NISKAYUNA -- As the Niskayuna school board weighed difficult budget trade-offs this spring, a trio of voices on the board emerged as one to urge the protection of teachers and other classroom staff.
Those voices came from students, the board’s three student representatives, who speak on behalf of the hundreds of students, even if they don’t get a vote like elected board members.
Even as the district’s superintendent was recommending the board eliminate over two dozen staff positions, the students on the board consistently and powerfully explained the importance of teachers in their academic lives and called for the jobs of educators to be saved.
A majority of the school board ultimately agreed to protect as many classroom positions as possible, relying on reserves and savings to do so. At board meetings, some elected members even passed on chances to add comments to the discussion, allowing the students’ comments to stand in their place.
“Knowing that this budget will have a huge impact on our district and on our community and our students next year and for years to come was something that really made it so much more important that we did talk about what our opinions are,” said Anjalee Modasra, a graduating senior and student representative for the last two years.
Modasra was joined by fellow graduating senior Reem Djebli at the virtual school board meetings this spring, as well as junior Selwa Khan, as Modasra and Djebli wrapped up their two-year tenure on the school board and their final days in high school.
“For me I just thought back through my experiences in the Niskayuna school district and thought about how the biggest impact was made on me by my teachers,” Djebli said. “I wanted to express that students care a lot about the schools and the quality of the teachers, and I just wanted to make sure that student perspective was kept in mind. And clearly it was because they were able to save a bunch of positions, which a lot of people are happy about.”
Djebli and Modasra, who join their classmates today for a chance to collect diplomas at the high school and to mark their graduation with a ceremony at the Malta Drive-In, are both planning to pursue degrees and ultimately careers in public policy, partly inspired by their time as student representatives. Now that they’ve emerged from the gauntlet of Niskayuna school politics, they’ve honed skills in public meeting process, constituent services and education policy.
But mostly they’ve learned what it means to be a representative of other people.
“Our main priority with the budget was to make sure we represented the student opinion, and I guess to not speak on it would be detrimental to the student body and the students who would have to experience [cuts to teachers],” Modasra said. “That was also part of what fueled our ability to speak on this topic. We have to represent the students and the students’ interests and that’s what we are here for.”
Djebli is set to study public policy, social justice and international relations at New York University, starting with online classes from home in the fall before hopefully starting up classes on campus in the spring, she said. Modasra plans to start classes at the University at Albany in the fall and move to SUNY Binghamton in the spring, also planning to study public policy.
Earlier in their high school careers, they both liked the sound of an opportunity to ensure student perspectives were heard at school board meetings. Modasra first heard about the student representative position at her freshmen orientation and applied as soon as she could in her sophomore year. Djebli, noting her heritage as Muslim and Arab, said she wanted to bring her background to the board to work on behalf of fellow students.
“I felt like I had a unique perspective on the school, so I was able to share that, and I wanted to be able to share that,” she said.
During their tenure on the board, Djebli and Modasra spearheaded efforts to convert plastic utensils in the high school cafeteria to reusable silverware, helped interview candidates for the district’s equity coordinator position and worked to ensure prom won’t conflict with Ramadan and other religious observation in the future.
They helped found the high school’s Sisters in Solidarity club, a group open to all students and focused on talking about race, religion and other ways people are different and similar.
“I wanted to create a safe environment where students of color felt comfortable sharing their experiences but also educating others on different matters on diversity, race, religion,” Djebli. “Topics that were normally uncomfortable for people to have conversations about, but we wanted to make sure everyone could come and be educated regardless.”
As student representatives, they keep in regular touch with elected class officers, students leaders of clubs and sports teams and get text messages, emails and social media messages from students throughout the school. They also host regular high school student forums throughout the school year, opportunities for students to discuss various school issues in front of an audience of school and district leaders.
When schools were first closed due to COVID-19, Modasra said she didn’t think they would be able to hold their previously-scheduled student forums. But Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said it was as important as ever to offer students a platform to share concerns in the wake of an unprecedented transition to remote learning.
“We decided it’s probably one of the best ones we can do, because there are so many students who need information and are confused about grading, work and all that stuff,” Modasra said. “We had a packed agenda for the first meeting.”
About 90 students joined the first virtual forum in April, the most students present for any forum, Djebli and Modasra said. Scheduling conflicts, overwhelming workloads and grading policies all came up as topics of conversation and concern at the student forum, and district administrators responded with changes shortly afterward.
“Right from the student forum, many changes were made to the remote-learning situation based on what the students were telling them,” Modasra said.
They hosted three remote student forums while school buildings were closed and students worked from home, drawing new students into the conversation about what to do differently.
“Students who had never come before were being pretty vocal and we were lucky to be able to communicate that, because by the second forum ... the administration already had responses to these questions,” Djebli said.
The forums got results too. In response to student concerns shared at the virtual forums, district officials changed its grading policy to allow students to take a numerical grade if they wanted, and officials established a universal calendar to limit student scheduling conflicts.
“We were able to really connect with students and make sure that all students were feeling heard even though we were in this remote learning situation,” Modasra said.
Both students said they learned an enormous amount on the board - from how elected leaders incorporate public feedback into difficult decisions to how to foster a wide range of views - and plan to take those lessons with them into careers informed and inspired by their time on the school board.
“I learned to be more comfortable and more confident speaking to people, regardless of whether our opinions are the same,” Djebli said. “The position has allowed me to reach out and know people across all grades, across all backgrounds. I think that is really important, because in my future career I hope to help people and to listen to people and to advocate for people, and to do that on this level has really given me an experience and taught me a lot about how to be a better person and do your job in a way that really accounts for all people. It hasn’t always been easy, but I am grateful for it.”
They spoke clearly and confidently during budget meetings and plan to do the same in their next endeavors.
“This position definitely helped me find my voice,” Modasra said. “I was a very quiet person in 10th grade; the person I am today and the person I was in 10th grade are two very different girls who existed, and this position has done so much for allowing me to find my voice.”