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Decades of racial isolation have shaped lives of Niskayuna students

Decades of racial isolation have shaped lives of Niskayuna students

Parents and former students argue that opportunities are being missed in district that offers so much
Decades of racial isolation have shaped lives of Niskayuna students
Naji Simmons stands in front of his alma mater Niskayuna High School on Balltown Road.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

Twenty-five-year-old Naji Simmons remembers clearly a day in sixth-grade in Niskayuna when his teacher suggested he leave the class because a lesson might make him uncomfortable.

The teacher said the lesson had to do with black history, Simmons recalls. The teacher recommended he wait in the hallway.

He was the only student in the class to be given the option. Whether the teacher told Simmons he "could" leave the room or "should," Simmons is not sure, in hindsight. But at the time, he took the message to mean one thing: You aren’t wanted in the classroom for this lesson.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Simmons said.

Simmons, who graduated from Niskayuna in 2011 and is now a student at UAlbany, spent that class time walking the halls at Iroquois Middle School and killing time in the library. When he returned to class, all he knew was that his class had just had a lesson and he was not included.

“You can’t underestimate how that affects someone’s learning experience,” Simmons said.

Niskayuna was a good place to grow up, he said, and he has positive memories, too. But his years in Niskayuna schools, often as the only black student in his classes, made him feel like his story wasn’t represented, his voice wasn’t heard and his concerns weren’t addressed. He didn’t receive the same well-regarded, nationally-recognized Niskayuna education his classmates did, he contends.

“Niskayuna is a really fun place to grow up. The high school is state of the art. The technology classrooms, all of that stuff is awesome,” Simmons said, lamenting that the isolation complicated his ability to realize the full benefit of his education.

“That feeling of being lost in the mix and alone in the education system, that doesn’t go away," Simmons said. "That becomes your lived experience.

"The stakes are too high for a school like Niskayuna, that has so much resources and time, to not fix it.”

Those stakes were raised recently, after Niskayuna students attending a home girls' soccer game on Oct. 9 against Schenectady High School directed racist comments at the Schenectady players. While the incident is still under investigation, and Niskayuna school officials have yet to identify who was responsible, Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. has said the district still has a lot of work to do to improve the education experience for all students.

Working with Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, a former Albany city school district superintendent, Niskayuna education officials have interviewed a diverse group of students about their experiences in school. Those interviews and other conversations have been revealing, Tangorra said.

“There is a separate experience that is taking place for students of color,” Tangorra said. “We are becoming more aware of that. But I think we are also, at the same time, trying to address it.”

Black students have always been a small minority in Niskayuna schools, where last year, 4 percent of students were black -- a total of 170 students. Another 3.5 percent were multiracial.

But the district has become increasingly diverse in recent years. In 1980, nearly 95 percent of the student body was white. In 1990, 92 percent were white, and in 2000, the district was still more than 90 percent white. By 2010, however, the white population had fallen to 80 percent, and last year, 71 percent of the student body was white.

The extent to which students of color have experienced discrimination in Niskayuna schools over the years has become a public debate. When a parent of one of the Schenectady girls' soccer players posted a note on Facebook about the racist comments directed at the Schenectady players this month, hundreds of comments followed.

To some, the incident seemed out of character for Niskayuna.

“I don’t mean to say it doesn’t happen, but I definitely never heard it in the halls,” one Facebook commenter wrote. “When I went there, we had several students from all races, and not once did we ever have any problems with racism,” another poster wrote.

For some, however, the incident was a reminder of their own experiences.

“On brand,” one former student posted. “I’m not surprised in the least,” a recent graduate wrote.

One social media user, claiming to have worked in the school district, downplayed the incident, posting: “Not that it didn’t happen, but we shouldn't paint it as super common.”

That post prompted Simmons to respond, he said.

“It is super common,” he replied online. “You may not have heard of it, but ask any black or brown person who went to NHS what they experienced and see what they say.”

The youngest of three brothers, Simmons recognized the district’s strong academic programs, even as he didn’t feel fully included. He remembered a high school English teacher as passionate and unforgettable, yet Simmons, who is now in his final year studying literature and history at UAlbany, didn’t connect or engage with the subject in high school.

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In elementary school, Simmons recalled, his class was once working on a family tree project, tracing their family roots to where they first immigrated to America.

“For me, I can’t trace my history too far,” Simmons said.

He said his great-grandmother was a sharecropper, and her mother was a sharecropper and possibly a slave.

“Past that, there was nothing; there were no documents," Simmons said.

His teacher, though, wanted Simmons to find somewhere he could say his family originated, Simmons remembered.

“I remember the teacher bringing over the globe and turning it to Africa and basically running my finger over it and picking a random spot,” Simmons said.

Also: New Niskayuna position to focus on equity, Oct. 27, 2018

That, Simmons now realized, was a missed chance for all of his classmates to learn "that not all of us had the option of knowing where you came from.”

He said he doesn’t think he told his family about the incident: “It’s the type of thing that’s so embarrassing you don’t want to go through it again.”

Walked off the stage and kept walking’

LaTrecia Pierce, who lives in Louisville, Ky., graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1990. She said her high school years were full of discrimination, racism and isolation. She remembered how relieved she was to finally graduate and put Niskayuna behind her.

“Thank the Lord, I walked across the stage, got my diploma, headed into the sunset and never looked back,” said Pierce in a recent interview, also after participating in the online conversation about the soccer game. “I walked off the stage and kept walking.”

