Members of the Schenectady and Niskayuna school districts typically see themselves as different populations with different priorities and needs.
But an emotionally charged, joint community forum Saturday morning, co-sponsored by the Niskayuna Teachers Association and the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, found both groups united in their opinion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s educational policy, especially proposed changes the governor hopes to push through for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
“That’s one of the great things the governor has done: He’s brought us all together in a very strange way,” said Tony McCann, a regional New York State United Teachers representative and retired teacher from the Shenendehowa Central School District.
“There’s an irony,” he added.
It’s hard to overstate the ire teachers and administrators feel toward the governor’s education reforms. The sentiment has stirred up teachers who have never before viewed themselves as activists.
“We’ve been taking a more active role and speaking out against the governor’s proposal,” said Peter Jones, a seventh grade social studies teacher in the Schenectady school district. “There’s a real sense that our profession is under attack.”
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers and one of the organizers for the Saturday morning community meeting, did not mince words.
“There is no redeeming quality I can come up with,” she said of the governor’s proposal.
The community forum began with an hour-long breakfast for teachers, followed by two hours of discussion with State Rep. Phil Steck and Sen. Hugh Farley. The question-and-answer session was moderated by Daily Gazette Editor Judy Patrick.
As parents, students, teachers and administrators approached the microphone, clutching index cards in hands shaking from anxiety and frustration, priorities quickly materialized.
The clearest objections to Cuomo’s proposals centered around the mechanics of teacher evaluation, frequency and fairness of testing for students, methods of determining which schools are succeeding and, of course, funding distribution.
Many teachers were afraid proposed measures that would make it tougher for teachers to get tenure and easier for districts to fire them would cost them their jobs, especially when coupled with a greater emphasis on test scores in teacher evaluations.
But resistance to evaluation based on test scores went beyond fears of being fired. Some administrators said they were frustrated at the idea of being undermined by politicians with no background in education.
“I think I’m qualified to evaluate whether or not good teaching is going on in the classroom,” said Carmella Parente, coordinator of instructional support for world languages, social studies, and family and consumer science in Schenectady schools. She added that Schenectady schools have always conducted observations and evaluations, even before the APPR evaluation standards were implemented alongside Common Core curriculum in the state.
Parente said tough standards that focus on test data fail to allow for subjective observations, and could create a culture of fear, rather than thoughtful growth and progress.
“We want to use [tests] to inform instruction, not to punish people,” she said.
During the forum, many argued that the emphasis on testing isn’t just nerve-wracking for teachers. It’s also detrimental to students, who have to take a steady stream of tests in order for districts to collect data on their teachers.
Shireen Fasciglione, principal at Hillside Elementary School in Niskayuna, said the heavy testing has damaged the community’s perception of Common Core standards because the curriculum has come to be associated with constant evaluation for students.
“The idea of raising the level of rigor is a step in the right direction. We should be excited,” Fasciglione said. “But let me tell you, we are not excited.”
Instead, students and teachers are struggling to keep up with a deluge of multiple choice questions.
“I’m not opposed to testing, I’m opposed to over-testing,” she said.
Kids are opposed to it, too. An elementary school student named Lily Salvin stepped up to the microphone alongside brother, Jack, and their mom, Niskayuna teacher Robyn Salvin.
“I think these tests stink,” she told the legislators.
But the objection that came up more than any other was the fact that school districts — urban, rural, rich or poor — are very different from one another and should not be treated the same.
“It’s apples and oranges. It’s apples and a celery. It’s not even close. It can’t be compared the same way,” said Molly Schaefer, a seventh and eighth grade French teacher in the Schenectady school district. “That’s the whole point of the human race. We’re all different.”
The most troubling difference between student populations, legislators and teachers agreed, is socioeconomic opportunity.
“Poverty is really the problem here,” Steck said.
Teachers shared stories of Guyanese immigrants in Schenectady who had spent almost no time in classrooms before moving to the United States, middle school students who could hardly read because of circumstances outside their control, and children who came to school hungry and without coats in sub-zero weather because their parents couldn’t afford basic necessities.
“These are the battles we fight,” Schaefer said.
The organizers, attendees and legislators at the forum seemed satisfied with the outcome of the discussion, but its impact will be uncertain until after the budget passes. Farley said his first order of business would be to try to ensure that that happens on time.