Shiny plaques thanking L. Oliver Robinson for being a Pop Warner Football coach hang next to an award proclaiming him Superintendent of the Year for New York state. There’s no indication that one might be regarded as more prestigious than the other.
That’s the way Robinson, Shenendehowa Central School District’s superintendent, likes it.
The 43-year-old seems as comfortable introducing himself to prison inmates in his native Jamaican dialect as he does lobbying legislative leaders for education changes.
Robinson, Shenendehowa’s superintendent for eight years, is visible in the local community and is known statewide and even nationally because of his involvement with educational organizations, said Robert Reidy, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, which gave Robinson the Superintendent of the Year award on March 4.
Even so, people still call him “the new superintendent,” Robinson said with a smile.
That may be changing.
Anyone following the news coverage after the Dec. 1 deaths of standout high school seniors Deanna Rivers and Chris Stewart saw a lot of Robinson.
The day after the deadly crash on the Northway, Robinson held a news conference at the school campus to share details of the students’ lives, and urged their friends to set up a memorial at the high school rather than at the crash site, where they’d be putting themselves in danger.
“He’s demonstrated leadership through major, major tragedy,” Reidy said.
Days later, he spoke at a memorial service for Stewart, who played football with Robinson’s oldest son, Oliver.
And as thousands of people shivered through an outdoor candlelight vigil for the two victims and their two friends who were seriously hurt in the crash, Robinson took the podium with others to honor and mourn the students.
“I saw him being very compassionate, being there for the community, being there for the families of the people in the community,” Reidy said.
Robinson’s appearance and speech drew hearty applause from the grieving crowd.
“The harsh reality and the bitter stain of their death leave us with far more questions than answers,” he said that night. “Moments like these, however, serve as a powerful reminder of how fragile and how precious life truly is.”
Shenendehowa Board of Education President Mary Blaauboer believes Robinson’s leadership deserves at least some of the credit for good things that came out of the tragedy — kindness cards that Arongen Elementary School students handed out to strangers at the mall, and Shen’s show of solidarity with Shaker High School, where Bailey Wind, who was hurt in the Dec. 1 crash, is a student.
“[From] that huge rivalry, which wasn’t always pleasant, they came together,” Blaauboer said.
Robinson wants the school community to retain that solidarity, which becomes difficult as the tragedy recedes in most people’s memories.
The best times and the worst times rally a community, he said.
“I call it the wedding and the funeral syndrome. In the middle, people just kind of seem to fall asleep. I don’t want them to go back to the normalcy that they have.”
Keeping people striving to do more is the key challenge to being superintendent, Robinson said. “The biggest part of it is to keep people motivated and to keep people focused and not succumb to the frustrations.”
Some people in the community say the Shenendehowa district, with 9,800 students, is too big to be personal, observed Pete Bardunias, president of the Chamber of Southern Saratoga County, where Robinson is the longest-serving board member.
Bardunias, who moved to the area two years ago and enrolled his son at Shen, said that as a parent, he’s been impressed with the district and Robinson.
“Dr. Robinson is a perfect leader for a district like Shen,” Bardunias said.
Christina Rajotte is the mother of three boys and the president of the Shen Council PTA, a panel that brings together all the district’s parent-teacher associations.
She appreciates that Robinson has children who go to Shen schools.
“We are very fortunate to have a superintendent who is also a parent, because he can see both perspectives,” she said. “Not everyone may see eye to eye with him, but we’re very fortunate.”
Robinson is one of the few black superintendents in the state who oversees a primarily white school district.
The population of minority students in the district has grown from about 3 percent when Robinson took the helm to more than 10 percent now, largely because of skilled and high-tech jobs available in the area that attract people from other countries.
The district celebrates diversity so that students will be comfortable after they leave the area that Robinson jokingly calls “Velveeta land” for its homogeneity. “They need to be aware that the world around them is significantly different than the world we live in” at Shen.
The district is more diverse economically, with the properties within its boundaries ranging from million-dollar houses to mobile homes.
Robinson believes that his own immigrant, working-class background helps him to be a better leader and to approach issues realistically.
“I know the contrast,” he said. “I know the other side of the coin. We can’t take anything for granted.”
Llewellyn Oliver Robinson — he dropped his Welsh first name in childhood because he got tired of telling people how to spell it — grew up the youngest of eight siblings.
His family moved from Jamaica to Florida when he was 8, and he grew up in Florida.
“We were the fortunate ones to have the chance to come to the States,” he recalled. “To not take advantage of that, my God, is shameful.”
