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Samuel L. Radford III remembers the days after a bullet pierced his skull. Swamped with fear and anger, he recalls being a 25-year-old man unable to cope.

“I remember sitting there, being afraid and understanding that I hadn’t lived yet,” Radford said. “I hadn’t done the things that mattered most.”

Now 47, few would dare suggest Radford hasn’t done enough.

He dodged angry white kids as a boy in the aftermath of school desegregation and learned hard lessons about parenthood as a young Marine. His brush with death turned him into a student activist at Erie Community College and gave him the fortitude to become a parent activist and confront what he considers to be a failing city school system.

His intellect and unrelenting presence have elevated the power of parents in the troubled Buffalo school district to unparalleled heights within a few short years.

As president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, Radford has plenty of friends and critics. They see him either as a champion for educational equality and accountability or as a self-promoting dissenter more focused on causing trouble than finding answers.

Certainly, he and his fellow parent leaders have made the lives of Buffalo school officials a misery.

They’ve blown the whistle on the school district for keeping children in low-performing schools, for shutting parents out of school improvement and grant spending plans, and for denying adequate physical education to elementary students.

They’ve repeatedly sought intervention from the state – and gotten it. The State Education Department is currently withholding $36 million in grants because of District Parent Coordinating Council complaints.

Among parents, Radford is far from alone in his demands for change, but he speaks longest and loudest. He remembers the moment when one teacher opened his eyes to the kind of hope too many Buffalo children are still denied.

He calls the inequity among Buffalo’s public schools “criminal.”

“There’s no way in hell my children can have the best education while everybody else can have the worst,” he said.

To see him in action these days, it’s hard to believe there was a time when Radford thought his father was a fool for pushing him toward college, that charter schools were a curse, and that the heart of all injustice could figuratively and literally be boiled down to a matter of black and white.

If age has taught him anything, Radford said, it’s that nothing is that simple.

“Everybody has to be part of the solution,” he said. “I didn’t think that before.”

Walking the hard path

Radford never followed the easy path – and still doesn’t.

His parents, both high school graduates, worked factory jobs. They sent him to the Diocesan Educational Campus, a black Catholic school in the city. But after desegregation, Radford was bused from the East Side to School 27 in South Buffalo.

Suddenly, he and his childhood friends found themselves in the midst of a grown-up war. Angry white adults threw rocks and eggs at his bus on the way in and out, he recalled. When he stayed after school for basketball practice, neighborhood boys chased him for blocks when he tried walking to the bus stop.

“It was the first time I was scared,” he said.

A straight-A student, Radford eventually graduated from Hutchinson-Central Technical High School and joined the Marines over his father’s strenuous objections. He married after boot camp, was stationed around the world and was the father of six by age 23. During that time, he said, he did a lot of growing up.

When Radford left the military, he became an East Side block club organizer for CRUCIAL Human Services. It would become one of a long series of nonprofit organizations with which Radford would eventually work and train as a youth and community advocate. He now works as a director for the Community Action Organization of Erie County human services agency.

But it was while he was working as a block club organizer that Radford found himself in a moment that would change his life forever.

While at the home of a longtime friend (who would eventually become his second wife), Radford said he interceded in a situation that abruptly escalated into a fight. Before he knew it, a friend of the man Radford had confronted pulled out a gun.

“I just put my head down and said, ‘I don’t want to die,’ then boom, the gun went off,” he said.

The bullet raked the left side of his skull but missed his brain. It took seven staples to close up his head.

Radford went home a terrified, angry mess.

“I was on the verge of doing something really stupid,” he said, “then this guy shows up.”

That guy was Wayman “Ayman” Diggs, a respected community elder who spent days talking with Radford, helping him heal mentally and emotionally. He encouraged Radford to make the most of his “borrowed time” and to pursue goals that would give his life purpose.

Sitting at a coffee shop table with his head propped on his hand, Radford hesitated to describe all Diggs meant to him.

“It’s almost a disservice to put it into words,” he said. “He saved my life.”

A year later, Radford gained notoriety for his role as a student activist at Erie Community College. And many years after that, he faced similar scrutiny and criticism for his role as a parent advocate in the Buffalo Public Schools.

Had he not been shot and had he not met Diggs, Radford said he never would have challenged leaders in education who he believed – then and now – have failed in their mission to educate youth.

As the son of a strict disciplinarian father and a Marine trained to follow the chain of command, it wasn’t in his nature.

“I just wouldn’t have had that kind of courage,” he said.

But after his brush with death in 1992, everything changed.

“If I have a fear,” he said, “it’s the fear of facing death without doing all I’m supposed to do in life.”

Education activism

Within a year of being shot, Radford began making headlines.

As president of the Black Student Union at Erie Community College and later as student government president, he assailed the college for its high dropout rate among black men.

