ERS alum Robert Daigneau started his role as Executive Director of Finance and Operations for the South Bend Empowerment Zone in mid-2020. We talked to him about making the transition to his new role, how the South Bend Empowerment Zone plans to handle academic recovery after COVID-19, and more.
What is your new role at the South Bend Empowerment Zone? What made you decide to shift to this position?
I am the Executive Director of Finance and Operations for the South Bend Empowerment Zone. In this role I support the finances of our non-profit and schools, as well as a variety of operations related items like transportation, human resources, technology, and custodial operations.
In terms of the shift into this role - I began my education career as a teacher at a high needs middle school and knew that at some point in my career I’d like to get back to working closely with school and district leadership. I wanted a role where I could learn from courageous leaders and be a part of a team that is going to do whatever it takes to help students and families succeed. This role in the Empowerment Zone was that perfect opportunity.
What is exciting about your new role?
One of the things that excites me the most about this role is the opportunity to have such a profound impact and what it means for the students and families on the West side of South Bend. Dr. Cheryl Camacho, the Empowerment Zone Chief, has crafted a five year strategy that I fundamentally believe is going to lead to transformational change. In her first year, she worked tirelessly to lay a solid foundation for Empowerment Zone schools to be successful by identifying barriers and courageously tackling them. I’m excited about the progress she’s helped make a reality and what it means for the future.
I find the Empowerment Zone’s approach and mindset is energizing: we are student and family centered. The first policy passed by the Empowerment Zone Board was the “student- and family-centered decision-making policy”, which states that all decisions will be made through the lens of how they will impact students and families and we live this value each day. In my role, this plays out by ensuring that we maximize resources in ways that change the felt experience by students and families. We serve a high needs student population: 78% are on free or reduced lunch, 80% of our students are Black and/or Latino. It is critical that we’re making the tradeoffs necessary to serve them well.
Lastly, I’m excited about the opportunity I have to work alongside and learn from some incredible colleagues. They bring a wealth of experience and diversity of perspectives that help me develop and, more importantly, increase our collective impact.
How did your time at ERS prepare you for this position?
I’m grateful that I can rely on the skills I’ve learned at ERS and the experiences I’ve had working with so many different school districts and really smart people. Those skills run the gamut from strategic thinking and a focus on the right thing, work planning (and adjusting course when things constantly change!), doing data analysis to support making data-informed decisions, leveraging my relationship skills to navigate the political context we’re in and work relentlessly to make equity real.
We're thinking about the cost of COVID, what it'll take to support and engage students in learning over the coming years. How is the South Bend Empowerment Zone thinking about that challenge?
The Empowerment Zone is being really intentional about taking on this challenge. First and foremost, we partner with our families to ensure our students are supported academically and socially/emotionally. Earlier this year, school leaders and their teams worked to collect responses from over 1,200 Empowerment Zone family members, which represented almost 90% of all our students, in order to inform our response to COVID. This year, we’ve launched a Parent Advisory Council to further our partnerships with families. And, on an ongoing basis we survey our families to better understand their needs and how the Empowerment Zone can best support them and their children.
Even before the pandemic, Dr. Camacho and the team have worked to create the right conditions for success. This has included investing in a high-quality and rigorous curriculum for our children and establishing a clear bar of excellence so that we can eliminate low expectations for our students and the normalization of failure. We are and will continue to be data-focused and responsive. Our students are completing their middle of the year assessment right now, and we’ll review and adjust course as needed. That data is one component of the broader data dashboard we review on a bi-weekly basis.
We knew that this work was challenging, and the pandemic has certainly exacerbated those challenges. But, I know that this team, our school leaders, and our school staff, have the vision, strategy, and mindset to eliminate any barriers to success - pandemic or not.