The Rome Board of Education was introduced at a recent regular meeting to the new COO of Access Global Group, the firm in its fourth year of consulting with the district about issues around diversity, equity and inclusion.
Hilda M. Jordan - who moved with her family to Utica when she was 7 years old and attended Utica schools from third grade, the Proctor High School Class of 2015 Salutatorian,a three-sport varsity athlete and student representative to the Utica Board of Education and Harvard University magna cum laude Cum graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and African American Studies - has come home to bring her skills to bear in supporting and inspiring students in her native Central New York.
She was the highlight of evening. She lit up the room.
Access Global Group and its founder, President and CEO, Dr. Shanelle R. Bensen Reid, enters their fourth year as consultants to the Rome City School District on issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion, which led to the forming of the district’s Equity Task Force in 2019, to bring more points of view and voices “to the table” to sustain a dialog and respond to needs in the Rome District around making all students feel equally supported in accessing their RCSD education. Jordan will be a member of the Equity Task Force this 2021-22 school year, joining the 7 to 12 members, representing district administration, faculty, staff and members of the Rome community, to collaborate on initiatives that work to give every student in Rome an equal opportunity to succeed in their education.
At the meeting Benson Reid, Jordan and their plans for the Equity Task Force this school year were slated as the meeting’s Work Study Session. The two Global Access leaders gave a presentation to Blake and Board members that began with Benson Reid walking them through the vision for 2021-22.
The presentation’s title mirrored Benson Reid’s understanding as she works with cohorts of a school community to build bridges where walls once stood - “We are the sum total of our experience.”
Benson Reid began by introducing Jordan as a “new member of the team.”
“She is a Harvard University graduate - a local young person from Utica – a Proctor graduate,” said Benson Reid of Jordan. “She is very well versed in the community and what goes on in the Utica-Rome area, so she is a great asset to the team.”
Benson Reid went on to guide the Board through a detailed presentation about plans for this school year. She emphasized meeting students where they are and supporting faculty and staff in better understanding how to do that with diverse student cohorts so as to enhance the educational experience for all young people in Rome. She is not blind to the resistance by many to her message - inherent in which is the premise that Rome is not already succeeding in doing so - or at least trying. But the feedback and the data show there is a gap. And AGG and the Equity Task Force seek to work with all cohorts in the school community to acknowledge the effort and support that work so that it succeeds at better bridging those gaps.
“Expect to experience some discomfort. Struggle together,” challenged Benson Reid. “ Be open and seek to learn something. Hit your “growing edge.”
Goals for the school year include a focus on the well being of the “whole” student, creating equitable, student-centered learning environments and addressing disparate student outcomes.
AGG and Rome’s Equity Task Force identifies diversity across a broad spectrum, including social identity, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, language, economic status, body size and disabilities.
Jordan supported the approach to add her excitement about introducing the C.A.R.D.S. model to identifying and developing student leaders by recognizing the leaders and roles played by those who influence them: Counselor - Advocate - Role Model - Disciplinarian - Surrogate Parent
“When we think about educating students from diverse backgrounds and situations, we realize this is a complex process,” said Jordan. “Students need to know that adults in their lives are aware of cultural differences and are able to give them the support they need to feel equal and included.”
When Benson Reid and Jordan then opened their session up to questions from the Board, the expectation of “discomfort” that Benson Reid had early warned of was felt immediately when the first query from a member simmered with the subtext of defending the district’s teaches with regard to the observation piece of the proposal for the coming year.
“Have you all ever been in a classroom setting as a teacher,” asked first-year Member, Anna Megerell, who already works as an educator and has shared that she is in progress on earning her degree and teaching credential, “or do you only do teacher observation?”
Benson Reid’s reply was to list two decades of classroom teaching experience, certification as a special educator in both the States of California and New York, and graduate level work that includes fieldwork supervision with teachers working to earn credentials and those seeking advanced degrees in school administration, higher education, PK-12 or Adult Education.
