Now Is The Time For All Good Leaders To Come To The Aid Of Their Community

The Rochester Area Black Political Caucus held a “State of African Americans in Rochester” conference on Saturday. Noted elected leaders from Rochester held six workshops, Community Health, Criminal Justice, Education, Housing, Jobs & Economic Development, and Role of the Black Church Today in order to gain insight into the Black community’s perspective.

Citing information from ACT Rochester, workshops were asked to brainstorm lists of the strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities that we face in the African American community of Rochester.

In attending the Education workshops, both the morning and afternoon sessions worked within the same format however, the makeup and process of the groups was very different. The makeup of the morning group consisted of younger more outspoken individuals while the afternoon group was more seasoned and to the point. In so far as the process, the morning group generated fewer concepts with more rational offered for their input, the afternoon session provided a plethora of bullet points for each topic with little comment.

Two important strengths that were listed in the morning and afternoon sessions were committed community activists and engagement of the Black community. Both groups made it clear that we, the community, were speaking, but were not being heard.

After both the morning and afternoon sessions, the queries were the same. We have been dealing with these same weaknesses and threats in education in Rochester for generations, when will our elected officials, some of whom have been seated for generations, begin to utilize our strengths to capitalize on the opportunities that exist within our community to overcome our weaknesses and eliminate the threats that our children face in the system of education?

It is important for the community to come together and discuss the problems shared within the community. It is more important to generate action items aimed at solving the problems we have endured for so long.

Our children do not have the luxury of time. Our political leaders must begin to create change now. Our children deserve a successful educational future.

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Off To A Good Start

While it may seem that there is a great deal of opposition to the appointment of Bolgen Vargas as our new superintendent, it must be made clear that the major objection was to the process not the outcome.

Rochester has always been a “give him a chance” community. And, now that Dr. Vargas has been given the position, it is up to him to prove he deserves our support.

Recently Superintendent Vargas met with former Interim Superintendent William Cala to discuss plans to continue moving forward with Dr. Cala’s Regional Academy school concept. Regional Academy “was conceived on the basis of research supporting the de-concentration of poverty in urban centers as a keystone issue.”

The plan was developed while Dr. Cala was our interim but was not supported by the Brizard administration and was put on hold. Four years later, Dr. Cala seems hopeful that the Regional Academy will become a reality. Dr. Cala wrote, “What makes this meeting different, is that for the first time (in my opinion) there seems to be an inch of progress with RCSD.”

The Regional Academy by no means solves the systemic and endemic problems we face in our district however it is, by far, a more positive step forward for the district than the post failure programs that are currently at the forefront of its plan of success.

Since Dr. Vargas is able to see the validity of this type of program, it is quite possible that this community might see a stronger concentration of effort on early childhood education that would include lowering class size at the elementary level, expeditionary learning for all of Rochester’s children, and a greater emphasis on the child as a citizen not a standardized test score.

The biggest difference between public school and private or charter school is structure and discipline. Let’s hope that Dr. Vargas has the ability to bring both to his cabinet, Central Office, and ultimately to his schools.

The focus is our children. The hope is for success. The plan is to support that success.

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Oh The Programs We Fund

Each year the Board of Education enters into budget deliberations where they ask questions about the reasons behind the funding streams within the budget. In highly controversial years the community rises up and causes the Board to direct the superintendent to rethink the budget and find the money to satisfy their concerns. Everyone returns home, happy in the belief that they saved education.

Meanwhile, our children are still mis-educated and failing to meet even the most basic measures of educational success. And, for those 51% who are having difficulty within the system, there are programs in place to help them.

Agency Youth has an 85% attendance rate when the district’s goal is above 90%. While the program boasts that 84% of its students are “successfully re-entering regular school” there is no accountability for how many of those students return to the program, drop out, or are placed in other post failure programs.

The Career & Technical Education graduates 58% of its participating students.

Commencement Summer School had 4,000 attendees where the percent of students passing the course, 85%, is higher than the percent of students completing the course, 83%.

Of the 630 4 year cohort participants of the Hillside Work Scholarship Connection, only 210 received scholarships.

The I’m Ready Program’s attendance rate was 68% with only 55% of its students moving up to the next grade. This program costs the district $3,500 per student. Both Commissioner White and Superintendent Vargas have confirmed that this program and NorthSTAR are miserable failures.

NorthSTAR returned only 55% of its students to high school and that program costs $11,409 per student.

Young Mothers, with 137 students, only graduated 9 students at a cost of $11,622 per student. Once again, Commissioner White, Chair of the Excellence in Student Achievement Committee has said that the current structure of this program is a failure.

