In the basement of Augustin Melendez’s Webster home is a 60-gallon oak vat, imported from France.
Within that vat is a mixture that in a few months will become a pinot noir, made with grapes hand-selected by Melendez and imported from California. New York grapes do not have the best sugar content, he says.
Melendez, who this year became president of Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, is himself the result of years of careful fermentation. Starting his career in the private sector, Melendez accumulated experience in human resources and diversity that would help him grow into a leader ready to tackle the problems of low-income urban school districts.
HWSC works with students in the Rochester City School District and three other districts in New York and Maryland, helping them stay on track to graduate.
Youth advocates help students in the program deal with academic and outside challenges while also giving them the chance to work for one of the community partners, which include the University of Rochester and Wegmans Food Markets Inc.
"Given the opportunities to work with these mentors and have a real job that’s providing money to them and their families, the students graduate at a much higher rate," says Melendez, 57. "All they need is that opportunity."
At HWSC, Melendez leads an organization that had revenue of nearly $13 million in fiscal 2011, the latest year for which data is available. It also is one poised for a major expansion over the coming years as it reaches out to more students.
The start of Melendez’s career would not have suggested that eventually he would lead a non-profit agency working with high school students.
After graduating from college, he joined a national retailer and was assigned to a distribution center, where he worked with a large group of recent Cuban immigrants. The organization lacked diversity within its supervisors, so the bilingual Melendez often was called on to serve as a point of contact with employees.
From there Melendez cut a path in human resources, taking a position at United Jersey Bank. Its business was booming, and his job was to deal with integration of employees as the bank grew.
During this time, Melendez and his wife had one young child and another on the way. They also had friends who lived in Rochester and saw it as a good community for raising their children.
Melendez applied to Eastman Kodak Co. and other large companies, but the Rochester City School District was the first to call. Superintendent Peter McWalters had a vision of bringing in talent from non-academic, private-sector roles, and Melendez seemed a good fit.
Melendez served as human resources director for the district, a role that made him chief negotiator with the Rochester Teachers Association. Melendez was part of creating a teaching career program that released the best teachers from 30 or 40 percent of their schedules to mentor younger teachers.
But there was another, more controversial component of the program.
"The mentors would formally evaluate the teachers they worked with and recommend whether to keep them or get rid of them," Melendez says.
This did not go over well with administrators, who sued to end the program.
"We argued that we had difficulty getting rid of teachers who couldn’t cut it because (administrators) wouldn’t make a decision until the third or fourth year, when they already had tenure," Melendez says.
The program survived, and Melendez’s role expanded when Clifford Janey took over as superintendent. He became deputy supervisor of operations, overseeing the functions of budget, finances and human resources.
But something else happened around this time. Melendez had an opportunity to return to the private sector as director of human resources at Paychex Inc., a chance he saw as too good to pass up.
"There were some great human resources innovations during this time, including flexible work schedules and different compensations to prevent turnover," Melendez recalls. "We also instituted the concept of casual dress during this period, and if you know Tom Golisano, that was quite a big deal. In fact, we even got Tom to model the new dress code."
From Paychex, Melendez moved to Kodak, working on the integration of a diverse workforce around Kodak Park. He had a number of other roles, including chief diversity officer, before Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection came calling.
Coming to HWSC
Melendez had been connected to HWSC throughout his time in Rochester. He served a stint on the organization’s board as it made the transition from being a program of Wegmans, its founder, to Hillside. He left the board when he re-entered the private sector with Kodak and Paychex, but a conversation with a colleague from RCSD prompted him to return.
"I learned that there was an under-representation of Latino students in Hillside," Melendez says. "The district is about 20 percent Latino students, but Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection served only about 7 percent at the time."
Melendez rejoined the board of directors, with a mission to serve all students but a special focus on increasing the number of Latino students.
The program made gains, with Latino students rising to 14 percent of all Hillside participants and eventually to an even mix of 23 percent Latino students in the district and 23 percent in HWSC.
Then came a new opportunity: HWSC president Patricia Malgieri left the organization, and after talking it over with his wife, Melendez decided to apply for the position. The board selected him in February, and he took over as president in March.
"He was on the board for six years and more than proved himself as a thought leader," says Gerry Pierce, chairman of the HWSC board. "He has a rock-solid set of values, and I can see that in his family, with both his kids going to city schools."
Melendez says he came to HWSC with a deep understanding of how the organization operated.
"The advantage I have is that I know the organization well and know what the mission is about," he says.
There were other advantages as well. Melendez had grown up in a working-class neighborhood in the South Bronx, which gave him a kinship with many of the students from impoverished areas of Rochester.
"The students see me and sometimes think I come from a middle-class background with all its advantages, but their experience is something I came through and survived," Melendez says. "I had two hardworking parents, grew up my whole life without health benefits.
"(Students) look at me, and I tell them, ‘You can be me if you work hard to achieve your goals.’"
Melendez carries other connections to his youth as well. A lifelong New York Yankees fan, he returns to the Bronx as often as he can to watch the team play. He even went to a Yankees fantasy camp, where he took the field alongside former players like Darryl Strawberry.
The HWSC president also continued his own baseball career, pitching and playing infield in adult leagues in Rochester until his mid-40s.
Melendez brings to his work more than just a good background and a sense for what students are going through, Pierce says.
"He’s great at measurement and tends to use data to effect change and make decisions based on the data he sees," Pierce says. "He’s also very adept at financial judgment and already has made changes in reporting to me what is happening with the budget."
Plans for growth
Melendez has joined Hillside as it moves to expand in both Rochester and other locations.
The organization has branched out to Syracuse, Buffalo and Prince George’s County, Md., with plans to expand in all locations. In Rochester, the organization serves nearly 2,600 children with a goal of reaching 3,000 in a few years.
Melendez sees other opportunities related to the creep of poverty from the city into neighboring suburbs and school districts.
"We want to branch off to districts with growing pockets of poverty, places like Brockport, Geneva, East Rochester and even Greece," he says.
Melendez sees the programs in Syracuse and Buffalo each growing to 1,000 students in the near future. In Prince George’s County, where 230 students take part in its programs now, HWSC has the chance to grow to as many as 3,000 students by 2020, he says.
But he also recognizes that the organization must grow in a careful way, not imposing its methods on districts but rather cooperating with them.
"This is all about partnership," Melendez says. "It’s not that we have the magic bullet. Our strength is in our youth advocates, who mentor the young people and give ongoing support outside of the classroom in areas that the district isn’t able to help."
For example, one student was attacked by a group of men and hospitalized. While the student was out of school, HWSC offered academic support that the district could not provide.
The organization’s work partners are another important part of its success, Melendez says, and the numbers back up his assertion. For city schools as a whole, the graduation rate for Latino students is 42 percent; for those involved in HWSC, it is 62 percent.
But Latino students who participate in the youth employment program graduate at a 95 percent clip, Melendez notes.
All the academic and college attendance statistics aside, Melendez sees validation in HWSC every year at graduation.
"For many of the families, this is the first child to graduate from high school," he says. "That’s a big deal."
Position: President of Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection Inc.
Education: B.S. in business administration and economics and B.A. in speech and communications, Wagner College, 1978; M.S. in human resources development, St. John Fisher College, 1989
Family: Wife Linda, children Francisco and Samantha
Activities: Baseball, winemaking
Quote: "(Students) look at me, and I tell them, ‘You can be me if you work hard to achieve your goals.’"
7/26/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.