New school board leaders support inclusion but say it’s costly

Seema Rivera

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 

Seema Rivera

Timothy Horan

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff 

Timothy Horan

GUILDERLAND — Seema Rivera has stepped up from being vice president of the Guilderland School Board to becoming its president; no one ran against her at the July reorganizational meeting.

Timothy Horan was elected vice president, beating Judy Slack.

Horan and Rivera first crossed paths at Westmere Elementary School years ago, Rivera said, when Horan taught there and she was a student. Rivera now teaches future teachers.

Christine Hayes, who was elected vice president of the board in 2015 and president in 2016, did not run for re-election, although she remains on the board. Hayes is a lawyer for Albany Medical Center.

“I thought it was time to have a new person and a new perspective in the leadership role,” Hayes said, noting that she voted for both Rivera and Horan. She added, “I think they’re both an asset to the district and the board, and we’re lucky to have them.” 

The uncontested vote for Seema Rivera for president was 8 to 0, with Gloria Towle-Hilt absent. (Towle-Hilt was out of town and participated in the meeting remotely but couldn’t connect in time for the vote.)

“I felt supported by the other members,” Rivera told The Enterprise this week. It felt good, she said, to know that her fellow board members felt comfortable and confident about her taking the position. 

Horan, who has retired as an elementary-school teacher, was nominated by Barbara Fraterrigo; Judy Slack, a retired teaching assistant, was nominated, by Kelly Person. 

Horan has been a board member for two years, and Slack for 11. 

The vote for vice president was 5 for Horan, 2 for Slack, and 1 for Rivera — “maybe by accident,” said Rivera. 

Slack said this week about her decision to enter the race, “I just thought it was important that we have more than one person.” 

According to Linda Livingston, district clerk, Slack and Benjamin Goes voted for Slack. Hayes, Sean Maguire, Person, Rivera, and Horan voted for Horan. Barbara Fraterrigo voted for Rivera for vice president. 

When told that she voted for Rivera for both posts, Fraterrigo confirmed that it was by mistake and she had meant to vote for Horan. 

Rivera 

Rivera, 40, was elected to the board in 2015 and became vice president in 2018. 

She said she gets along pretty well with everyone on the board, and that it is good to have a mix of people who bring different experiences to the board, giving as examples: Horan and Gloria Towle-Hilt are both retired teachers; Fraterrigo has a lot of institutional knowledge; Benjamin Goes graduated from Guilderland High School not too long ago; and newly elected member Kelly Person is in the military. 

“We all have some different backgrounds, and that’s helpful, because the community is pretty diverse,” said Rivera. 

Board members sometimes have disagreements, she said, “but they all respect that it takes a lot of time and effort to do this, and we respect each other for doing that.” 

Rivera worked as a high-school chemistry teacher in New York City and then in the Germantown and Cairo-Durham school districts, she said. 

She now teaches in the department of education in Clarkson University’s Capital Region campus. She teaches graduate students who plan to become math teachers; works with graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who are about to teach for the first time as teaching assistants; and tries to match high-achieving undergraduates with a National Science Foundation grant her department recently received that will help scholarship recipients with the cost of becoming certified in exchange for a commitment to teach in a high-needs district for several years. 

Rivera’s mother was a doctor and her father, who died recently, a respiratory therapist, she said. Her brother died years ago. “It’s just me and my mom now,” she said. 

Rivera and husband, Tony — a pharmacist at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albany — have two children in Guilderland Elementary School, both girls. Lily will be in fifth grade in the fall, and Sage will be in first grade. 

Having children in the district helps Rivera recognize that, when parents appear before the board to raise concerns, it’s because they really care, she said, adding that parents’ issues and concerns are, in many cases, things she would never have thought of. 

Being a parent also means that she often attends community events, which helps keep her connected to the parents of other children. When they see her at events, parents will sometimes tell her their questions or concerns.

Superintendent Marie Wiles has been collaborative in her style, when it comes to setting the agenda for meetings, said Rivera. Wiles and Hayes and Rivera have talked through the agenda for board meetings on the phone, Rivera said, and, when she and Hayes have had topics they want to add, Wiles “does not usually have an issue with it.” 

Wiles is responsive when Hayes or Rivera have suggested moving an item from a packed agenda to another week, or when they have requested that a particular district employee attend a board meeting because an item on the agenda falls within his or her area of expertise; for instance, she said, they have often asked Wiles if Clifford Nooney, the district’s director of facilities, could be present at a meeting. 

Wiles also keeps board members “in the loop,” Rivera said. As an example, she said that Wiles had let them know recently when a Westmere Elementary student was killed by her mother, in a murder-suicide. “It would have been bad to find that out from the news,” Rivera said. 

