Zheadric Barbra, Syracuse City School District
On this episode of Working: Syracuse we meet Zheadric Barbra. As Assistant Superintendent of School Reform at Syracuse City School
District, Barbra is responsible for the improvement of Syracuse's 37 public schools. This is a difficult
task given the district's size and its challenges. For example, it ranks No. 2 for homeless students in New York state following New York City and in past years
has been ranked lowest average SAT scores in N.Y. state. Many of its students come from homes with economic
struggles. In fact, 80 percent of the district's students qualify for free or discounted meals. Out of
21,686 students within the district, 3,700 are English as a New Language students, speaking 72 different
But Zheadric's background developed a resilience that allows him to embrace challenges
with grace and determination. He credits his mother, who raised him and his four brothers alone while working
manual-labor jobs and depending on food stamps, as the source of much of his determination and his belief in
education. He says she raised him and his brothers with this central philosophy: "There's no other option than
what you have in front of you. You can't not do well. There's no other option." She also instilled in him the
belief that education serves as the cornerstone of a good life. He's applied these lessons to his own
education, career, and experience with fatherhood, and he tries to pass along these beliefs to the students
whose educational experience he oversees.
About 650 students from grades pre-K through fifth grade travel the halls behind these two yellow doors of Webster Elementary School, one of 37 schools Zheadric Barbra oversees.
"We are responsible for what happens between 8 and 3:30," Barbra says. "We fill that student or that child's bucket everyday — and sometimes they go home and lose it; somebody goes and pours that bucket right back out — we just continuously fill that bucket back up."
Zheadric Barbra's office, which features a dry-erase whiteboard filled with his to-do items, sits on the top level of the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central High School.
Motivated to emulate his own childhood mentors, Zheadric says there was always a teacher and a leader in him.
Team shirts from schools for which Barbra worked hang in his office — keepsakes that remind him of all the students he's taught and coached.
INTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment begins to play]
BRONTE SCHMIT, HOST: Hello and welcome to Working: Syracuse, the podcast inspired by
journalist Studs Terkel featuring Salt City residents talking about what they do to earn a paycheck and
how they find meaning in those jobs. I'm your host Bronte Schmit.
This episode reporter Alex Erdekian spoke with Syracuse City School District assistant superintendent of
school reform, Zheadric Barbra. In his role, Barbra makes recommendations for each school's improvement
through district-led and state-led visits. He visits classrooms and talks to students, teachers, and
parents to inform his suggestions.
School reform is a challenging task in Syracuse City School District, which struggles with poverty.
Barbra has worn many hats in the education system. He's been a science teacher, principal, and now a
director of reform.
In each of these positions, Barbra has brought with him a passion rooted in his mother's belief that
education is the foundation of success.
INTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment fades out]
ALEX ERDEKIAN: Barbra's mother raised him and his four brothers in Alabama as a single
parent and worked in a factory to support them. He remembers one hot summer day when he saw her working
her job outside in the heat.
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: I'll never forget her gaze and her stare as she looked through the metal
link fence and say, 'You guys have to get your education so you don't have to use your bodies like this.
You have to get your education, it's the most important thing that you can do.'
SOUND: [Hustle bustle in halls of school kids shuffling about]
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: I'm Zheadric Barbra, assistant superintendent of school reform with
Syracuse City School District.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: In his current role as assistant superintendent of school reform, he is
responsible for a daunting task — improving the district's 37 schools. A job made more difficult by
challenges such as attracting and retaining teachers of color and overcoming the inequalities created by
the city's segregation.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: In this role, Barbra relies on his mother's belief in the power of
education, which influenced his decision to pursue a career in this field. His childhood teachers also
played a role.
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: I had great teachers growing up, I had great mentors. I wanted to be
like them. Whether it was Mr. Borne, Tom Borne, the director of the Upward Bound Program. Whether it
was Larry Thomas who was my middle school principal. Whether it there was Danny Jones who was the mentor
of one of our after school programs. Mr. Russell. And I can go on and on. So I always knew there was
something to give back. There was something in me that was like a teacher type—leader type.
ALEX ERDEKIAN:: Zheadric also credits his twin brother for his education
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: I always had a study partner. I always had somebody to go over my
flashcards with. Always had somebody that wanted to have a competition to see who could call out his math
facts faster. Right? So over time, I think that pushed both of us, to be quite honest.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: Zheadric's twin works as a school principal, a job he believes is one of
the most powerful positions in the education system.
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: A principal has to me the best opportunity to change a kid's life. More
so than anybody else in the school district. Because a principal is in a school every single day with a
particular child. It could be a sixth grader, seventh grader, eighth grader. That principal has the
ability to literally pick up that PA system every morning and program a kid. Think about that. Nobody else
can do that. A superintendent doesn't come to your building and do announcements. That just doesn’t happen. Board members don't come
to your school and do announcements. But a principal from the morning in the am to the afternoon, has the
ability 180 days out of the year to program a kid.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: And when he was principal, Zheadric took advantage of every opportunity to
directly impact children's lives.
