Courageous Conversations, Concrete Actions
After targeting inequities in school operations, Newburgh’s leader prompted moves from rhetoric to practice
/School Administrator, August 2019

Superintendent Roberto Padilla (center) celebrates with Newburgh students who participate in inclusive sports clubs that include students with intellectual disabilities as teammates with same-age peers.
Last fall, the school district I lead began to reallocate teachers to work with students who were far below grade level. Understandably, a school that stood to lose some beloved staff members raised concerns. One teacher at an affected school pointedly asked me, “Why are you moving this teacher when we need her?”

The question made complete sense. I explained gently, “I understand, but students at this other school need her more.”

I was grateful that the teachers were willing to question school district policy and take time to hear the rationale for the significant change in practices. They might not have been any happier after they heard my explanation, but they understood.

Facing Our Biases
As the superintendent of New York’s 12,000-student Newburgh Enlarged City School District, I regularly have equity-focused and solutions-driven conversations like these. They are not easy conversations.

School districts across the country are talking with greater frequency about student equity, diversity and inclusivity. This is a good thing. Inequities have persisted in schools for far too long, disproportionately limiting access to excellent learning experiences for students of color. On top of that, hateful political discourse around race, religion and immigration now are ripping at the seams of our communities.

In times like these, public school leaders have a major role to play. We can initiate and facilitate productive and honest conversations about the root of biases and inequities in our schools and the impact those biases have on our interactions with each other. Also, how are our schools’ policies and practices contributing to those inequities?

These conversations cannot just remain talk, however. To improve conditions for every student, discussions about equity must progress expeditiously from what equity is to how to reach it.

As Newburgh’s superintendent, Roberto Padilla (center) encourages students to participate in academic competitions, including 5th-grade Math Meets conducted across the district.

Risk-Taking Required
After several years of continuously talking and acting with urgency about the inequities in Newburgh’s schools, I honestly can state we have made measurable progress. Our graduation rates are up and students have much more opportunity for challenging classes and internships that are preparing them for college and the workforce.

When we started this work five years ago, we asked ourselves some tough questions: Why do so many of our schools lack opportunities for advanced coursework and enrichment? How come our AP course enrollment does not reflect the demographics of the district? Why isn’t the staff as diverse as the student population? Why are a disproportionate number of our black boys suspended? Most important, what is going to be done to ensure more than 67 percent of students are ready to graduate each year?

For most of Newburgh’s residents, these data were old news. When a vacancy arose in the superintendency in 2014, the community wanted a leader for its public schools who would move from rhetoric to action, from talking about problems to creating solutions that made a difference in students’ lives. As a native of Newburgh and a product of its schools, I felt the urgency of every student we were not reaching. While growing up, I watched friends and classmates land in jail or worse.

Schools play a major role in eradicating poverty. Sadly, they also strengthen the school-to-prison pipeline. As a local school leader who overcame threatening conditions as a youth, I am not afraid to take risks. Still, I needed a team of fellow educators and a school board willing to create an environment in our schools where we can push each other regularly to point out inequities in our midst, to consider why they exist and to settle on actions we could take to dismantle them.

Evidence of Success
In some ways, the story of Newburgh is like that of many other medium-sized cities across the country. Located along the Hudson Riv-er, 60 miles north of New York City, our city once had a thriving port and varied manufacturing. After World War II, most of the factories moved south, taking jobs with them.

Today, nearly 75 percent of Newburgh students are considered economically disadvantaged and 7 percent are homeless. The student body is 23 percent African American, 53 percent Latinx, 18 percent white, 2 percent Asian and 4 percent multiracial. About 15 percent of our students are English language learners and 17 percent are students with disabilities.

The year I started in Newburgh, only two-thirds of students graduated. Last year, 79 percent of our senior class walked across the stage at graduation. We still have much more to do to further increase our graduation rate, but I know the hard conversations we have had about how race impacts the kind of learning experiences we give young people have contributed to our wins.

Thanks to these conversations about equity with a range of stakeholders — including school board leaders, teacher union officials, administrators and educators — the school community was willing to support the creation of a free breakfast and lunch program for all of our students. We knew if children were hungry in class, they’re probably not able to give their best.

Conversations about equity led to the creation of a chief equity officer position to support work across all district departments, from personnel to curricula and instruction. Also emerging from conversations was student-based budgeting, which led the board to reallocate resources equitably rather than equally; multiple pathways to graduation; summer enrichment; a new high school campus that offers nontraditional learning options to students who need them most; and an early college program that enables high school students to earn college credits at no cost to them.

Visible Evidence
While our equity journey has had its hurdles, the process has been so rewarding. Every week when my team and I walk through schools, we see evidence of the equity work we are doing as a district: Kids re-energizing their bodies and minds with a free nutritious breakfast; a school counselor meeting with student leaders to plan a school event; school board members revising policies; district committees working on “acceleration for all” initiatives that include AP and more females in STEM; community members mentoring boys of color; and teacher teams analyzing critical data and changing instructional plans.

Most importantly, I am hearing conversations and seeing actions among educators and administrators about how they can better reach every scholar.

ROBERTO PADILLA is superintendent of Newburgh Enlarged City School District in Newburgh, N.Y. Twitter: @NewburghSup