Movers & Shakers . . . Russell Robinson

By Alan R. Madeleine

Who he is:
Russell Robinson, new Principal of Holbrook Elementary School.

Your Superintendent, Tom Niczay, described you as a “turn-around expert,” meaning someone who can come in and “turn around” a school or program that has not been running, or performing, up to the standards the district has desired. How do you feel about such a label? And do you feel it’s warranted?

Robinson: I am honored by the confidence the superintendent has placed in me, based on my work in previous underperforming schools. I must admit, however, that my success in these leadership positions came from a collaborative effort by many hard working educators (teachers, administrators and support staff) who wanted to make a difference in the lives of students we served.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to work with many dedicated parents who have sacrificed time, energy and resources in support of their children’s education. The old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child” certainly speaks true to the importance of the many individuals who must each play a critical role to ensure the success of a good school.

Finally, I don’t see the superintendent’s comments as a label. I believe they represent an expectation that Holbrook will become the best it can be. With Holbrook’s rich 115-year history in our community, all current and prior stakeholders deserve no less.

What sort of a background do you bring to the table? Do you mind giving our readership a mini-bio on who you are, and where you’ve come from that’s brought you here to this place and time?
Robinson: Currently in my 19th year of public education, I have been privileged and blessed to have worked as a teacher and administrator at the elementary, middle and high school levels in both traditional and charter schools. My work has afforded me the opportunity to serve students in diverse socio-economic settings in rural, suburban and urban school districts.

My educational background includes undergraduate work at Eastern Michigan University and graduate work at both Saginaw Valley State University and Wayne State University, where I am currently enrolled in the Education Specialist Program.

Prior to joining the Hamtramck Public Schools, I served as a building administrator at Oakland International Academy. Although making a decision to leave Oakland was a difficult one, I am excited about the opportunity to remain in our community, and to continue to serve the residents of Hamtramck.

What are the primary goals you’ve set for this program? Has it become strictly all about the MEAP scores now (and the state income that improving them might bring, or save)? Where does the school stand, in terms of prior MEAP scores, and where would you like to see it?

Robinson: Since joining the Holbrook family at the end of August, I have worked diligently to assess the overall educational program of the school. The MEAP scores continue to provide the measuring stick against which all schools are compared.

I am committed to leading a building which provides the very best education for its students and one which prepares them for future success in life. Using state and national standards as our guide, our staff will utilize current technology and the latest research-based teaching methods and pedagogy to ensure that all children succeed. The vision which has been articulated to students, parents and staff requires a commitment of all stakeholders to create and maintain an atmosphere where safety and learning are the most important priorities.

Although Holbrook did achieve Adequate Yearly Progress for the previous school year, an accomplishment our staff and students are certainly proud of, the Michigan Department of Education released it’s most recent Top to Bottom rankings of all schools in August.

Holbrook’s placement on the list is of great concern, and has become a primary focus of future improvement efforts. Holbrook students have just completed this year’s MEAP testing, which assesses learning and mastery for the previous school year. The results — which are usually released to schools early next year — will help staff continue to focus on improvement efforts to target weaknesses in our educational program.

Over and above the omnipresent MEAP business, what other goals do you have for the school? Anything beyond basic academics – or does that have to be enough for now?

Robinson: Academics will always be the primary focus of our school, however continuing to improve the total school program requires so much more. Over the past several months, our district has received more than $1 million in technology upgrades funded by federal Title I monies.

At Holbrook, this equates to a new computer lab, interactive white boards for each classroom, and mini-laptop computers for all 5th and 6th graders. We will be working with, and training, our staff and students to fully implement this technology, to improve the way and manner in which teaching and learning occur.

Another key priority centers on better meeting the needs of our students and their families. With the large percentage of Holbrook students coming from the Middle East, we must continue to provide support for these parents, to encourage them to become an active part of their children’s education.

As part of this process, we have begun to translate the majority of material which is sent home from the school. Translation is also being provided at parent meetings, and we hope to continue to increase the amount of programming available to parents and their students. A parent room, complete with meeting space and computer systems, is now available for parent use. Parent involvement will continue to be a primary goal of our school community.

