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Shaun C. Nelms

Director, Center For Urban Education Success & Superintendent of East, University of Rochester

Years in current role: 7

What was your biggest success in 2021?

I accepted the isolation created by the pandemic as an opportunity to focus on the happiness of my children. However, it was my children that influenced my happiness and professional success. My son, Shaun Jr., entered his freshman year in a new school and has blossomed academically and socially. He reminds me that people will thrive when valued and affirmed for their talents, skills, and cultural identities. My middle daughter, Alexia, is a first-year at the University of Rochester, where she has matured and gained independence. She has taught me to create work environments that are challenging, yet still provide space for curiosity and personal growth. Nia, my oldest, a trained social worker, strived to balance her mental and physical health through strength training and mindfulness. She has demonstrated that I can’t help others until I’ve helped myself. Lessons in leadership are often lived experiences learned by those around us.

What are your expectations for 2022?

The pandemic has changed how school districts understand and meet the needs of students and their families — East was no different. I am fortunate to work with incredible educators. Over the past seven years, we have created a model which has increased the graduation rate from 33% to 85%. Before the pandemic, the school transformation process allowed us to expand our social-emotional support for students, develop rigorous curricula in collaboration with staff, and establish leadership protocols to ensure we aligned our work to meet state-mandated outcome metrics. The 2020-21 school year challenged our structures, assumptions, and protocols. I was pleased that what we created allowed us to endure one of the most challenging times. For 2022, we will focus on strengthening and adjusting our system to meet our current reality and reset for the 2022-23 school year.

What is your biggest takeaway from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?

COVID provided the perfect context for observing people and their actions when they are in crisis. Some people defended their ignorance, while others remained open-minded before deciding what was best for them and their families. The biggest takeaway was knowing the silent majority is willing to do the work of improving and educating our community when given a safe and supportive path forward. Although many people take to social media and speak in silos, I met some incredible Rochesterians during 2021 who were willing to focus on “seeking first to understand, rather than to be understood.” We can differ politically, yet not lose our ability to be kind, compassionate, and neighborly.

What is your favorite thing about the Rochester community?

In 2021, I had opportunities to appreciate and discover many aspects of Rochester I overlooked prior to COVID, including new trails, restaurants, local historians, arts, and leisurely activities. I often posted my journeys on social media so that communities of color could also feel a sense of home across Monroe County. An event that I recently planned allowed me to spend an evening with 20 men of color. We started our evening at Lento in Village Gate. After enjoying our incredible meal, we walked to the Memorial Art Gallery for a guided tour featuring artists of color. Many of these men were leaders in our business community who had never experienced the MAG nor knew about Village Gate. My hope is that we make Rochester a place where everyone can feel happy to call home.

If time were no issue, what would you do to help the community that you aren’t already doing?

The vitality of our county depends on our ability to successfully educate our youth and make Monroe County a place they want to live. Education extends beyond a single pipeline to college. I would like to see every child leave a public high school with a pathway to a local college, a local career, or enlisting in the military and returning home to further their career. If we want to have thriving communities, we must have a coordinated plan for making Monroe County attractive to all Monroe County youth. Together, we can make this happen.

This profile is part of Rochester Business Journal's Power 100 list for 2022. Information used in this profile was sourced from the honoree. View the full list at


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