As president, Rivera hopes to serve as a bridge between board members who have different life experiences and, sometimes, different perspectives. She gave as an example a discussion the board has been having for some time: about whether to hire a consultant to help it define its vision for the future. Board members agree that a vision is necessary, she said, but don’t all agree on the best way to create one; one source of disagreement has been whether to work on the vision in-house or hire an outside consultant. 

About expanding the inclusion model, where special-education students learn in regular-education classrooms, to more grade levels, Rivera said she is “in total support of the philosophy,” but said “the actual enactment is a bit challenging.” 

The model is expensive, she said, so it is an ongoing challenge, at budget time, to weigh options. 

Rivera talked about whether grade inflation is behind the shift that has increased the number of highest-honors students from just 18, or 6 percent of the class, in 1994-95, to 78, or 19 percent, in 2017-18. Highest-honors students are those with grade-point averages of 95 and above. 

A cultural shift has occurred over the past 25 years, Rivera said, toward increased competitiveness for college admissions and also toward an expectation of grades that are above average. It’s hard to compare students’ grades, she said, since some take Advanced Placement, or college-level, courses while others take honors classes or Regents classes, the minimum required by the state for graduation.

Any decision to look into grade inflation would require getting input from teachers and administrators, she said, and would represent “an overhaul of the way things are done.” 

 Asked about whether the district does enough to hire a diverse faculty and create a curriculum that makes diverse students feel included, Rivera said this is something that is “definitely on my mind.” 

A friend of hers recently tweeted, she said, “List what grade you were in when you first had a teacher of color.” 

Rivera said that she herself had never had a teacher of color although there were a couple at Guilderland at the time. 

It’s not a problem that’s unique to Guilderland, she said; many districts in upstate New York are also struggling to make their faculty and curricula better reflect the increasing diversity of the student body. 

With regard to hiring, Rivera said, “I think they could do more to attract teachers of color, making it appealing to teachers of color to want to work here.” 

She mentioned that the Niskayuna school district has a committee focused on increasing diversity in the district. 

“I do think there’s a lot more work to be done,” Rivera said. 

District parent Michelle Charles, who is African-American, has spoken during the public-comment sessions at several school board meetings about her children’s experience at Lynnwood Elementary School. Charles has said her daughter was bullied because of her race. She also said that, because there are no faculty members of color in the school, the only person her daughter feels comfortable talking with about concerns she has about race or bullying is not a teacher but a member of the front-office staff. 

Charles recently voiced concerns about Colonial Day at Lynnwood, when fourth-grade students dress up as Colonial boys or girls and learn what life was like for young people more than two centuries ago. Her daughter had asked her, she said, why the class’s look at Colonial Day didn’t include any discussion of what she would have been, had she lived then — a slave. 

In response to Charles’s complaints, Lynnwood Elementary School officials decided to have dressing up for Colonial Day be optional this past school year — the timing was too close to the event to cancel the dressing-up part altogether — and to no longer have students dress up, as of next year.

The Enterprise asked Rivera if the district should bring to the community, with a forum or some other outreach effort, the question of whether the district is doing enough to reflect the diversity of students in its faculty and curriculum. 

Rivera said, “Totally.” The Niskayuna school district has a task force or a committee, she said, focused on the topic of diversity throughout the district. 

She added of Guilderland, “I think they could do more to attract teachers of color, making it appealing to teachers of color to want to work here.” 

Horan 

“I’m very honored to be the vice president,” Timothy Horan said this week. 

After two years on the board, he told The Enterprise, “It felt like it was time to step up and take a little bit more of a leadership role.” 

At the reorganizational meeting, the board had not highlighted enough, Horan said, how good a job the outgoing president had done; he hoped to right that at the next meeting. Hayes was “fantastic to work with,” he said, “so smart and so fair, and really looking out for what is good for the district.” 

Horan said that, with nine board members and four administrators, viewpoints and opinions often diverge, and that he appreciated that Hayes and Rivera “give you a listen, whether they agree or not.” Superintendent Wiles as well as three assistant superintendents — Neil Sanders for business, Demian Singleton for curriculum, and Lin Severance for human resources — sit at the board table and join in the discussions.

“You look for fairness, to be heard,” said Horan, adding that the board’s discussions “get raucous sometimes, and that’s OK.” 

Horan taught in elementary schools in the Guilderland School District for 30 years until he retired in 2017. He taught at Westmere Elementary for a time and then taught for many years at Pine Bush Elementary. For more than 20 years, he taught fourth grade. 

