Forestville Board Member Earns State Honor On Caucus
FORESTVILLE — Sylvester Cleary has served the Forestville Central School District for the last several years as a member of the Board of Education, constantly advocating for the best possible education for the students. While people in the area know of Cleary’s dedication to the town where he’s lived for 40 years, he is getting some recognition on a statewide scale.
Recently, Cleary was appointed as the president of the New York State Caucus of Black School Board Members, which also means he serves as the Area 3 director. Cleary now gets a bigger stage to both represent the students he cares so deeply about as well as promoting the education and diversity of local school boards and communities across the country.
“Sylvester is one special individual,” said Forestville Superintendent Renee Garrett. “He has such positive energy. Syl serves as an inspiration for all. He never backs down as an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusivity. He strives to be the best and works toward always sharing his talents and gifts with everyone he encounters.”
Cleary, who was elected as president just a few weeks ago, has served on the caucus for a few years and was nominated by his fellow board members for the presidency. The caucus was founded in the ’80s in the Hempstead School District by Joyce Brown, who sought to give more representation to black school board members across the state. As Hempstead is located on Long Island, a lot of the issues the caucus tackles focus on downstate, which is something Cleary can help expand on.
“Most of the things that happened are downstate in the New York City area,” Cleary said. “It’s nice for us to have representation. I’ve been trying to push education in Chautauqua County since I started.”
Cleary’s motivation comes from his experience at Portville Elementary School in the early 1950s. When he was in grade school, there was a group of kids who did their best to make Cleary feel inferior. Cleary and his brother were the only black people in the school at a time where the Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy in the United States. They would make fun of him, what he wore, what he ate, and even go as far as to hide his homework so he would get incomplete. And according to Cleary, their treatment worked. But deep down, he knew there had to be something better than that.
“The reason I’m so committed is because I had a hard time coming up and getting an education in New York,” Cleary said. “I always thought one day I’d be in a position to help. That whole concept of feeling inferior goes on with you, and it takes a long time to get over that. After I got up in school, I realized it happens to a lot of kids, and that stifles their ability to progress. That’s one reason I’m so dedicated, I don’t want to see that happen to anyone else. I’ve learned to make my mess my message, and that gives me fuel to keep going.”
Because of his experience, volunteer service is something that Cleary is no stranger to. Cleary has been a member of the Forestville School Board of Education since 2010, in addition to serving as a member of the Board of Directors for the New York State School Boards Association. He has also served as a Boy Scout Scoutmaster in Forestville for 12 years, and taught an afterschool program called SPARKS for six years. In addition, he is a member of the Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES Board of Education and is president of the Chautauqua County School Board Association, bringing his total involvement with different school boards to five.
“Sylvester Cleary is an outstanding and inspiring board member and a consummate advocate for children and public education in our region,” said E2CC Boces Superintendent Dr. David O’Rourke. “Both E2CC BOCES and Forestville Central School District are fortunate to have him as a trustee.”
Since joining the board, Cleary has made it evident that his primary focus is on whatever is best for the students. In 2016, he wrote and produced a song called “Stand Up for Public Education,” which was played at the National School Boards Association during its convention in 2016. Cleary produces several videos, all of which can be found on his YouTube page. He’s created a few different songs and videos advocating for the highest benefits of students, including one called “Nothing Less,” which encourages students to discover and grow their own individual greatness, which is the message he tries to spread the most.
“One thing I’ve found out that stands above all is my message to every kid that ‘There is greatness in you,’ “ Cleary said. “It’s the responsibility of educators to help kids identify their individual greatness and go to work developing greatness.”
In 2013, he did a song called “Word to the Bully,” getting students, a local dance studio, school board members, staff, community members, local businesses, and a handful of churches in on participation. On top of all of this, Cleary is a motivational speaker, using his energy and personality to engage with local communities.
“This man is one amazing individual. He truly is like no other,” Garrett said. “He’s always positive, upbeat, and holds a strong sense of purpose. He is clearly a man of faith. Everyone that encounters him knows that he is an extremely principled individual that promotes understanding and tolerance in others. Those that know him are fortunate to have him in their lives. Sylvester Cleary embodies outstanding service and advocacy for children.”
Cleary has already received the lifetime achievement from the NYSSBA, which he earned within his first few years, while it takes most people 15 years to earn.
His dedication to students is evident, and according to his wife, may just make him a little crazy.
“My wife thinks I’m insane, I can tell you that,” Cleary said. “I have to give her and my family credit. I’m very committed to school board work and helping kids.”
Cleary, now 76, has seen a lot over his years, but through it all, has maintained his mission to help students all across the state get the best education experience they can possibly get.