In September 2019, Rome City School District Superintendent, Peter C. Blake, partnered with district consultant Dr. Shanelle Benson Reid to form and co-chair the district’s Equity Task Force, comprised of seven to 12 members of the district administration, faculty and general community.
Benson Reid, founder of Access Global Group, an education consultancy firm that supports school districts and other organizations in the education space in creating a more inclusive environment for all students, describes the task force’s mission as “building community, building relationships and watching that translate into the creation of more equitable environments.”
While she began her career as a teacher, she segued into special education for the most poignant of reasons. “What brought me to the field was my son,” said Reid. “He has had education issues all his life.”
Benson Reid shared that she was in progress on Ph.D in sociology when it became evident to her that her son clearly had learning issues. Like many “special ed” parents, she quickly realized that navigating his education with him and effectively advocating for him would be both a journey and a challenge.
“I cried almost every day,” recalled Benson Reid, “I lived hoping that the teacher would be good, that someone would not say something mean, that we would not be judged the moment we walked in the door.”
Benson Reid changed her professional course to pursue a M.Ed in Special Education precisely to become as expert as possible to empower her to advocate for her son. “My son is now 29,” said Benson Reid, “and, at that time, you didn’t hear much about Aspergers or Autism. But I realized that my son was autistic, and that he was not the only one.”
Benson Reid began to dive deeper into her research, beginning with Brown vs. The Board of Education to today, and she began to discover a pattern of what she calls “over-identification” of children of color – especially boys - with learning disabilities, coupled with “under-serving” them. She called it her “quest … her wish to understand,” so that she could learn how to help these students gain more equitable access to their education.
“So many students need advocates,” said Benson Reid. “That is what led me to this work.” Benson Reid talked about the traditional definition of the role of a K-12 teacher and that it simply is no longer feasible in the current culture. “Students come to you with so much,” said Benson Reid. “Granted, we think to ourselves, I should not have to do this as a teacher? But yes, yes you do have to do this as a teacher.”
She points out that, as times have changed, students have changed and schools are tasked with meeting the needs of diverse students from diverse families. Add the impact of poverty and all the challenges it presents with regard to food and housing security, clothing and supplies and transportation to the obstacles to learning faced by so many students.
“Education is a service industry,” said Benson Reid, “and the students are our clients and our greatest resource. Their needs should dictate the services rendered.”
Benson Reid says that all of what she does is about equity and making sure everybody has an opportunity to succeed.
“Not saying that they will succeed,” added Benson Reid, “but that they have an equal opportunity to do so.”
Benson Reid consults with clients in the education space throughout the State of New York and others around the country. She has been working with the Rome district since 2018.
“At RCSD – I look at graduation rates, Regents scores, local diplomas, special education identification, evaluations that I give to teachers that ask, when it comes to connecting with students, serving students, meeting the needs of students, what do you feel is appropriate,” said Benson Reid.
Based upon the data she gathers and the responses she gets, she creates development opportunities customized to the meet the specific needs of the district.
“I don’t think people fully understand that it is the connection that is difficult,” said Benson Reid. “When we talk about the things that are happening – the over-ID, the lack of representation — it is the component that people don’t always want to hear or that they are reluctant to try to understand.”
Benson Reid guides her clients and constituents in understanding that their perspectives are primarily defined by their personal experience and to remember that others have had different personal experiences and that everyone has something to learn from them.
“People sometimes don’t realize how their own experiences cause them to react or respond,” said Benson Reid. “When I hear that someone has said something, and then I get background about the person, I can conclude this is not malicious intent, but instead a reflection of their own experiences.”
In co-chairing the Rome district’s Equity Task Force, Benson Reid has recommended that there be representation from the district (leadership, teacher and student – if possible) and from the community. Currently, Reid has relied on Jordan Purrington, the district’s first Student Member of the Board of Education, and her successor, Alana Iacovissi, together with RFA’s Knight News to inform and engage the students. Representatives from the Community Schools Program, the youth organization, Junior Frontiers of the Mohawk Valley and the Rome Chapter of the NAACP are serving on the Equity Task Force.
“The goal of organization is to bring key stakeholders to the table to be able to have authentic conversations about what they believe are some of the issues that need to be addressed,” said Benson Reid.
For this coming school year, Benson Reid shared that the Equity Task Force will focus on community conversations where they hope to guide students in helping to facilitate those conversations. “We want students,” said Benson Reid. “All of the work that I do is about student engagement and student involvement because, no matter what, it is about the students.”
They also plan to do community report cards, one for each district school, to begin to delineate needs and challenges.
“Rome is very spread out,” said Benson Reid, “but it is not just about geography. These are very different communities.”
Benson Reid recognizes that the challenge is great. She meets monthly with a group of people from across the country who do this work to share support and best practices.
“Oftentimes, you are the person least wanted in the building,” said Benson Reid. “They don’t want you there. So I sometimes think it is their quiet rebellion, but their quiet rebellion speaks loudly.”
And this – says Benson Reid – is where the student engagement is so critical.
“I’ve been in spaces where teachers have sat with their backs to me when I am delivering special development content,” she said. “What I’ve learned is – I can bring in students from their school – and teachers will never sit with their backs to them.”
When asked what she felt was the greatest accomplishment thus far of the Equity Task Force, Benson Reid replied, “first, it would be the forming of the Equity Task Force itself, and then bringing people to the table that have not always been able to sit at a table together.”
She believes that, if you can get everyone in the room, you can have a conversation.
“It doesn’t have to be divisive or combative,” said Benson Reid. “We can have a conversation.”
At the most recent regular meeting of the Board of Education, a parent spoke during public comments to share that an RFA History teacher had stated to his class that the recognition of the Juneteenth holiday was “stupid.” The parent shared the painful impact such comments have on her child and other children of color. Benson Reid said that her approach is not to relate a response to individual incidents, but instead to design development opportunities that are relatable to what is happening in the community.
Benson Reid sees the recent incident at RFA as an opportunity for she and Blake to have a conversation about what steps he’d like her to take. “Would it be the individual teacher? No,” she said. “I would look at the incident, but not only that incident. I would look at the understanding that it reflects a larger perspective. This is a conversation for the next meeting of the task force.”
Benson Reid, who holds a Ph.D in education and organizational Leadership with a specialization in community and equity, said t that, when it comes to really impacting Rome’s students and the young people she serves, it is not a sprint, it is marathon. “We have to be intentional,” said Benson Reid. “We have to deliberately decide that we want to do better and we want to be better.”
Her best summary of her life’s work – evolving and ongoing – revolves for her around the one thing we unavoidably all share – our common humanity. “Our overall human experience – how we experience life – is important to me,” said Benson Reid. “If I can do anything – anything in my power – to change someone’s overall human experience – that’s what I’m going to do.”