‘Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers, and this ability is the secret of their power and achievements: they see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.’
Abolitionist, orator, statesman
BY Molly Congdon
‘As a teacher you see what the student ought to be by the reflection of what the student is and now your job is to remove the contradiction between where they are and where they ought to be,” Shenendehowa Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson said. “That’s where education comes into place. We are that gap.”
Robinson has had a vision for Shen as bright and intricate as one of Van Gogh’s paintings. However his is real, composed of flesh and bone, and his artistic creation never is quite complete.
Many changes have transpired over the 10 years that he has led one of the region’s largest school districts.
“In many ways it doesn’t feel like 10 years because I think we’ve been doing so many things that you don’t really pay attention to time, you focus on accomplishments and moving things forward,” Robinson said. “It’s been a very productive 10 years.”
At first he had no intention of becoming the superintendent at Shenendehowa; previously he was the superintendent at the Mohonasen Central School District in Rotterdam. Robinson gives all the credit to Bill Casey — the current Board of Education president — for his move north.
“He reached out to me personally and said that I should consider putting my name in the hat for the hiring process,” Robinson said. “I met with the board and I think the thing that persuaded me was that they were looking for someone who was going to come and make changes and I said, ‘Be careful what you ask for because I’m that person who’s going to give you exactly what you want.’ ”
A decade later, it’s clear he’s been true to his word.
He rejuvenated the tone and tempo at the school district. “We’ve always had here the mantra of ‘Commitment to Excellence,’ and I think people believed it,” he said. “They thought it was automatic, it was a given, and we didn’t have to try to do things differently.” Robinson provided it with a much-needed boost.
The district had goals but there was never a comprehensive goals process that tied all of the various levels together. “We revamped our goals,” Robinson said. “Each of the five start with the same four words, ‘Improve student achievement by.’ All focused on the same thing — all facets of the system working to one accord.”
That one focus: students.
He has established what one could call a certain organizational culture. “Because of so many reform efforts, the politicalization of education by external factors, it’s so important that we have a steady state internally,” Robinson said, “so that faculty, staff, students and parents don’t have to worry whether Shen is going to blow in the wind based on the politics of things.”
Throughout the last decade, he has had to deal with several obstacles, which he refers to as fringe factors, including the No Child Left Behind Act, Common Core, the loss of almost $8 million in state aid, and implementing things such as anti-bullying initiatives. Through it all, he has managed to preserve the “sanctuary of learning.”
“When kids come here, they need not to be influenced adversely by those outside factors,” Robinson said. “That’s our job, that’s my job.”
He strives to make the system personable instead of institutionalized, a customized experience for each and every child. “The demands that kids bring to the table are constantly evolving, so we have to continue to change,” he said.
Robinson’s tenure has also brought with it 10 years of budgets approved by voters. “Even back in the ’80s, Shen was always known for defeating school budgets,” said Kelly DeFeciani, public information officer for the Shenendehowa Central School District. “There were many years that parents had to pay for their kids to be able to play sports. In the last decade, this hasn’t been an issue.”
The success of the district can be quantified by numbers. “Shen has been regionally one of the lowest per-pupil cost with high academic performance,” Robinson said. “To me, that’s the ultimate marker because for one we are saying to taxpayers we are stewards of resources and the indicator for that is the performance of our students.”
Shenendehowa had the lowest per pupil expenditure in the region, ranking within the lowest five out of 430-plus upstate districts.
Also, Shen recently came in at No. 301 on Newsweek’s list of American’s Top 500 High Schools. It has a graduation rate of 97.9 percent and a college-bound rate of 87.2 percent. When Robinson first took office the graduation rate was at 94 percent. His first response to this statistic was, “What about the other 6 percent?”
Instead of striving for students to remember specific facts, Robinson yearns to have them learn to become learners. “In every path of life, they are going to have to learn something new and apply it differently,” he said. “So we want kids to have that confidence as learners; that’s the beauty of the system.”
He is the man who is everywhere: in the classrooms, cheering on the sidelines of the playing field and out in the community. “I think we’ve had strong leadership in the district over the years; I’m very fortunate to be part of a long line of people who were necessary for the times,” Robinson said. “If you were to ask someone on the street to compare me to my predecessors, I think it’s a presence. Presence in the community, presence — not only visible but creating a system that makes me, my office and my administration approachable.”
Interesting point in life
Robinson was born in Jamaica and grew up in South Florida, an area he misses every winter.
He graduated from Brown University with a degree in economics, taught math in Florida for a year, obtained his doctoral degree from the University at Albany in education administration with a concentration in school finance and then worked in the Mohonasen district for nine years — half the time as a superintendent for finance and the other half as the superintendent.
He resides in Clifton Park with his wife, Tammy, and three kids: Oliver, the oldest, who just graduated from Shen in June; Erik, who is in 11th grade; and Geneive, who is entering the eighth grade.
Robinson doesn’t have any intention of leaving Shenendehowa anytime soon. “I committed to my daughter, who is going into eighth grade, that she’ll get her diploma from Shen so minimally for the next five years my plan is to be here,” Robinson said. “For me, right now, it’s an interesting point in life as I’m trying to help my kids transition into young adults. At the end of the day, my focus has always been that I’m going to get up every day and do the best at the job, that’s all I can give to Shen.”
There was no hesitation when asked about his favorite part of the job. “I like opportunities when I get to see kids do their thing, be it music, be it sports, be it whatever,” Robinson said. “Just to see kids in their element; it reminds me that’s why you deal with the nonsense you have to deal with. It’s very rewarding. Also, motivating leaders to be better leaders. Kids don’t get a do-over — would’ve, should’ve, could’ve doesn’t cut it.”