“So, if someone came in to watch you for an hour for one day, leave, and make assumptions and judgments about how you were doing your thing,” pressed Megerell, “how responsive would you be?”
Benson Reid responded to the query as it was asked of her - from the point of view of a teacher.
“I have had the opportunity to be observed, to be a master teacher, to work on different levels – whether it is to critique or learn,” said Benson Reid. “My true belief is that everything that happens should be for the betterment of the student. As a teacher – if I have people watching – going through my practices with a fine tooth comb, I always remember it is for the betterment of the student.”
Blake stepped in to say, “Our process is more through the principals – they have the best relationships with our teachers. – We had a very productive roundtable with Dr. Benson Reid and the principals – to have that dialog and hear their concerns and empower those principals to follow up effectively with their teachers. This all part of the leadership development we’ve engaged in this past year.”
Concluded Benson Reid, “my goal is to build bridges in that community, not walls.”
The spotlight and the subject were then somewhat abruptly changed to Jordan, who was asked about her experience at Proctor.
“I was able to be very successful as a student and student leader. I engaged and benefit from community organizations that empowered me to step up in the classroom and advocate for my peers,” said Jordan. “I was “that kid” in middle school who was student council president and continued on that trajectory.”
Jordan then poignantly shifted to share that part of her journey that was manifest in the inequities that present obstacles about which so many who have never shared that experience have no context.
“I had a competitive GPA, I was a three-sport varsity athlete, I was a National Honor Society Member, and had led the school’s Mock Trial team to its first major competition in the club’s history - and I raised the money myself to attend a Harvard program for high school students,” listed Jordan. “And my guidance counselor tells me that I should consider beginning by attending community college after graduation - that a “four year college” may be too challenging. Maybe - she said - I should not be aiming so high?”
After a pause, the Salutatorian of Proctor’s Class of 2015 and Harvard University Cum Laude graduate added, “It was disheartening.” Then, after another pause, she concluded, “Heartbreaking.”
Jordan shared that these low expectations that she encountered “shaped a lot” about how she navigated her high school space.
“I remember being in high school and telling myself, no one is going to take away my achievements and dismiss them to affirmative action,” shared Jordan, “when I had to work so much harder to be “in the room” and earn the respect I deserved for my work in win them.”
While the room was rapt in that moment, Vice President of the Board, Tanya Davis, after quickly acknowledging Jordan’s story as consistent with “others she has heard ... that one negative voice on reply,” she pressed Jordan to share whether hers was also consistent in the presence of positive influences, as well?
Jordan replied to honor both her 3rd and 4th grade teachers in the Utica School district, fondly recalling their encouragement and support and that she returned often to visit with them, to share her triumphs and to continue to seek that encouragement to overcome the obstacles she faced. She shared that they gave her a safe place to go, a place to cry, a place to be encouraged and, when she needed it, a place to be held accountable.
“They taught me to be responsible and imagine so much more for myself,” said Jordan. “I really developed that village community with them.”
“How do we help our school staff become THAT person,” asked Davis. “We’re looking for tangible ways for how we do that.”
“By ‘setting the table’ ... priming educators to be open to that,” responded Jordan. “We are an external force – brought in to make things better. That can be daunting, even alienating, but we’re here to have an honest dialog so that our educators CAN be that force for our students.”
Jordan pointed out that this is what the CARD paradigm is all about.
“Your educators are your role models – especially as a child,” said Jordan. “I spent more time with my teachers than my mom. This is true for so many kids in the Rome and Utica districts.”
Jordan concluded, “Students are being “raised” by the quality of the education we receive.”
She then fielded a question about how much time she imagined devoting to this work in the Rome district.
“I have been putting in a very hefty amount of time already,” replied Jordan, who went on to say that Rome would receive at least 40 hours per week of her time individually, add Dr. Benson’s time. “I like to make fun of my designer bags – I mean the bags under my eyes!”
Jordan noted that they would track their time in terms of the progress they are able to make for Rome — ...because it is truly passion-led work in achieving that progress we all want to see.”