BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — On the last day of summer vacation, while kids in Niskayuna slept in, their teachers danced.
It was the annual welcome for teachers, referred to affectionately as “Pep Rally,” and rightly so. Friends talked and laughed in the hallways outside the Niskayuna High School Auditorium until the presentation started at 8:30 sharp, not with the droning of rules and speeches, but with a rousing performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Theresa Fitzmaurice, music teacher at Craig Elementary School, belted out the peppy classic with accompaniment from other music department staff. She followed it, appropriately, with Earth Wind and Fire’s “September.”
Despite the stuffy heat in the packed auditorium, teachers clapped and sang gleefully, ready to greet their new students the very next day.
Niskayuna’s school year began Sept. 1, apparently the earliest start in the region.
“In retrospect, they should’ve been the closing act,” joked new Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra after the lively performance concluded. The pep rally marked his first time addressing all the district’s teachers and staff at once, and one of the only opportunities each year to do so.
Regardless, Tangorra said he wasn’t nervous as he stepped to the podium. In his short address, he said he hoped to create an atmosphere of safety for all students, improve the teacher evaluation system, and build a “world-class” future for the district.
While facing the district’s many teachers, Tangorra acknowledged the apprehension that surrounds APPR, the state’s teacher assessment program.
“Niskayuna had an evaluation system before that worked,” he said bluntly. “The system that is in place now is too time-consuming.”
Tangorra promised the district would work within the confines of the state’s evaluation program to try to make as much time as possible for important classroom work.
Greeting the teachers Aug. 31 was just one part of Tangorra’s larger goal, which is to make sure the school year’s opening goes smoothly, he said.
“It’s never perfect,” he said after the pep rally ended. “We’ll kind of ease into it.”
The experience is a new one for Tangorra, who joined the district at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. However, for those that have been around longer, his presence signifies a positive change in culture and attitude.
Pat Lanotte, president of the Board of Education, said as much in her address to the teachers.
“As a result of hard work throughout the district, we truly have cause for celebration,” she said.
“You can feel it in the air. I think it’s a mixture of excitement and optimism,” she continued. “From my perspective, we’re in a good place and we’re on the right track.”
Even after school starts in Niskayuna, there will still be a little more time for relaxation before things truly take off. Kids will be able to sleep in again Sept. 4 and Labor Day, giving them a four-day weekend for one last bit of summer.
School districts across the state struggled to schedule the required number of school days in 2015-2016, complete with holidays and built-in snow days, due to the late occurrence of Labor Day this year. While most schools will start after Labor Day, Niskayuna officials decided to start classes just before the holiday. This prevented them from having to take away from other vacations or risk running out of snow days.