There is little to no accountability for success for any of these programs and so it seems we need yet another program for our failed population of students, All City High.

Each year our Board of Education wastes millions of dollars funding failed post-failure programs while ignoring the needs of our children at the elementary level.

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To Be Or Not To Be Superintendent

*A correction must be made to “Engaging Parents”, classes have not begun and any interested parents may contact Willie J. Robinson, Jr., Office of Parent Engagement, (585) 262-8362 or email,

If there was any doubt concerning the validity of the superintendent search process it should be abundantly clear to everyone that the process was nothing more than a ruse to placate the community.

Once again this community has allowed the “powers that be” to shove their decisions down our throats with the hope that it will be better next time. Meanwhile our children suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune” at the hands of political pirates who would sell our children’s futures to insure theirs.

This is not about Bolgen Vargas, this is about the incalculable lies that have been told throughout the superintendent search process that ended with the appointment of Bolgen Vargas. This is about the countless number man-hours invested by this community in a process that we hoped would value our commitment. This is about spending $40,000 dollars in educational dollars to produce a superintendent that we already had. This is about a Board of Education that does not possess the strength and integrity necessary to be the voice of the people while having the arrogance to blatantly state that what the community wants doesn’t matter.

At the risk of sounding redundant, not their problem. And, if we have a problem with it the question is, “Will we take arms against this sea of troubles, and by opposing end them or will we grunt and sweat under a weary life letting conscience make cowards of us all?”

We are being bullied while telling our children they should stand up to bullies. We tell our children to reach out and help those who are attacked while we won’t help each other in the fight for better education. We are teaching our children that bullying doesn’t stop when you become an adult, you just ignore it and hope for the best.

Our children will fail if we give them no reason to succeed.

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Gathering Steam In The Movement

Last night the NAACP held a public hearing regarding the Rochester City School District’s superintendent search process. Representative groups in attendance were Rochester Parents United, Community Education Task Force, The Nation of Islam, and the Green Party. Though they could not attend, MAAFA contacted the president of Rochester Parent’s United, Ernest Flagler-Mitchell to lend their support.

In his opening statements NAACP President Ed Goolsby said that the meeting was called due to the number of calls and complaints the NAACP has received concerning the search process and the results that were realized from that process. Goolsby made it clear that last night’s meeting was a fact finding mission to determine the specific objections of parents and community members. Once determined, those objections will be taken to the Board of Education to be addressed.

President Goolsby was asked several times by parents and community members, “What makes this meeting different?” Goolsby then offered the support of the local and state chapter of the NAACP to any next step actions. He made it clear that if the Board did not satisfy parent and community concerns about the process, there would be definite repercussions from both chapters.

While invited, not present was City of Rochester Mayor Tom Richards. Goolsby made a point of saying that the improper education provided by the Rochester City School District is absolutely the concern of the Mayor of Rochester simply because those who are not educated commit crimes and those crimes reflect on the city. President Goolsby challenged Mayor Richards to do his due diligence by confronting the ineptitude of the Board of Education and stand with the community in protest of the failing system of education in the city of Rochester.

Though the meeting was well received, parent and community members made it clear that they were tired of talking and wanted action.

It is unfortunate that in a democratic society, where the people are the government, those elected, by the people, are willing to disrespect, disregard, and dismiss, the voice of the people.

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Engaging Parents

The Rochester City School District is supporting and funding an initiative called the Parent Leadership Training Institute. This Connecticut based program has been providing parent leadership courses for twenty years.

Their Mission Statement
The Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI) helps parents become leading advocates for children. It is designed by the American Leadership Forum, Leadership Greater Hartford, and the Connecticut Commission on Children.

Their Goals:
Help parents become the leaders they would like to be for children and families;
Expand the capacity of parents as change agents for children and families;
Develop communities of parents within regions of the state that will support one another in skills development and successful parent action for children;
Facilitate systems change for parental involvement with increased utilization of parents in policy and process decisions; and
Increase parent-child interactions and improve child outcomes through parent involvement.

As reported in the Penfield Post, “Greater Rochester PLTI has $60,000 in funding in place to offer two 20-week classes in the coming year . . . Among the funders are the Rochester Area Community Foundation, the Brighter Days Foundation, the Marie C. and Joseph C. Wilson Foundation, the City of Rochester, the Rochester City School District, and individual donors. The first class this fall will involve parents from the city of Rochester and the “inner ring” suburbs of Greece, Gates-Chili, Irondequoit and Brighton and their school districts.”

PTLA was offered through the Office of Parent Engagement as part of the Parent University program. The bi-weekly two hour programs began in February and will culminate with a graduation celebration in June.

