School district outlines ambitious goals, targets

Niskayuna Central School District Superintendent Dr. Cosimo Tangorra Jr. MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHERNiskayuna Central School District Superintendent Dr. Cosimo Tangorra Jr. MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
By Zachary Matson
Gazette Reporter

The Niskayuna school district is taking up an ambitious agenda this school year as it inches toward a major capital project vote in 2020 and lays the groundwork for myriad changes to its classroom approach.

From new elementary school homework rules to later start times to a code of conduct that emphasizes a therapeutic approach, Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. outlined planning efforts in a variety of areas that could mean major changes in coming school years.

With deadlines throughout the year, Tangorra outlined the goals and targets he said the board would measure his performance against.

“It holds me directly accountable to ensure my work this year advances part of the strategic plan,” Tangorra said as he outlined the agenda at the Sept. 4 board meeting.

The district launched its “one-to-one” laptop program at the start of the school year and is also considering changes to homework guidelines, the student code of conduct and how it engages potential community partners.

“It’s a pretty aggressive year,” board President Jack Calareso said.

Here’s a look at some changes to happen this year and others already in the works in Niskayuna schools:

Laptops start in sixth grade

Niskyuna sixth-graders this year received Chromebook laptops as part of the start of school, the first phase of a districtwide effort to put laptops in the hands of all of its students. Next year, this year’s sixth-graders will take their laptops to seventh grade. A new batch of sixth graders will get laptops and 10th-graders will start receiving the devices as well. Over three years, under the district plan, all of its middle and high school students will have a personal laptop for work at school and home.

Lauren Gemmill, assistant superintendent for instruction, said sixth-grade teachers have been using computers in their classrooms in recent years and should transition smoothly with students each having their own laptop.

“Sixth-grade teachers, middle school teachers, have really been the leaders in our district,” Gemmill said in an interview before the start of the school year. “We have to start somewhere, so it was really important we started somewhere instruction would drive use of the technology — not just putting a device in a student’s hand for the sake of it.”

Start-time change

Tangorra in a Sept. 7 interview said moving to a later start time for high school students wasn’t likely to happen by next school year.

“That would be pretty aggressive based on the information I have right now,” he said when asked if a planning timeline allowed for having new start times by next school year.

With implementation recommendations in the spring, he said it would be too aggressive to make a switch by the fall. But a wave of student studies and a committee recommendation has moved the board closer to the later start time. Tangorra’s latest comments suggest planning for a fall 2020 start time switch — if approved by the board — at the earliest.

‘Restorative practices’

As the district makes its annual revisions to its student code of conduct this year, it will move toward “restorative practices,” which treat student behavior as a symptom of other factors rather than something that needs to be punished.

“I don’t believe sitting here [in education] for 25 years that you can punish kids into the outcomes that you want,” Tangorra said.

In recent years, Schenectady has used a restorative approach under its conduct code by expanding peer mediation programs as well as creating space and time for students to calm themselves.

Niskayuna officials have also started talking about using a “trauma-informed” approach — something Schenectady has also adopted in recent years — to better understand the background of students and how it impacts their behavior in school.

STEM/STEAM Community

Earlier this month, Tangorra also told the school board he planned to “proclaim ourself what we are: a STEAM or STEM community.”

He said he planned to spend the fall and winter meeting with local business leaders — at GE Global Research, SI Group, Environment One and elsewhere — to pitch the district as a partner in future programs and to invite them to participate in a ceremony to celebrate Niskayuna’s science and technology roots.

Tangorra said details were still to be focused, but he set a target date of March for an official event.

“[We can] demonstrate not only what Niskayuna can do for them but what we are already doing to provide employees for their future and to demonstrate we are truly already a STEM community,” he said.

As he reaches out to businesses, he said, he also hopes to find partners for a mentorship program that would expand the diversity of support figures in the lives of Niskayuna students.