Schenectady

In Schenectady schools, not being a racist is not enough

Focus on anti-racism gains steam as does racial justice movement
Retiring Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson visits with students outside her office in January.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Retiring Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson visits with students outside her office in January.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

While sitting in class at Schenectady High School, Lizzie Tchako sometimes feels she and her classmates are not learning the entire truth. They are just getting the whitewashed version of the truth.

So she tries to add to the story.

“I definitely raise my hand and say everything that needs to be said,” said Tchako, a high school junior. For instance, when students are learning about Thomas Jefferson and his abolitionist writings, she wants it known that not only did Jefferson enslave black men and women, he raped some of them too.

The context is important not only for students to learn the full truth, but also for black students to understand their own identity and history.

“Most of the time we are learning about the white man,” Tchako said. “There is so much more to history than just what the history books teach [us].”

Intended or not, leaving out key historical context about the contributions of people of color and how people of color have been treated in America can also send an implicit message to students that their stories don’t matter.

“It feels like someone is not telling me the full truth,” said Shamiah Walker, a Schenectady High School sophomore, who has been active in recent protests across the region. “Why don’t I know this? Why don’t they want me to know this?”

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Tchako said that much has improved during her three years at the high school – noting increasing diversity among staff and administrators and the establishment of clubs focused on black heritage and student activism – but deep problems and inequities still persist in the school.

“It’s sad today that teachers need a training to be anti-racist to students, but it’s what needs to be done now,” said Tchako, who has helped facilitate recent staff discussions on race.

Schenectady schools have long expressed a mission of breaking down the racial disparities that define so many educational outcomes, but the district’s teacher diversity still falls far short of its student diversity and a group of black educators last month raised pressing concerns about racist attitudes reflected in recent anonymous staff comments.

Even before George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis police custody set off a nationwide wave of protests and sparked policy and legislative changes across New York and the country, a group of Schenectady City School District teachers and staff of color called out bias and mistreatment toward students of color within city schools.

The district employees, in a letter read aloud at the May 20 school board and now signed by nearly 40 people, highlighted the “blatant racism” represented by anonymous comments on a platform soliciting staff feedback into budget priorities. Many of those comments targeted jobs and initiatives aimed at supporting students of color and unwinding bias inherent in the curriculum and other practices; some of the comments even suggested that kind of equity focus had run its course in the district or that it wasn’t essential to supporting students.

The letter, followed quickly by the resurgence of a national focus on systemic racism and its many forms, led to district leaders, school board members and educators publicly recommitting to equity work – efforts to give students the support they need to learn effectively – and facilitating a round of internal discussions about how to do better even as the school year winds down. Teachers, students and administrators are challenging each other to get better for next year.

“It’s not always about having the right answers, it’s about asking the right questions of yourself and colleagues,” said Damonni Farley, a family engagement specialist in the district who has also lead numerous staff training sessions.

In their letter to the school board, the employees of color called for annual districtwide anti-racism training and the establishment of anti-racism teams at each school building. While the idea of “anti-racism education” is not new, it has taken on a new urgency as the nationwide movement against systemic racism has gained new ground and more educators have recognized the importance of supporting their students of color and asked how they help mitigate their own biases and privilege.

The division of anti-racism labor within the district is also starting to shift as some white educators step in to take over some of the work of leading trainings and discussions about race, sharing the burden with the black educators who have long carried the lion’s share of that work.

“As white people we have to shoulder that burden,” said Molly Schaefer, engagement dean at Schenectady High School, who works closely with Walker, Tchako and other students as part of a student advocacy group. “It can’t be on people of color to explain it every time someone has a question. That’s tiring. Our staff of color are tired.”

“You are actively, consciously working against racism,” she said. “Anti-racism doesn’t mean you don’t have any implicit bias or are perfect, it means you are also conscious to that in yourself…. It’s about noticing it in yourself but also actively noticing it in other people and having those conversations.”

Some school leaders and teachers have also joined local Black Lives Matter protests around the region, standing side-by-side with their students and former students, who in many cases are organizing the demonstrations.

Christopher Chank, a longtime administrator at the high school who will take over next month as the new head principal, joined a recent Black Lives Matter march and protest in Schenectady. He joined protesters in laying face down on the ground for nearly nine minutes in front of the Schenectady County jail, a symbol of how long Floyd was restrained by police before he died.

You are just listening”

Anti-racism is about acknowledging personal biases and examining the complex and systemic – and often subtle – ways that students of color are discriminated against. But it’s also about listening to students and empathizing with what’s going on in their lives.

