SCHENECTADY -- City school leaders emphasized the school district’s “social justice” mission as they welcomed dozens of new teachers and school leaders to the district Monday.
“I can’t think of a better place to come and work if you have the social justice gene than Schenectady,” Superintendent Larry Spring told the district’s new teachers, who gathered at Key Hall downtown on Monday morning before setting out on a tour of the city and school district.
Spring introduced the new staff to his overarching mission of a true even playing field though education, that a student’s race or disability does not serve as a predictor of academic outcomes. He said Schenectady’s students demonstrate kids, even those facing tremendous challenges, can do incredible things.
“We tend to temper our expectations about what kids in urban districts can do,” Spring said, adding that despite the obstacles they face students in urban districts like Schenectady are often portrayed as “less than” their suburban counterparts. “In my experience, our kids are more than,” Spring said. “Our kids have power in their voice as 15-year-olds I didn’t have until I was in my 20s. Our kids have wisdom beyond their years.”
Sometimes, that wisdom is hard won through struggles with poverty, neglect, violence and the other everyday stresses facing many Schenectady students.
He also referenced the district’s approach to difficult conversations about race and the impact that race has in the Schenectady community and on Schenectady students. His message: Don’t shy away from it, make it central.
“You can’t come to Schenectady and be neutral on race,” Spring said. “Neutrality only supports the oppressors.”
Schenectady school board President John Foley pointed to an oft-cited UCLA report that found New York to have the nation’s most segregated school system. He said that segregation was the result of intentional decisions that exacerbated discriminatory practices and outcomes. Those are practices, he said, Schenectady is now working to mitigate.
“To change things we also have to do that with intent,” Foley said.
With retirements and a budget expansion, the district had about 70 faculty positions to fill for the start of the new school year next week. District officials said they had filled about 80 percent of those jobs as of last week.
The new teachers are coming to Schenectady from near and far; some are Schenectady graduates, some relocated to upstate New York for the position. District officials in recent years have sought to increase the diversity of its teaching staff and this year nearly 20 percent of new hires will be teachers of color.
The new teachers on Monday beamed with enthusiasm for the work they were just setting out on in the city.
“This is all I ever wanted to do in my life,” Nyeka Holland said of being a teacher. Holland taught for over a dozen years in Kingston and will be starting as a special education teacher at Mont Pleasant Middle School next week.
Holland, who has been living in Cohoes for the past few years, spent the summer working as a teacher at Howe in Schenectady’s summer enrichment program. Other teachers who worked the summer program will be joining the district’s full-time staff this fall.
“I actually don’t feel like a new teacher,” Holland said.
Some of the new teachers are really just returning home. Emoni Raysor said she knew she wanted to become a teacher after being inspired by her fourth-grade teacher at Hamilton Elementary School, Kristen Munrett. Munrett showed her that she could be anything he wanted to be, Raysor said. Next week, Raysor starts her new job -- a fourth grade teacher at Hamilton Elementary.
“It’s like full circle for me,” she said.