Standing outside Howe Elementary School, Anibal Soler Jr., the new Schenectady schools superintendent, greeted students with a smile and a book recommendation.
On his second day on the job, Soler dropped by the summer enrichment program at Howe as the district bookmobile visited to give students a chance to check out books. After spending Monday in one-on-one meetings with top district officials, it was his first chance to interact with district students as the district’s new leader.
“Are you ready to play or picking out books?” he asked as some students sprinted past the books, headed straight for the playground.
As one student examined the cover of Sulwe, a picture book by the actress Lupita Nyong’o, Soler offered his two cents. “This is a good one, a good book. It’s by an actress,” he said.
Some of the young students were as interested in Soler as they were in the literary options. One girl pulled at his red tie, while another student attempted to set a book on the top of his shaved head as he kneeled down to their height.
“This is what the work is all about: kids,” he said.
Soler, who led the Batavia City School District as superintendent for the past 18 months after nearly 20 years as an educator in Rochester and Buffalo public schools, started his new position in Schenectady on Monday. During a wide-ranging interview with the Daily Gazette on Tuesday morning, Soler outlined plans to prepare for a return to in-person school, strengthen community engagement, foster trust with teachers and district staff and personalize the education students receive in Schenectady.
“We have to figure out ways where we can bring the community into our schools and really make our schools the hub for the community,” he said. “The schools can become pillars of hope for the community but also community resources and community hubs.”
Soler, 44, was born in Newark, New Jersey, to a 17-year-old mother. His family had moved from Puerto Rico, and he was raised by his grandparents for much of his childhood, eventually moving to Rochester when he was a young kid. He said his grandparents instilled in him the value of education and the importance of working hard in school. (Soler said his grandfather, who had been living in a nursing home, died of COVID-19. Late Tuesday, Soler tweeted that his father, for whom he was named, had died.)
“If you want to think why education was important, it was my way out,” Soler said. “I remember my grandfather always said, ‘School is your job, if you take care of school it will take care of everything else.’”
He moved around to different schools during his primary and secondary school years, attending private Catholic schools, Rochester city schools and eventually graduating from Greece-Olympia High School.
“My trajectory is pretty common to a lot of our kids here in Schenectady, where there is a lot of transiency, moving around, trying to find a better way,” he said. “It’s because parents want to do what’s best for their kids.”
He discovered a passion for art, devouring comic books and gaining an interest in graffiti lettering and style – even though he said he never tagged buildings himself, he had friends who did. He still has some books filled with graffiti-style drawings and sketches from his younger years and noted that while he hasn’t done much art in recent years, he will still doodle in a notepad to pass time. He grew up in poverty, he said, but never felt poor.
“Although by every definition, we were quote-unquote poor, we never felt poor, because we were rich with love,” he said. “You are surrounded by family and what matters, and obviously you keep working hard to try and attain certain material things and try to move up in the world.”
As a student, he also fell in love with basketball, a sport that helped pay his way through college and gave him a chance to travel to new parts of the country. He emphasized the importance of sports and other activities in engaging and motivating students.
“I think sports are the main reason kids come to school,” he said. “Sports, music, art: those are the things why kids come to school. A lot of students love math, English, science, social studies, but the real things that engage kids are usually extra-curricular activities.”
Soler played three years of basketball at Daemen College outside of Buffalo, where an internship program gave him a chance to work in Buffalo schools. He said he connected to the students and thought that he could pair his passion for art with the classroom, ultimately earning a degree in art education. He returned to Rochester for a job as a middle school art teacher. After three years in the classroom, Soler earned a master’s degree in instructional technology and moved into a central office position helping teachers implement new technology in their classrooms. He said he always tries to keep his focus on how new policies, programs and initiatives will impact the day-to-day work of classroom teachers. He later served as a school principal for a decade and became an associate superintendent in Buffalo public schools, the second-largest district in the state, charged with overseeing the development of community schools that offered a variety of public and educational services. But he still keeps his mind on the classroom, he said.
