SCHENECTADY — Christopher Chank, who is set to take over as the new head principal of Schenectady High School later this summer, said he wants to improve family engagement with the school – even if that means taking the school to the community.
Chank, who has worked in the high school since 2000, said for many families getting to the high school to meet with teachers or communicate a concern can be prohibitively difficult, so he wants to find ways to engage those families in new ways. The virtual meeting technology the district has adopted during school closures is an option, Chank said, so would sending school staff out into the community. But Chank said his goal is to do what it takes to ensure families feel they are able to interact with the school.
“Until we know that all of our parents feel comfortable interacting with faculty and staff and administrators that really is the work,” Chank said in a Friday interview. “Otherwise we operate in our own little bubble and make assumptions about what families are thinking.”
Chank will replace Diane Wilkinson, who is set to retire this summer after eight years leading the high school. He is taking charge of a school of around 2,000 students.
Chank said continuing to give students reasons to get involved in the school is a top priority as he takes leadership of the high school and the district’s Steinmetz Career and Leadership academy, considered a satellite campus to the high school.
He highlighted ways to find more activities for students to participate in, including video game clubs and competitions.
“The more we can engage our students where they feel they are full participants in their learning, the more students will feel connected to that learning,” he said.
As part of the interview process for the job, Chank talked for about an hour with students. He said the questions from students were powerful as they asked him how he would allow them to participate in making decisions that will affect them.
“What these teens, what these young adults are talking about is confronting much more powerful issues, issues that are very much in the news this minute,” Chank said referring to racial inequality and the mistreatment of people of color.
Chank said students participate on many of the high school’s various planning committees but that they should be even more involved.
“The conversations always change when we have a student in the room,” he said.
Chank said the high school’s strength and the most important change he has observed over the past two decade is its diversity. Referencing a recent letter district faculty and staff of color sent to the school board alleging racial bias in the district, Chank said he and other white staff need to play a larger role in working to combat racism and bias.
The next major capital project in the district’s long-range plan is expected to focus on the high school and Steinmetz school.
Chank said the top focus of any renovation and construction work at the high school should be to ensure students are safe, but he hopes the work would also create a homier experience for students who often lament the building’s sprawling footprint and blocks-long uninterrupted hallways. He also he said he would want to upgrade technology in the school’s classrooms and create spaces – a video game lab, for example – that engage students and their interests.
Chank joined the district for the 2000-2001 school year as a high school history teacher after spending five years teaching at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons school. In recent years, Chank has served as a cohort principal, overseeing an entire grade level and following those students as they move from one grade to the next. He was principal for the senior class last year and for the freshmen class this year.
While Chank and his family live in the Mohonasen Central School District in Rotterdam, they have sent their children to Schenectady schools since kindergarten. His two oldest children graduated from the high school in recent years and his youngest is a sophomore, so he understands the school from the perspective of both a parent and an administrator.
“The opportunities the district has given me and my family have really defined our collective family experience through all of their formative years,” he said.