Teachers provide an anchor for Schenectady-area students
Posted January 17, 2017 by Liza Frenette
Faith Perry is all about the fabric of life.
At the beginning of the school year, Mohonasen teacher Faith Perry bought three identical outfits. Switching them out for cleanliness, she is wearing the same look to school every single day, September to June, first bell to last hurrah, and every school assignment in between.
Her actions are in response to students who do not have different sets of clothes to change into. A few years back, a student was bullied for wearing the same clothes several days in a row.
When Perry found out, she told the student that she would wear her outfit all week in solidarity. “The student said: ‘No you won’t.’ So I said: ‘I’ll wear that outfit all month.’ The student said: ‘No you won’t.’ I said: ‘I’ll wear that outfit all year!’”
And she did.
Perry wore the same outfit and washed it out at night; a floral top, black pants. The next year, she picked another outfit and did the same thing, and the year after that. This year, she decided to buy three matching outfits to ease up on the nightly cleaning. Perry wants to keep the message going: It’s what inside that counts.
She has a bold streak of determination as obvious as the stripe of white in her black hair.
And she does not tolerate bullying.
Perry, a member of the Mohonasen Teachers Association, led by president Maria Pacheco, is nonstop in words and action. She likely never needs an alarm clock. In the morning, she embraces the day because it’s all about her students. After the bullying incident, she wanted to do more than make a statement with her clothing. She was already buying toiletries for teen students, many of whom struggle with poverty at this Schenectady County district. She approached Schenectady City Mission, which donated some clothing that Perry took back to the school where she set up an alcove in the corner of a classroom so students could pick out clothes for themselves.
Each of the schools in Mohonasen has about 40 percent of their students in the "economically disadvantaged" category, according to NYSUT’s Research and Educational Services Department.
Perry teaches her students that cleanliness and presentation matter, yes, and, also, what matters most is showing up for life.
“She’s the one who keeps me in school,” said Breanna Haley, a senior who had planned to drop out.
“We’ve called her, followed her … dropping out is not an option,” said an emphatic Perry, who has worked 16 years as a teacher for English as a New Language, Spanish, and alternative education. She worked at Broadalbin-Perth and Albany school districts before coming to Mohonasen.
A true extrovert and doer, Perry gives every student who walks in the door a loud shout out. She’s inevitably met with a grin as students slide off their backpacks and sit down.
Knowing how much some students are up against — living in homes where parents are sometimes unable to provide the basics — she enlarged that alcove and started a room called The Anchor with teaching assistant Angie Lasher and the support of administrators.
“The anchor is a symbol of strength, stability and being grounded,” said Lasher, who is described as the calm organizer of this lively group of educators. The three anchors for this room are food, clothing and toiletries, she added.
Here, students can come and pick out tops, jeans and jackets from clothes that have been donated. Colorful, alluring prom dresses also have a home here, waiting to be taken out and twirled. Tall metal filing cabinets are filled with toiletries like shampoo, soap, deodorant and toothpaste. School supplies are available.
The clothes racks are all on rollers, so the racks can be moved anytime to convert the room to a functioning classroom.
The project has been awarded a grant from the Foundation for Excellence, a grant funded by teachers, to pay for shelving. Perry also went to five local businesses, with family members in the district, for donations. The elementary Parent-Teacher Organization also donated $300. The money collected was used to buy toiletries.
“If you don’t feel good about yourself, how do you learn?” Perry asks.
Haley says she’s been able to get clothes, a sweatshirt, a purse and even perfume from The Anchor Room.
“My father feels bad he can’t get me everything I need,” she said.
“My family was going through a real rough patch. Mrs. Perry can tell,” said Mackenzie Carr. “My friend needed something and I came in with her. I got the bird song.”
Perry breaks out into song, verse-by-verse, singing about a bird way up high in the sky, waking up and having a good day. She learned it at summer camp and has carried the tune in her heart all these years.
All her students get to hear it.
Some of the students went to their very first semi-formal this school year. Carr was one of several girls who had never worn a dress before. She picked one out at The Anchor, with the help of Haley.
“It was awkward at first,” Carr admitted.
Last spring, seven girls were sent to the prom for free, thanks to teacher donations and help from The Anchor Room clothing racks and supplies.
“We’re very excited that this is happening,” said TA President Pacheco. “We’re excited she’s taken that initiative. There is a growing need in this district.”
Perry said that, thanks to a spate of recent publicity, big batches of clothing, prom dresses and toiletries have been donated to The Anchor Room.
“It just shows the community wants to help. We’re loved,” said Perry. “I live here. I believe in that. It’s a great community. I just don’t want this thing to ever stop.”
Providing curbside pickup, students go outside with an adult and pick up items from a donor’s car, where they are sure to get the donors’ address.
“We make the kids write a thank-you note. Thank-you letters are a lost art,” said Perry.
Students also learn to give back. They began volunteering every other week at the City Mission, an organization Perry credits with helping the students a lot. Mohonasen social worker Diane Blinn, a member of the Capital Region BOCES local teachers union, took 18 students on the last trip to the mission. The program has become so popular that a bus is now wheeling to the mission once a week.
“We go and we work and we have a common goal,” Blinn said. “Plus, we look and we pick! We have a list.”
Students also serve meals five times a year at the full-service mission in order to contribute their own service.
The alternative education program at Mohonasen also uses student service at the City Mission as an alternative to detention. Students work off their errors, instead of sitting at a desk.
Blinn and Perry are starting a young women’s therapy group for the students; there is already a men’s group with social worker Joshua Peck, a member of the Mohonasen TA.
“We can’t enable them; we have to empower them,” Perry said.
In this alternative education classroom, which opens onto The Anchor Room, the setup is round tables instead of desks. There is also a bank of computers along the wall where students work on a credit recovery program. If they fail a class, they can retake it with an online program and the approval of the guidance counselor.
Last year, a student went to prison for three months for a bureaucratic issue. When he got out, he told Perry he was dropping out of school. “I said: ‘No way.”’
“He looked at us like a deer in headlights,” Lasher recalled.
Perry gathered boxes of food and clothing to help him get restarted in his life. Teachers helped him catch up with his work, she said.
“He worked a 40-hour week and went to school full-time,” said Blinn.
Not only did he graduate, he went to the prom – with the financial help of a teacher who sponsored his night out. The teachers here are as generous as winters are long in this close-knit Capital District community. .
Perry’s energy is all encompassing. She has her students put messages of hope within regular school announcements.
At the end of the year, these students are taken to a buffet at a local Italian restaurant to celebrate their successes. They dress up and they are also allowed to invite a teacher. Administrators are also invited.
“They’ll say, ‘We’ve never been to a fancy restaurant,’” said Perry, who talks as fast as a river full of snowmelt in spring.
She finally takes a pause. Sort of.
“We’re a family. I think this is the greatest place.”