He and his wife, Barbara Horan, who is a teacher at Guilderland Elementary School, met when they were both teaching at Westmere; the Horans have two sons in their 20s who attended Guilderland schools.

Being a former teacher informs his work on the board, giving him “a little more of an insider view,” Horan said; as a result, other board members sometimes “encourage you to speak up because you have that perspective.” 

Horan said the current board has a good mix of perspectives, including those of Rivera and Sean Maguire, both of whom currently have students in elementary school; Barbara Fraterrigo, who “knows the policies backward and forward,” he said, after being on the board for decades; and Benjamin Goes, 22, who graduated from Guilderland High School in 2014 and from Albany Law School in 2018. 

Asked about diversity, Horan said he understands that the administrators are at work on the issue now, “as part of the summer training.” 

Wiles, the superintendent, confirmed on Monday that all of the district’s administrators including principals, assistant principals, and instructional administrators, were away at a two-day leadership retreat focused on the issues of cultural sensitivity and diversity.

Part of the focus is on considering the curricula throughout the district, she said. District leaders are working, at the retreat, with expert Dr. Stacy A. S. Williams of Marist College, who Wiles said also spoke in March at Superintendent’s Day to the middle-school faculty and staff on promoting diversity. 

Williams is going to be working with the district over time, Wiles said, adding that this issue is not one that can be addressed in a single training session. 

Horan said he had been put off by some of the comments that had been made because “I think our district is very proactive in dealing with issues related to race, gender, and diversity.”

He did not think anything nefarious was going on with any of the practices at the districts schools, Horan said; Guilderland has five elementary schools that feed into Farnsworth Middle School and finally Guilderland High School.

He mentioned a recent Enterprise article that had mentioned Bruce Sleeper — a popular fifth-grade teacher who led students on wilderness camping trips in the 1980s and eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree sodomy with a child — and said that teachers had had “tremendous amounts of training” in the wake of those events. 

The district is “always very responsive when there are problems perceived to be out there,” he said. 

 About grade inflation, Horan said that he is not sure what his position is on the issue, and he is also not sure that it would be the role of the board to make any determination about grade inflation. It might be more appropriately the purview of the high school building cabinet, he said. 

In a board consideration of the issue, Horan said, he would tend to pay attention to what Benjamin Goes has to say. “He speaks well to that issue,” Horan said. 

There has been a movement, Horan said, toward focusing on student self-esteem and never wanting students to feel uncomfortable about anything. He suggested that this may not always prepare students well for the difficult work of learning new things.  

In a wide-ranging discussion, he spoke of student preparedness and bemoaned the lack of time that teachers have in their school day, at the elementary level, to teach social studies and science, topics that he believes get short shrift when compared with the time that teachers are required to spend on math and reading and writing. 

Colleagues have sometimes complained to him, he said, about how little time is allotted in elementary-school day for social studies and science, which he believes are both subjects that kids love and soak up. 

When he taught fourth grade for many years, Horan said, one of his favorite things to do was to teach about the state’s history in the Revolutionary War. “If you get into the Revolutionary War with the boys, they would soak that up, and the girls would start getting into Betsy Ross and all sorts of different topics,” he said. 

New York State history is rich with fascinating subjects related to the Revolutionary War, he said. 

Asked about inclusion, Horan said he thinks it has, “by and large, been rolled out pretty well.” The cost, he said, is probably the biggest impediment to expanding inclusion. 

There has always been inclusion in Guilderland, he said. In his second year of teaching, decades ago, he had a student in his classroom who had Down’s syndrome. Horan also had a full-time teaching assistant in the classroom, he said. 

The inclusion model has been ramped up in the past four or five years, he said, adding, “When you do that, you have to make sure you have the supports in the classroom. You can’t just go halfway, and say you’re doing it.” 

He supports inclusion and says that, if done correctly, it can be “super successful,” but if not, it can be “super challenging.” 

He has heard complaints from teacher friends about not having enough supports in place in the classroom and he worries, he said, about teacher burnout in the future if that is not addressed. 

More Guilderland News

  • As always, village officials stressed that the numbers presented at Altamont’s first budget workshop of the year are still very preliminary. 

  • Altamont Treasurer Catherine Hasbrouck told the board of trustees last year that water-and-sewer rates had to be raised so the village could collect another $100,000 per year for general operations and maintenance.

  • The Guilderland committee for police reform assembled arrest records according to race and found that a much higher percentage of Blacks than there are Black residents in town were charged. This is largely due to arrests of out-of-town suspects made at Crossgates Mall, according to Police Chief Daniel McNally. The public is encouraged to read the draft and respond.

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