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: The things I used to say to my children, I said them so often that they
could say my words before I said them. And they lived by them, right. It started to become a part. Stop
doing that, you know what that man is about to say. You know what Dr. B is about to say: 'Every choice
has a consequence, choose your power of choice wisely.' And they'll tell each other, you not making a
ALEX ERDEKIAN: Zheadric may have left life as a principal to work for the district, but
he is the antithesis of the stereotype of education managers as removed autocrats. In fact, he works to
remain involved in the schools in his district and to foster relationships with students.
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: I would say many times people would see high or senior level managers in
education like myself in this position and make an assumption based off some experience that they've had
with some other high level manager at some school district somewhere that individuals like myself that
wear a suit and tie everyday, have no passion or have lost a love or are so far removed from a school. And
for me that's totally not the case.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: As one of his regular responsibilities and to stay connected in the
district, Zheadric routinely visits schools. One day in March, he visited Webster Elementary School in
Syracuse's Northside neighborhood.
SOUND: [Chatter between children; faint sounds of Zheadric discussing school business]
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: I'm here serving as an active observer. Almost like the fly on the wall
to make sure that the process moves fluidly. This school-led visit is a self-study. Looking at data.
Looking at artifacts from classroom visits. Talking with the principal. Talking to parents. And looking at
student feedback on assignments and then in that particular group making recommendations based off that.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: Among the more challenging issues in the district are poverty,
homelessness, and a lack of diverse teachers—according to a recent report, only five percent of the
district's teachers are black, compared to 50 percent of the student population. Zheadric remains hopeful
that diversity can be tackled through partnerships with historically black colleges and universities and
different hiring methods.
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: We thoroughly understand that teachers of any background, any race, can
teach students or children. But there's also something to be said about having some familiarity and
relationship during that exchange from teacher to student, student to teacher.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: When it comes to poverty, Zheadric knows reform is more
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: In terms of the poverty, there's, that's built on economics. But what we
can do, we are responsible for what happens between 8 and 3:30, from 9 to 4 o'clock. If we fill that
student or that child's bucket everyday—and sometimes they go home and lose it; somebody pours that bucket
right back out. We just continuously fill that bucket back up, we believe that students will be able to
have some level of success and we're also looking at giving students more choices in their learning.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: Zheadric's metaphor of filling the bucket means meeting kids' emotional
needs during the school day—for example, by letting them enroll in classes they are interested and that
help them build skills, like cosmetology, electrical trade, or auto shop. It's this happiness at school
that helped push Zheadric and his four brothers to the level of success they've achieved today. And that
success level is impressive by any measure. Collectively, the 5 of them have 17 degrees, including two
doctorate degrees and two MBAs. But his mother didn't live to see any of her sons receive them. Zheadric
was the first to graduate, and his mother died 10 months prior.
MUSIC: [Quiet piano music plays in the background]
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: And out of all of the different things that happened along the way
including the passing of my mother, and that's like beyond anything else that happens, it still shows if
you're able to stick to your purpose and your action, and persevere—you can still have a level of success.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: One of Zheadric's greatest concerns as assistant superintendent of school
reform is the lack of transparency surrounding the education system's plan for student's success.
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: The system itself, education, public education lacks is the ability to
be really coherent and clear about what it is we want to do for students, what we will do for students and
how will we know when we have done that for students.
ALEX ERDEKIAN: But Zheadric's guiding inner belief is clear.
ZHEADRIC BARBRA: I just feel like every child, every parent deserves a school, deserves
teachers, deserves an environment in their school where their child can learn. Period. Bottom line….I
think every child should have the same opportunities to an education and that education actually provides
them rights and provides them the pursuit of happiness which is guaranteed by the Constitution of the
United States. If you don't have an education, essentially you won't have a pursuit of happiness. I'm just
convinced of it.
MUSIC: [Quiet piano music gets louder and then fades out]
BRONTE SCHMIT, HOST: Thanks Alex. We should note Zheadric has a work alter-ego that comes
out on nights and weekends — restauranteur. He co-owns Bleu Chick Restaurant and Lounge on North Salina
Street, where he can be found messing around in the kitchen and serving up Southern fare like fried green
tomatoes and fish and grits.
OUTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment fades in]
BRONTE SCHMIT, HOST:That's all for this episode of Working: Syracuse. Check out our
website www.workingsyracuse.com for more interviews as well as some extra content on Zheadric Barbra. Be
sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter @WorkingSyracuse.
Thanks again to Alexis and Alex for speaking with Barbra. This episode was written by Alexis Jones and
Alex Erdekian and produced by Caroline Schagrin. Our theme music was by Logan Piercey. I've been Bronte
Schmit. It's time for us to clock out.
OUTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment fades out]