Syracuse Schools: A new way of doing business

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."

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