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New RCSD Superintendent: Bottom Line is Better Outcomes for Students

Patti Singer

Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small on equity and other issues facing
the Rochester City School District.
Video by Patti Singer Media for Minority Reporter Media Group

In the fall of 2017, then-Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams convened ministers to talk about bringing racial equity to the Rochester City School District.

Rochester City School District Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small. Provided photo

The initial group expanded to include parents, educators, and became the Racial Equity Advocacy Leadership team.

For two years, more than two dozen people worked on a plan to address three key areas: the underrepresentation of class-conscious and racially diverse teachers; the overapplication of discipline to students of color (including those with disabilities); and the underdevelopment of all personnel in anti-racist education.

The team had three subcommittees – human resources, relationship building and professional learning.

The REAL team presented a draft plan with a mission statement and specific goals in each area to former Superintendent Terry Dade in November 2019. In December, Dade came back with a reformatted plan that eliminated some proposals and changed some wording around how outcomes would be measured.

“He agreed on Nov. 25,” said the Rev. Judith Davis, member of the REAL team and former member of the Board of Education. “We couldn’t understand the need for creating another document.”
Neither proposal got to the Board of Education.

Now it’s on the desk of Lesli Myers-Small.

The REAL team sent Myers-Small, named superintendent in May, the draft they gave Dade. The team and the new superintendent were scheduled to meet June 8.

“There’s no rationale I can possibly think of that would cause the superintendent to be against any of the stuff we’re proposing,” said Howard Eagle, who is part of the REAL team and also of the Faith Community Alliance, Take It Down Planning Committee Coalition and Community Allies.

“… It’s all very reasonable and common sense things that should have been done long ago,” he said. “I can’t imagine anyone would say we need to get rid of a goal or we need to change one of the goals.”

Among the goals: recruit and retain significantly greater numbers of qualified, appropriately credentialed, underrepresented race and class-conscious staff of color; require all staff to be educated in anti-racism and provide at least 15 hours in areas such as implicit bias and restorative practices; initiate a process for the REAL team to develop common language regarding key concepts and realities related to racism in the RCSD.

Myers-Small said that while she understood the urgency on the part of the REAL team, their first meeting would be one of information rather than decision.

“Where I realize they have been dealing with this for years everyone has to be mindful that I am just coming to the table,” she said a few days ahead of the meeting. “I get that it’s a hurry but don’t rush type of situation. I want to be very thoughtful about this, so it can be meaningful.”

Myers-Small, who holds a doctorate of education in executive leadership from St. John Fisher College, answered other questions about the REAL initiative in the context of other concerns facing RCSD. Her comments have been edited for space and clarity.

How important is it for racial equity initiatives to have measurable outcomes that hold people accountable?

I think that is incredibly important. … We have very little opportunities for professional development. We can say our teachers need to have professional development to connect better with students and understanding their own internal bias and attitudes toward our students. But if we don’t have ample time to do that, no matter how great the training is … so I have a systemic issue on top of that making sure that I can have training happen. What also complicates this, we’re in the midst of COVID-19. We may not even be back on line come September. … That’s one thing I tried to articulate to Howard and his team. … I’ve got to figure out what is school going to look like in September of 2020. It’s hard to have some deliverables if I don’t have a solid understanding yet. We’re waiting to hear from Gov. Cuomo. I don’t use that as an excuse.

…. If we’re going to say we’re going to develop this professional development training model when I don’t know if they will physically be present, we have to be thoughtful and wait just a little bit to see how might we best achieve that and do that in a meaningful way.
… We have to call the question with our educators. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The caveat is, let;s figure out how to make the horse thirsty. That’s where I am right now. How do I figure out how to make our educators thirsty? Given what’s going on right now, that’s given us some thirst. … I look forward to collaborating with REAL team to figure out how we do that in a way that’s meaningful and has results.

In the current climate, can equity issues wait or do they have to be in whatever school plan you have?

It’s a both/and. If I don’t approach this from an equity perspective, shame on me as being the leader of the Rochester City School District. That is constantly on my mind. We had very difficult weekend (May 30) in Rochester. After hours of peace, turned very violent. … Knowing that these issues absolutely impact the children of my district who are predominantly black and brown … we’ve got to figure out how we can be reactive to this situation and we want to make sure that we put mental health supports in place. (May 31-June 5) at each one of the 13 food sties, we have a social worker there who’s working with our students. They have been trained in dealing with racism and especially with racism as it relates to trauma.. That is an equity issue. I can’t just send any social worker there. They have to understand the trauma that this brings to our students.

RCSD has budget issues. Is there a dollar cost to racial equity?

Until I figure out what those strategies are, that’s hard to answer. If we need to bring something or someone one, Dr. Bettina Love, who is an Edison Tech grad, does a lot on anti-racism. I’m in conversation with her right now … she’s committed to helping me figure out some next steps. …

Is there a role in racial equity work for the independent monitor, Dr. Shelley Jallow?

She’s focused on fortifying academic progress. If this touches the academic piece, maybe. She obviously is looking at finances. So if there a crossover into that area. Then there is the governance aspect of her working with the board and making sure that is fortified. If their recommendations fall into those areas, I suppose that might be helpful to have her.

What messages does it send that your contract is four years, the maximum for a Big 5 district? (The salary is $250,000 per year.)

It makes a definite statement that the board is supportive of me and they believe in my work. They believe in the things I hold near and dear to me. And I can effect change. … We didn’t get here overnight it will take time to effect change.

… My goal is to fortify our academics and to work to make sure that we have good outcomes. My litmus test is that when our students graduate, they can say they got a great education … that prepared them, whether two-year or four-year (college) or they go into the military or the go to the world of work, they feel like they are more than prepared for that.

… I believe we can move forward if we have everyone rowing in the same direction. Whether it’s with the REAL team, with our teachers union or administrators union or families or our politicians or our board, the bottom line is better outcomes for our kids. I can’t say it more direct or plan than that. That’s why I’m in this. ….