Pierce said that, while in Niskayuna schools, she was called “Aunt Jemima,” “Uncle Ben," and, “monkey,” along with the N-word and other racial slurs. “ 'I can’t stand when they mix the pepper with the salt',” she recalled being told in school.

When one of her classes was playing a mock game of Wheel of Fortune, she played the letter-flipping role held on the television game show by Vanna White. The students called her “Vanna Black,” and the teacher laughed it off, she said.

She felt isolated and worked to avoid social interaction with other students. She also recalled being asked to leave class and spending time on her own in the library.

“You go to the bus stop and stand by yourself," Pierce said. "You get on the bus and are sitting in a seat by yourself.

"In high school, I no longer took a lunch," Pierce continued. "I built my schedule up, so I wouldn’t have to sit in the lunch room.”

At times, her frustration and isolation boiled over, and she found herself in trouble, Pierce said. But she said she felt like her perspective in those conflicts was usually discounted or outright dismissed.

“When things happened to me, I would go to a teacher. I would go to administrators. I would go to the cafeteria lady. I would tell the bus driver … and no one would help me,” Pierce said. “They never listened to my side of the story; they would only listen to the other side of the story. They would tell me, 'You’re angry.' Well, yeah. Look how you’re treating me.”

Feeling uncomfortable’

Across the region, school district enrollment in general is shrinking, even as it becomes more diverse.

“When diversity comes to town, we are all challenged to grow,” said Angelicia Morris, executive director of Schenectady County Human Rights Commission. “In the Capital Region, school districts are no longer white. They are getting browner.”

Morris said the growing diversity in many districts has the potential to remake the education experience in positive ways, if districts work to represent and include all students. She said diversity promotes greater contact between students, fosters leadership skills that can bridge differences and encourages friendships that expose students to different perspectives.

From Simmons, Morris and others, the recommendations struck a similar chord: Districts should diversify their staffs and infuse a deeper study of the history and stories of people of color in their curriculum. They should foster conversations among staff, students and parents and not shy away from challenging discussions about racial insensitivity.

Tandra LaGrone, director of Albany-based nonprofit In Our Own Voices, which supports LGBT people of color -- also Simmons’ aunt -- said educators need to face up to the reality that the school system is built on a history of exclusion and under-representation of people of color.

“You have to have these honest, good, uncomfortable conversations,” LaGrone said.

While it may be hard for people to discuss racism or discrimination or unconscious bias and how it manifests in schools, the alternative leaves minority students feeling like there isn’t a place for them in the school environment and, in some cases, feeling unsafe.

“There’s a difference between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe,” LaGrone said.

She said Simmons’ older brothers also endured racist comments in their years at Niskayuna, and that words alone can have a lasting impact on youngsters.

“It’s trauma. It’s an act of violence,” said LaGrone of such verbal attacks. “It’s an act of violence anytime someone does something to you that violates your spirit.”

A mother of black students who have spent time in both Niskayuna and Schenectady schools said her children were the object of racial epithets or singled out in other ways by students in Niskayuna. But she also felt that the teachers and staff in Niskayuna were supportive when they had negative experiences.

The mother, who requested anonymity to discuss the topic of race in the two districts, said she wasn’t surprised when she heard about what happened at the soccer game this month.

She also expressed the nuances of a minority family feeling both partly isolated in Niskayuna but also part of one of the region’s best school districts.

When her daughter moved from a Niskayuna elementary school – where students were making PowerPoint presentations in second grade – to a Schenectady school, she said the disparity in technology and other resources was immediately evident.

Back-to-school nights in Niskayuna were far more organized and informative than in Schenectady, she said. And, she said, she was frustrated after her daughter told her that her teacher in Schenectady was texting during class. They switched districts as a result of moving, but the mother said she would have preferred they finished their education in Niskayuna.

Also: New Niskayuna position to focus on equity, Oct. 27, 2018

But Schenectady offers advantages, she said. Her older daughters, now at Schenectady High School, have found more classmates with which they connect, the mother said.

Her daughters over the summer were moved into the high school’s advanced pre-International Baccalaureate and International Baccalaureate programs and are excelling to maintain strong academic performance. But they also have to maintain that discipline while watching some new classmates skip class or engage in behaviors that were far less common or tolerated in Niskayuna.

“My kids appreciate being at Schenectady because they feel like they fit in more than they did in Niskayuna,” the mother said, adding that they are still getting used to deep differences between the neighboring districts. “There are things they are trying to get used to that they weren’t accustomed to – kids in Niskayuna were there until the very end.”

In the room’

Simmons said the extent to which his education was impacted by his race didn’t fully set in until after he graduated from Niskayuna: In a class about writers of the Harlem Renaissance at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, he was inspired to seek a deeper interest in literature.

“It all hit me at once that that place (Niskayuna) really is a bubble, and there is nothing coming in and nothing going out as far as culture goes,” Simmons said.

In other ways, life at Le Moyne felt too much like high school, and he eventually dropped out and moved back the Capital Region, where he worked and regrouped before starting college again at UAlbany.

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Now, Simmons is finishing a degree in English, with a minor in history. He plans to apply to the PeaceCorps, where he hopes to see other parts of the world and learn more about America from a global perspective. After the PeaceCorps, Simmons has his eyes on law school and politics. He is particularly interested in education policy.

Simmons doesn’t know if he wants to be the person on an election ballot, but he wants to be in the game and part of the action -- to be heard, understood and represented.

“I just want to be in the room,” Simmons said.

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