The Schenectady City School District last week welcomed one its most diverse classes of new teachers in recent years: Nearly 20 percent of 70 new hires are teachers of color.
Some key leadership positions will also be filled by people of color. The new teachers and school leaders come to Schenectady from Washington, D.C.; Senegal; and, well, Schenectady.
But district leaders want to hire many more teachers of color in the coming years, forcing them to open new sources of job candidates and encourage local college education programs to recruit more diverse students.
Emphasizing the district’s focus on recognizing and addressing student trauma, lifting the voices of students and minimizing racial disparities, district officials have taken their staff recruitment efforts across the state and the broader eastern seaboard in an effort to diversify the teaching staff, which is around 90 percent white.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Schenectady School District teacher orientation was held at Key Hall August 26, 2019.
Patrick Jean-Pierre, who joined the district last year as assistant district director of diversity, recruitment and retention, has spent the past year tweaking the district’s hiring practices and expanding its recruitment efforts. He has built relationships at historically black colleges and universities such as Howard University; he visited Hunter College in New York City and discussed with school officials there how to sell their students on moving upstate. The district has started to open similar recruitment lines to Kean University in New Jersey and SUNY Cortland, which has a focus on recruiting black students to its education program.
Schenectady officials are also looking to help Capital Region teacher education programs recruit more diverse students to those programs, in some cases referring Schenectady hires to local programs to finish the teacher-certification process.
Jean-Pierre and Christina Mahoney, district director of human resources, also reworked the district’s hiring process to ensure the interview committees themselves are diverse. They also provided implicit-bias training to members of those committees.
The district has even started working with local landlords to see if they are willing to waive move-in fees for Schenectady school district teachers and staff.
Jean-Pierre said on his travels he tries to let the district’s mission speak for itself.
“That’s how I pull them in: I talk about advocacy, equity, improvement science, the focus around literacy … trauma-sensitive work and our focus on graduating our students on time,” he said. “Once I say that, I pretty much have them 80 percent of the way, and the rest is trying to figure out how do you sell the Schenectady area.”
Kargsia McDuffie, who lived in Washington, D.C., before accepting a job in Schenectady, had one of those conversations with Jean-Pierre at a job fair. She said she was convinced to pursue a job in the district because of its focus on supporting students, families and the broader community; she said she heard a vision of education she connected with, one willing to offer families the broad support they need to raise successful students.
“I learned about Schenectady at a career fair in D.C. and had a profound conversation about school leadership and equity,” McDuffie, who will be working as an assistant principal at Schenectady High School, said last week at the district’s new teacher and staff orientation. “It’s one of those conversations you have very rarely in life.”
Alioune Mbodj was originally from Senegal but has lived in the Capital Region for nearly a decade. He has worked in Shenendehowa schools, but will be teaching French at Central Park Middle School in Schenectady this year.
Jean-Pierre has also helped establish identity-based “affinity groups,” where teachers of a particular race, gender or ethnicity can come together to discuss shared experiences and together suggest changes to policy or practice. Those groups will continue to be formalized over the coming school year.
While the district is gradually increasing the percentage of new hires that are teachers of color -- about 18 percent of new hires so far this year, 22 percent of new hires last year and 14 percent of new hires the year before -- reaching the goal of a teacher force that truly reflects the diversity of the students they serve is a long way off.
District officials hope in the long run they can establish a formal pipeline that promises to support Schenectady students through college if they pledge to return to teach.
The so-called “grow your own program” got moving last year when the school board approved a new club at Schenectady High School focused on students interested in the teaching profession. In the long run, officials want to find ways to garner financial support that could go to scholarships and other ways of helping fund the education of students willing to teach in the district.
“If you graduate from Schenectady, go to college and promise to come back and teach, we want to make your college free,” Spring said of the long-term vision of a grow-your-own program.
Finding ways to facilitate a transition for paraprofessionals to become certified teachers would be another route for boosting teacher diversity. Spring and Mahoney said paraprofessionals are likely the district’s most diverse group of employees.
“Ultimately, we want folks like our paraprofessionals, if they are interested in becoming teachers, to be able to do that in a relatively barrier-free way,” he said.
The diversification efforts are part of the district’s broader mission of tackling issues of race and racial disparities head-on. Spring has said he wants to have more explicit conversations about race, infusing a focus on diversity into school curriculums and classroom libraries. When the district administrative leaders gathered last month for a retreat, they used the New York Times' recent rethink of slavery and American history, the 1619 Project, as a centerpiece of discussions.
“You can’t come to Schenectady and be neutral on race,” Spring said at the new teacher orientation. “Neutrality only supports the oppressors.”
He pointed to the widespread disparities in student discipline and academic outcomes as compelling evidence for why so few students of color ultimately pursue careers as teachers of color. In Schenectady, black students are about twice as likely to be suspended as their white peers; in other districts around the region, black students are as much as 10 times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.
“I think you have to ask yourself, in what ways are these institutions making black and brown students feel like this is an institution they would want to spend their life in?” Spring said. “If they are suspended at elevated rates, if they fail at increased rates, if they feel like the school was not made for them, like they are a guest in the school, it’s not gonna be a field in which they are naturally going to think about ... I want to spend my life in that institution.”