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Schenectady teachers talk race, education at Albany conference

Schenectady teachers talk race, education at Albany conference

First-time event costs $120,000
Schenectady teachers talk race, education at Albany conference
Byron V. Garrett, chairman of the National Family Engagement Alliance, speaks Tuesday to a group of teachers in Albany.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

ALBANY — Education researcher Richard Milner wants teachers to understand how race is inextricably tied to the classroom. 

Speaking Tuesday to a room full of Schenectady educators, Milner explained how black and brown students are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their white peers. Also, controlling for socioeconomic status, black and brown students perform less well than their peers on evaluative tests.

Teachers and school leaders need to face those realities head-on, Milner said during one of dozens of presentations from which Schenectady teachers were able to choose during Tuesday's training conference. 

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Understanding the role race plays in the lives of their students is critical for educators, as is embracing conversations and lessons that dive into racial issues, he said.

“If we aren’t doing the work of race as educators, then we are not doing the work,” Milner said. “Imagine an oncologist not studying an aspect of cancer because he or she is not comfortable.”

Hundreds of Schenectady teachers attended the conference in Albany to engage in the conversation of race and education and to learn what makes life in urban school districts different.

It was part of a day-long training conference held at the Albany Capital Center and Renaissance Hotel.

The conference cost the district around $120,000, Superintendent Larry Spring said Tuesday, with the venue, speakers and catering driving most of that expense.

The district partnered with Capital Region BOCES and welcomed a handful of educators from other districts, including Watervliet schools. The event will be eligible for BOCES state aid, which ultimately defrays a portion of the cost.

Called the Capital Region Urban Schools Conference, the event was originally envisioned as a conference for teachers from the region’s three urban districts: Schenectady, Albany and Troy.

Though Albany school district officials said they would participate as recently as August, the collaboration fell apart in the fall, leaving Schenectady to conduct the event primarily for Schenectady teachers.

Albany schools spokesman Ron Lesko said the district decided to pull out because it hadn’t considered participation in the conference as part of its annual budget-planning process. A new superintendent, Kaweeda Adams, took charge of Albany schools in August.

“It was not the kind of expense we wanted to take on for the current year,” Lesko said last week. “We do have to plan for the cost of these kinds of programs further in advance.”

Spring said he was disappointed other districts didn’t participate, “especially at a date after we had made commitments contractually." But he said it was still important for the region’s urban districts to work together and recognize their shared goals and challenges.

“Even if some of these other districts aren’t able to participate right now, our having done it once makes it easier to do again,” Spring said. “The urban districts in the region need to continue that collaboration, we need to work together and problem solve. We really need to see the problems we are wrestling with as shared problems, and we need to have focus on that.”

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Spring said the conference was worth the investment, as an opportunity for Schenectady teachers to get out of their schools and participate in a professional conference. The agenda included presentations from nationally recognized experts in urban education, like Milner, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and keynote speaker Chris Emdin, a professor at Teachers College Columbia University.

Schenectady teachers and staff also hosted workshops on topics that ranged from how to run a writer’s workshop to teaching students who have had adverse childhood experiences — like abuse or a parent’s incarceration.

Teachers said the conference provided them a chance to interact with colleagues from all grade levels, disciplines and schools; during most teacher training days, Schenectady teachers meet with other teachers from the same grade or content area.

“It’s a whole different professional experience,” said Juliet Benaquisto, head of the teachers union. “It’s hard to put a value on this.”

But Benaquisto said she was curious to learn how much the conference cost the district and whether a similar event could be supported in years to come. She also wanted to see what kind of feedback teachers gave after the conference was finished.

“It’s nice to do this, but can we sustain that?” Benquisto said. “There’s a lot that can be done with that money.”

Teachers also highlighted the range of choices they had and the setting they said was more conducive to developing expertise than empty classrooms — Tuesday was one of four days during the year set aside for professional development.

“It was more authentic to an actual conference, and people buy into it more,” said Lisa Fagan, a special education teacher at the high school. “It’s very difficult sitting at a middle school or high school desk to feel like an adult.”

Vilma Elliott, an occupational therapist in the district, said the district has long tried to find ways to best serve students struggling with poverty. She felt the conference was a positive step toward getting teachers to better understand the role race plays in the classroom.

“I see we are going down that path where people can be having this conversation about racism,” Elliott said. “Instead of being the oppressor, don’t collude with that.”

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