Despite the New York Supreme Court’s decision last month that eight school districts, including the Poughkeepsie City School District (PCSD), received a level of funding adequate to provide students with a basic education, Vassar College outreach programs and the district teachers’ union find that resources in local schools remain sparse and place strains on the educational system that hit marginal groups the hardest. Both teachers and college students, however, are committed to young students’ success, hoping for more involvement from Vassar College and internal reforms in the district.
The decision affirmed that PCSD provides sufficient basic education to its students, thus concluding the Maisto v. State of New York court case, which was decided three times by lower courts in 2015. In the final decision, Acting Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor wrote, “No funding mechanism will ever be perfect, and it is a laudable goal, but an impossible dream, to reach a one hundred percent success rate for students in all measurable areas … In conjunction with the other significant reforms to the standards in the State, the teacher performance tools and measures, and other non-fiscal reforms designed to assist these struggling school districts to achieve improved student performance, creates an environment that cannot truly be assessed yet.” Given O’Connor’s reference to non-fiscal reforms as part of the argument that PCSD is capable of providing a basic education, the college has an ethical stake as part of the local educational environment in providing PCSD students with the support they need (New York Law Journal, “Larry J. v. State of New York,” 09.22.16).
The Poughkeepsie Public School Teachers’ Association (PPSTA) is the district teachers’ union and has historically represented teachers’ interests, until its contract was left to expire three years ago. In tandem with a lack of collective representation, local teachers face several systemic problems. President of PPSTA Stephanie Green wrote in an email, “While we hired approximately 40 new teachers this year, most of those were filling vacant positions from retirees and those who resigned from the district to accept positions in other districts. Our ESL teachers support both students and teachers to the best of their ability, all while trying to do more with less.” With continuous demand for more teachers, ESL teachers hired to help non-native speakers of English develop their language skills often find themselves delegated to other roles such as filling in for substitute teachers and addressing behavioral or remedial issues. These roles aggravate existing conditions in institutions such as the local high school, where 87 percent of students are from minority groups and 81 percent of students are from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds (U.S. News, “Poughkeepsie High School,” 2014).
PPSTA’s decline in bargaining power has been accompanied by inflation in administrator hires and administrative pay raises. Green commented, “The PCSD has hired and now employs more administrators in school buildings than we have in decades, if ever.” Listing other areas of concern, Green noted, “The biggest challenges facing the PCSD include: reduced and inequitably distributed state aid, teacher recruitment and retention, support services for students, lack of family/community involvement.” With a graduation rate of 52 percent in 2013, 58 percent in 2014 and 62.7 percent in 2015, Poughkeepsie High School has been rapidly moving toward the target rate of 75 percent as numbers for this year are still being processed (New York Education State Department, “Poughkeepsie High School Graduation Rate Data,” 2016).
The Vassar English Language Learners Outreach Program (VELLOP) seeks to address concerns about low community involvement in the local school district and to support the work of ESL teachers by engaging students and faculty in tutoring programs for PCSD students. VELLOP tutor Isabel Schneck ’19 reflected, “Working with PCSD students has been challenging because I’ve seen firsthand how the district’s struggles to have sufficient funding and resources affects the education students receive and can make it hard for them to feel confident or encouraged in school. But for that same reason, it’s been so inspiring to see how students dedicate themselves to their work in spite of the challenges and go above and beyond to get the most out of their education.”
Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST) pursues a similar goal in Poughkeepsie Middle School. VAST Coordinator Maximilian Cordeiro ’15 wrote in an email, “Many of our applicants are middle schoolers who feel like they’ve either failed the education system, or more insightfully, the system has failed them. For these students, VAST aims to create a space that supports seemingly non-academic creative outlets that are absent from their normal curriculum.”
Cordeiro reflected on his own experience as a student, recalling, “About ten years ago I was on the other end of the scholar-mentor equation in my own middle school, and I really do attribute my early academic successes to my connection with a local college student. It wasn’t necessarily the homework help or tutoring that stuck with me, but rather, that my mentor showed a profound interest in my future academic attainment. It was a relationship that relied on the sharing of personal experiences and finding the connections between us both that shortened the gap between middle schooler and college student.”
The involvement of Vassar College influences the way the local community approaches and prioritizes educational issues. Reflecting on what she has seen of Vassar outreach programs during her 18 years of teaching, Green corroborated, “The support provided to PCSD students by both the VAST and VELLOP programs have a very positive effect on our students. Most significant is the work done with our ELL [English Language-Learner] students and their families. The impact on these young children makes a huge difference in their academic success. Additionally, we find that their parents are much more comfortable with teachers, supportive, and involved in their educational programs. We would love to see [them] increased.”
Systematic issues in PCSD have existed for a long time, however. Associate Dean of Campus Life and Diversity Edward Pittman noted, “When I served as a board member and President of the Poughkeepsie City School District in 1996 I faced similar inclusion and equity work … Recruiting teachers of color was a big agenda item then and I believe it is similar today.” He continued, “Programs such as VCUEI [Vassar College Urban Education Initiative] can be part of the solution by supporting students where they can. Every contribution helps. At the same time, volunteers can’t be saviors. Listen to how students, administrators and parents want to be helped. They know best.”
VAST and VELLOP are highly dependent on the volunteer work of students, as well as input from faculty advisors and local teachers. Faith in and commitment to students’ success come first in the minds of educators and tutors, often inspiring teacher and student alike to thrive in the face of tough circumstances. Schneck explained “I’ve gotten to know so many amazing students who push beyond the obstacles. There are students actively creating their own paths in spite of the bleak narratives that they might often receive about their schools and their futures.”
Addressing herself to colleagues in PPTSA and VCUEI, Green concluded, “It is unfortunate that the challenges facing us…are driving some of the best teachers to leave the PCSD and the profession itself. It truly needs to be a collaborative effort, where all stakeholders are recognized, validated, supported, trusted and appreciated for their views and involvement. When this occurs, the sky is the limit for our students, our staff, our district and our community.”