Dec 30, 2009 Herm Card Uncategorized
Syracuse school district’s plan of attack is “Yes we can.”
“A new way of doing business.” It’s a phrase Syracuse City School District (SCSD) Superintendent Dan Lowengard frequently uses about current events in the district. As it turns out, becoming a mantra of sorts, a philosophical focus of the energy spreading throughout the SCSD.
While it certainly can relate to the financial aspect of operating an urban school district, education is not quantifiable in the same way that business is. The “bottom line” of education is far more subjective than many people would think. It is not easily evaluated, defined or driven by data.
Education is a subjective entity that depends on the energy of those who support it, provide it and receive it. The traditional view of education is that teachers, students and staff show up at a predetermined time at an established location, and education takes place. They are “in school.”
Eventually, for whatever reason, “school” ends. Those who reach established criteria that determines an end point, their time in school had been considered to be a success, and can lead to more education or a productive and successful working career. For those who, for whatever reason, do not reach that point, their time in school is said to be unsuccessful — a failure.
By that standard, each year the SCSD itself has been “failing” about 500 times. No one — no one — involved in education in Syracuse considers that acceptable, and by the same token, no one considers it inevitable. For too long, though, it has been accepted by those
outside the education community as an unavoidable, sad truth of urban education. The SCSD is turning that around.
According to Lowengard, “We use something called a ‘cohort (incoming 9th grade class) survival rate.’ Our best marker is the number of kids on grade level in 9th grade — and that class (entering in 2005, graduating in 2009) had 20 percent on grade level but we graduated 50 percent, so over that four year period out high school teachers are working very hard with the kids. Now, that’s still leaving out 50 percent, which isn’t acceptable. We don’t give up on kids. In the last three years we’ve seen our kids getting closer to 50 percent on grade level. If we can continue to pick up 50 percent of them, (in high school) that gets us into the 70-75 percent range and that’s pretty good.”
The new way
The “new way of doing business?” Increase the likelihood of success, by eliminating the factors that can lead to failure. That’s a fairly obvious concept that seems to be out of reach of a school district. By relieving the factors that inhibit education outside of school, the actions inside the school can take on their true role.
With the advent of the Say Yes to Education program, many of the outside impediments are being removed.
“I don’t like roadblocks,” Lowengard says.
Changing the ability of students to attend school regularly, with adequate nutrition, health and well being, is a major boost for their opportunity to succeed. But — once that is accomplished, there is still the issue of what happens in the classroom.
To that end, there is a new way of doing business during the school day, but it is not something that has magically appeared — it is a new way of doing business with what is not totally new. The talent, energy and commitment of the teachers, staff and administration in the SCSD have never been at a higher level. It is bolstered by a commitment on the highest levels to insure:
* Increased emphasis on student attendance
* Increased productive time in school
* Increased availability of college level and advanced courses
* Increased opportunity for tutoring
* Increased attention to the individual student
Anyone who has the opportunity to visit classrooms in the SCSD schools will feel the energy of an educational system that “gets it” and is committed to making sure that everyone does.
Example: Shortly after the end of the first marking period of the school year, Fowler High School’s entire ninth grade class met, individually, with a member of the Syracuse business community or SCSD administrative staff member to review his or her first quarter report card.
Coordinated by Vice-principal Leanna Kirch, the event allowed each of the ninth graders to sit with an adult and discuss, confidentially, their academic work so far, and receive advice, if needed, on how to improve, or conversation regarding ways to continue to succeed at or above their current level. Snippets of conversation from the meetings made it clear that not every student was succeeding, but that the conversations were giving them the chance to talk about it safely — without fear of parental or peer censure or rebuke, and that they were being given the opportunity to reflect on what and how they needed to approach school if they were to succeed.
Students who were being successful had that reinforced and students who were somewhere in between received reinforcement of their success and the encouragement to improve what needed work.
Similar conferences have taken place in the rest of the district’s high schools, and will again at the end of each quarter.
Of course putting programs in place is one thing, but having them succeed is another thing entirely. Superintendent Lowengard is not afraid to admit some things just don’t work as well in practice as he would like, but he is equally determined that they eventually will.
“There has been a lot of concern about our new school time frame. In reality, we have created opportunities for students to take advantage of more college courses or other activities. It is not a program to force students into study halls they don’t need. Teachers are still available — and willing — to provide extra help. There is some tweaking to do, and we are in the process of doing it.
“Our Gear Up tutoring program through SU did not get off the ground like we hoped it would, but it will. It will not only provide students the chance to be tutored, it will provide other students the chance to be tutors and make some money.
“The economy tanked at the worst possible time, causing some private schools to pull back on some of the scholarship programs and putting some income caps in place for the Say Yes scholarships. We will work that out.
“It is important to note that the income caps mentioned are in the $75,000 range, $30,000 higher than most schools impose, and they do not affect Syracuse University or SUNY and CUNY schools, and we only have a handful of kids that would have been affected by that.
“Students still have to go through the standard financial aid process to qualify — and we are working with them on that process in all the high schools. Remember, Say Yes is only useful to students who qualify to be accepted to college. This is still the most lucrative college aid program we know of.”
Remember — Superintendent Lowengard does not like, or believe in, roadblocks.