When the Newburgh Enlarged City School District hired Roberto Padilla, Ed.D., as superintendent in 2014, he was still dusting off his hands after a cleanup at West Prep Academy in Harlem as principal. A 2014 article on www.dnainfo.com explains: “[He] was initially brought in by the DOE in February 2011 to get the rebellious student body into shape.
Two and a half years later, attendance was up, as were grades, and there was a waitlist for the 200-student school.” Before that, he had pressed through another heavy lift at Middle School 331 in the Bronx. It all began with a steep climb out of his own chaotic childhood in Newburgh, where perseverance first became his brand.
Padilla was raised by his single mother, but also lived with a foster family and at friends’ home, all while in close proximity to persistent violence. He tells, “I wanted something different for myself.” He poured his drive into football and wrestling, competing in high school state championships. He continued wrestling in college, making it to the NCAA championships while at SUNY Brockport. Then it was on to a master’s from Fordham University, the Principals’ Center program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a one-year fellowship at Columbia University on education policy, and a Fordham doctorate degree with a dissertation on turnaround leadership.
Padilla’s hiring and homecoming at Newburgh couldn’t have come at a better time.
Just prior to his arrival, an assessment was completed as part of Campaign for Fiscal Equity rulings that showed the graduation rate was 67 percent; the students were statistically the poorest and neediest in their comparison group; buildings had technology, safety, and ADA accessibility issues (with a higher than average disabled population); capital improvement projections exceeded debt limits; and 300 positions had been eliminated since 2010. Class sizes ballooned, as did social workers’ caseloads to one per 1,575 students (one social worker per 250 students is the state standard).
Nonetheless, “I believed at my core there was something magical about this place and its people,” Padilla says.
Padilla’s attitude and expertise have helped him establish a solid report card six years into the job. He increased graduation rates to 77 percent — the highest since 2008 — in only his second year, and has lowered dropout rates significantly. Newburgh’s breakfast-for-all program ranked third best in the country for three consecutive years according to the national Food Research and Action Center. Additional campuses opened for non-traditional learning, and students have the opportunity to graduate with a full year of college credits. His success at overhauling the struggling Newburgh Enlarged City School District earned him accolades as a “2019 Leader to Learn From” by Education Week magazine. Recently, the Newburgh community voted to pass a $257 million capital improvement project, which will supercharge progress in coming years.
Padilla is glad to share his secrets. In July 2018, an article he co-wrote with Nancy Gutierrez (chief strategy officer for the NYC Leadership Academy) offered six points to follow: Lead with a bold vision for equity, lead with urgency, balance high expectations with high support, be courageously non-compliant, lead with emotional intelligence, and know yourself as a leader.
Now that the school is faced with unprecedented challenges, like remote learning demands during quarantine and strife over long standing racial inequalities, his leadership style is more valuable than ever. Padilla says, “I’m honored to have been selected to be on the state and national [COVID] task forces. I have been very humbled by that.” Padilla aims to turn the crisis into an opportunity by looking to remote learning as a way to bring struggling students up to speed, much as he has done with the evening school initiative.
Regarding racial equity initiatives he says, “Districts have to have the courage to name it and do something about it. Here we have committed to annual goals that specifically target racial equity which sometimes involve policy changes.”
Though Padilla’s path at Newburgh has had rough terrain — in addition to COVID-19, there was a grade-fixing scandal last year that required a major investigation and an overhaul of practices — he has always found a way back to solid ground. As he says, “I may get knocked down, but I’m not staying down.”