It’s an easy drive between Schenectady and Niskayuna high schools, less than two miles down Nott Street or Grand Boulevard.
“You are right down the block from us,” Schenectady High School senior Jessica Grant said as she stood with Niskayuna students in the Niskayuna library earlier this month, chatting about the differences and similarities between the two schools.
But often the schools can feel worlds apart. Niskayuna has better windows than Schenectady, Grant readily conceded as a starting point.
“I’ve never seen the (Niskayuna) school, I’ve never been to the school, I didn’t know anyone from the school,” Grant said while at Niskayuna for a joint leadership training the two schools did with the Anti-Defamation League.
Niskayuna’s graduation rate tops 95 percent; Schenectady, while improving, graduates less than 65 percent of seniors. While 12 percent of Niskayuna students are considered economically disadvantaged, nearly 80 percent of Schenectady students meet that definition. At Niskayuna, 75 percent of students are white; at Schenectady, 75 percent of students are non-white.
But the schools are starting to grow a partnership, capitalizing on the broad array of academic and support programs they can offer to each other’s students. Niskayuna High School Assistant Principal John Moskov, who works as a principal at the schools’ joint summer school, has said Schenectady High School is quickly becoming a “sister school.”
The latest sisterly endeavor is the joint training program, which brought 30 students together for three full days of training at Niskayuna over the past month. Led by the Anti-Defamation League, the training teaches students about stereotypes and biases and gives them tools for recognizing and combating prejudice.
The students trained in the program can take it back to their schools and districts and lead trainings of their own. The training undergirds the “No Place for Hate” program, which organizes schools against bullying and discrimination. Schenectady has been a “No Place for Hate” school for the past few years, and Niskayuna is getting its program up and running.
“For two schools that are so close together to do it together, that has a profound statement,” said Courtney D’Allaird, a trainer with the Anti-Defamation League.
But district officials said the training was really just a vessel through which they could bring the students together, building relationships and sparking ideas among the students for how students at the schools can continue to connect. Once the students started brainstorming, the list of ideas for future collaborations continued to grow: shared afterschool clubs, joint assemblies, dance battles, combined athletic practices, community services days.
“We shouldn’t be so alienated from one another when we are so similar,” said Liv McLeron, a Schenectady freshman who said she was excited to help grow the partnership during her four years in high school.
Once in a classroom together, the differences between the students seemed to melt away, said teachers from both schools who helped coordinate and oversee the training days.
“They realize we are more similar than we are different,” Schenectady special education teacher Anne-Marie Warren said. “I challenge you to go in there and figure out who is from what school, because I don’t think you can do it.”
The schools started a shared “regional” summer school a few years ago and are in their second year of a shared night school at Schenectady High School. This year Niskayuna tapped Schenectady for its Washington Irving program, which can provide students with tutoring services if they are far behind in classes or are suspended from school.
And officials argue there are countless opportunities to expand the partnership, citing more shared services and possibly allowing students to tap into classes that one school offers but the other doesn’t. Schenectady schools, for example, don’t offer AP courses and Niskayuna has a growing Chinese language program. For now, Niskayuna is taking more advantage of Schenectady programs than the other way around, Niskayuna official said, a disparity they are looking to remedy.
“I don’t think there are any limits,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said of the partnership’s potential.
To develop new collaborations – like allowing students to take classes at different schools The schools run on radically different class schedules and transporting students is always a challenge to administrators. But officials in both districts say the benefits are too much to pass on because of logistical hurdles.
“The logistics seem minuscule compared to the amount of impact it can have,” Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson said.
Tangorra said it is more cost efficient for Niskayuna to work through an existing Schenectady program than to establish a similar program at Niskayuna, citing the tutoring through Washington Irving as an example. He suggested it might even be in Niskayuna’s interest to finance a position in that program that could serve students from both districts.
“I don’t want to replicate at Niskayuna something that a neighboring school district is doing really well,” he said.
Niskayuna officials said when the joint summer school program started up three years ago they heard complaints and concerns from parents that felt Schenectady was not a safe school. But they said those concerns have diminished as parents and students have positive experiences at the city school next door. Moskov said he had to “challenge parents on their cultural biases.”
The students in the training this past month said their biases have been challenged as well.
“I did have this perception that they thought poorly of us,” said Tess McGrinder, a sophomore at Niskayuna. “Now that I have met them, I know they are just like us and we can worth together.”