SARATOGA COUNTY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — The New York State Board of Regents announces this week changes to its diversity and inclusion policy, as well as a new program to promote civic education. In the proposal for policy amendments, the New York State Education Department acknowledges students “have lived through a series of tragedies this past year as they watched brutal examples of racial injustice, a rise in discrimination and hateful rhetoric, and the disproportionate toll COVID-19 has had on our most marginalized and historically excluded communities.”
The proposal for a new Seal of Civic Readiness program now seeks to change how students learn about such pivotal moments in history.
“Bring not only awareness, but action steps. What do we do to level the playing field to eliminate the gaps?” asks Mechanicville City School District Superintendent Bruce Potter.
The Board of Regents suggests adding the opportunity for a new seal to student diplomas to show they understand participating in government, cultural and socioeconomic issues, as well as addressing injustice and inequality. Potter says although Mechanicville has not officially applied to pilot the initiative, he would still love if they could be chosen.
Potter adds Mechanicville has taken many first steps ahead of any BOE decision to show commitment to diversity and student voice. The district already submitted and had approved a diversity and inclusion plan in January focusing on student input and also plans to vote next week to add a “Transition Coordinator” position who would be hired to oversee civic education and digital learning opportunities.
“It’s understanding who our students are. Their own identities and teachers building relationships with kids and creating experiences that support who they are,” Potter says.
“We think this is a part of a complete education. The kids in Mechanicville are very community minded, but formalizing that process, tracking hours, identifying whether it’s specific projects or Capstone pieces that the kids can participate in that are meaningful to them and meaningful to the community, I think it’s huge,” he further explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
The Seal of Civic Readiness proposal would credit students for meeting with government officials, participating in civil discourse around controversial issues, or creating a project about a historic or cultural issue important to them. Local Black Lives Matter activist Lexis Figuereo recently spoke to students at his alma mater, Saratoga Springs High School, about civil disobedience.
“They were reading a book about civil disobedience, so we talked about what civil disobedience is, what civil disobedience isn’t. We talked about the pros and cons, and I let them know that I understand some of them might not be up for all that, but there are other things they can do to be active in the process, you know. Letting them know their options,” Figuereo says.
“It’s empowering to empower the kids to be able to speak up for themselves. Sending emails to their public officials, city officials, making sure that they vote when they’re able to vote and things like that,” he goes on to say.
He says he sees the project as an opportunity for students to learn perspectives from all sides and think for themselves.
“If it’s something that you’re actually into and if you are creating it yourself, that makes you more independent and makes you more wanting to be involved in something you created,” he says.
“It’s not the school’s job to push a political agenda or religious agenda or anything else, but it’s to give students an opportunity to learn about process and how to participate productively within our communities,” Potter says,
There is a public comment period until July 26 before the Board of Regents votes to permanently adopt the program in September.
Figuero also addressed social media comments from a group “Moving Saratoga Forward” that criticized his and his sister’s speaking engagement with Saratoga Springs High School students.
“The conversation wasn’t a thing for me to sway them from what they want to do. It was just to let them know the available opportunities and resources for them,” Figuereo. “Let’s also talk the facts, we were never even in the building, it was virtual. There’s COVID-19 right now so they were allowing any person to come in the building, so we never set foot there.”
Saratoga Springs City School District similarly responded to the comments with the following:
The Saratoga Springs City School District is committed to offering diverse perspectives within the learning environment and providing opportunities for critical thinking. As educators, we address controversial issues that have educational value, are developmentally appropriate, and are relevant to the curriculum in a manner that balances major views to assure that as many sides of the issues as possible are presented in a fair manner.
While we understand that members of our community may not always agree with the topics or viewpoints presented, providing multiple perspectives is part of the educational experience for our students to prepare them for future success. Giving students a chance to assess different viewpoints and apply critical thinking skills, particularly at the secondary level, is consistent with our mission.
Recently, one of our high school classes held a virtual meeting with guest speakers, which has created a response from members of our community. The district has reviewed this event and has determined that appropriate guest speaker approval procedures were not followed with fidelity. Thus, we are examining our guest speaker process to assess how it can be strengthened and improved.
We appreciate the feedback we have received and hope the community recognizes our good faith efforts to continuously reflect on our policies and practices
A representative further clarifies, although the teacher in question did not go through the appropriate supervisors to approve Figuereo and his sister, Chandler Hickenbottom, as speakers to the class, the school district has no comment on additional criticisms from social media that the Black Lives Matter message is inappropriate for a school setting.
“They were posting we were a danger to the kids and blah, blah — all kinds of fear mongering rhetoric. It’s disgusting that ‘Moving Saratoga Forward’ seems to have this attitude that’s actually moving Saratoga backwards,” Figuereo further responds.
“There was no political talk, it was not a political thing. We gave them history and facts, and I even said to them very clearly, you know, I know some of you may have cops as relatives, you may have aspirations to be a cop and so you may not agree with how I feel about them, but it’s good to have perspectives from all sides of an issue,” he says.