Niskayuna officials outline data on district’s racial disparities

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Niskayuna school officials on Tuesday for the first time publicly reported data outlining the racial disparities pervasive across measures of academic opportunities and outcomes for students.

The data showed that the district’s Black students were overrepresented in student suspensions and absenteeism and underrepresented in participation in advanced college credit and AP courses.

District staff is also far from representing the district’s student body: 93 percent of staff 98 percent of teachers are white, while about 30 percent of the students are non-white. The district has grown increasingly diverse in recent years: The share of non-white students has risen from about 18 percent a decade ago to more than 30 percent this school year.

The data showed 18 percent of Black students missed 10 percent or more of school days compared to around 6 percent of white students and that every group of students of color faired less well in attendance than the white students.

Also, one-third of Black secondary students took an Advanced Placement course or class for college credit comparted to over 50 percent of white students and over 60 percent of Asian students.

District officials promised the data shared at Tuesday’s school board meeting was the first step toward regularly tracking and publicly reporting various measures aimed at spotlighting and over time mitigating the kinds of racial disparities prevalent in many districts. 

“We are now publicly on the record and we have to hold ourselves accountable to come back to the community several times a year and report the progress we have made, and if we haven’t [made progress], why we haven’t,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra said at the board meeting.

The data presentation came as part of a broader update on the district’s equity plan developed over more than a year by a committee of teachers, past and former students and parents. The plan, which the committee formally presented to the board Tuesday, highlighted four key areas of focus for the district:

  • Responding to incidents of bias and strengthening overall school climate;
  • Providing staff with professional development; 
  • Strengthening anti-bias practices in staff recruitment, hiring and retention, and;
  • Expanding the curriculum to be more inclusive of all students and to include anti-racist lessons.

Citing a quote by a national expert in equity in education, Latisha Barnett, Niskayuna’s chief equity officer, summarized the goal of the plan as creating a district that guarantees “every child the safety to learn in the comfort of their own skin.”

Members of the equity committee and student representatives testified to the importance of the equity plan, highlighting their own negative experiences in the districts. 

Committee member Leah Akinleye – a Niskayuna parent of three, a former Niskayuna student and an educator in the Schenectady City School District – recounted an instance in recent years when her son was called a negative name in school and she didn’t feel that there were protocols in place to address the situation or support her son and family. She said the whole incident went unresolved. 

She said her family has also had to supplement the district’s academic program with other experiences and opportunities for their kids “due to a lack of diversity and a feeling of unwillingness of many to embrace anti-racism” within the district.

She said it is critical that families and students feel supported after they face an incident of bias or racism, otherwise that feeling of isolation and mistreatment will be exacerbated.

“We need to do a better job of addressing the experience of discrimination or bias that can isolate a child and ultimately create a hostile environment,” Akinleye said. “The way incidents are resolved sends a message to all students and families.”

Akinleye said families of color in the district have established support groups to share similar experiences and brainstorm ways the district can improve its treatment of all students.

“I’m hopeful we are moving in the right direction for the benefit of all of our children,” Akinleye said.

Niskayuna alum John Lindsay, who joined Tuesday’s meeting virtually from England, said he encountered many alumni of color from his generation skeptical that an equity plan was for anything more than show. He said while that skepticism was borne from years of unaddressed bias in the district, he hoped to prove them wrong on behalf of future generations of students.

School board members acknowledged the broader national controversy and that many conservatives are opposed to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and policies within schools. Critics have painted the initiatives as teaching white children they are inherently oppressors and Black students they are inherently oppressed. 

But the Niskayuna school board resoundingly backed the plan and said they could not see anything negative about a plan that aimed to foster a more supportive environment for students. One board member even contrasted the apparent lack of controversy over an equity plan in Niskayuna with a fight over an equity policy in Saratoga Springs, where at a recent board meeting scores of residents submitted comments on the policy. Some of the Saratoga residents said the policy was a long overdue salve to racial disparities, while others dismissed it as an effort to push a liberal agenda in the schools. An anonymously managed Facebook page helped organize much of the opposition. 

No such public contention has emerged in Niskayuna. 

“I don’t see anything that we are doing that is negative,” board member Sarah Rogerson said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We can be a counter narrative to secret groups of people organizing against this kind of work in their community, which is unacceptable.”

“It’s hard for me to see how someone could look at this in a negative way,” board member Greta Jansson agreed.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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