A shared vision for Rochester education

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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.    

Shanai Lee

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.

4 thoughts on “A shared vision for Rochester education

  1. Good luck to Dr. Shanai Lee. But I hope that this effort will start with simple, easy steps.
    “Inch by inch. Life is a cinch. Yard by yard. Life is hard” (John Updike)
    For years I tried to suggest a few simple, “inch by inch”, steps to people at RCSD.
    For example, I mentioned the EASY button from Staples, that says, “that was easy”.
    I suggested, “Resilience Bands that say: “I am Resilient” from http://www.WhyTry.og.

    If simple devices are asking, too much, why not try to REPEAT WORDS
    like, “simple”, “easy”, “resilience” “thank you, teacher?”

    But maybe what RCSD needs most is common sense, LOGIC.
    There is a funny spoof on school logic called: ALTERNATIVE MATH on YouTube.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh3Yz3PiXZw&t=65s (“Alternative Math” 8min)
    Perhaps, if videos such as this one were played over and over, RCSD might wake up

    Dr. King said he had a “dream.” Can we start will simple, easy steps to work on our dream?
    I hope Dr. Lee will listen to these ideas and others. http://www.SavingSchools.org



    As a STARTING POINT, in my humble, but staunch and informed view, we need to get focused (with laser-like precision) on the foundational academic/intellectual development of our children — by doing everything that we possibly can to make certain that they master literacy skills and knowledge — that is, reading, writing, math skills and knowledge at or above grade level (right from the very beginning), which is one of the most important reasons why we must address/change the standardized testing process, i.e., because it is driving everything that happens at the classroom level, and deprives teachers and support staff of the necessary time and energy to concentrate on developing foundational skills and knowledge. Instead, largely because of state and federal mandates, rules, regulations, policies, and mandates — teachers find themselves (more and more) teaching narrowly to tests. There is no mystery surrounding the reason why so many of our children don’t do well on tests. It’s because they don’t have adequate reading, writing, and math skills, which again represents the very foundation of all knowledge, and which is necessary for them to be able to master higher-order knowledge and skills — such as critical and analytical reading, writing and thinking. So, I’m saying, if we lay the foundation properly, we won’t have to worry so much about tests. If the proper foundation has been laid, the testing issue will take care of itself (as long as that which is being tested, is fundamentally the same as that which is being taught). So there are two issues wrapped up together: 1) the need for more local control (as opposed to far too many dictates from the state and federal governments, and 2) the need to free teachers and support staff up — so that they will have the time and energy to focus, again, with laser-like precision, on laying the academic foundation upon which all knowledge and skills-development is built. This issue is even more important when we consider that huge numbers of our children enter the system lagging far behind their middle-class peers — right from the very beginning.

    The latter referenced issue is clearly among the most important of all issues we face, and is connected to another issue, i.e., the issue of widespread, concentrated poverty. Please don’t misunderstand me regarding this critically important issue. I do not subscribe (under any circumstances) to any theory or idea about children not being able to learn because they live in poverty. If this was the case, many whom I’ve known (as children of migrant farmworkers) would be among the most uneducated people on earth. On the other hand, for us to stick our heads in the sand (as an ostrich would do), and pretend that issues and conditions, which often accompany, i.e., come along with abject poverty — does not impact our ability to educate well — is frankly ludicrous, but the main point is that we need to do all we can to make sure we have the necessary, equitable, resources to provide whatever our children need in order to develop to their full potentials, which is currently not the case, and to be honest, in order to secure such necessary resources probably will require a struggle and a fight (politically speaking). We know that often those who need less — actually get more — because they are well-organized and very effective advocates for their children (often exclusively). The other side of this coin is, we must make sure the vast amount of resources that we do receive (nearly one billion dollars — $1,000,000,000) are being utilized efficiently and effectively, which obviously is not the case currently, and which raises another critical issue that we need to focus on, i.e., rooting out massive waste, and possibly fiscal mismanagement, malfeasance, and corruption, which is currently occurring in the Rochester City School District.

    Two other critically important issues, which we must deal with are 1) the need to address individual, institutional, and structural racism, and the establishment of racial/cultural equity relative to curricula, hiring and retention practices, as well as other ways, including revisiting a number of existing policies, practices, procedures, and laws. I realize this is a sensitive issue, but it is one that we cannot shy away from. It needs to be addressed; 2) it is amply clear that traditional educational approaches and systems will not work for many of our students, especially many of those who have been shuffled through the system via the criminal practice of social (age) promotion. Therefore, we must get serious about developing authentic, alternative models of education.

