With the introduction of a new liaison for the Ithaca City school district (ICSD), Cornell has officially established an official representative for its outreach efforts to improve conditions for the City’s students. The provost committee has named Cal Walker, former associate director of the Learning Strategies Center, as the first liaison for the school district. Walker has worked for Cornell for the past 14 years, but has been active in the Ithaca community — specifically the school district — for the past 31 years.
Walker has been tutoring students since 1976. His passion for improving school conditions led him to co-found Village at Ithaca, a grassroots community based organization formed to “ensue better educational outcomes for students, especially African-American, Latino and low-income students,” Walker said.
In his new position, Walker is excited to pursue his passion with the University. As an employee, he realizes the tremendous opportunities the university can provide.
“Having worked at Cornell since 1993, I have an appreciation for what it takes for students to succeed at a high level. I understand what they will need in high school in order for them to be successful in college.”
According to Steve Hamilton, associate provost for outreach, the University has a vested interest in improving ICSD. Many members of Cornell’s staff attended or have children who attend Ithaca’s schools. The University wants to do its best to provide its employees and their children with the best possible education.
“Cornell is vitally interested in ensuring that the Ithaca school district is an excellent educational experience for students and families. It affects recruiting of staff and administrators who want their kids to have a great education,” Walker said.
Cornell, along with ICSD, has an even more ambitious goal of completely eliminating race, class and disabilities as predictors of school success.
“That’s an outrageous goal in the sense no one has done that. But it’s very important to try. Through this appointment we’re committing Cornell to help in that effort,” Hamilton said.
According to Walker, historically underrepresented minorities and low-income students tend to graduate at lower level rates and do not do as well academically.
“Nationally, we talk about meeting all needs with ‘No Child Left Behind.’ We are indeed leaving some students behind. We weren’t doing the best we could possibly do,” Walker said.
According to Hamilton, Cornell has about 30 different outreach programs operating to assist ICSD. The provost committee wanted to formalize the partnership between the University and ICSD, so they approved to create a liaison position.
“Cal is a highly respected civic leader in the community. There is no better person to do this work than Cal,” Hamilton said.
While associate director of the Learning Strategies Center, Walker committed himself to help Cornell’s students at the grassroots level. According to Ernie Jolly ’09, co-president of Black Students United, Walker helped him at a personal level, even though they never had an official work relationship.
“Cal Walker has been a mentor and father figure for me since PSP [Pre-freshman Summer Program]. As a young man I look up to him, almost like a father,” Jolly said. “He is very active in the black community and the church community.”
Stephanie Purnell ’10 also first met Cal Walker at the Pre-freshman Summer Program. She ended up getting a job at the Learning Strategies Center and worked closely with him. From her experience, she has a lot of confidence in Cal Walker to exceed the expectations of the liaison position.
“During PSP he was very hands-on even when he wasn’t necessarily supposed to be. Most times people in high positions don’t make time to get really involved but Cal made an honest effort to help students academically and encourage students,” Purnell said. “He made life at Cornell more comfortable for me personally.”
Jolly feels just as confident in Walker’s abilities.
“He will exceed the responsibility,” Jolly said. “That is where his calling is; outreach to the Ithaca students as a leader at the grassroots level.”
“Cal Walker is really fun guy,” Purnell said. “It says a lot when a person can devote so much time to help people.”
Jolly said that he, along with his peers, will never forget Walker’s most famous and used quote “It’s easier to keep up than to catch up.” There is a confident consensus among him and others who know Walker that he will help Ithaca City’s students, especially those from historically underrepresented groups, from finally not needing to catch up.