I went to a meeting of FOCUS Greater Syracuse today–one of the many good government groups that try to make an impact on our city. They have their meetings at the ungodly hour of 7:30 AM and the mostly older and white folks run around wearing buttons emblazoned with B+. For years I’ve always joked about creating a C – button for the cynics in the crowd.
Anyway, I went to hear Jerry Grant, the author of the book Hope And Despair In The American City. His book details two communities dealing with segregation and how it has an impact on education. In Raleigh in 1976, the city faced falling property values and a failing school system that threatened the nascent Research Triangle tech business (since businesses would not locate to areas without good schools for employees kids and potential new hires.)
So, despite opposition, Wake County created a county-wide school system. In addition, the district set a goal of limiting rates of poverty in all schools to below 40% to achieve a mixture of economic classes within each school. The sub-title of this book is “Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh”, but it is also a truism that there are no “poor” schools either–the kind of school where just getting kids’ boats to stop rocking from the effects of poverty is considered a victory, the kind of school that doesn’t have the resources–either in cash or in human capital–to truly educate children.
If Raleigh is the poster child for hope in this book, as evidenced by increased test scores and home values, Syracuse is the poster child for despair–the declining rust belt city whose affluent and middle class folks have largely fled to the suburbs, leaving behind a school system where 80% of the children come from families whose low income qualifies them for free and subsidized lunches from the federal government.
The book really hit home for me. I was educated in the affluent Fayetteville-Manlius school district, yet ended up living and working in the Syracuse neighborhoods Mr. Grant writes about.
At the question and answer session after Mr. Grant’s talk, a parent with kids in the city school district showed that attitudes about suburban schoolkids are just as stereotypical as those held by others about city kids:
“I’d never have my kids educated in Fayetteville,” she said, “they’re like cookie-cutter kids, all the same.”
Jerry Grant had a few strategies that he presented as a way to start punching gateways through the invisible wall that he states has been built between the city and its suburbs Among those are:
1) a voluntary busing program between the city and suburbs similar to a long running voluntary busing program in Boston. In Boston this program, while perhaps helping to forestall calls for consolidation, has also developed a powerful network of allies in both the city and suburbs, a cadre of advocates for desegregation that is sorely lacking in Syracuse.
2) Create two powerful charter schools–one a University Arts High School with teachers from many disciplines at Syracuse U. and another a high school that recruits hundreds of local businesses and non-profits to offer internships to augment traditional educational offerings. Each of these schools would have up to 49% of its enrollment from outside the city–creating two integrated and attractive schools.
The hard work is all ahead of us. Jerry Grant wrote this book because of his desire to jump start the discussions that need to happen in Syracuse to talk about the patterns of segregation that have led to ineffective education and a perpetuation of terrible and grinding poverty in the city. The commitment of the city government, Syracuse University and the city school district to the Say Yes To Education program is a good start. But we have a long way to go if Syracuse wants to stop being the model for Despair in the American City.
It was troubling to see only two African-Americans in a mostly full Common Council chamber and also troubling to note that this conversation, so well received in downtown Syracuse, probably would receive a frosty reception out in Fayetteville and Liverpool and Clay and Dewitt and Skaneateles etc. So let’s break out of our middle-class, good government cocoon, schedule some meetings at a decent hour and try to drag some suburbanites into the mix.