In a strange twist of fate, he wound up doing some of his campaigning against the college with fellow ECC student Verlon Tuck, the man who had shot him and then enrolled at the college after doing a short prison stint for felony reckless endangerment and assault.

Radford clashed with the City Campus’ dean of students, Daniel Penfold, who was eventually transferred from the City Campus. He protested the allocation of club fees, challenged the college’s student election process, and was charged with inciting a riot. Radford pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and trespassing.

Penfold – who retired in 2010 as ECC’s executive vice president for student affairs – did not offer fond memories of those days. He recalled that Radford wanted immediate change to problems that took time and patience to address – a criticism School Board members now level at Radford.

“Sam was unique,” Penfold said, “and I’m sure he has a different perspective on what occurred at the college than others.”

Though many new student groups were sparked under Radford’s leadership, a county audit found that thousands of dollars earmarked for those groups may have been misspent. Radford said he never had direct access to funds as a student, but the college tightened up its financial practices afterward.

Radford acknowledged that he was naive about a lot of things back then. He struggled with the damage to his reputation, the emotional pain his family endured, and his sudden inability to find a job in town. In light of the heavy price he paid, he said, he would have done some things differently in retrospect.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Radford said.

Though critics may disagree, he added, “I’m much more sensitive now to the reality that when people have been socialized a certain way, they can’t see it the way I see it.”

A teacher’s ‘magic’

Radford eventually divorced and remarried. While his second wife was taking undergraduate courses in teaching, the couple became increasingly disenchanted with the Buffalo Public Schools. For several years starting in 1998, they home-schooled seven of their children.

Shortly after that, Radford became a group home coordinator for a youth detention program with Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth. The program housed seriously troubled kids involved in nonfelony offenses.

“Almost all the kids who came to us could barely read or write,” he said.

He recalled the city school district sending three different teachers to instruct these dozen kids, only to have the instructors give up after a few days or weeks.

Then Dolletha Holmes came.

For two days, Radford said, she didn’t teach the kids anything. She just talked to them. She discovered that one boy liked comic books, another liked cooking, and another was into model cars. One boy, a porn addict, was also a computer genius.

So Holmes crafted 12 individual lesson plans, centered on each child’s point of interest. Suddenly, kids couldn’t wait for class, he said. They sat quietly. They listened. And even though they could barely understand their homework, they struggled through it every night.

“To see what I saw, it was magic,” Radford said. “That really changed my life. I knew from that point on that every child can learn.”

He contrasts that with what’s happening in the Buffalo Public Schools now. There are more reasons given for why children fail than good plans executed to help them succeed, he said.

“In Buffalo, we’ve lost that,” he said. “We’ve lost the expectation that every child can learn.”

Getting inside

Radford delved into city school activism in 2005 as co-chair of a local advocacy group spawned by the Millions More Movement that marked the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March. After a while, though, he expressed frustration that his concerns weren’t being addressed.

An adviser finally told him, “You can’t change this from the outside.”

So Radford also got involved in his children’s school leadership team, headed up the PTA and joined the District Parent Coordinating Council, the organization responsible for representing parent interests on a districtwide level.

Radford became vice president of the parent group in 2009 and president in 2012. Since then, the council has continued to raise its profile and make news.

Dorothy Gray, PTO president of Martin Luther King School 39, has worked with Radford for the past 11 years. She said Radford has awakened disenfranchised parents to their role as advocates in a district where many have long felt ignored.

“He’s the best advocate we’ve got for our children, besides the parents, and he makes sure the parents know all there is to know to help our children succeed,” she said. “I’m not going to take anything from anybody who was in charge before. We worked on a lot of things, but we didn’t get things rolling until Sam Radford became a part of the DPCC.”

In May 2011, Radford organized a “Day of Absence” from Buffalo schools to protest the district’s high academic failure rates. Public officials and community stakeholders convened big meetings to discuss Buffalo’s education crisis.

Many disagreed with the boycott and were disappointed by the lack of changes spawned by the meetings and rallies. But the parents group was never again taken for granted.

Critics and controversy

While Radford has plenty of supporters, he’s no stranger to controversy.

Frustrated by the parent council’s repeated criticism of the school district, various district leaders and community members have challenged the group’s official standing as the district’s parent partner.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore called Radford, who has often criticized the union, “self-aggrandizing.”

“It seems to me that he has turned the DPCC into an adversarial organization, looking to lob hand-grenades and start battles and make a name for himself by tearing others down than working constructively to make this a better place for our kids,” Rumore said. “I don’t see them working together to deal with the absenteeism problem. I don’t see any of those offerings.”

Edward C. Bennett Sr., whose son is a student representative on the School Board, had a similar view.

