Educators from public and private schools in Western New York discussed ways to apply the principles of equity to their schools to create systemic change during “Leading for Change,” a conference on Nov. 4, 2022, co-sponsored by the Niagara University Ostapenko Center for Race, Equity and Mission, College of Education, and Vincentian Center for Justice; the United Way of Greater Niagara; and MENTOR New York.
Attendees heard from keynote speaker Shaun Nelms, Ed.D., superintendent of East High School in Rochester, N.Y., and attended workshops facilitated by Jason Daniels, senior legal counsel at Catholic Health, and Brenda Jiménez, CEO of MENTOR New York.
In his presentation, Dr. Nelms shared the leadership principles that transformed East High School, which was the lowest performing in New York state at that time. He noted that that these ideas were not limited to education, but could be applied to any organization.
The catalyst for this change, Dr. Nelms said, was asking the question “What happened?” instead of “What’s wrong?” to understand the history that led the school to its current state and the things that prevented it from getting to its desired state.
“If you don’t understand the root causes of your own dysfunction, you can never move forward collectively,” he said.
Finding your “why” is critical, too, he said, and every decision must be based on that common understanding. Once you do that, people start to trust, to allow space and grace for others to evolve, and to embrace failure as an opportunity to create a new pathway.
Dr. Nelms said that it was also essential to go beyond symbolic change and to make structural changes, which requires allocating adequate resources; holding people accountable; authentically engaging all stakeholders; and encouraging those who were actually doing the work to assume leadership, regardless of their role or position.
“Efficacy and empowerment are two critical elements in this work,” he said.
As a result of these changes, East High School’s graduation rates went from 29% to 86% in seven years.
“What was being done was creating new allies and new co-conspirators in this work; people who were willing to sacrifice their personal and professional comfort to make change in lives of our communities, in the lives of our kids,” Dr. Nelms said. “If we can center ourselves on that today, I think we’re that much closer to addressing the root causes of some of our systemic divide.”