“As a superintendent, I always think about the classroom, because it’s the hardest work in the system,” he said. “It’s a lonely place. Our teachers work hard, they are in classrooms and then they are asked sometimes by administration to do a variety of things. We have to think about, have we created the conditions for our teachers to be successful?”
Soler moved into administrative roles with the encouragement of mentors and hopes of having a broader impact on more students. He also noted how his background as a person of color can provide a positive example to students.
“To be honest, there’s not a lot of people who necessarily represent our kids, kids of color, in some of these positions, and if you have an opportunity to be there, I think it is your responsibility to try and pursue those opportunities,” he said. “Just because I’m a person of color doesn’t mean I’m going to be immediately successful in certain roles, but it’s one of those things you say, ‘If not me then who?’”
Soler acknowledged that district leaders need to rebuild trust with the community and create new ways for the public to engage with district officials. He said he was planning to host a series of community town halls in the coming months and hopes to offer virtual ways for the public to offer input into different district programs. He suggested board meetings or other events could rotate to more school buildings and said he wanted to enable school principals to conduct their own public engagement at the school level. Building on some of the technological gains made during the pandemic, Soler said board meetings should continue to be streamed online and archived for public access.
“We have to stream things, we have to make things available online, we have to archive them, we have to make a YouTube channel so we have videos and people can go later and view them,” he said. “I see a huge opportunity for community engagement. People want to be a part of the process, people want to be engaged.”
He also spelled out plans to address what a needs assessment by the Capital Region BOCES concluded was an “ongoing culture of mistrust and fear” among employees that has pervaded the district for years, particularly under the leadership of former Superintendent Larry Spring.
Soler said in his initial conversations with district officials on Monday he sensed that employees were waiting to be empowered by a collaborative leader.
“I think a lot of people were like turtles, they went into their shells, ‘I’m just gonna do enough to stay off the radar,’” he said of his impression of district employees. “As I’m meeting with key district staff, I’m hearing a sigh of relief.”
He said he didn’t want to “dwell” on the past leadership in the district and instead work to strengthen communication and set clear expectations for employees. He said he wants to create a collaborative environment, while also recognizing that ultimately he will be held accountable by the school board and the public.
“It happened, whatever happened, now it’s time to move forward,” he said of the district’s falling out with Spring. “It’s going to take some time to change that culture.”
While still awaiting formal state guidance for next school year, Soler said he will be working this summer to ensure a return to in-person instruction in the fall, noting that he also wants to find ways to provide remote options to students and families.
“We are going to have to prioritize getting kids back in the buildings; we are going to have to prioritize the social, emotional well-being of our students, but also our staff’s,” he said. “There are also opportunities for innovation we have to look at: what does extended day look like? What does our summer programming look like? What does technology look like in terms of school moving forward?”
But his immediate attention will be partly focused on filling out a litany of open positions, including a handful of top central office jobs.
“We want people who understand this is challenging work, this is going to be hard work, it sometimes feels not rewarding, but we want people who are committed to making a difference in the lives of kids,” he said. “Diversity and inclusion and equity, those things matter, but quality also matters, because if we can help change the lives and trajectory of kids we are going to make things more equitable.”
He made a direct plea to potential candidates
“If you want to help Schenectady rise up then consider joining us and consider joining this effort and being a part of the change,” he said. “It won’t be easy, and there will be some days that will be long and hard, but at the end of the day we want to be able to say that we’ve made a difference.”
Soler and his wife have four school-aged kids: a 13-year-old son and three daughters, 10-year-old twins and a 5-year-old. Soler moved into an apartment and said his wife and kids will remain in school near his previous district for the coming school year, providing his children a year of academic stability before another change. He said his family has not yet decided whether they will live in the city of Schenectady or in a nearby community, noting that “all options were open.”
“It’s not a decision I can make by myself,” he said.
Soler said he was approached about applying for the position during the district’s closed search process and suggested Schenectady looked like the kind of place he can envision himself working for the long term.
“I was approached with an opportunity to engage in this process,” he said. “I thought it would be a potentially important opportunity for me to come and maybe spend the rest of my career here to help lift this community up.”