On a very rainy Monday, when my allergies were in high flare and a persistent cold rain had forced day four of the 2019 Rochester Lilac Festival to close I told myself that despite every reason to stay in bed I would push myself to attend Rochester Beacon’s sold out forum titled “ Rochester Schools: The Elephant in the Room. As a regular reader of Rochester Beacon, I was excited for this forum for many weeks. Given the digital newspaper’s mission and commitment to fact based reporting and bringing a different voice to Rochester’s media line up, I had high hopes for the forum event.
I was optimistic and anticipating a real “truth to power” session. Something that would call out the status quo and make what has for decades impeded true progress in the Rochester City School District abundantly clear. I was hoping for an outline that would detail what changes need to happen to not just move the needle but affect true systemic reform at the individual, institutional, and systemic levels. When I learned that Mayor Lovely Warren and Jackie Campbell of Roc the Future would be panelists my interest was only heightened. I had this event on my calendar for weeks and I intended to be present with bells on.
Naturally, the day came and even after careful planning, I found myself running late. The rain, coupled with more rain and public transit made me about 30 minutes late to the forum. I arrived soaking wet but energized (in my head) and ready to engage.
After about 45 minutes I found myself forcing myself to sit through a languishing and lengthy presentation by Chris Cerf, the forum’s keynote speaker and former commissioner of education for the state of New Jersey.
We Know This Already
Chris Cerf’s keynote didn’t lack data, facts, or good information. The true problem is that everything he shared I’d already heard before. In fact, I have no doubt that every single person in the room already knew everything he was presenting . Those of us who have lived for any length of time and discussed the decades old challenges of the Rochester City School District ad nauseam; know that teachers matter. We know quality evidence based curriculum matters. We know that teaching and instructing that is aligned to said curriculum matters. We know that parents and the community must be engaged. We know that all decisions should center students and not put adults first. In Rochester we know all of these things and more; so the goal shouldn’t be to tell us what we already know, but to ask why the district, why the community elected board, and why the community at large isn’t doing what research shows is best. This is (1) of the elephants I came to this forum wanting to be called out. It never was.
A Redundant Panel
By the time the first panel came to the stage (yes there were two panels) I was hoping that the monotony of Chris Cerf would be livened up by questions and answers from the large audience.
This first panel included:
- Mayor Lovely Warren
- Jackie Campbell, Director of Roc the Future
- Chris Cerf, Keynote and former commissioner NJ
- Adam Urbanski, President of Rochester Teacher Association
- Walida Monroe Sims, RCSD Parent
I immediately wrote the following notes:
- Where are the student voices on this panel?
- Why are there not more parents on this panel?
- What aren’t more parents in the room at large?
All questions that I have asked at every single panel that I’ve ever attended about The Rochester City School District and here I was asking myself these same questions. Again.
Each panel member was allowed to speak individually on what was basically a reiteration of what Chris Cerf had already presented for nearly an hour. Thankfully Mayor Warren kept her words very concise saying only that she agreed with everything that Chris Cerf shared in his presentation. Most of which I can barely remember since it was nothing I haven’t heard before. Chris alluded to the elephant in the room, maybe mentioned but still this elusive elephant wasn’t very clear from his words. So, you can imagine my continued frustration that after each panel member spoke their interpretation, there was still little clarity on said elephant.
- Jackie Campbell in addition to restating that she agreed with Chris Cerf added that behavior change from adults is needed
- Adam Urbanski in addition to restating that he agreed with Chris Cerf added that the voices of teachers as content experts need to be listened to
- Walida Monroe Sims who actually shared first asked two profound questions that made me wish that the organizers allowed her voice as a parent to shine through more and included more parent and student voices. One of her questions was:
What is the state doing to enforce that the board replicates the models of success that have produced positive results; namely early childhood education and community schools?
Unfortunately there was no one from the State Regents or Department of Education present to answer this profound “elephant in the room”. What frustrated me further was after all the time spent on the panelists reiterating what we had already heard for an hour, we barely got through any of the audience questions. The ones that were shared were heavily paraphrased by the moderator Kent Gardner.
Not Another Panel
And just when my body seemed to be at the height of rebelling against my mind; a second panel was called to the stage. All I could think was ” Not another panel” However, this panel seemed to make sense for the forum. I couldn’t help but keep thinking to myself why the second panel wasn’t placed first since it was made up of leaders that are beacons of change in the district. This second panel included:
- Dr. Shaun Nelms, Superintendent of East High School
- Kirsten Barclay, Senior Program Officer of the Farash Foundation
- Don Pryor of Great Schools for All
- Anna Hall CEO of the Northeast Charter School Network ( which oversees Uncommon Schools, Rochester Prep)
This panel although encouraging and further reinforcing the idea that transformative change actually works when quality schools and leaders are given the autonomy and finances to do change work, it only emphasized what we already knew.
- We know quality charter schools can and do work.
- We know that East High’s partnership with University of Rochester has been instrumental.
- Community schools when implemented by dedicated community members, constituents, and Principals like Caterina Leone can have great success. School #17 should be the model and template for all schools in the district.
- We know that suburban districts must get involved and that RCSD cannot transform on its’ own or dismantle systemic poverty by itself.
The elephant in the room is why isn’t the school district replicating and scaling what works?
A few gems did come from this panel:
- ‘”We fight over the most mundane things in this district. We fight more over why we shouldn’t do what we know works more than doing what works” Dr. Shaun Nelms
- ” Stop making the perfect and the scalable the enemy of what’s possible” Anna Hall
- “The current governance model doesn’t work, if it did we wouldn’t be here”` Mayor Lovely Warren
These quotable gems although powerful were stated at the very final final hour of the event literally as folks were checked out, leaving, or just about checked out. I so wish these content experts and their quotes framed the beginning of the decision rather than said in passing at the very end of a long three hour forum.
“And just when my body seemed to be at the height of rebelling against my mind a second panel was called to the stage”
What Did I Learn
I didn’t learn much really. This forum like so many before it reinforced much about what I already know about Rochester and the Rochester City School District
- I know that there are many frustrated community members that care about the success of RCSD but are not sure how to break into the bureaucracy of the broken system
- I know that I am tired of forums that present nothing new and that do not truly and blatantly call out what is wrong and outline what we need to do to make whats’ wrong right.
- I know that that RCSD likes reports and likes to bring in outside experts to reinforce research and data that we already know.
- I know that large forums that lack childcare and that are held at 4PM do not bring out the countless working families and parents that care about these issues,.
- I know that the district knows what it needs to do but for decades has refused to do it
- I know just like a colleague of mine shared as we discussed the night “We love to have folks from the outside come and tell us the same thing”
Questions I Still Have
- I left tonight’s forum unclear of what the elephant in the room was?
- Why was the elephant in the room not blatantly and emphatically called out?
- Where were the student voices at this forum?
- If the call is children first and RCSD serves students why weren’t the students present in given equal voice?
- Not one student was given a speaking voice (not a question but worth the repeat)
- Why were there mostly white professionals in attendance?
- Why did this seem like business as usual?
- Why did this feel like an advertisement for charter schools?
- What was this forum held at 4 PM on a weeknight?
- Why wasn’t child care offered?
- Why did I leave feeling frustrated like I always do?
- What is the elephant in the room?
(he/his/him) Calvin Eaton aka theglutenfreechef (www.theglutenfreechefblog.com) is a digital content creator, social entrepreneur, and educator whose areas of expertise includes antiracism, diversity, inclusion, K-12 curriculum writing and teaching, gluten free plant based living, and higher education.