“The time Radford uses in the Board of Education meetings are used to promote himself and to continue his tirade of being critical to the board members,” Bennett said. “No solutions are ever brought to the table.”

Board members routinely express frustration that many of the district changes the parent council demands require what they see as unrealistic overhauls and investments that would cost the district millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, rival groups appear to be sprouting. Faith-based community group VOICE-Buffalo has organized a new Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization and is developing other school-based PTOs outside of the DPCC’s purview.

“We’re definitely trying to counter the narrative that everything is wrong with our schools,” said organizer Shaketa Redden. “Of course there are things that have to be worked on, but there are good things happening, as well.”

Though school representation within the parent council has swelled in recent years, Radford has been accused of not fairly representing all parents’ concerns and not doing more to raise low parent involvement districtwide.

“No one person can represent all parents,” responded Wendy Mistretta, a member of the DPCC executive committee. “You think every parent can agree with Sam? That’s a crazy expectation. Not every teacher agrees with Phil Rumore. If you have a legitimate concern about something, he will always listen. If your facts contradict his opinion, he will always adapt.”

The District Parent Coordinating Council is an advocate for parents the way the Buffalo Teachers Federation represents and advocates for teachers, Radford said. He contends many don’t understand the group’s watchdog role of ensuring the district complies with parent involvement rules and the allocation of grant money.

He also dismisses outside criticism that his group hasn’t done enough to educate parents about their own responsibilities toward their children’s education.

“What resources does the DPCC have available to do that?” he said. “You’re talking about a strictly volunteer organization that has no access to district funds ... We can contribute. We can help. But you can’t hold us accountable for that.”

If anyone has the resources to get parents more engaged, he said, it’s the district’s own Office of Parent and Family Engagement, which the district funds and staffs full time.

No blind loyalties

Radford’s positions on many issues have changed and broadened over the last decade.

These days, he is often at odds with the teachers union and union-backed education advocacy groups for which he used to work. He also faces heat from some in the black community for being at odds with the district’s African-American superintendent and board majority.

But as the husband of an educator who runs a charter school and father to 14 children – three of whom currently attend Buffalo Public Schools – Radford said the district’s academic crisis supersedes politics and blind loyalties.

“We’re more focused on the issue,” he said, “and less focused on the people now.”

He added that he learned a lot raising two sets of children at different points in his life. His children have attended public schools, Catholic schools and charter schools. All but one of his older children went on to college, but they weren’t all straight-A kids.

He says he knows what parents shouldn’t have to settle for.

“I’ve seen it all,” he said.

Radford recalled long arguments with his wife about whether to transfer one younger son out of Martin Luther King School 39, one of many city schools in bad standing with the state.

Radford argued that their son should stay.

“We have to fight to make the school better,” he told her.

His wife argued that their son deserved the best education, and if he wasn’t getting it at MLK, he needed to be transferred elsewhere.

In November 2012, their son was transferred to Olmsted School 156. Radford’s other school-age children attend Hutch-Tech and City Honors, all well-performing schools with admissions criteria that other kids can’t meet.

Radford shook his head at what he considered to be his own hypocrisy.

“On a personal level,” he said, “I just feel really guilty.”

He also feels angry. What his children have, he said, is what all children deserve but aren’t getting.

“This is criminal,” he said.

Radford’s conviction has led him to push harder for the rights of parents to transfer their children out of struggling schools and into better ones – be they public, charter or private. He figures if failing schools keep emptying out, the district will be forced to improve them.

As a result of a successful complaint filed with the state, the school district will now be closing three underperforming schools and launching five new schools.

That outcome has encouraged the parents group to file even more state complaints and legal appeals on a slew of other matters, from a shortage of physical education classes to forged parent signatures on state documents.

Despite all of this, Radford maintains that there’s no better time to be involved as a district parent and have hope for the future. With Say Yes Buffalo now offering students a tuition-free path to college, he said, parents must push to ensure that poverty ceases to be a barrier to a good education.

Board Member Theresa Harris-Tigg, a liaison to the parent council, said she admires Radford’s passion for justice but wishes he was more understanding. She and other school officials also say they’ve always respected input from parents, but in a district the size of Buffalo’s, change takes time.

“It appears to be a hostile conversation every single time,” she said. “It’s just concerning to me.”

Radford contends that a more cooperative parent approach “got us ignored” while too many of the city’s children fall further behind every day.

“What I’m in favor of is the best educational option for students, wherever it’s at,” he said. “Public education is just a means to an end. I have no unconditional commitment to traditional public schools. I went to traditional public schools; so did the vast majority of my children. I’m a big supporter of public schools – when they work.”

For much more on Radford, visit the School Zone blog at BuffaloNews.com/schoolzone email: stan@buffnews.com