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'If you want to see some change in school, become teachers'

A conversation with the equity specialist for John Marshall feeder schools.

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Rodney Sharp on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

Rodney Sharp, an equity specialist for John Marshall Feeder Schools, grew up in the Rochester public school system. As a walking resource hub, he does his best to connect students to resources like social workers, advanced college credit, and more.

Here, he discusses the benefits of getting into students' homes, and watching the students around him diversify while teachers remain largely the same.

What does your average day look like as an equity specialist?

The way I like to explain it is, I like to be a bridge between home and school. And sometimes I think when you're a teacher, kids sometimes look at you as a person that just gives him a grade. Like you have an agenda. And when you bring someone else in from a different point of view, it's like, “I'm here for you. I'm here to help you.” And that's what I really try to get across to students. That I'm here for you. If it's finding a way to get you mental help, I might not be the expert for it, but I can lead you to someone who is. If you need food, we have someone who can lead you to that. ... I try to be the bridge to give you those type of things.

You’re meeting with these students individually?

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Yes, all my students I meet with one-on-one. Pre-COVID, I did some groups, but not much anymore. ... I'm in K through 12.

What are the most common needs you encounter?

I tend to provide a lot of guidance, like for mental health. I might not be the expert, but sometimes it's like, what do you really need? Sometimes a student needs an educational advocate and I’m trying to lead them towards that. Or sometimes a student needs a social worker. Sometimes students just don't know all the resources we have, as well.

How has your job changed over the last couple years with the ongoing pandemic?

I would say for me, the big thing is that I've had to make bigger connections at home because during the pandemic, we did a lot of home visits. So I got a better understanding of ... why some students behave the way they do. When we were doing distance learning, you would go to a house and you'd see four or five kids there -- and it's no wonder they're not showing up for class when their Wi-Fi doesn't work strong(ly) enough to have five people there. Or when you have five kids there and the eighth-grader is the one in charge of everybody. ... I learned a lot, why some kids didn't succeed so well in distance learning, because they were basically in charge of themselves.

What does your typical day look like now?

Let's see. Today is a day where I would spend a lot of time at JM. Since I am at so many different schools off the elementary, I go all over. They have a letter day system -- I'm not sure if you understand that. Like each day is a different letter, like, A, B, C, D...

Absolutely.

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So a typical day here, at John Marshall. I'll go meet with admin in the morning. See if they heard anything that happened over the weekend or what happened Friday that I missed. There's a lot going on over the weekend. So I try to catch up with students and see how things went, because for a lot of our students, school is their safe place. So when they're not in school, we have check-ins like, what happened this weekend? Is there anything we can help with?

What are the biggest lessons that you've learned along the way?

I think the biggest lesson I've learned is that there's more to the student than what you see at school. I think sometimes we see behavior and we just tend to think that's just how the student is. What I've learned that sometimes school is the only place that they get to be a kid. Outside of here, you know, a lot of them have a lot of adult responsibilities. And, a lot of people like to use the “just wait ‘till you grow up,” thing, and a lot of them are like, they've already grown up. They've grown up a lot more. So one thing I'm happy I get to see is a different perspective. If you're not showing up for school, it isn't because you don’t like school. Maybe you worked late last night because you're providing.

What advice would you have for a younger person who's looking to follow your career path?

My advice is, do it because you love it. If you're looking for some instant reward or money, it's not going to come.

Do people still think education pays?

Eh -- sometimes, I think people feel like they can just go in and they're going to change the world. You're gonna have some real bad days. You're gonna have some days where you're gonna have some tough conversations. Uncomfortable conversations. But the reward is for me is -- I have a student who graduated a couple of years ago, somehow got my phone number and called me, and was like, “Thank you, I really appreciate you sticking with me.” Those are the types of rewards you're going to get. It isn't going to be, you know, the student graduated from Harvard. It might just be, “thank you for getting me through high school.”

Do you have kids going through the Rochester Public Schools system now?

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Yeah, I have a five-year-old who's starting next year.

What kind of changes have you noticed since you were in Rochester schools?

The students look a lot different, but the staff looks the same. And somehow we’ve got to balance that, if that makes sense. (The students) are a lot more diverse than when I went here, but with a staff that looks the exact same. I don't know what the cause of that is, but I think there's something that needs to change

Is it a question of expanding hiring practices? How can schools change that phenomenon?

I think we need to change the perception of schools. I think a lot of families … have had bad experiences at school. So they don't trust schools. So I think we need to change that and maybe get across to them that if you want to see some change in school, become teachers.

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