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New Niskayuna position to focus on equity

New Niskayuna position to focus on equity

Troy native, a Fulbright Scholar, taught middle and high school Spanish in Cleveland among other jobs before taking newly-created post
New Niskayuna position to focus on equity
Matt Grimes is Niskayuna schools equity coordinator.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

Before Niskayuna’s efforts to create a more welcoming environment were thrust into the spotlight after racist comments at a soccer game, Matt Grimes had settled into his new office and new job.

Grimes, who grew up in Troy, started as the district’s new equity coordinator in August — a new position focused on working with students, staff and the community to foster a learning environment that supports all students.

“As a system, it is our job, it is our priority to make sure that all students deserve and have access to an excellent education,” Grimes said in an interview Thursday. “When we remove diversity, equity and inclusion from the conversation, we really are not ensuring that all students are being accounted for and we are leaving some behind.”

In the aftermath of the Oct. 9 soccer game with Schenectady, former Niskayuna students have come forward and described instances of racism and isolation that hurt their academic experience and set their learning back.

Schools Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said a similar narrative emerged in interviews district officials have conducted with a diverse group of students in recent months.

“There is a separate experience that is taking place for students of color,” Tangorra said Thursday.

He said his understanding of that reality has grown since he started in the district, and said the district is committed to ensuring all its students access to the same well-respected Niskayuna education. In the past couple of years, the district has established a committee focused on improving equity and inclusion, established Grimes’ new position, trained administrators on equity issues and established diversity goals.

Also: Decades of racial isolation have shaped lives of Niskayuna students, Oct. 27, 2018

Grimes went to school in the Troy City School District and graduated from Lansingburgh High School. He earned a degree in Spanish from Siena College, spent time in Argentina as a Fulbright scholar, worked at The College of Saint Rose and had worked at the SEAT Center in Schenectady before seeing the Niskayuna job opening. He also taught middle school and high school Spanish in Cleveland city schools.

His interest in the job was influenced by his experiences growing up. He said he thinks educators weren’t thinking or talking about issues of inclusion when he was a student. As an example, he said, when transitioning from middle school to high school he wasn’t given a chance to take advanced courses and take advantage of offerings that would have set him up for academic pursuits beyond high school. While he succeeded academically, he saw others who didn’t.

“I saw many instances of friends and family members who were left behind in a system,” he said. “For some strange reason, I was able to get out.”

After working in an urban school setting in Cleveland, he saw the Niskayuna job as an opportunity to take the work of improving equity to a different type of district.

“When I saw the position posted in Niskayuna, I thought that’s a really great opportunity to spread the work that I was already doing in a community and in a district that was vastly different than what I was used to,” Grimes said.

So what is equity, anyway?

“Equity is making sure we provide opportunities to students to access the same experience within and outside the class,” Grimes said. “It’s not making sure students all have the same thing, it’s making sure all students have access … and removing any barrier that might hinder their ability to learn.”

He said creating an inclusive environment means that all students feel empowered and supported to take advantage of the various opportunities offered in school. Not only do students need to have opportunities, they need to feel those opportunities are for them and they are supported in pursuing them.

“We can create spaces, create avenues and bridges, but if students don’t feel that they are being valued along multiple issues of diversity then the work can never really move forward,” he said.

That work include looking at the district’s curriculum for places where minority voices are minimized or places where more diverse and representative texts, stories and histories can expand learning opportunities.

He also plans to work with students, creating space for them to express how they feel. To Grimes, diversity encompasses differences across racial, ethnic and gender lines and sexual orientation.

He also said the broader community will be key in the district equity work, including strengthening ties between Schenectady and Niskayuna.

“When community and education are connected, greater change happens,” Grimes said.

‘No place in our school’

On Thursday, Niskayuna High School Principal John Rickert again addressed the entire school about the racist comments that were made at the soccer game.

“This language and these attitudes have no place in our school or in our society,” Rickert said. “While this became a very public incident, we also have to acknowledge that it is not an isolated one. We know that racist language and hate speech are used in our community. We have to call it what it is: unacceptable.”

He said school and district officials have not identified the “source of these remarks,” but that “in no way calls into question whether this happened.”

Also: Decades of racial isolation have shaped lives of Niskayuna students, Oct. 27, 2018

When Rickert earlier addressed what happened at the game in comments to the school, he said it was unfortunate how the school as a whole was being portrayed in news stories and social media. He also said allegations that certain students were the ones responsible for the comments had “yet to be proven.”

He said Thursday that administrators will spend time over the next two weeks meeting with homeroom classes and discussing the incident and the continued fallout from it.

Rickert also said he knew some people felt his initial comments had “dismissed what occurred,” and he apologized for that. He said one of his favorite parts of his job is that the school community learns from its mistakes and works to become better, and that he was doing the same.

“Niskayuna High School is a vibrant, successful, positive learning community, but it takes all of us to make sure it stays that way and to make sure everyone feels that way,” Rickert said.

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