“The number one thing you are doing if operating from an anti-racism lens is listening,” said Alicia Holt, an administrator focused on the district’s culturally-responsive education and equity work. “You’re not talking about your experience, or your theory of why this happens, or telling people how bad you feel. You are just listening.”

Students must spend energy and resources navigating racist systems outside of school, Holt said. Educators must understand the dynamics of those systems and how they impact on their students’ lives, so the educators can develop the connections with their students necessary for effective teaching and learning, she said.

“The students are the experts on their lives, they are the experts on the challenges and struggles they face, they are the ones that are ultimately going to take the leadership,” Holt said.

Tchako and Walker said teachers are often overly dismissive of students who arrive to class late or cause disruptions or don’t finish their work. If a student shows up late to class, the teacher’s refrain will often come as: “Oh, you’re finally here.”

Tchako said those kinds of quips or kicking kids out of class altogether makes it harder for that teacher to repair and build a positive relationship with their student, something that is key to successful learning. If the student finally shows up for class only to be met with a teacher dismissing them, Tchako said, that student isn’t going to want to engage with that class.

She said teachers should instead check in with the student privately to see if there is anything they can do to help them, to offer times during and afterschool to meet with them and to reach out to another person in the building who has a positive relationship with the student.

“Too many times we have white teachers in the building who think they can do things on their own without understanding other views,” she said. “That’s what teachers forget to do, they forget to learn.”

Even students who participate and engage in class can feel dismissed when they try to look at an issue through their own black perspective. Tchako said her attempts to add racial context to a discussion will sometimes be dismissed as political and not fit for the class.

“Teachers don’t see there is a difference between talking about politics in the classroom when talking about being oppressed,” Tchako said. “If feel like if I talk on black issues, teachers tell me not to be political… It’s kind of degrading.”

Across all grade levels

The district’s anti-racism work takes on different shapes at different grade levels, and for younger students relies more heavily on effective engagement with student families, said Victor Rose, a black social worker at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Rose said teachers need to understand that parents often struggle to engage with school for a myriad of reasons, missing phone calls not because they don’t care but because they are sleeping so they can work a late shift or dealing with another pressing need, like ensuring social services.

He said many teachers are used to a different kind of parent responsiveness and engagement from their own experience but that teachers need to persist in building a dialogue with their students’ parents and guardians, while understanding that those parents may be devoting significant time to working through other systems, like social services, the criminal justice system or public housing.

“Part of anti-racism work is really dialogue, is really engaging in conversation,” Rose said. It’s making all efforts in order to engage that parent.”

While lessons about racism and equity look different for younger students, Rose said its important to start introducing students to the subjects and helping them to understand how they can make change in the world around them. The school started a “social justice group” this year: the diverse group of about six students – after researching Christopher Columbus, Hero or Villain? for class – organized a petition drive to get Columbus Day officially changed to Indigenous Peoples Day on the district calendar. And they did it.

Like at the high school, what books are being taught in elementary school is key to anti-racist education. Rose said books about people of color can’t just dwell on racism and civil rights, though; they must uplift student identities of all kinds and show students character who look like them doing all kinds of things.

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“The narratives we often hear are about the trauma black and brown people experience, but there is so much more than just that,” Rose said. “While we experience a lot of trauma, we are still resilient.”

While Rose said he couldn’t say that classroom libraries, which build up over years, are as diverse as the should be, the school has been working to diversify its school library, which is undergoing a major renovation. The school allocated $1,000 to the social justice group this year for book purchases. Rose said MLK Principal Michelle VanderLinden often emphasizes that core literacy can be taught with books about anything or anyone.

“The skill can be taught using different books, the skill doesn’t change,” Rose said. “You can still write a response to a book about a black person.

With schools close during the pandemic, challenges in engaging and supporting students and families have increased. Rose spends some of his days driving around Hamilton Hill checking on students and families. If the kid isn’t at home, maybe they are at the park or a friend’s house, Rose said. When he visits homes, Rose said he has never had a door shut on him.

“Our goal as black professionals in the school district is always to empower children and families,” he said.

Editor’s note 2:21 PM 6/16: This article has been updated to fix multiple mistakes. A quote was originally misattributed and has been changed for the proper attribution. A statement attributed to Alicia Holt was also corrected to accurately reflect her comments. The number of staff and faculty of color who have signed on to a letter submitted to the school board is around 40. 

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