    Probably not much of this will get done unless and until we build a deadly serious, ongoing, movement of parents, grandparents, guardians, students, extraordinarily committed educators, politicians, including and especially progressive Board members, and anyone else who is really serious about widespread, fundamental change and improvement — working cooperatively, collaboratively and constantly around concrete, well defined, measurable goals, strategies, and tactics, which is in essence, what a movement is. Of course, any credible movement must necessarily center around concrete issues and conditions that are negatively impacting our children and families. Those include, but are not limited to the following:

    1. Establishing relevant, broad-based, parent, student and community engagement at every level of the system, and throughout the community (movement)

    2. Addressing/ending systemic, social promotion

    3. Development/Implementation of effective, authentic, alternative educational models

    4. Systemic change regarding standardization (in order to produce a new reality, in which the overall, initial focus is on properly and adequately laying the academic foundation, upon which all else is built)

    5. Addressing/reducing individual, institutional, and structural racism, and establishing racial/cultural equity — relative to curricula, and hiring/retention practices

    6. Working for relief from federal and state mandates (increased autonomy, and local/community control)

    7. Reducing/mitigating the impact and effects of concentrated, widespread poverty (equitable resource acquisition, distribution, and efficiency, which includes rooting out massive waste, and possibly fiscal mismanagement, malfeasance, and corruption)

    There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the seven (7) areas above represent an objectively correct, and clear direction regarding movement-building. Real and serious efforts to help improve educational conditions for all children in the Rochester City School District — must focus around issues such as those outlined above — period.

    The Struggle Continues…








  3. At the highest level looking at education from many perspectives for over fifty years, I’ve come to be of two minds regarding strategic steps that need to be taken. First, the entire community needs to achieve much greater involvement by parents in the lives of their scholars. Not just once in a while, but 24/7-365. Somehow we’ve come to a place in our expectations as a nation that schools and teachers can effectively raise children in place of parental involvement. I acknowledge that there are myriad social, economic, and other issues that need to be overcome. But, I’m sorry to say the educational system can’t do it all. Just as the community struggles with the role of the police in dealing with mental health and domestic issues, schools and most institutions are just not equipped to meet the needs of children beyond the classroom. Candidly the entire social safety net needs to be re-imagined and re-engineered to support families with children and all that entails.
    Now to my other thoughts, if the ideas above can’t be achieved, we need to completely reset how children are educated.
    Suppose we assume that we must meet the target populations where they are. In that case, we need teachers and administrators to assess students/scholars’ current state, define the desired outcomes, and employ every tool available in the teaching toolbox to meet those needs. It won’t be cheap or easy. It will take the total commitment of all levels of government and a massive increase in funding for counselors, mental health practitioners, tutors, mentors, and social workers.
    Tragically, I fear that this fellowship is doomed to failure like so many before it. It’s not that the design and methodology are flawed; the work defined by the effort just won’t get done. I don’t know if it’s a Rochester thing or if the whole country is in the same boat, but the challenge is so enormous, no matter which path the final assessment chooses, the problem just can’t be solved with only local resources.
    Historically, the City government constantly complains that the millions more in funding that resulted from the consent decree years ago is just too much of a burden, especially since they have no control over how the money is used. Our School Board commissioners are the picture of disfunction and personal agendas that never seem to get resolved. We have a revolving door of superintendents and a union that only looks are pay increases as a measure of success. Finally, the majority of the parent population don’t have the time, skill, means, or inclination to become fully engaged in their children’s lives in school. We have outside social and political forces demanding a voice in designing and implementing curriculum that meet their desires, like “Critical Race Theory” or which books should be in school libraries. We also need more involvement from employers providing feedback on what skills, knowledge, and abilities they require from graduates.
    We must spend more time teaching life skills and civics. We may need longer school days, much smaller classes, and shorter vacations if we expect to turn out citizens that can participate in the economy and everyday life in the community. We need to return to neighborhood schools, at least for primary school, and we need unfettered community access to school buildings to meet the needs of parents and students after the end of the school day. I wish Ms. Lee well. At the very least, I hope she can develop a road map for the work that needs to start as soon as possible. In ending, we just have to look at the Monroe County Anti-Poverty Initiative as an effort that began with lots of fanfare, funding, and hope and objectively assess what lasting success it has had in reducing poverty as an example of how we do things in Rochester.

    • 1) YOU STATED: “First, the entire community needs to achieve much greater involvement by parents in the lives of their scholars. Not just once in a while, but 24/7-365. Somehow we’ve come to a place in our expectations as a nation that schools and teachers can effectively raise children in place of parental involvement.”

      2) THEN YOU STATED: “Finally, the majority of the parent population don’t have the time, skill, means, or inclination to become fully engaged in their children’s lives in school.”

      3) SO WHICH IS IT???

      4) WHAT (EXACTLY & SPECIFICALLY) IS THIS SUPPOSED TO MEAN??? >>> “We have outside social and political forces demanding a voice in designing and implementing curriculum that meet their desires, like “Critical Race Theory?”


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