These are the types of positive programs the RCSD must promote in order to effect increased parental involvement in the educational issues that directly affect our children. Educating parents is key in producing effective outcomes of positive parent and community input into the system of education.

Kudos to the Office of Parent Engagement for reaching out to educate parents and in bringing together the Greater Rochester community in an effort to help successfully educate our children.

By any means necessary.

* A public hearing concerning the superintendent selection process will be held on April 23, 2012 at The Temple of God Church on 195 Congress Ave at 6pm conducted by the NAACP.

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The Conclusion

Question 14: If there is a conflict between different community groups in the district over a particular issue, how would you resolve it? Please site specific examples that you’ve used in the past.

Spencer: One, we have to make sure that we listen. One, we have to make sure that we’re collaborating, we have to make sure we’re having a transparent conversation. To give you a situation, we had to combine two schools . . . in combining those two schools we had to really begin to bring the groups to the table and really lay on the table as a product of conversation, what are the resources that we carry with the two schools separated, what will the resources be when we begin to combine the two schools, how can we support the kids at these two schools . . . In talking with those community groups and having a conversation with those community groups, we began to get an understanding of why they did not want these schools to combine . . . Once we begin to lay out what the issue are then we can begin to have a conversation as to a resolution or a solution to those particular issues . . . I think the important piece is to make sure that we listen, the important piece is to ask questions, the important piece is to make sure that we’re collaborative in the process, we’re honest in the process, we’re transparent about the process . . . When we left that table, we were all on the same page with making sure that kids were getting the best . . . Once we finished and combined those schools and finished the conversation and really pulled those schools together, we continued the conversation with the parents, we invited the parents to come to the school . . . to see what experiences you kids will actually have at this particular location . . .

Vargas: Dealing with conflict, don’t personalize, deal with the issue, deal with the facts, be evidence based driven, not necessarily around personalities . . .

Question 15: As superintendent, what will be your role in the budgetary process? Please specify.

Spencer: One, as superintendent, is really beginning to look at the strategic direction and making sure that our budget is aligned with the strategic direction of the district. Two, I think it’s definitely important that we safeguard the classroom at all cost . . . making sure that we are not taking resources from the classroom. In addition to that . . . whenever possible, making sure that we’re protecting people because that’s what’s going to make the district operate . . . Does that mean that no one will be affected, no that does not mean that so don’t be misled in thinking that that means that particular piece. But when we begin to have open and honest conversation about that budget process . . . we make the community a part of the conversation. So when we start talking about allocating resources and allocating monies to support ex, we have to then use what we call our School Based Decision Making Team . . . consist[ing] of parents, it consists of community members, it consists of teachers, the principal is a part of that particular piece, and then also sometimes there are Central Office folks that are a part of that team, and in some cases there are students. But collectively we work together to begin to develop a budget that is going to be cohesive and meet the needs of their schools. And once we do that we then transition into making sure that everyone recognizes what those resources are so we have to share, schools have to share those budgets with their communities and get input from their community. And once we come back to the table from getting the input from the communities then schools are able to move forward with allocating with what they have done with their budgets.

Vargas: My role is very clear, the superintendent has to set the priority for the district along with the Board of Education. My role is to work with the School Board, set the priority around budget issues. And to me, it’s the school, it’s the classroom, it’s the socio-emotional support as well as academic support . . . It’s just like any budget, I will repeat, that part of my work will be to make sure that whatever budget is put forward, that has the reflection of what we say we’re all about. So, one of the roles of the superintendent is to set the priority and allocate resources accordingly.

Question 16: I wish there wasn’t as much fighting in school, what will you do about it?

Spencer: We have to begin to get out into the community . . . When we start looking at a school we have to realize that the school is a reflection of our community. And as we go an address issues in schools, we also have to go into the community and get an understanding of what can we do to support in the community. I’m not saying that we’re going to resolve community issues . . . we need to partner with the community so that we can become a part of the process to resolve the issues in the community. So when we start looking at students who are having difficulty or students who are fighting in the community or in the schools, I think it’s important for us to want to begin to address the social-emotional needs of those particular students. And in addressing the social-emotional needs of those students we can begin to work with those students from a standpoint of the same manner in which we work with our special ed students . . . why is it that we do not have a behavioral plan if we see that there is a consistent issue that’s affecting the student. It’s not to label the student, it is really to identify specific areas where we need to begin to address. So if we’re talking about allocating resources for that particular student, if there is a student that needs to see a Social Worker, then that student needs to see a Social Worker. If there’s a student that needs an additional opportunity to have some relationship building with an adult then the student should have that opportunity. But all of that should be included in that
particular student’s plan.

