How Demario Strickland views his new RCSD role

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Although Demario Strickland is new to the position of interim superintendent, he is not new to the Rochester City School District.

Coming from a nine-year educational career in Buffalo public schools, Strickland first started in the Rochester district’s administration in 2021 as the chief of schools under former Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small. 

Strickland served in that capacity until his promotion to deputy superintendent of teaching and learning two years later. (At that time, Carmine Peluso, who became interim superintendent after Myers-Small’s departure in 2022, was given a permanent role.) Strickland oversaw teacher instruction strategies, grading systems, and academic outcomes.

In March, Peluso announced he would leave RCSD at the end of the school year to become superintendent of the Churchville-Chili School District. The city school board originally seemed to favor setting an expedited timeline to fill the position, targeting the end of April and a potential hire from outside the school district. 

Instead, Strickland’s appointment was made public at the end of May, drawing the support of many board members, staff, and parent leaders. Most of Peluso’s administrative team is also staying on for next year.

Demario Strickland

Strickland is taking over at an important time for the school district. Next year it must complete a complex reconfiguration of schools with multiple closings and openings. East Upper and Lower schools also must transition away from its Educational Partnership Organization model and be reabsorbed under district control. Teacher recruitment, community engagement, and academic outcomes remain evergreen issues as well.

The Beacon posed a few questions to Strickland, including how he plans to tackle his new role. An edited version of the conversation follows.

ROCHESTER BEACON: You’ve officially taken over as interim superintendent this month. What do you consider is the most important part of your tenure?

DEMARIO STRICKLAND: The most important part of my task right now is to stabilize our cabinet and make sure we are able to carry out our reconfiguration plan. We have to, regardless of who’s in any seat, open schools in September and make sure that we’re ready for staff to be available for our kids the day they show up.

Fortunately, I’ve been intricately involved in the plan as a deputy superintendent. So I know the ins and outs of what needs to happen, just because on one level, that’s the intuitive nature of how my brain works.

But also (over the last few weeks), I’ve been transitioning with Dr. Peluso, and I’ve really been thinking about systems. What are the systems I’m going to intentionally set up so that we have checkpoints to make sure things happen?

Some of those things have already been logged. Every week, when we meet as an executive cabinet, we spend an hour, if not more, on reconfiguration. Considering the barriers in front of us and how we’re going to break those down, what progress we’ve made, what things we may not have considered yet; we really want to make sure to have those conversations openly around the table so we can be ready to open in September.

ROCHESTER BEACON: When Dr. Peluso announced he was leaving, some parents expressed that they felt blindsided by the news. The board has also run into issues working with superintendents in the past. How do you plan on working with both the community and the board in your new role?

STRICKLAND: Community is very important to me. That’s something that’s celebrated in all communities, but especially important in Black and Brown communities; literally making sure that I don’t win unless you win, bringing up the person that’s the weakest.

So, I stay focused on the task in front of me. I’m not really looking at other opportunities but (instead), what is the work I have to do? I know that might not sound comforting to some because there’s been so many people in this seat and people are in a vulnerable state. 

Working with the board, I will continue to do what I’ve been doing. I’ve been able to gain their respect because of my work and work ethic. I generally tend to try not to leave a stone unturned and I plan to keep doing that.

And that’s also about informing them about the plans they’ve lifted up. Keeping them informed about our academic plan, our reconfiguration, about what it is that I need to be successful.

One of the things we haven’t done or I feel we haven’t done as well at, is talking about the plan for improvement. Our kids are having a tough time reading, but here’s what we need to do. Here’s the training we need for our teachers and paraprofessionals for success; here’s how we need to support our parents and families so that when kids get home, they can continue that work. 

So, it’s being open and honest and not beating around the bush. You have to be transparent and you need to tell the story, and really, numbers don’t lie.

You can’t hide the wrong things because if you do that but then everyone else sees the opposite happening, it means you lose credibility and that’s something that I’m not interested in for any of my staff.

How do we all work together? How do we all lift each other up? We have to start thinking about how we treat each other and getting to know peoples’ intentions. Tough love is good sometimes, but it can be detrimental if it’s all the time negative.

Two things I know for sure is I’m going to work hard, and I’m going to smile and make people feel welcome if they come into this building, or I go into theirs.

ROCHESTER BEACON: In your time in RCSD, what is the biggest challenge you still see for the district?

STRICKLAND: From my perspective, the one thing that has not been steadfast within the community is teaching and learning.

We need to focus on what materials are presented to our students; how our teachers can equip the tools they need to help a student who is three years behind so that they catch up as much as possible; how conditions for staff members can be optimal so that or students can learn the best; and how we do we engage our parents as partners and not as foreigners in this work, because we tend to shut them out. We can’t shut out our parents.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Looking ahead to the future, are the Rochester schools somewhere you could picture yourself continuing to work in?

STRICKLAND: You know, commuting back and forth between Buffalo and Rochester originally, putting those miles on my car, it wasn’t about the money.

It’s about commitment to people that want you there and need you there and value you being there. And so I can see this as something that could be long term. It’s just as long as I’m allowed. 

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

3 thoughts on “How Demario Strickland views his new RCSD role

  1. Another terrific and necessary piece from the Beacon about RCSD. I continue to be impressed with the depth and thoughtfulness of coverage.

    Mr. Strickland, thrilled to have someone as committed and thoughtful as you in the position. Continuity is crucial, and hiring an internal candidate seems like a win to me. Looking forward to seeing what you accomplish.

  2. Welcome to Mr.Demario Strickland
    The good news: Most in Rochester REALLY wants you to succeed in creating well educated students with respect for themselves and with the skills and the desire to make Rochester Great Again! Please give the Beacon an update every couple months about how we can help.
    The bad news: Many have failed. Entrenched special interests here repeatedly have protect themselves from change without concern for our kids. RCSD is working fine for them. Surprisingly, some global forces are also working against your success e.g. see the “Fentanyl” and “Social Media” sections of Peter Schweitzer’s new book, “Blood Money”. Declining student health also makes learning more difficult. Iron supplements after menarche for the girls, 2000/5000 IU daily of vitamin D3 for white / dark skined kids, B12 for vegetarians, exercise, and fresh fruits and veggies creates better brain health for better learning.
    After you get your feet on the ground, perhaps you will let us know how we can help you put an end the disgraceful RCSD “rubber room” where poorly performing teachers with tenure report and are paid to nothing all day… for years! Might ‘for cause” termination work?

  3. Just an observation Mr. Strickland from your interview here: you neglected to say what many in Monroe County expect your NUMBER 1 priority to be == educate the RCSD students so they can be productive members of our community! The students and parents deserve your full attention! Tell the dysfunctional School Board, Teachers Union and administrators to GET ON BOARD OR MOVE OVER! I suggest you BE IN CHARGE and deliver for the students & parents. Don’t worry about being aggressive & forceful with the self serving agendas of the other groups! The students and parents need an advocate == that’s YOU!
    YOU, Mr. Strickland have a job to do = education the students of the RCSD! If you need some assistance from Monroe County residents to reach this goal = CALL ON US!

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