SCHENECTADY — The City School District Board of Education unanimously approved Anibal Soler, Jr. as the next superintendent of schools at its first meeting with two new members on Wednesday.
The hiring of the former head of Batavia schools in Genesee County ended a 14-month process that included an initial search that failed to reach terms with the selected candidate, but ended with the right leader, according to outgoing board president John Foley.
“It is clear to all of us on the board that Mr. Soler possesses the characteristics that our community is seeking,” said Cathy Lewis, vice president of the board, at a press conference at the district’s Sayles School of Fine Arts before the meeting. “He is passionate about education and is experienced in urban education. He is an advocate for equity and recognizes the vital need for strong and rigorous curriculum. He has experience and success collaborating with students, families and community.”
Soler comes to Schenectady with extensive experience in urban education, particularly as an administrator. Before serving the Batavia School District for the last 18 months, he was an associate superintendent for Buffalo Public Schools and led that district’s Strong Community Schools, and a principal and teacher in Rochester City School District. While at the Strong Community Schools, he led the work of moving schools from the designation of “struggling” or “failing” to “good standing.” As a high school principal in Rochester, he was honored in 2014 as a White House Champion of Change.
“Urban has always a significant community that I’ve always gone to bat to serve,” Soler said. “Obviously my initial superintendency didn’t necessarily land me in an urban community, but having the opportunity to come back to a community like Schenectady that I felt I could contribute to positively, and again in a sense to be collaborative with people, to me was really important.”
When asked to define racial equity, he focused on access, opportunity and high-quality programming.
“When we talk about racial equity, we need to make sure we’re having some tough conversations around our students of color and their achievement,” Soler said, “and it isn’t to place blame, but it is to identify a challenge or an opportunity of growth and figure out what supports we can put in place.”
He said students need to see representation in their curriculum as well as when they go home to their neighborhoods. He was not calling for wholesale change but a curriculum audit, including to see if book list have authors of color and textbooks show diversity. While standing just outside the district’s Black Box Theatre, he spoke about a need to take a look at what productions the school is doing and whether they connect with the cultures and lives of their student body.
He also touched on a priority of filling so many vacancies left by layoffs during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think staffing is going to be a big one. I think there’s a large number of vacancies in the system. We need to recruit some talent,” Soler said. “We need to bring some folks in. All the way up, from the classroom to the support staff. We know there was a significant layoff last year, we need to bring those folks back, hopefully re-engage them, hopefully they want to come back. But also we have mid-level management, principals, that to me is the first priority is making sure we have the right people on the bus to make sure we’re moving in the right direction, and some of that will be trial and error and hoping there’s some talent internally in the system that’s looking to step up and looking to bring Schenectady a step forward.”
Wednesday also was an opportunity to meet the two new Board of Education members elected this spring – Erica Brockmyer and Jamaica Miles. During the press availability, Miles addressed concerns from the community about whether the search process was rushed. She said she had spoken to 38 students, parents and community members just this past weekend who did not even know a search had been done, and she pointed out that the 299 survey responses from the community during the initial search was a small fraction of even the student body, let alone the entire community.
“As recently as June, the conversation was there wasn’t a decision made. And then here we are just weeks later and we have a candidate that we’ll be voting on tonight, so I think we need to look at our process,” Miles said. “And we need to do a better job and that the community we serve, which is largely our parents and our students is fully aware and engaged, and always look to improve. I liked how Anibal said it’s not about necessarily changing everything but how can we make it better, how can we make it stronger. So, let’s do that with the process, so when we’re making decisions going forward it’s not presumptive but that it truly is democratic.”
Brockmyer recognized that her first meeting would not be an easy one, but remained excited to begin delivering on the things she and Miles campaigned on this spring: communication, openness, and moving the district forward.
“Regardless of where I live, I’ve lived in the city for 10 years running different Boys & Girls Clubs, substituting in all the school buildings, so every one of those kids that I’ve interacted with is what motivated me to run and what’s going to motivate me to keep my head grounded and do the work that needs to be done,” she said.