Jun 25, 2009 Herm Card Uncategorized
The Downtown Connection to Saying ‘Yes’:
Part I of an interview with Syracuse School Superintendent Dan Lowengard
Dan Lowengard gets it.
The “it” is education, specifically urban education. He understands the challenges, he understands the rewards. He understands the energy, the problems, the stereotypes. He understands that urban education, specifically urban education in Syracuse, is where he belongs.
That is why he is the superintendent of the Syracuse City School District.
And, that is why he has become the pivot man for the major philosophical, financial and structural collaboration that is the SCSD’s Say Yes to Education initiative.
Educational partnerships between universities and school districts are nothing new. Typically a department of a university will associate itself with a certain student demographic in a community and focus its energies in a specific activity. The results are generally beneficial to both entities, though somewhat short term.
The partnership Lowengard entered into with Say Yes has an entirely different scope. Instead of a segment of the Syracuse school community, Lowengard helped engineer the largest such partnership in the country, committing the entire school district, some 20,000 students, to a new era in urban education.
As outlined in previous installments of this series, Say Yes brings to bear the type of resources that superintendents, urban superintendents in particular, can only dream of.
In the early planning:
Speaking of the early planning, the early meetings, Lowengard said that “Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey was the first person I ever talked to who said that the difference between where we are now and where we need to be is $3,500 per year per student. Oddly enough, the three studies that we had done came up with the exact same figure of $3,500, which is a 65 to 70 million dollar annual price tag. The SCSD was looking at a similar amount, in the 75 to 80 million dollar range, as their proceeds from the Fiscal Equity law suit settlement.
“First, I knew that she had the right number, and two, at some point we get that money (from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement) and if we have the discipline to spend the new money differently, we could make this work,” he said.
Say Yes had approached the upstate “Big Four” school districts, but according to Lowengard, “When she came up with the $3,500 figure, that’s where the other districts jumped off.”
Schmitt-Carey suggested the SCSD set up a pilot program with five or six elementary schools to see how the program would work on that scale.
“I remember saying that we were not really interested in that,” Lowengard said. “I know pilots will work, so let’s figure out how to do it in an entire city. My question was, how do you build the capacity to do this? We can’t roll it out across the district all at once. First of all, we aren’t getting that $3,500 per student all at once.
Say Yes to the whole district
“They (Say Yes) agreed that we were going to take on the whole district, not just small parts of the city. The last part was that we had talked about starting in kindergarten, first grade, etc. Well, the public doesn’t have the patience for something like “‘I promise you that in twelve years ‘
That’s where some of the Say Yes supports come into being. Lowengard, in a sense, was going to be able to walk into an auditorium and tell seniors they had won the lottery. The Say Yes program was in a position to do the unheard of — to provide the funding necessary to send qualified students to college. The program would be able to unfold at both ends, providing incentives at one and support funding at the other.
“That was a great first meeting. Those two (Schmitt-Carey and Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor) are really pushing the envelope in school reform and economic development in places I don’t think anyone has even thought of before,” Lowengard said.
Eliminating the stumbling blocks
Urban education has its own unique stumbling blocks. The demographics of a city do not always work positively in encouraging and/or enabling students to pursue their immediate educational needs, let alone higher education.
According to Lowengard, the Say Yes initiative takes great strides towards eliminating those stumbling blocks.
Given the long-term aspect of the program, an immediate concern of the community would be how can the district monitor results as the program unfolds. There is no question that the New York State Education Department believes that standardized assessment testing in grades three through eight is a valid method. This “validity” tends to ignore the hard facts of urban education, ignoring the demographic, economic and societal stumbling blocks inherent to city live.
You can intervene in a student’s lives at any point, but the most success is when we can intervene in kindergarten or Pre-K. But we, as a country, don’t have the patience. If we had the patience, then we would put every dollar we have into full-blown Pre-K where we would get the most bang for our buck. But, we aren’t in a position to just ignore the rest of the kids.”
The ultimate game plan
Lowengard speaks of the unfortunate fact that “We have 1,600 kids start in kindergarten, but every year I only get to sign 1000 diplomas, so along the way I lose 600 kids. So what we’re doing right now is making things good for a thousand, but we have a plan in place to make that thousand go to 1,600. And that’s the true gain for this community.”
Whether all kids go to college or not, making sure we don’t lose 600 kids a year is the real game plan. That number will get smaller.
“The unfortunate thing is that we read about the low scores for this year’s eighth graders (on New York State Assessment Tests) and know that those kids will struggle over the next four years. The good thing is that the kids behind them won’t have that struggle because we’ve already put things in place that 78 percent of our third and fourth graders are on grade level, but again, people don’t want to wait for those results.”
Lowengard made the point that while the program is beginning at the lower grades, and one district quadrant at a time, “the important thing is we aren’t giving up on the rest.”
NEXT: The superintendent’s thoughts on the state of urban education and the role of Say Yes and Syracuse University in making Syracuse better.