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Heading East

Shaun Nelms leads the former East High back from the brink

“Every time I see a story about a successful African-American, it starts with their struggle ...” Shaun Nelms says this as a successful African-American whose story starts with struggle. That struggle is important to who he is and how he is, but it’s also a reminder that things need to change. Now, in his first year as deputy superintendent at East High (formally East Upper and Lower Schools), Nelms is in the best possible position to bring on that change.

“I am very open with students who inquire about my past,” says Nelms, “but I don’t lead with it. I don’t want them to think that the only thing that defines them is the story of overcoming some obstacles. ... My college peers didn’t have those same struggles. My professional peers didn’t have those same struggles. Are those struggles necessary for someone to be successful?

I don’t think so. I think an acknowledgement that people struggle is necessary. But I don’t want these kids growing up thinking that you have to be impoverished to have the desire to do better.”

Nelms shifts back and forth in his chair as we sit at a table next to his desk. His office isn’t much, even if he had been there long enough to get it set up the way he wanted. As it is, he’s only been there a few months. Its white brick walls aren’t exactly cozy. Then again, neither is the job. In fact, he was 20 minutes late for the interview for this article. He hurried in and apologized before sitting down and wiping the stress from his brow. His mind was still with the teacher who unexpectedly pulled him aside desperate for advice 25 minutes earlier. He wore her story on his face, heard the strain of her voice in his mind, and he didn’t dismiss any of it. I knew he wanted to continue talking about it, to fix it right then, but he raised a smile and continued with his story.

“I can’t deny that there’s this cultural connection that I have with the city. I can’t deny that I know many of our young men may not have role models. I can’t deny that when I see kids on TV who have been convicted of crimes or have been victims of crime that I don’t see myself. I lost my dad at 14, so I knew how it felt to not have someone come to your games or not have someone correct you for doing wrong. I had uncles and people at church, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t your father talking to you, and I didn’t have that even when he was present. There’s a part of me that feels like, yes, I may add some value to the academic part of the building, but I think there’s a cultural part that I think I look forward to and I’m excited about even more.”

NELMS holds an “ask me anything” roundtable for students

Nelms grew up in the downtrodden streets of downtown Buffalo, his family dangling below the poverty level. His father lost a battle to drug addiction, and his mother had no choice but to turn to government assistance programs while she stayed home to care for him and his three siblings. His mother did everything she could to make sure her children believed they had everything they needed, including what turned out to be the foundation for his career as an educator.

“My mom was—is—really, really religious, so we grew up with Sunday school with bible class before church. When I hit 12 or 13, I was teaching the younger kids. I had to prepare a lesson, I had to read ahead of time. I don’t know how good I was, but I remember actually my mom sitting down with me and saying, ‘This is important, because ...’ It was either be home in an impoverished neighborhood or be at church, so we, like, lived at church. It was to keep us away from certain influences, but at the same time we were constantly thinking.”

After his father passed, Nelms turned to fighting, skipping school, and not caring in general what direction his life was headed. At that point, it was an educator—Michael Fitzpatrick—who stepped in and taught him something that doesn’t come in any curriculum. When very few people knew of the hardships Nelms was going through, Fitzpatrick would pick him up and drive him to school. At lunch, he pulled Nelms aside to talk basketball, and even brought VHS tapes of games from the night before so they could watch them together.

“In hindsight, now as a teacher, I know exactly what he was doing,” Nelms says. “He was engaging me in a way that made sense. He showed that he honestly cared. I think from that moment, what he demonstrated as an educator became important to me. I think it had less to do with teaching and more to do with educating and supporting youth.”

It was a turning point for Nelms, who regained his footing as a student and eventually went on to college at SUNY Fredonia.He was still unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he always wanted to be Tubbs from Miami Vice. He dabbled in criminal justice classes, but the passion he gleaned from “Mr. Fitz”—along with some gentle nudging from his mom—redirected him toward education. Yes, he took the classes and got the grades, but once again it was an experience that validated his decision. As a senior, Nelms tutored a local kid in Dunkirk and got his first chance to enjoy connecting with a student.

“I mean, you think about college and you think about social life, playing basketball, and the thing I looked forward to the most was going to meet this kid. It wasn’t work,” he says. “It was the one time in college where I can remember not being distracted, totally focused on something.”

That same year, Nelms was offered teaching positions in the Rochester area, choosing to teach at School of the Arts as his first job out of college. Over the next 15-plus years, Nelms enjoyed progressive success in the Greece and Rush-Henrietta school districts first as a history teacher and eventually an administrator. It was his innovative, collaborative approach and big-picture mentality that captured the attention of his students and his colleagues.

While in Greece, he partnered with an English teacher to align their curriculum so that the books being read in English class matched the timeline being taught in his history class. Both classes were constructed around a common theme: “Is America tolerant?” The goal—and the result—was conversations that don’t apply to either class in a traditional sense, but instead got students thinking critically about what they were learning in both.

“My superintendent observed me in some of those classes and asked me to consider administration. I was like, dude, I just wanna teach and maybe coach and work with kids. But he convinced me I could impact more kids if I do this.”

From assistant principal at Greece Arcadia and Odyssey to principal at Burger Middle School in Rush-Henrietta, Nelms was given the structure and the flexibility to do just that—impact more kids.

“We had a lot of black males in our self-contained special ed settings there who were not being successful,” he said of his time at Burger. “So, we worked with their parents directly to declassify them and to integrate them more, and those kids—most of them—left middle school with high school credit. Kids weren’t being challenged. It was acceptable for them to be the kid sitting in an isolated classroom and to not be successful, because they hadn’t been successful for years. Burger affirmed that education was a good field for me, because you could make a difference.”

