A pair of new Schenectady school board members, and one newly elected incumbent, started new three-year terms July 1, emphasizing the need to better engage and communicate with student families.
Last month’s absentee-only election, which saw a record number of votes cast, resulted in the victory of three women of color: Nohelani Etienne and Princella Learry, who both are new to the board, and Bernice Rivera, who was elected to her second term.
“I do think having three women of color on the board right now does represent a sign of the times and is reflective of the diverse culture we have,” said Etienne, who will serve as the board’s sole parent of current students in the district. “Everyone comes from different walks of life and backgrounds, and I think it’s important our board represents that.”
Etienne, who works as a manager at the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, is the mother of three daughters, one who just graduated from the high school and two younger girls. Etienne, who graduated Schenectady High School in 1998, brings a variety of perspectives to the position – just like her new colleagues.
“No two people are alike,” she said. “Being a Black woman, a professional Black woman, I do have different experiences and can relate differently to children, the community, the parents. I do think that it’s important you have that, so people feel comfortable.”.
Rivera, a former educator in Schenectady schools, said it was important the community elected three women of color, while noting all three have different ethnic backgrounds and varied personal and professional backgrounds.
“I think our community selected people they feel are a voice for them and can carry on the mission and vision they want to see for the school district,” Rivera said. “The community selected people who have very different expertise.”
Princella Learry has also held a variety of positions within the school district community: as a mother of students who have since graduated and as a longtime district employee who worked as an administrator overseeing state and federal grants and as a substitute building principal for a period of time, working across all the district’s school buildings for over a decade.
Learry said she is “pleasantly surprised” by the election’s result and noted it was likely unprecedented in the district to see three women of color elected to seats at the same time.
“The community is saying we need our board to be more representative of our students,” Learry said. “That was a huge statement.”
Engage the community
All three of the members elected last month emphasized the importance of improving communication and engagement with the families in the district, calling for increased efforts to communicate with families through every mode possible.
They said they have heard from parents and other community members who feel like the district does not sufficiently communicate – or solicit input – major decisions’ impact on the education of their students. The communication is even more important as the district potentially reopens schools in the fall amid a flood of questions and concerns about what in-person school will look like.
“When I was campaigning, that was some of the feedback: it’s not open, we’re not being heard,” Learry said of her conversations with residents in the district. “When things are occurring, anything that is going to impact student learning, there should be some kind of communication and not just on the website.”
Etienne said as a parent she felt like not enough communication surrounded this year’s graduation planning. While students were able to participate in a group message, Etienne didn’t feel like parents were included in the planning process enough.
“It really does come down to transparency, making sure parents are involved as intimately as possible,” Etienne said. “We should do surveys, ask the parents, get their input, what is it you would like to see us do as a district?”
They said the district should use a variety of methods to engage families, including phone calls, in-person visits, old-fashioned mail and more. Etienne said schools also need to streamline communications with parents, so they know where to go for certain information about their students. Rivera said some parents or community members want to be able to speak directly with someone about questions or issues.
“Sometimes they actually wanted to explain things talking to someone,” Rivera said.
Rivera, who has driven lots of board discussion over the last three years, also said she wanted to see the board openly discuss issues and decisions more often. She cited a school board meeting last year when dozens of parents raised concerns about school safety as an example. While the board may not have been in a position to respond to the parent concerns at that particular meeting, she said, she thought the board should have continued to discuss the subject and what was being done or should be done to address the concerns at subsequent board meetings.
“It’s really critical that the board finds a way to have more of those challenging types of conversations in front of the community, so they can see our thought process behind what we do,” Rivera said. “It sounds like some community [members] feel like we agree on everything, and we don’t… We want to have diverging opinions on the board, because that stretches the thinking.”
In search of a leader with ‘integrity’
The new board members and their new colleagues on the board have a busy agenda as they move to potentially reopen schools in the fall and search for a new district leader who can turn the page on the eight-year tenure of former Superintendent Larry Spring, which ended amid accusations of sexual harassment on Spring’s part.
The trio of members elected last month emphasized the importance of the search for a superintendent who can serve with integrity and understand the needs of students and families. They called for an open process that would include input from various stakeholder groups, including the opportunity for some stakeholders to interview finalists for the position.
“We did hear from our community,” Rivera said. “They want to participate and be a voice at the table when it comes to hiring a superintendent.”
Learry said she wants a superintendent who “everyone likes” and can connect with the community. She said the new leader should be an experienced administrator open to change and willing to adapt.
“I would like to see somebody from a similar background [to Schenectady], who has taught in an urban environment, who has had experience at the superintendent level,” Learry said. “They have to be able to change, they have to be the person that can make change to accommodate to the life we are living right now.”