Hope And Despair In The American City

Hope & Despair book

Originally uploaded by Phil At Sun

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.

5 thoughts on “Hope And Despair In The American City

  1. Thanks for this post. I wish I would have known about this meeting.

    My wife and I are Upstate natives, who just spent three years in Northern Virginia, and recently purchased a home in the city. We have both recently finished reading Jerry Grant’s book and could not agree more with his analysis.

    I have one more suggestion as to how to start “way to start punching gateways through the invisible wall that he states has been built between the city and its suburbs.”

    Expand the idea that is Central Tech. I am not sure how many people realize that the city has a fifth high school. The premise for the school is promising however it is underfunded. The school district should renovate the old Central High building and create a flagship high school that would be attractive to the middle class- whether city dweller or suburbanite. City Honors High School in Buffalo which ranks among the best high schools in the nation year after year should be a model.

    Urban sprawl has absolutely killed Western and Central New York. A county-wide school district and metro government along with a sensible growth boundary would go a long way to securing a healthy future for our region.


  2. Thanks for commenting on my blog. Jerry Grant pitched using Central Tech as the facility for his proposed University Arts High School. My only concern is the time and effort that has gone into finding a way to rehabilitate the school as a vocational tech high school. One of the essential things this city needs is decent technical education, I think it would piss off a bunch of folks for the only decent idea for vocational tech education to come around in years was abandoned for yet another program for gifted students.


  3. Phil I really enjoy your blog.

    I agree that the city needs vocational education and that is part of what Central Tech is offering; I just think it should be expanded. A countywide consolidation of school districts (and I would love all government) is years of hard work away. A signature school is something that could be done over a shorter course of time if SCSD was willing to dedicate it self to. If we ever want to attract families from the suburbs, out of the area and retain the middle class we have in the city, the schools must be improved. If we were able to create a nationally recognized school of excellence, I believe it would give us a fighting chance.

    Instead of creating University Arts as a charter school put it under the umbrella of SCSD.


  4. Thanks for the nice comments about the blog. I agree that we need to find a way to attract excellent students to the system: look at the great public schools in NYC: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science–that have rigorous competitive exams to qualify for admission. Poor families and rich alike know that they are passports to admission to great colleges–without the private school admission tag.

    We need to attend to both ends of the student spectrum–the gifted and those looking for more technical/vocational training. Neither group should have to share attention and resources–each should have their own facility.


  5. I too wanted to attend this session. My children attend city schools. I predict they will graduate from Nottingham. However, I watch their peer group drift away with the first wave in grade 1 through 3 and then the more predictable proactive move before 7th grade. It is a painful reality. The feedback i hear is lack of academic rigor and that the highest performers in the city school systems are not accomodated for. I can hear vociferous rejections of this claims from my counterparts in the City schools but I can see where those who flee are coming from.

    However, I am conflicted about Jerry Grant’s suggestions. Do we really want to bus our kids all over the place? Is it politically feasible to do so? Maybe so though I am not feeling it.

    I would like to see us come up with a smart way to make City schools more attractive to people that want to live in the city – such as create a science curriculum that is ultra-competitive say through environmental service learning that connects schools to the green infrastructure the city is about to partake in. Research documents how hands on experience accerlates learning. And many children have nature deficit disorder.

    It is tragic to our entire region that your zip code determines the quality of our childrens school experience. No one wins from the annual production of under-educated yout


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