Shaun Nelms and East Students

Confident as ever that he could do it all, Nelms accepted a position as a school chief in the Northeast Zone of the RCSD. He was warned the city schools were different, that it’s a lot of politics. He didn’t believe them until he saw it firsthand. Nelms was tied down by a system that, in his eyes, lost sight of its purpose.

“I was having more conversations about adults than I was about kids. I was talking more about what we couldn’t do than I was about what we could do, more conversations about people being worried about their individual quality as opposed to the group quality. And I think it was in that moment that I questioned if this is the right field or the right place. I never felt that in other districts. I felt it in the environment that had to have the greatest sense of urgency. The environments where kids come from affluence and come from support, we talked about kids. In the environment where the kids need the most support, who needed advocates, we talked about adults. And that just made no sense.”

Feeling less like an educator, Nelms made the decision to go back to Greece. Exhausted and frustrated by what he saw, he wasn’t sure he’d ever go back. Turns out, he didn’t have to wait long at all, as the University of Rochester came calling.

NELMS holds an “ask me anything” roundtable for students

Today, Nelms is focused on saving East, which developed an Educational Partnership Organization (EPO) with the University of Rochester starting this past fall. It’s no longer East High; it’s East Upper and Lower Schools. They’re no longer the Orientals; they’re the Eagles. And while the rhetoric is trending upward, you still have to walk through metal detectors to get in. The problems many students struggle with are real and are not fixed by a new partnership or a new superintendent. At least not overnight.

On the first day of school this year, a young man came up to Nelms—which is what many of the students call him as we walk the halls, “Nelms”—and told him he’d have to drop out. Borderline homeless, this student thought the only answer was to drop out and get a job. There are students with children of their own trying to figure out how to make it work. So many fall under the umbrella plague of poverty, forced to live adult lives before they have the capacity. Truancy, violence, crime, drugs—none of these have been swept away. It will take years, not months, and Nelms knows it will also take more than him.

“Engaging with parents, engaging with them in the process of change is a high leverage point right now,” he says. “Getting teachers to think about efficacy and their role in our students being successful is a high leverage point. I think things that have driven schools in general have been scores on state assessments. If you really want to look at a long-term solution, you have to look at those leading indicators and things that really drive a school’s functioning. I think that the more positive the culture becomes, the more positive we’ll be in the community.”

Graduation rate is a key metric (East hovers just over 40% recently), however the school is shifting what it means to graduate. While the common purpose of graduation is to prepare a student for college, East has established paths to careers out of high school.

“I really see this as being something much greater than 6-through-12 schooling,” Nelms says. “This is about revitalizing Rochester and making Rochester the type of place that an individual will want to call home, that they will be proud to call home. That’s what this is really all about.”

Paul Conrow is a science teacher at East and a big part of the school’s optics path. Students learn how to and actually make lenses that meet industry standards for things like telescopes, microscopes, and medical devices. “My big thing is,” says Conrow, “high school in America should be 75 percent what we’re doing—common core and all that—and a quarter of it, kids should have the chance to do culinary, precision optics, or something that gives them a skill that feeds industry locally.” He continued, “Every classroom in this building has a SmartBoard. If you put on your resume that ‘Every class that I was taught in had a SmartBoard,’ what employer cares? That’s not a skill, it’s a frill. And we know that every classroom has at least one kid who can’t access that frill because they don’t have glasses. They can’t see the board!”

Across the hall in Logan Newman’s class, students make prescription lenses, put them into frames, and provide them to other city students who otherwise can’t afford them.

“A teacher came in here and said, ‘I have a student who’s got a really bad prescription and hearing aids in both ears’ — a third-grader at World of Inquiry,” Newman says while thumbing through his phone. “She said his mom makes him leave the hearing aids and glasses at school because she’s afraid he’s gonna lose them or break them. The kid’s riding the bus with no hearing aids or glasses. So, I called the mom, I got the prescription.” He turns the phone to me to show a picture of a young boy with a new pair of glasses and one big smile. “I dropped off his glasses yesterday.”

We stop in on Chef Jeff Christiano’s culinary class as his students are wrapping up a discussion on how they can actually feed the student population. In no time, they secured a pair of temperature-controlled vending machines that they will fill with foods made in class available to their classmates.

“So these guys are developing menu items that the students would use,” Christiano says. “So, we’re doing steak wraps instead of steak subs. It fits in the dietary guidelines, and we’ve got two microwaves coming so they can buy this and microwave it right there.”

East is building further partnerships with UR for paths to nursing and other medical fields, again taking advantage of the most successful industries in the Rochester region. It’s part of Nelms’ vision that addresses the systemic issues that impact students and the community in which they live.

Shaun Nelms and East Students

“I really see this as being something much greater than 6-through-12 schooling,” Nelms says. “This is about revitalizing Rochester and making Rochester the type of place that an individual will want to call home, that they will be proud to call home. That’s what this is really all about.” Nelms wants all of his students to be successful, and some of their stories will start with struggles. Success for Nelms—and for East— would be to play a major role in limiting those struggles by graduating more students who realize their potential, whether through continuing education or immediate employment. He believes every successful graduating class is another step toward changing the culture of the entire community.

“This is just so rewarding right now, even though I don’t get to see my own children as much as I’d like to,” Nelms says. “I know that the time away from them is well spent and that they’ll be proud of me with all that’s accomplished for the kids at East. There’s a lot of fulfillment in this job. I’m not a bureaucrat. When I was told that being an administrator allows you to reach more kids, for the first time I feel like that’s true on a very large scale. I feel like I’m Mr. Fitz to, like, 15-hundred kids right now.”