being discussed before the board the meetings… the public is not aware of the reasons (for a decision),” he said. “Stuff is being emailed back and forth, questions being answered where there should be discussions in the public about certain issues and concerns.”
He said the district should establish more career and technical – “life skills” – courses for students, expanding academic pathways for students.
“If we are going to get more funding, I think we should try to open new paths for kids to give them more options,” he said, pointing out that not every high school graduate will go on to a four-year college.