Students hope regular chats continue with new leader

Interim Superintendent John Yagielski, right, laughs with students during a Monday, April 13 meeting. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)Interim Superintendent John Yagielski, right, laughs with students during a Monday, April 13 meeting. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

Meeting of the minds

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — When a small group of Niskayuna High School students first invited interim Superintendent John Yagielski to join them for regular meetings where they could voice their concerns about daily life in the district, they greeted him with straight backs and folded hands.

The students had complaints about class size, course offerings, transparency between the Board of Education and its stakeholders and a laundry list of other things. Some have been solved, while others are just beginning to move in the right direction.

But one thing has clearly changed: As Yagielski nears the end of his tenure and the district prepares to welcome a new superintendent, Cosimo Tangorra Jr., all that formality has melted away. Tuesday nights are now a comfortable, animated chat around a long table in the high school’s media center, punctuated by loud laughter.

With Tangorra’s official appointment at the Board of Education meeting April 14, the dozen or so students and their faculty liaisons, which also include high school Principal John Rickert, are searching for a way to keep the group — and its candid spirit — alive into the future. First, the students need to make sure Tangorra has the time and interest to meet with them in such a casual setting.

They’re fairly certain that won’t be a problem. Two of the students in the group, Emil Friedman and Noah Rohde, were on the interview committee for the new superintendent, and they had apparently already invited him.

“He was very clear that he wanted to engage the students in a setting just like this,” Rohde said.

Yagielski agreed the group’s future looked promising. “In the conversations I’ve had with [Tangorra], he’s not looking to come in and throw everything out that’s here,” Yagielski said.

But perhaps a bigger concern for a group that’s about two-thirds graduating seniors is keeping the table full of youthful faces. The students talked about the practical aspects of getting students to join clubs: Would they be busy Tuesday nights? Would they be enticed to stop by the group’s booth at the activities fair at the beginning of the year?

“We have to make a point to make the student body know,” student Eileen Ofori said.

They settled on a combination of educational morning announcements, a charismatic point person at the Activities Fair and the potential addition of snacks at meetings for good measure.

But this isn’t a group of students that simply wants to keep up the work it’s doing. These sophomores, juniors and seniors are constantly focused on growth, and most of their meeting was dedicated to reaching a goal the group’s founding students agreed upon when they began meeting earlier this year: They want a student representative on the school board.

The group has already gotten a special student comment period added just after public comment on the Board of Education’s meeting agenda. But that comment period does not allow students to speak during board discussion; they can only anticipate coming discussions and hope their opinions are heard.

For Mizbani, even though he will graduate in just a couple of months, that level of inclusion for students falls short.

“The reason we wanted the student representative was, there were times during meetings where you really want to yell at them,” he said, half-jokingly, of school board members. “The reason to put the student there was to just make sure the board was really thinking reasonably about what’s going on in school.”

The Board of Education has not yet agreed to include a student representative, but the pressure is on, and the students worked for nearly an hour on their proposal. They debated how students should be selected. General election? Selection by the school board? Should several students rotate?

Finally,they agreed they would propose a petition process for interested students, who would then be vetted and selected by the Board of Education. The students hoped to win seats for two representatives, one junior and one senior, in case someone was unable to make a meeting.

Student representatives would not be able to vote, but would participate in any discussion, rather than having their voices confined to the comment period.

During the students’ discussion, Yagielski acted as a sounding board, sometimes interjecting concerns board members might voice and other times acting as the voice of experience.

“You don’t want to make the job so onerous that you don’t have people step up,” he said. “You want to have people who want to do it.”