For far too long, we have examined Rochester’s schools, identified challenges, and suggested ideas for change. Yet, we continue to fail our students and families. Our community has not coalesced around a shared, energizing vision to create a transformative education system for all of Rochester’s students, together.
In September 2021, many Rochester students returned to their classrooms for the first time since March 2020. Seeing their smiling faces back inside of classrooms, optimistic about the school year, was inspiring. However, it still serves as a reminder of the challenges that continue to face our youth in the pursuit of a high-quality education.
While the outbreak of Omicron has once again prompted the need for remote learning, it does not alter the fact that education is central to so many challenges we face in Rochester, from economic opportunities to access to health care. As we mark Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth today, I’m reminded of the value he placed on education. “Education must enable a man to become more efficient,” he said, “to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.”
To that end, the Rochester Education Fellowship Selection Committee, led by a coalition of local child and family advocates, launched a search in January 2021 to find a leader to co-create with the Rochester community a new, bold vision for transformational change in the city’s public-school systems. The two-year fellowship is supported by organizations with a strong history of championing youth and families, parents, leaders, teachers and advocates. Fellowship supporters include Action for a Better Community, the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation, Ibero-American Action League, Connected Communities, the Children’s Institute, the Avenue BlackBox Theatre, the United Negro College Fund, the City Fund, and multiple Rochester citizens passionate about the future of this great city.
This is a significant moment for our community with so many organizations ready to work together to achieve positive change in Rochester’s education system. It also provides me, as the REF fellow, a unique opportunity to step away from the day-to-day responsibilities of school administration to develop, with the community, a vision for real change in our education system and a plan to realize that vision.
With over 15 years of experience working in Rochester schools, my professional career in education has deeply shaped how I will approach this community-centered effort. My personal story has anchored my passion for pursuing this opportunity and stake in our community. A native of Rochester, I attended Dr. Alice Holloway Young School of Excellence (formerly NRCS School No. 3) and graduated from Joseph C. Wilson Magnet High School.
I had a wonderful K-12 learning experience with dedicated teachers who invested in me not only as a student, but as a person. Their dedication propelled me to where I am today. Unfortunately, not all our students share this experience.
Every child in Rochester deserves access to high-quality schools and highly effective educators who prepare them with the knowledge, skills and character needed for success in college and career, and to contribute as active and engaged citizens. Throughout this fellowship, I plan to listen to a variety of stakeholders in our community to gain a deep understanding of the barriers preventing the outcomes we hope to see from Rochester’s education system. I hope to hear firsthand experiences so that we can address the root causes together. These initial conversations are imperative to laying the groundwork and developing a plan for realizing that shared vision together. I hope to engage parents as partners in a system where they may have felt unheard or left out of the decision-making process.
To be clear, this initiative is not yet another Band-Aid solution to harp on a hurting education system, but instead, an opportunity to listen, to heal, and to build a better future for all of Rochester’s children—together.
As King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Let’s take action together. Learn more about the Rochester Education Fellowship here.
Shanai Lee MBA, EdD is the recipient of the Rochester Education Fellowship. She has held leadership positions in the Rochester City School District and most recently worked as regional senior director of Uncommon Schools, a local charter network. Lee was chosen by the Rochester Education Fellowship Selection Committee, co-chaired by Jerome Underwood, president and CEO of Action for a Better Community, and Holli Budd, executive director of the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation, who led the extensive search process and will provide support for the duration of the two-year fellowship.