Vargas: I would like to, for us to have, at a very early age, more conflict resolution . . . Tim Mains’ school is one of the few schools, if not the only school that has conflict resolution in place. That would be part of one of my approaches. As I visited schools throughout this school year, I noticed also a level of tension, and we’re spending so much money around safety, you know we need to teach Civics at a very early age, how to get along. We need to build a school culture where students appreciate each other, the teachers are appreciated, the parents are appreciated, a culture that has dignity. And dignity is about respecting one another. It’s not going to happen because we say, but there are models like conflict resolution, non-violent approaches, teaching kids about those concepts at a very early age is extremely important. I also believe that it is extremely for the community to play a key role in this regard. I do believe that violence that occurs in the community sometimes continued into the school . . . we must, at a very early age and through high school begin to deal with this problem and the most important approach that I know, the most effective . . . is conflict resolution and building a culture that has an appreciation for each child. The adults demonstrate that, the children have to demonstrate that to one another. There is nothing more powerful than school culture . . . you cannot do this work without engaging the students.

Question 17: What if after three years you will be offered a job in another school district, are you going to accept that position, how long have you stayed in jobs in the past?

Spencer: I’m here for the long haul. I’m not in this to come and hit it and miss. When I look at Rochester, I do see a reflection of Baltimore. I see kids who have great potential but kids who also need opportunities. And once we provide them those opportunities I think that they’re going to do great things. If you look at my track record in Baltimore, I stayed in Baltimore for fourteen years of my educational career. From there I went to Houston and I’ve been in Houston for the past two years. I don’t need to have a stepping stone for a position . . . My goal is to make sure that I’m going to be here and I’m going to serve the community for a very long time. My goal is to be the best, the absolute best in America . . . I’m about consistency.

Vargas: My last job was twenty years. I am committed to Rochester and I also will tell you that if you’re looking for a superintendent that could change this district in one, two, three, years, you’re looking at the wrong person. This is hard work, and it’s not the work of one person, it’s the work of all of us . . . I’m here because I also would like to see some results. You will not see the results that I would be proud of in three years . . . My commitment is to Rochester, it is my hope that I could stay here for the long term. Changing the district or changing the school is not easy work, it’s hard work and it takes time, and it takes community, and it is the job of a leader to bring all of us into a team to do that. One other thing that I am excited about Rochester is that I think that there are possibilities, the possibilities here are enormous.

Question 18: What do you consider to be your major strength as an administrator, what have you targeted for yourself personally and professionally as far as improvement goes?

Spencer: . . . I have a dynamic way of working with data . . . I have a very critical eye of looking at data, and when I say data I’m not necessarily talking about numbers because data comes in all shapes and fashions. But when we begin to look at data we should be able to make connections, we should be able to make parallels, we should be able to identify where our various weaknesses are as well as where our areas of strength may be. And then once we identify those particular pieces then we put something in place to address them or we put something in place to improve it. So, using data is definitely an area of strength . . . In addition to that, relationship building is a strength for me . . . Looking at areas where I can improve . . . I am definitely a workaholic . . . I know how to balance but I also know that there’s always more that needs to be done and I’m always striving to do more and more . . . the improvement would be, how do I then come to Rochester, how do I really begin to get to know who you are as a community group, how do I begin to get to know who you are as a district as well as letting you know who I am, how do I begin to develop community advisory groups so that we can have some authentic conversations about how we can move forward as a district . . .

Vargas: My major strength is priority. Every leader has to be clear in his priority, without that you are not going to be successful. I think I have demonstrated that. The other thing is the ability to be able to work collaboratively with multiple contingencies . . . You have to be mission driven . . . what is clear to me is that it’s about impacting the lives of our kids, student achievement in every child, not only to graduate but also to be prepared to be an effective citizen, not just a worker . . . Mission driven, clear priorities is important, and values. A leader without clear values is someone that will be lost or someone that will change their mind according to the weather . . . I would say the area for improvement for me would be . . . that I have not much patience is when it comes to the needs of our students . . . I think that I can do the work well but I can improve. That is the most challenging for a superintendent is balancing all these interests that you have . . . A superintendent, at least this one, doesn’t have all the skill set that are necessary to run a complex organization like this. A superintendent has to have a team, in place, that can provide the knowledge, and information, and skill set that is required to run a complex organization like this . . . The superintendent that believes or the leader who believe they possess all the skill set necessary to run a complex organization like this is one that I believe is misguided and I consider recognizing this is part of my strength.

It is now up to each of us to consider the responses of the candidates and ask the question, “Did this process produce an individual I want to lead our district or should we revisit the process and search for someone more suited to the qualities we, as a community, want as superintendent?”

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