By Zachary Matson
SCHENECTADY- Chris Ognibene, a Schenectady High School social studies teacher, has had to resort to something this year he never thought he would have to in his 16 years teaching at the school: locking his classroom door.
If he doesn’t lock his door, he said, half his classes would be disrupted by students not in his class coming into the room to yell, whisper something to another student or to deliver food (“yes-really,” he said in an email). If he doesn’t lock the door, all of his classes would be disrupted by the flood of noise from a hallway full of students, both during and between classes, he said.
“Sadly, it is worse than it has ever been,” he said.
At the district’s middle schools, teachers feel overwhelmed and, in some cases, threatened by insubordinate students who feel there are no consequences and that they will end up in the same place no matter how hard they try in class.
“To be blunt, we feel our school is unsafe,” said Molly Schaefer, a family and consumer sciences teacher at Mont Pleasant Middle School.
Schaefer, Ognibene and around 100 Schenectady teachers – organized by the Schenectady Teachers Federation – turned out to Wednesday’s school board meeting to deliver a blunt message to the board and top district administrators: The school climate in the district is deteriorating and teachers need more support.
“The current state of affairs is a disgrace and disservice to the citizens of Schenectady, especially to parents,” said Oneida Middle School teacher Carol Lupo.
The teachers expressed concern that students were misbehaving more and respecting teachers less and that the consequences in place weren’t doing enough to maintain a constructive education environment for all students.
They also said that efforts in recent years to minimize the number of students held back for not passing classes – known as social promotion – was sending a message to students that they didn’t need to work hard to pass classes and move on to the next grade. The students were learning that all they had to do was “show up to get a paycheck,” as one teacher said. And the teachers said a flood of students well behind grade level was clogging the system for other students.
“We reward failure with social promotion, we create a fixed mind-set that both actions and behavior have no consequences,” Ognibene said. “What incentives do students have to try harder if the end results are the same of not trying at all? The experiment of no retention has failed. … The rats are dead.”
Superintendent Larry Spring, who told the teachers Wednesday night that he shared many of their frustrations, on Thursday both defended the district and acknowledged it still has a long way to go on many critical issues.
Spring said there have been fewer “altercations” at the high school this year than in the past 10 years and that the district’s drop-out rate has also improved. But that means there are more students who in earlier years may have spiraled out of school left to roam the halls, Spring said.
He said the district has moved forward on increasing support staff, improving teacher training and support and created and expanded programs targeted at students struggling academically, behaviorally or on both fronts.
“What is in place is moving toward addressing those concerns; I don’t think it is enough, we need more,” Spring said. “The things those teachers describe and are frustrated with is the same things I describe to legislators [in making the case for increased funding].”
But it’s not only a matter of funding, Spring said. The district can do a better job of identifying students likely to need remedial support as they move to the next grade and providing new teachers with mentors and other supports as they transition to the challenges of Schenectady schools. He said his request of teachers is that when a building decides to implement a particular strategy or consequence that everyone implements that plan consistently.
Spring also defended moving many students on to the next grade despite low academic performance, arguing that holding students back lessens the likelihood that students will ever catch up to peers and graduate.
The teachers also made sure to come along with their proposals on Wednesday. They called for investments in new hall monitors, behavioral specialists and administrators tasked solely with handling disruptions and discipline. They also said there needs to more alternatives for students not meeting the expectations of traditional classes.
“We simply do not have the staffing, fiscal abilities or time to make those things come to life in our schools,” Schaefer said.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the district’s teachers union, said the teachers recognized that poverty and trauma underlie many of the students’ challenges but also feel that there is a lack of support and that broader policies – beyond just district administration – drive decisions teachers may deem counterproductive.
“These concerns have intensified and feel more urgent,” Benaquisto said. “[Teachers] feel their hands are tied and that there are no consequences.”
The pleas of the teachers appeared to send a wake-up call to school board members, who promised they would take the teachers’ concerns and recommendations into account as they developed next year’s budget.
But some members seemed ready to push the conversation beyond a budget discussion, pointing to a broader policy effort around student promotion and behavior.
“Kids afraid to come to school; teachers feel unsafe; teachers are accosted, verbally assaulted,” board member Mark Snyder said as he summarized his notes. “This is failure… this is something that goes beyond budget development, money is not going to fix this problem.”
Board member Dharam Hitlall said Thursday he thinks the board needs to evaluate and discuss how the district handles student grade promotion; he also urged teachers and parents to come to the board with any concerns or problems they have with the district.
At Wednesday’s meeting, board member Cheryl Nechamen said it was the board’s responsibility to “hold Larry’s [Spring] feet to the fire and make some changes.”