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Inspirational leader's difficult past fuels her fight for student equity

Inspirational Leader's Difficult Past Fuels Her Fight for Student Equity

To understand what has driven Shalonda Garfield ‘14W (MS) to spend her career in education—and to pursue two advanced degrees in educational leadership from the Warner School—it’s important to know where she came from.

“I know all too well the effects that poverty can have on the mind, body, and soul,” she says. “This work is very personal to me.”

Garfield, principal at Lincoln Park School No. 44 in southwest Rochester, grew up one of eight children, with a mother who worked two and three jobs at a time. While she had a good experience in elementary school, middle school was chaotic and violent, and by the end of eighth grade, she’d had enough—and stopped showing up.

Garfield was placed at an alternative high school for ninth grade, but the environment was worse. She was frustrated by the minimal instruction from teachers, got in trouble for bad behavior, and skipped school often. So, when her report card showed she had earned straight A’s, she asked her social studies teacher why he hadn’t given her a lower grade.

“He said, ‘You have the potential to be an ‘A’ student,’ and I was so disappointed and heartbroken,” she recalls, knowing the system was damaged even though she was unable to articulate it at the time. “I took a bunch of books and supplies and materials, and that was the last day I attended school in ninth grade.”

In fact, Garfield never returned to high school.

Instead, she left her house at the usual time each morning and walked to the neighborhood laundromat, where she sat at a table and, with those books she’d taken, studied on her own and snacked on food bought with money donated by the laundromat attendant. Her mother had no idea her daughter was skipping class until the school eventually called months later—and she wasn’t happy. Tensions rose in the house, and Garfield began staying with friends.

Yet over the next several years, regardless of the turmoil and lack of adult support, Garfield stayed committed to her dream of becoming a teacher. She received her GED, attended Monroe Community College, then earned two degrees—a master’s degree in Education & Human Development and a bachelor’s degree in English & Childhood Education—at the State University of New York College at Brockport before applying for a master’s degree in school district leadership at Warner.

Despite her accomplishments, Garfield, who’d faced discrimination because of her race, gender, and background, wrestled with feelings of unworthiness until that initial interview at Warner. When educational leadership professor Stephen Uebbing asked where she’d graduated high school, she almost cried while explaining she’d gotten her GED instead.

His response, however, made her view her own experience differently.

“He said, ‘We want people who are real, people who have been through things. That's what makes you unique,’” recalls Garfield. “And it hit me. You know, there’s a sense of shame because you get this stigma around, ‘Oh, you’re a dropout,’ and I always carry that with me. Well, I didn't drop out. I walked away from the school system because it was failing me. I had never claimed that.”
Shalonda Garfield with students Now Garfield allows her story to fuel her passion for removing long-held institutional barriers that prohibit equity and excellence for every child.

Marilynn Patterson Grant ‘82W (EdD), who served for two years as Garfield’s executive coach, described Garfield as a “tenacious” leader dedicated “to doing whatever is within her power to push and encourage young people.”

She adds: “Shalonda clearly understands the hurt implicit in literally being invisible. She is a no-excuses type of leader because she understands the implications when there is indifference, when educators are not really committed to helping a child see within himself or herself the possibilities beyond where they are.”

Garfield, who has held a variety of teaching and administrative posts, says her leadership style comes down to her sense of moral purpose and calling to be a change agent—both emboldened by her classes at Warner.

“That was where I learned about what it means to advocate for everyone,” she says. “When it came to research that showed people can learn this way but not that way, it was like, ‘Well, who’s writing the research? Whose voice is being heard?’ And we would come at it from a different perspective.”

Managing change as a leader was another key skill developed at Warner—one put to the test in July 2019 when Garfield assumed her current position and became the school’s 12th principal in 10 years. Garfield began by starting open, honest conversations with school staff about their own experiences and biases—and about what limitations get put on children as a result. She also made sure that when making decisions, the voices of all stakeholders—teachers, parents, and students—were represented.

“Her leadership style is firm but kind, and she’s really intentional about building relationships,” says Lorna Washington, assistant superintendent of strategic planning for the University of Rochester-East EPO, who worked with Garfield when Garfield was the East Lower School assistant principal.

“She also has integrity,” continues Washington, currently a doctoral student in Warner’s educational leadership—K-12 program.

“I'm aware of several situations in which she could have shared some kind of damaging personal information and she chose not to, which speaks highly of her character.”
Shalonda Garfield with students Inspirational leaders spark innovation and create impact by building connections, says Garfield, currently working on her doctorate in K-12 educational leadership at Warner.

Those connections nurture students—especially those who remind Garfield of her younger self—at a critical time in their lives, when allies are vital but not always available.

“I reassure them that their current struggle is temporary,” she says, “and that focusing on education will lead to self-discovery and help them define their purpose.”