Teachers and staff at the Schenectady City School District have been hard at work in preparation for the return of students Thursday.
Packed in the Schenectady High School auditorium, teachers and office staff are partway through a two-day training session to gear them up for the first day of classes. Superintendent Laurence Spring says it’s an opportunity to update staff on the past year’s accomplishments, and where the district stands going forward.
“Our school district saw the highest graduation rate that we’ve seen in a dozen years," says Spring. "Our elementary school that was in receivership, [William C.] Keane Elementary – and receivership is not a nice thing, it’s really when the state is saying that a school is performing very low – and Keane Elementary had a 12 percentage point increase of students achieving proficiency.”
Spring says the overall high school graduation rate is 70 percent. He adds that Schenectady became a “model of sorts” for New York state in addressing students’ social and emotional needs, with the district’s Crisis Prevention Team reducing the number of student psychiatric hospitalizations by over 50 percent, and the high school’s new “Grad Lab” identifying and supporting students at risk of failing.
“Sometimes those kids fell off the path because of homelessness or difficult home situations or mental health – sometimes just, you know, because of adolescence," notes Spring. "But working with them to make sure that they knew what they needed to do, that they had a plan for getting it done…[Grad Lab] got 24 out of those 25 kids to graduate.”
The teachers at Spring’s presentation have been preparing for weeks. At Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill, Christina Lemorta is perched atop a chair, stapling together the finishing touches of her third-grade classroom: colorful billboards with writing tips, and borders adorned with apple decals. A still-empty billboard hangs by the window.
“This board here where it says ‘September’ is kind of an open board right now, because we’re gonna do like a ‘Get the Scoop,’ and I’m gonna fill it with like, ice cream [pictures], they’re gonna decorate it with their own little things about themselves. Kind of like ‘Get the Scoop’ on them," Lemorta explains.
Lemorta says she plans to spend the first few classes just getting to know her 20 students. With over 560 students from Pre-K to Grade 5, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary is one of the district’s largest. Assistant Principal Josh Bate says the behind-the-scenes work before the new school year can start as soon as the first day of summer.
“The custodians actually take every single piece of furniture out of the classroom, clean the room top to bottom, and put all the furniture back according to the way the teacher wants it," he explains. "Sometimes it’s put back the same, sometimes they put it back completely different.”
Lemorta says she always arranges her desks into groups, to encourage students to work together. In her 12th year teaching, she says she still gets the first-day jitters.
“I think we all get that ‘teacher anxiety’ just like the kids do. But making that connection when the kids come in, we kind of have that meeting right away [to] calm each other down and get to know each other – I think once we start doing that, then it eases everyone’s first day fear," she laughs.
At Spring’s presentation, Lemorta and others are encouraged to take a copy of the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” a special publication released in August recognizing the 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in America and its lasting impact on the U.S.
Spring says it’s important to realize that the effects of racism are not just felt nationally, but locally as well. Last fall, black players on Schenectady’s girls’ soccer team faced racial slurs as they played Niskayuna. And Spring wants teachers to think about how traditional curriculums can overlook black history and shut out students of color.
“And so asking folks to rethink their curriculum, think about what books we choose to put in kids’ hands, think about what notions of community, what notions of family, what notions of interactions that we choose to value or we choose to police and why – are really important things in terms of making sure that all of our students feel that school is their home," he says.
Until then, school staff are still putting “home” together in other ways. The Schenectady City School District says it serves nearly 10,000 students from Pre-K to Grade 12, with 11 elementary schools, three middle schools, one high school, and a continuing education center.