A pair of outside consultants have started working in Niskayuna schools, filling a void left after the district's first equity coordinator left in January and laying the ground work for longer-term projects.
The consultants, Christina Farinacci-Roberts and Athena Demetra Fliakos, each have separate contracts worth $15,000 over three months up for board approval Monday.
Their charge, as spelled out in the contract, is to bolster the district's efforts to help all students feel supported and cared for – work that is in part response to stories from Niskayuna families and students of color who have recounted discrimination, microaggressions and outright racism.
Describing their work, Fliakos and Farinacci-Roberts said it largely boils down to ensuring students feel and understand they are the focus of everything going on in school.
“The kids need to understand we are all here for them,” Fliakos said.
The three-month contracts outline how the two consultants will work with students and staff, observe classrooms and other students spaces, develop professional development for teachers and support existing equity programs, including collaborations with Schenectady city schools that was kick-started after a racist incident at a soccer game between the two schools in the fall.
The contracts also call for the consultants to jumpstart long-term projects, like a five-year strategic plan focused on accomplishing “equity and excellence for all” students. They also plan to work on forming a joint student council made up of high school students from Niskayuna and Schenectady
“The more the adults can actually back away and the students are really driving the changes, that's how we know we have done our jobs,” Farinacci-Roberts said.
Farinacci-Roberts and Fliakos, both the children of immigrants and educators who have worked in a variety of schools, have started holding twice-weekly office hours at Niskayuna High School, where students and teachers can drop by to talk about issues or incidents of bias or just catch up.
The consultants in an interview this past week said they are trying to start a dialogue with teachers, students and administrators to get people in the district to open up about they ways they can better serve all students. They are working to develop training for teachers and said they urge teachers to remember that every student comes from a different place and learns differently – and that some may learn far differently than they had as students.
“What worked for you (teachers)... won't work for every student in your room right now,” Fliakos said. “Engagement is the point, how each student becomes engaged is the point.”
Fariancci-Roberts grew up in South Colonie and graduated from Colonie Central High School; she returned to the Capital Region in 2012. Fliakos lives in northwestern Connecticut, where she used to teach at The Hotchkiss School, a private boarding school, before shifting to work in public schools. They each run their own businesses – called Head Heart Hands Consulting and The Good Brain Project, respectively – but have worked together in the past, meeting while both working in New York City schools.
The pair reached out to both Niskayuna and Schenectady districts after Niskayuna students directed racist comments at Schenectady girls soccer players during an October game.
“We thought that could be a really teachable moment for both districts,” Farinacci-Roberts said.
In the wake of that incident, the two district have joined efforts for a handful of activities, including two days in March where students from Schenectady shadowed Niskayuna students in Niskayuna and vice versa. Students visited classes and walked the halls together, later meeting to discuss the differences and similarities between two high schools separated by little more than a mile.
Farinacci-Roberts and Fliakos had been asked to help organize those activities since the district's first equity coordinator, Matt Grimes, resigned in January. District officials have said they are looking to fill that district position.
“That room had nothing but love in it,” Farinacci-Roberts said of bringing together students from the two districts. “A lot of these things can be resolved by knowing each other.”
Fliakos said the Niskayuna students observed that “authenticity is ubiquotous and widespread at Schenectady” high school in a way far more widespread than in Niskayuna. She said Schenectady has a “cultural vibration of acceptance” evident to the Niskayuna students.
The two district's leaders have expressed an interest in maintaining and strengthening the collaboration moving forward, establishing an adult working group and student council by the fall to serve as the foundation of those efforts.
“The two districts have a unique opportunity to learn from and grow with one another in a way two suburban or two urban districts miss out on,” Farinacci-Roberts said.
When the consultants' contracts went up for approval at the Niskayuna school board meeting on March 19, the board tabled action and asked district Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. to flesh out details in the contract.
Addressing the board during the public comments section of the meeting, former board member Pat Lanotte raised a list of questions about the process used to bring the consultants to the district. Lanotte questioned why the board was being asked to approve a contract without first receiving a proposal for how the consultants would meet the districts needs. She also questioned whether the equity consultants met the standard of providing professional services needed to bypass an open bidding process.
“In the future, hopefully you will have a proposal before the board before you have a fully-executed contract,” Lanotte said at the meeting.
Speaking later in the meeting, Tangorra said board members had raised similar concerns. He promised to detail more specific responsibilities in the contract and outline for the board why he recommended hiring the consultants as providers of professional services.
“The types of skills required to deliver this equity work doesn't exist readily across the state,” Tangorra said.
Tangorra said the cost of the contracts was partly covered by the remainder of the salary for the district's equity position that remains vacant.
“What can we do to fill this immediate need that was left in Matt's wake, because this work is really important,” Tangorra said.
At the meeting, Fliakos and Farinacci-Roberts scored an endorsement from Anjalee Modasra, a student representative on the school board who has been involved in the joint efforts with Schenectady.
“They haven't been here very long, but they are jumping right in,” Modasra said of the new consultants. “They are very empowering and inspiring roll models.”