A Warrior Against the Inequities in Schools
- Expertise: Districtwide Equity
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Newburgh Enlarged City School District, Newburgh, N.Y.
Plastered across classroom walls and throughout the hallways of the administration building in the Newburgh, N.Y., school district are two words: “inclusive excellence.”
It’s a vision statement and call to action for a school district that for too long had left behind its students most in need.
The phrase was developed shortly after Superintendent Roberto Padilla’s arrival in 2014, during a series of frank and difficult community meetings about why the district has struggled so much academically. Just a fraction of Newburgh’s students, most of them poor, black, and Latino, could meet minimal state standards, and one of its elementary schools was at risk of being taken over by the state. Those meetings, which included hundreds of parents, teachers, staff, and administrators, touched on issues of race, class, and who over the years had benefited most from the district’s resources.
Padilla has since woven equity into the fabric of Newburgh’s everyday activities and his decisionmaking. He’s overhauled its budget and administrative staff, placing muscle in its most destitute and academically challenged schools. And he’s started the arduous task of redistributing teachers so that its most talented educators are placed in front of the students who are struggling most.
Padilla, a former New York City principal, is guided by his own experiences as a foster child coming of age in Newburgh. He, like so many of the district’s Latino male students, was once deemed a likely dropout destined to a life of crime and poverty. But the murder of two of his best friends in high school shook him awake, he said, and set him on a path to commit his life to education—his own—and that of thousands of other children like him.
Lessons from the Leader
- Be Courageous: Always ask: ‘Why should anyone be led by you’? Make a list of excuses that are counterproductive, such as ‘This can’t happen here,’ and explain why they should disappear.
- Build Teams and Collaborate: Enlist stakeholders and collaborate with them often. Everyone needs to own the work. Relationships and partnerships are key ingredients to success.
- Listen to Students: Our children have great ideas and different perspectives than our own. Create authentic platforms where students can share their input and ideas.
“I have an affinity for children who have to overcome particular barriers, but I recognize they can make it,” he said. “How do I help a school system to support children in a way that helps children to look beyond their circumstances? My equity charge is to not allow the conditions of race, ZIP code, ethnicity or language to be predictors for success in life.”
Politicians and superintendents across the nation have grappled with rearranging the distribution of districts’ resources in order to best serve students whose parents have the least amount of political capital.
While many teachers and administrators regularly complain about the many ways poverty’s effects spill into the classroom, Padilla has interrogated the district’s own role in perpetuating generational poverty.
In frank, sometimes startling speeches complete with anecdotes and data, Padilla has detailed how the district has systematically let poor children fall to the wayside: by stripping its high schools of its most engaging courses and after-school programs; by deploying outdated curricula and lowering expectations for black, Latino, and poor students; and by placing the district’s weakest teachers in front of its hardest-to-teach students.
“How do we create the conditions where these variables don’t become predictors of success?” Padilla often asks.
As he’s putting that question to teachers, principals, business and civic leaders, and parents, he’s also asking himself the same thing.
Finding the answers isn’t so hard, but marshalling the political will and resources is incredibly challenging, said Irma Zardoya, the former CEO of the New York City Leadership Academy, a principal-preparation program that helped shape Padilla’s leadership style and philosophy.
“Building equity in a district really requires you to galvanize the support of your school board and your mayor and the local neighboring communities and the teachers, the unions,” said Zardoya, who’s watched as Padilla has, over the past four years, started to reverse Newburgh’s downward academic trajectory. “You have to get all those people to be honest with one another. It can be really difficult. If not done well, it can explode in your face. It has to be done in a way that builds community rather than disenfranchising community.”
In the year before Padilla was hired, more than 4,400 people in the Newburgh area had lost their jobs, one of the highest rates of job loss in the nation.
Evictions, homelessness, and drug use in the city had skyrocketed, and the famous gilded mansions that line the city’s streets had been boarded up.
The school district was woefully unprepared to handle such extreme circumstances.
With local property-tax values plummeting and the state slashing away at its K-12 spending, the district between 2010 and 2014 laid off more than 300 teachers and administrators. Class sizes swelled, and the district had dramatically reduced its pre-K, kindergarten, and after-school programs. By 2014, the district employed just six certified social workers, even though 70 percent of its 11,000 students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. None of its elementary schools had counselors.
