In recent years we’ve supported some innovative programs for the Schenectady City School District, including Junior ROTC and a career academy at the old Steinmetz School in Mont Pleasant, which expose students to careers that are important to society but don’t necessarily require a bachelor’s degree. A program proposed by the city and Schenectady County Community College, designed to interest high school students (especially black ones) in paramedic and firefighting careers, also merits support. Unfortunately, the district, after initially expressing interest, now seems to have no time for it.
This is a little hard to understand. While spokeswoman Karen Corona says the district has been focused on its priorities of reading and math instruction, the courses being proposed here, such as emergency management and CPR, would be electives. So, there would still be time to teach reading and math. And it’s not as if the courses have no educational value. In addition to learning some things everyone should know, whether they want to be an emergency worker or not, the kids would be getting college credit.
The program would also cost the district nothing: The city and SCCC would provide books and other supplies, as well as pay for an instructor or provide their own.
It is important for schools to expose kids to a variety of career choices. Not everyone wants to or can go to college, at least right out of high school, and there are still worthwhile, good-paying jobs obtainable without a bachelor’s degree. Police officer and firefighter are two such jobs.
And in this case, the city badly needs more minorities for them. Both the Schenectady police and fire departments are almost lily white, not coming close to reflecting the city’s population, which is 15 percent black. That’s not just unfair to blacks who are denied the opportunity, but public safety could be improved by more diversity in these departments, whose members must often deal with minorities.
This program in itself is not going to turn around the the city’s fire department, which is even whiter than other departments, such as New York City’s and Rochester’s, that have similar programs. Schenectady currently has just one black firefighter out of 124, and has had only three in its 108-year history. It has made some efforts to recruit blacks in recent years, as has the police department, but with no real success.
State rules that require offering the job to one of the top three scorers on the civil service exam are a major obstacle. But the city’s requirement that new hires have paramedic certification and 60 college credits, which exceeds the requirement of nearly every other fire department, certainly doesn’t help. This needs to be rethought.
But Schenectady is not alone. Other departments have big trouble recruiting blacks, including the aforementioned Rochester and New York City. Both are considering entering consent decrees with the U.S. Justice Department which would give them more flexibility with civil service requirements to achieve an agreed-upon minority hiring goal. (Rochester and Buffalo have successfully used such decrees to achieve integration in their police departments.) Schenectady should also consider this route.