Student leaders in Schenectady High School’s senior class are hoping to salvage some sense of normalcy this school year as they look to raise money and organize events to foster a sense of community.
And they don’t think school administrators are doing enough to help.
With all but a few dozen special education students learning remotely for the indefinite future, the elected class officers fear they are already watching their senior year slip away without the kinds of activities high school seniors count on for lasting memories: dances, rallies, homecoming games — even daily classroom interactions.
Feeling little school support, students are starting to reach out to community organizations and businesses in hopes of raising money, and they are planning to strike out on their own to hold activities if needed.
“We are really raising money for our class (of 2021) so we can continue to have activities for our class,” Elizabeth Tchako, senior class president, said during an interview last week with five of the class officers. “We are one of the only schools in the area that doesn’t have [in-person] classes, that can’t go to class.”
The student leaders said their efforts to raise event ideas with school administrators have been stymied, as school leaders cited restrictions and recent budget cuts as hampering what they can support or help organize.
“Every time we bring something up they shoot our ideas down or disregard it, blaming it on the pandemic,” said Rayan Singh, class secretary.
The students have suggested events such as chalking parking spots, movie nights and other activities that have not come to fruition as they work to get approval and support from school officials.
“Every idea we have gets shut down, so it’s hard to come up with new ideas,” said Angelica Ortiz.
“So hopefully we get new sources of inspiration.”
The group penned a letter they are starting to share in the broader Schenectady community, outlining the challenges they face as students and asking for support to foster social opportunities and other activities, “because no child should be prohibited from having memories they will cherish forever.”
“We will take what we can get because we don’t have anything right now,” said Gyonni Winter, class vice president.
Schenectady High School Principal Christopher Chank, who took charge of the school over the summer, acknowledged the frustration of the students, and said he thinks school leaders need to do a better job of communicating with them and developing alternative event plans that work within existing restraints.
He also highlighted how budget cuts – including the effective closure of the high school to most students, and layoffs of scores of teachers and support staff associated with the school – have devastated the school’s support systems and limited the administrative infrastructure that in the past had fostered event planning.
“To be completely frank and honest, we have lost a lot of the supports we have had,” Chank said Wednesday, noting that an assistant principal, secretary and other administrative support staff positions had all been eliminated from what used to be an office of people supporting the senior class cohort. In fact, the cohort’s principal is on family leave.
Struggling students will no longer have programs that had offered them support and attention, and positions focused on helping seniors applying for college were eliminated.
“We still have a staff that’s really, really working hard to still make sure those things happen, but it’s a lot different and everyone’s caseload of need and support is much, much higher now,” Chank said. “Because of our administrative shifts and the cuts, the layoffs, we have had to really do a lot more with a lot less, and that’s what I think the kids are probably feeling. They don’t have as many avenues.”
As the school year approached, Schenectady High students expected to head back to their school building – albeit in a limited, rotating manner – but after reductions in state aid spurred district leaders to institute massive budget cuts, almost all secondary students in the district were shifted to a remote-only education. The shift took away the chance encounters and drop-by moments that characterize so many interactions among students and teachers in school. Student leaders say the remote environment has been difficult to adjust to, highlighting the loss of direct interactions with teachers and classmates, and that many students expect the remote reality to persist for the remainder of the school year. (Chank said he would like to bring back students if possible, but said it would require time to work out the logistics if the finances are in place.)
Schenectady students are also watching as students in neighboring districts and around the region attend at least some in-person school – another reminder of the many disparities that negatively impact the opportunities and outcomes of students in Schenectady schools.
“It hurts me,” Ortiz said. “I feel like Schenectady always gets the short end of the stick. We always get treated poorly. We don’t get the same opportunities as other schools. … I just feel like they want to pass us by. They don’t care about our high school experience.”
In their community letter, students highlighted the importance of social skills, and made the case that the high school’s closure and limited in-person opportunities harmed the city and community as a whole.
“Although we may be virtual and in different spaces, we all share the common goal of wanting to walk out of the district knowing that we left an impact on not only the classes after us but ourselves,” the student leaders wrote.
The students are still brainstorming event ideas, but are already working on hosting a pumpkin-painting night later this month. They said they plan to hold the event in the high school parking lot Oct. 23, setting up tables where students can come to paint pumpkins, socialize and eat candy. No school officials have signed off on the event, but the students indicated they plan to move forward regardless. Chank said he would like to see more details about how the students plan to comply with all state and local health guidelines. The students said they plan to take necessary precautions, spacing tables and disinfecting items.
“A lot of the events they want to do, they want to bring kids together, but because of the limits on size of any group together it makes it difficult,” Chank said. “That’s always the innate desire of our kids: to be together. We are a family and we want to be together. That’s one of the tragedies of COVID: It’s one of the things we cannot do.”
The students said they do plan to adhere to the health and safety guidelines and are exploring ideas for more virtual activities, but they focused on the desire for direct interaction. They also don’t want to wait any longer.
“They [administrators] talk about how we have to wait until January, we have to wait until all of these other months, but we can do stuff right now,” Tchako said. “If we wait until the spring of 2021 to do anything, and we come to the spring and we can’t do anything, what then?”