Morale tanked, and principals and teachers lost trust in central office administrators. In 2014, the school board decided the district needed to hire an experienced central office administrator from outside of Newburgh to come in and turn things around.
Padilla, now 41, was neither of those things.
Padilla grew up in Newburgh when the city was known as the murder capital of New York.
When he was in kindergarten, a social worker came to his home and removed him and his brothers, deeming his mother unfit to parent. For two years, he lived with one set of foster parents while his two younger brothers were placed with another set of foster parents.
After reuniting with his family, the next several years were marked by frequent moves, empty cupboards, and occasional violence.
When his two best friends were murdered in high school, Padilla said, school became the safest place for him to be.
“I didn’t want to go down the same road as they did,” he said. “I decided to go to class and do the work, and this was the first time that I experienced a different kind of attention and reaction from adults. I showed up on time, I completed assignments, and I stayed after school and asked for help. To some extent, I became addicted to what … happens when you apply yourself.”
As an up-and-coming teacher and then principal, Padilla built a reputation in New York City as a no-nonsense school leader who figured out how to navigate the city’s layers of bureaucracy in order to demonstrate academic gains and quickly boost test scores in its toughest neighborhoods.
Though he didn’t have central office experience, he said he jumped at the opportunity to run his hometown’s district because “it’s a place that I get and a place that I believe, in my core, has all the right ingredients to be a phenomenal school district.”
Board members said they were impressed with his scholarly approach to school turnaround, his reliance on data to inform those school turnaround approaches, and his passion for engaging at-risk students.
“He’s an agent of change,” said board member Philip Howard. “He pledged to change the culture and the climate here, and that’s exactly what we were looking for.”
Shortly after being hired, Padilla began a twofold task: asking what the community wanted from its school district and collecting data to determine where the district’s resources were being targeted.
The data came back, startling, but clear. The bulk of the district’s resources were being directed to the schools with the wealthiest students.
In a 2014 evaluation of whether or not Newburgh was meeting the state constitution’s mandate to provide an adequate education, state education officials pointed out that while the district’s poor students scored significantly worse than their peers statewide, the district’s wealthy students performed slightly better than their counterparts across the state.
Newburgh “is not providing its students, particularly its sizeable population of students at-risk of academic failure, with the opportunity for a meaningful high school education, the standard for a sound basic education,” the report concluded.
Padilla, in the first several months on the job, held meetings throughout the district at which he asked teachers, staff members, and residents provocative questions about the district’s less than stellar results: Why are so many men of color in our district dropping out of high school? Why do we suspend so many black and Latino students? Why are our Advanced Placement courses so white?
“I’m convinced that you can’t change what you’re willing to tolerate,” he said, while reflecting on those meetings. “No one here was really surprised about the inequities that exist in our school district. They know. So it begs the question, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ ”
I’m convinced that you can’t change what you’re willing to tolerate.
Padilla notched an early success when Temple Hill Elementary was taken off the list of struggling schools in 2016. In order to boost test scores, staff members at the school made personal phone calls to students’ families twice a year to discuss their child’s academic progress; the district added more time to the school day, a dual-language program, and a kindergarten technology program; and it staffed the school with an assistant principal.
Today, Newburgh’s central office staff releases an annual “equity report card” to the public to show how the district is doing on meeting the needs of its most disadvantaged students. There’s been a lot of work to directly address opportunity gaps that have kept Newburgh’s African-American and Hispanic students trailing behind their white, more-affluent peers.
Padilla’s staff replaced the district’s math curriculum, provided each teacher and a large portion of students with their own laptops, and installed an early-college program in its high schools that enables students to earn college credits.
Padilla’s aggressive and sweeping actions to, among other things, reorganize staff and reduce class sizes, haven’t gone without controversy, and the board in 2016 briefly considered abruptly ending his contract, a move that was shouted down by community activists at an especially contentious board meeting.
At least three board members, according to local reports at the time, felt that Padilla was leading the district in the wrong direction and that he had little evidence to prove that it was working.
In the two years since, results have been slowly trending upward.
The district’s high school graduation rate has increased from 67 percent in the year before Padilla arrived to 78 percent in 2018. Its standardized-test scores have slowly ticked up, and morale has picked up, according to several teachers interviewed in the district. Padilla said the real test now is sustaining the district’s momentum.
“We’re going to make sure that all of our students have rich experiences and that they’re able to have options in life,” he said. “That’s the real sign of success: that we are equipping them to have happy and productive lives.”