By Rodney Brown, with additional reporting by Lisa Dumas
As the Rochester City School District continues its efforts toward increasing graduation rates, learning new ways of disciplining its students, and finding its next superintendent, some district leaders have said the solution to these problems may be closer to district officials than they think.
Despite the fact that the city’s board of education has recently hired the Western New York Educational Service Council to locate its next superintendent of schools, there are a number of RCSD employees and community members who say they’d rather have a local, current RSCD administrator, who’s already familiar with the district, hired to fill the position instead.
And, the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, Dr. Christiana Otuwa, is at the top of their list.
“In my opinion, I think she’s eminently qualified to do the work, because she’s committed to Rochester,” an anonymous source inside the RCSD stated. “She’s been in Rochester coming up on two years right now. She’s in charge of teaching and learning, which is the most important thing that we do. And, a lot of us right now are not happy with what’s happening in our institution. And, from what she’s said to me, she’s interested in playing a major role in turning that around. Of course, no one person can do this, but, with a strong team inside and outside the district supporting her, it would help with what she needs to do. We need some consistency in people. I think Dr. Otuwa is still new enough to the district. She’s here already, and we don’t have to go outside, and start over. So, I think we need to keep going with that.”
In 2014, RCSD hired Otuwa to replace Beverly Burrell-Moore as its deputy superintendent.
She’s also recently played a major role in drafting the district’s new Code of Conduct, which was a year-long, community-wide endeavor the Community Task Force (CTF) on School Climate undertook for the 2015-2016 school year, following criticism the district received for using disciplinary policies that relied too much on student suspensions.
In March, Otuwa had also become involved in revamping the code again, after teachers and parents expressed concerns regarding new, controversial language in part of the district’s contract with teachers, which stated, “crimes committed in schools will be pursued as crimes committed elsewhere, to the extent the district has the right to press charges for those crimes.”
CTF’s initial goal in revamping the code had been to avoid criminalizing student behavior except in serious cases.
“I’m working with the code of conduct, to simplify what we want our students to do,” Otuwa stated. “In order for it to work, it has to have the support of everybody. A draft of the policy will be presented to the board for a vote in May. If approved, the policy will take precedent over the tentative language in the teacher’s contract.”
Previously, Otuwa had been the assistant superintendent of schools for Pittsburgh Public Schools, and, before that, she was an elementary school principal in both Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama.
“I always had a good relationship with teachers I worked with,” she stated. “We were able to come in, and meet the teachers, and help them change their practices of what they were teaching. Along with my staff, we were in the schools every day, supporting and helping the teachers. I’ve noticed the environment in Rochester is very similar to how Pittsburgh Public Schools used to be before my arrival. In these kind of environments is where I made significant change in school climate, and student achievement.”
According to Otuwa, she helped implement effective strategies for success in all three of those urban districts, prior to coming to Rochester, which had been centered around transforming failing schools into successful benchmarks, and curtailing poor student behavior by using restorative practices.
And, lately, in Rochester, community members have said they’ve seen signs of the same.
“Fifteen schools this year have become restorative justice schools,” CTF member Rosemary Rivera said during a Board of Education Community and Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting in 2015. “All counselors, social workers, and psychologists have been trained in restorative justice practices; and there are no longer suspensions for cell phone and dress violations. Dr. Otuwa has helped review long-term suspensions by getting students back to school with supports, and has lowered suspension rates.”
However, despite growing support for hiring someone from inside the district, RCSD school board president Van White said he’s not sure whether Dr. Otuwa has actually applied for the position, and, in addition, the district would also like to keep the process fair.
“I think the district needs the best possible candidate for the job,” White stated. “And so, it’s hard to tell whether that would be somebody internal, if in fact someone external had every quality the board could ever imagine, that would be suited for the district. I can’t prejudge someone by saying that, if you did not have any prior experience with the district, then you couldn’t be as effective as a person who did.”
According to White, the school board has not yet seen the candidates WNYESC has chosen, although he expects to have a report from the search firm within the next two weeks.
But, still, he stated, the board won’t be releasing the names of the candidates.
“It’s a closed search, so we would not be revealing who those candidates are,” White said. “Our intention is to release a short list of the candidates, and we will have someone identified by June.”
In the meantime, advocates of Otuwa’s advancement have said they expect support for her to continue to grow.
“As a black woman, her interest and passion, and the relatability she has to our families and children; I don’t think we’re going to find that,” the source stated. “We have to turn this district around. And it’s going to require that type of leadership.”