February 2023 – ETAC

Head, Heart, and Hand: Essentials for Community School Success

A spotlight on Schenectady School District


Implementing a community school strategy requires three essential elements: head, heart, and hand.

  • The head to be a forward-thinking leader with a clear vision of success for students, families, and the community.
  • The heart to say “Yes” to embracing the ethos of a community school despite naysayers or obstacles.
  • And finally, the hand to extend to partners to make the vision a reality.

These three elements are at the forefront of all community school interactions in the Schenectady School District.

In 2020, superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. joined Schenectady with 21 years of experience in the field of education, 12 years as an administrator and most recently as superintendent of schools for the Batavia City School District where he launched a community schools initiative focused on equity, opportunity, and family engagement. 

Pictured: CS Coordinator Ryan Williams and District Security Guard

Upon arrival in Schenectady, Superintendent Soler enthusiastically began laying the foundation for community schools by assessing district needs and assets, followed by convening stakeholders. As Superintendent Soler remarked,

“First, it is important to know that I believe that Community Schools, if done correctly, are a turnaround strategy for urban low-performing schools. I fundamentally believe that the four pillars that ground a community school are the foundation to a strong school.  Given that, when I arrived, I did an analysis of partnerships in the district by school. We took that list and looked to build synergy from it. I also had members of the team build an asset map of which partners or businesses were geographically located near each school and looked to examine if the district received NYS community schools set-aside funding as part of the general fund allocation.”

In August 2022, ETAC was invited to give a ‘Community Schools 101’ presentation that included the four pillar framework: a needs assessment, resource inventory, root cause analysis, and brainstorming. The district leadership team, community partners, and the community school implementation team attended as well. A robust and fruitful discussion ensued along with a plan for next steps and monthly meetings with the ETAC to provide on-going support. 

Schools across the district were selected to ensure that all students had access to the community school strategy. Five of the district’s 11 elementary schools were chosen to participate. The strategic selection process was based on the school leaders’ readiness, their ability to serve as champions and their passion for transforming their school, in addition to the school’s geographic location. December’s ribbon-cutting ceremony showcased the district’s commitment to implementing the community schools strategy.

Further demonstrating a head, heart, and hand approach, Superintendent Soler Jr. understood the importance of building an infrastructure with key personnel in place to support the work. Engaging the Office of Innovation, Equity and Engagement provided access to comprehensive Community School strategies which helped to launch and support the district’s vision. When asked about the rationale for developing the office of innovation, Superintendent Soler Jr. commented:

“The Office of Innovation, Equity and Engagement was created so that the Community Schools Initiative along with other high-level initiatives could be prioritized and monitored from the executive team level.  It is also an office that leads initiatives across various divisions but are directly aligned to our strategic plan pillars. I view innovation as a concept of change that should be monitored and prioritized in an organization.”

A major strength of the district is its ability to garner the resources of partners. Presently, 100 partners serve on the advisory board. The district works closely with the Empire Youth Orchestra, Mobile Food Pantry, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Schenectady Connect, and  Peer-to-Peer Advocates. On a monthly basis, approximately 35-40 partners attend meetings to discuss needs and brainstorm strategies. Regardless of the need, there is an immediate response and action. The infrastructure and shared vision built by the Superintendent and the Office of Innovation to support the community school strategy resulted in programs and services that enrich the lives of students and families. A few are listed below:

  • Girls Incorporated provides after-school programming for 60 young ladies, grades 1-5. This mentoring programming inspires young ladies to be strong, smart, and bold. Girls Incorporated believes in whole-girl development, promoting healthy living, academic enrichment, and life skills instruction.
  • Boys and Girls Club of Schenectady is providing after-school programming at the community schools. With a combination of academic support and enrichment opportunities, Boys and Girls Club focuses on student voice and student choice in programming.
  • Schenectady Inner City Ministries is working with Schenectady Community Schools to fight food insecurity by providing a mobile food pantry and servicing all of the community schools on a bi-weekly basis. This mobile food pantry provides enough groceries to give families 15 meals worth of food each visit. 

These programs represent a small portion of the work undertaken by the Schenectady City School District and its partners. Implementing a community school strategy requires a well-balanced approach to transforming schools into hubs of the community. As Superintendent Soler concludes,

“Again, I believe in the Community Schools approach and having a leader that believes in the difference the approach can make for students and families is paramount.  Our story is like most urban communities,  our schools have historically struggled and we are looking to change that narrative by focusing on a whole-child, whole-school approach to changing that narrative.” 

The Schenectady City School District and Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. are committed to the community school strategy. The lives of students and families are impacted as a result of a precise vision, strong support from the community, and implementation of the District’s community school programs. A head to move forward, a heart to never give up, and a helping hand from community partners are the key elements of Schenectady’s community school strategy.   

Below, check out photos from SSD’s ribbon-cutting ceremony!

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Email us at cstac@rockland21c.org.