The Holbrook staff will also continue its journey to fully implement the Restorative Practices approach to school discipline. The research-based initiative, begun at the district level last year, is paying huge dividends this year, and has resulted in improved student behavior, more successful peer relationships and reduced disciplinary referrals and suspensions.

Finally, an emphasis will be placed on continuing to improve the quality of instruction in each classroom, by focusing on research-based pedagogy. Additional methods of assessing student performance will be implemented, in order to provide accountability for the individual success of all students.

Have you met many of the students’ parents yet? How involved do you find them to be, and do you feel that it’s enough? What can parents be expected to do who are busy themselves, and then come home to be confronted with their sixth grader’s math, science or English homework that perhaps they can’t even do themselves? Is there school support for this type of situation?

Robinson: I have had the privilege of meeting many Holbrook parents at our Meet the Principal Night, Open House and Parent Teacher Conferences. Parent involvement in any school is a high priority, and many of today’s working parents find themselves with many responsibilities which make it difficult to be as involved as they would like.

As previously mentioned, a sincere effort will be made to encourage parents to become active participants in their child’s education in any way they can. Whether attending a meeting once a month, or volunteering every day, each parent will be encouraged to become involved. We also hope to increase the amount of bi-lingual staff in our school, in order to better communicate with our parents, and help them feel more comfortable in the school. A long term goal will center on programs to help parents improve their literacy, which in turn gives confidence for helping children learn to read and write at home.

Another goal for the immediate future centers on the expansion of the Hamtramck Odyssey Project for Excellence (HOPE) program. Currently licensing and grant restrictions limit the number of students who can participate in this fantastic after school programming. We are hopeful our licensing and funding –through state approval and grants — will be expanded to eliminate the need for a waiting list for this valuable program, which provides both tutoring and after-school activities for students.

Additional sources are also being sought to fund an after school program, to focus on low-achieving students who need extra support outside of the traditional school day. In addition, the successful summer school program will continue to provide support for our students during the summer months.

We all know that Hamtramck is a multi-cultural city, perhaps one of the most such in the country. That certainly must create a unique set of challenges. Can you elaborate on some of the aspects of our “multiculti” school district, and how you hope to address them?

Robinson: Hamtramck is a microcosm of the world around us, and thus provides powerful opportunities for educators to prepare students for success in the real world. I have long believed that many of the problems in the world center on the lack of individuals, groups or organizations abilities or willingnesses to communicate effectively.

Having a city filled with so many cultures provides immeasurable opportunities for communicating with one another, learning about each others’ similarities and differences, and respecting our right to be different-but-the-same, all at the same time.

Of course, this diversity also presents challenges for school districts charged with educating each child. At Holbrook, we are fortunate that the majority of our students fall into several main demographic categories, which make it easier to address specific needs — as outlined in earlier portions of our interview.

Are you satisfied with the budget you have been given to work with? I would imagine the budget has been trending downward during this rough economy, but how bad is it, really? Have you had to make concessions, and if so, how deep are they? Do you see any relief in sight?

Robinson: Anyone who follows public education in Michigan knows that the past few years have been devastating for school districts across our state. The financial crisis has affected the Hamtramck Public Schools as well, due both to a reduction in per-pupil aid, and declining enrollment. This, along with increased health care costs, has necessitated the closing of classes across the district, as well as an increase in some class sizes.

Fortunately, many of our programs and support staff are supported by federal Title I monies, which provide support for both supplementary materials aimed at improving student achievement, and the overall academic program. Currently a district re-structuring committee is meeting on a weekly basis, to discuss the future make-up of the Hamtramck Public Schools. We will continue to monitor expenses carefully and remain fiscally responsible.

Lastly, tell us a little about yourself in your off time – what do you enjoy doing, your family, or anything else you’d care to share with our readers.

Robinson: These days, free time is at a minimum; however, I enjoy spending time with family and friends, golfing, watching movies, traveling and catching up on reading, as time allows.
I am an avid baseball and football fan, love listening to almost every type of music, and can even be found once in a while flying commercial airliners at home on my computer flight simulator.

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