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Lida Casper answers the call to create greater Community Partnerships for Rochester Public Schools.
Rochester Public Schools

As Rochester Public Schools seeks to make a larger-scale impact on our community, there was a clear need for a position solely focused on building effective and sustainable partnerships.

 

Looking to fulfill that need, Rochester Public Schools' Lida Casper accepted the coordinator for Community Partnerships position. Lida is no stranger to Community Partnerships after working as the Riverside Community School site facilitator for the past six and a half years. 

"Effective partnerships make sense. Partnerships can meet a need, build capacity, and share resources. But these connections also have the potential to improve happiness, belonging, and drive upward mobility." 

So what drives Lida's passion for community partnerships and connection? Throughout her life, connections played an essential role in not only Lida's success, but her survival. "As a child, in order to get people to see me, I had to make strong connections," Lida said. "As the daughter of an immigrant who was  a single mother with a terminal illness, I relied heavily on the caring adults around me - nurses, teachers, family, and neighbors who would guide and expose me to the wider world. And while other fifth graders were eating breakfast, my morning routine was focused around the delicate care of my mother." Following her mother's death, Lida moved in with her extended family. With her network of support, Lida could access the next chapter of her life. 

"While this was my experience, children across our community are living a version of this story. We just may not know." 

After completing a degree in Art and Art History at the University of Minnesota, Lida was accepted to a program focused on equity in education called Teach For America. She earned her Master's degree and began her career in education as a third grade teacher in Bronx, N.Y=. "In the Bronx, I felt the vibrancy of life, culture and community, while also, for the first time, feeling what it was like to be least represented," Lida said, referring back to her experience. She also saw firsthand the challenges communities face when schools are inequitably resourced in opportunity, facilities, and funding as she recalled paying for her own copies at the nearest Kinkos each morning before school.

Inspired by her first years in the classroom and her interest in people, culture, and learning, Lida moved from New York City to a Yup'ik community in Southwestern Alaska, where she lived and worked in a place that valued and celebrated rich cultural traditions and deep relationships. During her time in Alaska, Lida was awarded District Teacher of the year by the school and community for her belief in and dedication to improving academic outcomes for all kids. After five years in the Bristol Bay region and meeting her husband, a science teacher in a nearby village, they moved back to Minnesota, landing in Rochester, where her husband began teaching at Lincoln K-8 School. Lida was hired at Gage Elementary and most recently served at Riverside Elementary School as a community school site facilitator.

Lida sees life as a network of connections, which led her to her position at Riverside Central Elementary School. During her time at Riverside, Lida led several vital partnerships, including a community garden partnership that, in 2019, gave over one ton of produce back to the Rochester community. As a result of the Riverside Community Garden, Lida received the RPU Environmental Achievement Award. With big goals and a partnership with Minneapolis artist Greta McLain, Lida set out to help students create a larger-than-life 1,000-square-foot mural as a new addition to their school. The mural honors, celebrates, and reflects Riverside Central Elementary School's rich diversity, geography and neighborhood. The mural was created by Riverside students during a two-week artist-in-residence experience. It was informed by Riverside families and stakeholders and painted by students, families, and community members at paint parties hosted at the school and local events. The process crossed over two years and cost nearly $70,000, all funded through grants, fundraisers, and local community support. In addition to these accomplishments, Lida was recently awarded the Champion of Diversity Award from the Rochester Diversity Council in recognition as an individual who has made outstanding accomplishments toward creating an inclusive and welcoming community for all individuals.

Though Lida will be transitioning to a different role in RPS soon, the connections and relationships she built as a community school facilitator will help pave the way for a stronger connection between RPS and the greater Rochester community. Looking ahead to her new role, Lida said she "has a good sense of what's possible on a local level, and I'm excited to work alongside our students, families, staff, and partners on a community-wide level. There is so much power in partnerships." She added, "The research is clear, the more community connections our kids have, the happier, healthier, and more productive members of society all of our students will become."

Julie Ruzek, former Director of Family Engagement and Community Partnerships, worked over the last several years to establish and support community schools at seven Rochester Public Schools, including Gage and Riverside Elementary Schools, John Marshall High School, and Rochester Alternative Learning Center. Most recently, Phoenix Academy, John Adams Middle School and Franklin Elementary School were awarded statewide grant funding for Community Schools. The Community School model highlights the unique needs and assets outlined by  students, staff, families and community partners through a comprehensive Needs Assessment that serves as a focal point when strategically planning for partnerships to impact students.This method allows each Community School to be responsive to its own unique needs while engaging the right partners in the work. 

>Community schools went hand in hand with Community Partnership as it was an opportunity for local organizations to give back fiscally, but also an opportunity for mentorship, growth, and improved outcomes for kids and families. Community Schools as a strategy has led to a better understanding of the greater needs and assets of our Rochester community. 

Though RPS already has a strong foundation of community partnerships, Lida is looking to the future. “Our community continues to demonstrate a shared commitment to our children and to our schools. Community Partnerships are a way to formally and informally involve other organizations while collaborating around a common vision and shared goals leading to improved outcomes for kids and families and ultimately a better place for Rochester. It's really exciting to imagine all that's possible in partnership,” Lida said.  

"At a time when the need for deep and impactful partnerships among community organizations is greater than ever before, we are fortunate to have someone with Lida's extensive experience and personal impact in this work from rural Alaska and the Bronx to right here in Rochester, Minnesota," said Amy Eich, RPS Director of Community Education and Partnerships, "Lida has the vision and the skills to carry forward the work of our strategic plan with the success of all students and families as her guidepost." 

The role of our Coordinator of Community Partnerships is to make greater connections. Those connections will help our students find their place in our community, know they are welcome, and like Lida, through connections, they will make a place for themselves.