His parents, who were shopkeepers in Jamaica and in the U.S., and also worked seasonal jobs, cutting sugar cane and working in a sugar mill in Florida and at a Green Giant plant in Wisconsin.
“They were entrepreneurial people with an unwavering spirit to succeed,” Robinson said. They were also generous, giving people items on credit at the shop “with the simple understanding that they would come back and pay when circumstances allowed.”
His parents also stressed that education was their children’s ticket to doing whatever they wanted with their lives.
Now Robinson conveys that message to his own children: Oliver, 15; Erik, 13; and Geneive, 10.
“Those children are his life,” said his pastor, the Rev. Leonard Comithier Jr. “He’s a phenomenal father with all of them.”
The family travels back to Jamaica as often as possible, Robinson said. On this most recent trip at Christmas, Robinson appeared as a guest on a local television news show and was interviewed about his being named Superintendent of the Year.
Robinson and his wife, Tammy Ellis-Robinson, have a relationship of mutual support, with Ellis-Robinson backing her husband’s career and he supporting her as she pursues her doctorate in special education and literacy, Comithier said.
Ellis-Robinson is originally from Johnstown, and the two met while at Brown University.
After graduating from Brown with an economics degree, Robinson planned to start a management trainee program with BellSouth, but he had a couple of weeks off before that started and went back to visit his family in Florida.
While he was there, a friend’s father, who was a school principal, invited Robinson to the school, where he tossed the young man into a math classroom for an on-the-fly lesson in teaching. Robinson loved it.
“Two weeks later, I was still in that classroom,” he said.
He turned down the higher-paying job at BellSouth and, after applying to the state for provisional certification, started working at the school.
He said it felt more like a privilege than a job.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe these people actually pay me for this.’”
After two years of teaching, he moved to New York state with Tammy so they could make their life closer to her parents. Robinson thought he would get a job as a math teacher here, but discovered the state would require him to take undergraduate math classes again in order to qualify.
So at the recommendation of a professor, he went a different route, getting a master’s degree in school finance and another in school administration.
His first school finance job was at Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District, and then he went to Mohonasen Central schools, where he became that district’s finance director before becoming superintendent in 2001.
Leading a bigger district like Shen means the same work, but there’s more of it, Robinson said: “It takes more work; it takes more contact; it takes more visibility.”
People who know Robinson say he does everything well: Besides leading the largest school district in Saratoga County, he is a “phenomenal father,” devotes time to his church, serves on numerous community boards and attends many after-school events.
“I wonder how he’s able to be that for so many people and just be one person,” Blaauboer said.
For one thing, he sleeps only a few hours a night — usually five at most. “I’ve always thought sleeping was overrated,” he said.
Despite saying no to sleep, Robinson is known for saying yes to other requests, including to the pint-sized students who often line up in school hallways to give him high-fives, said district spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani.
“It’s funny to watch kids try to get his attention,” she said. “I don’t think there would be a kid in the school district that wouldn’t recognize him right off the bat.”
Robinson also connects with young people by volunteering at adult and juvenile prisons with the men’s group at his church, Macedonia Baptist Church in Albany.
“Dr. Robinson is so funny, because he’ll come up and he’ll introduce himself in [Jamaican] Patois,” said Comithier, the church’s pastor. “Usually the inmates go crazy” with applause.
Robinson grew up speaking Patois with his family, and still does use the Jamaican dialect sometimes with his siblings, but with his wife and children, it’s strictly American English.
To reach an inmate, you can’t put on any airs, Robinson said. “They want to find out how real you are.”
His honesty also shows in his dealings with the district’s labor unions and reducing spending. It’s toughest — and most important — to give difficult news honestly, he said.
Megan DeLaRosa sees Robinson as a leader who listens to his employees.
The Shenendehowa Teachers Association president has worked with Robinson for the past two years developing the district’s plan for the new state-mandated teacher evaluations, one that she calls the best in the area because it is “rigorous and fair” to teachers while keeping student growth and achievement as the priority.
“He’s a visionary,” she said. “He recognizes that our district here is only as strong as our educational professionals.”
At 43, Robinson is young for a superintendent who already has 12 years of experience, Reidy said. “I think his future is in his hands. He can probably do just about anything he wants to.”
Robinson said he’s happy at Shenendehowa, and wouldn’t be interested in a state education job or working in politics, though he’s thought about how good it would be to change certain laws.
“I have toyed with the idea of politics, but politics is so nasty. You have to sell your soul to so many people,” he said.