Despite the dreams of family members as he headed off to medical school, Patrick Jean-Pierre landed a job early in his career as a middle school teacher a few blocks from the Brooklyn home where he grew up.
The son of Haitian immigrants who was raised by a single mother, Jean-Pierre said he wanted to find a way to help people from all walks of lives, especially kids.
“I really wanted to give back to my community and felt teaching was the best way to do it,” Jean-Pierre said in interview at Schenectady school district office last week, where he started this summer in a new administrative position focused on staff diversity and retention.
Earlier in his career, Jean-Pierre also wanted to go beyond his own classroom walls to make a difference in the larger systems that drove what was possible in classrooms in the first place. He earned a doctorate in psychology, studying organizations and the systems – or lack thereof – that drive them.
He consulted districts across the state struggling with high rates of suspension and special education classification for students of color – including Schenectady – while managing a technical center at New York University. And he spent the past year working on diversity at UAlbany.
Now, Jean-Pierre, who lives in Delmar with his family, will spearhead Schenectady’s efforts to attract, hire and retain a more diverse teacher and staff workforce. He will also work to improve the district’s internal systems for advancing a diverse set of employees up the leadership ladder and better connect programs focused on minimizing racial disparities.
He said his presence as a black man in front of a classroom “helped [his students] see there was someone who could be from their community and be successful.” Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring has staked out a desire to place more teachers in front of Schenectady students who look like Schenectady students – a goal that, if met, will shift the district’s workforce in the years to come.
“We have different conversations,” Jean-Pierre said of a diverse workforce. “When we have different conversations, we are able to be more creative and innovative.”
Spring pointed to research that shows black students learn better from black teachers. While a teacher’s race is not as important a factor as the quality of that teacher’s instruction, Spring added, it’s not an insignificant relationship in academic outcomes.
“Kids being taught by someone like them helps them,” Spring said.
Spring has laid out the aspirational goal that the racial diversity of the district’s staff mirrors that of its student body – which at 30 percent black, 23 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic and 18 percent Asian last year is undoubtedly the most diverse in the Capital Region.
In describing the goal, Spring described race as of omnipresent importance in Schenectady. He pointed to the racial divides within the city’s neighborhoods as driven by intentional decisions by people that have set back today’s children. He said a staff made up primarily of white teachers with suburban backgrounds is limited in its ability to untangle the challenges facing Schenectady students.
“It’s not just that the staff is white,” Spring said, acknowledging his own “middle-age white guy” status. “It’s a staff with white, suburban middle-class assumptions about how things are.”
Those assumptions complicate the work of meeting the needs of students raised under different assumptions and cultural norms. Calling the district “progressive,” Spring painted the diversity mission as core to its education mission.
“You don’t get to work here and not be an activist,” Spring said. “The school district cannot play a neutral role.”
The district had filled a similar human resources position tasked with focusing on diversity for a year, but the person in that job left, so district officials looked to enhance the pay and job qualifications as it searched to fill it.
Part of Jean-Pierre’s job will be to build relationships with colleges that have teacher development, particularly in places with large numbers of students of color. He will look to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other schools to get out the message that Schenectady is focused on building a more diverse workforce. Spring said while race is not a determinate factor in hiring, that it is considered and plays a role in hiring decisions.
The job, however, won’t focus exclusively on attracting new employees to the district. Jean-Pierre will also work with current staff to identify areas in which teachers of color feel the district can improve the overall work environment. Starting with small groups of teachers he called “affinity groups,” Jean-Pierre plans to give staff members more opportunities to meet and discuss common experiences.
“I don’t think we do enough bringing them together to figure out what is and what isn’t working for them,” Spring said. “If we are going to design something to help people, we better start by bringing those folks to the table.”
Jean-Pierre said its important employees are involved in creating their own work culture.
“We are not seeing you as a token, we are not seeing you as someone to check the box,” Jean-Pierre said. “This will be a place where you can grow as a professional and build a career.”
Jean-Pierre has worked with Schenectady schools in the past as well. He worked as director of the Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality at NYU, where he worked for nearly a decade. School districts around the state that showed high levels of disproportion by race in student suspensions of special education classification were referred to the specialists under Jean-Pierre’s charge. Improving the outcomes for students take a community-wide effort, he said.
“We use the work we do with students to revitalize communities,” Jean-Pierre said.
Jean-Pierre, who stared as assistant director of recruitment, retention and diversity on July 12, will make a starting salary of $96,660. He said the Schenectady job was an opportunity to bring all his areas of interest and expertise together in a single place.
“Things take time, but I think the district is ready to take off and be a model nationwide,” he said.