Aug 25, 2009 Herm Card Uncategorized
Typically, one might expect a state of the schools address to be a somewhat staid, data-heavy exercise designed to explain, with as little controversy as possible, such matters as test scores, building repair, taxes, jobs and programs to be instituted to solve all the problems that plague education in general and urban education in particular.
The audience of district administrators, school board members, faculty, staff and community members that attended this year’s State of the Schools in Syracuse was in for a bit of a surprise. Following the greeting by Deputy Superintendent Christine Vogelsang, the singing of The Star Spangled Banner by 2009 Nottingham graduate Dan Field and the powerful invocation delivered by Akua Goodrich, an energy filled the Fowler High School auditorium that not only reflected the message of the day, but the true state of the Syracuse City School District (SCSD).
Kim Rohadfox-Ceaser, Board of Education President, and Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll praised the efforts and success of the school district.
Rohadfox-Ceaser said that in a Monday meeting, New York State Regent Lester Young said that “Only Syracuse, New York, had the vision to set as a goal post secondary completion — they had a vision and a goal. The supports in Syracuse are what we need.”
Mayor Driscoll praised the progress of the district during his tenure as mayor, and praised the community’s willingness to support the Say Yes initiative. Some call Say Yes a home run — I call it a grand slam.”
Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, CEO of Say Yes to Education was enthusiastic, and accurate, in her praise for the SCSD’s willingness to become the only city in the country to affiliate itself district wide with the program that this year enabled more than 600 SCSD students to receive full college tuition at a cost of some $30,000,000 that was not paid by Syracuse tax payers.
“Syracuse will become the model for urban education, not only in New York, but across the nation,” she said. “This is the most gratifying work I’ve done in the past two decades. Dennis Van Roekel (President of the National Education Association) called Say Yes ‘The most important thing happening in the country.'”
The state of the schools
Introduced as “a man who doesn’t believe in barriers,” Lowengard took the stage and thanked the previous speakers, saying that “We don’t share our speeches and they used up a lot of my stuff — besides, my daughter told me it was too long anyway. But (smiling) that’s not going to save you.”
In his talk, (not completely data free), he covered the success of the Say Yes program, but reminded the audience that Say Yes was not the only successful program in the SCSD.
The district has partnered with CNY Works and with Gear Up at Syracuse University to provide hands on experiences for students that combine education with practical application — another positive step in making school and “real life” compatible and meaningful.
The district has implemented the Johns Hopkins Ninth Grade Talent Development Program, designed to make the eighth to ninth grade transition less of a struggle. The SCSD 4-Tiered Instruction and Behavioral Expectations and Support System helps to identify students at risk of academic or behavioral difficulties early enough to implement specific interventions to prevent serious problems in those areas.
An increase of some 75 seats in the Pre-K program will enhance the district’s mission to provide early education and establish a sound foundation for the school experience.
The Urban Teacher Calendar (UTC) program involving some 3,600 students and staff during the past summer, created a hands-on, based program designed to maintain the flow of educational energy that often comes to a halt at the end of school in June.
The district’s sixth School Based Health Center was opened at H.W. Smith, providing a step toward solving the problem of 7,000 SCSD students lacking health insurance. Along with the legal clinics opened throughout the district and an increase on in-school counseling service, the district is making major strides toward removing some of the stumbling blocks to education. Lowengard said, “Children’s lives are not linear. Over 16,000 students are living below the poverty level. We need to remove some of the barriers that impede their progress. My philosophy is ‘It is what it is — how are we going to deal with it?'”
Dealing with it
SCSD is striving to involve parents more in the day to day progress of their children. A newly instituted program will make students’ attendance, performance and academic status available online on a daily basis.
“I believe in transparent accountability. We want parents involved,” Lowengard said.
He made it clear that the SCSD’s standardized test scores in English and math had both increased, by 20 and 25 percent, respectively, but that was not sufficient. With the trend of approximately 700 students failing to graduate each year, he was clear that was not acceptable, and that it was essential that more students succeed — at a projected rate of 70 and 75 percent on the standardized tests in order to enhance their ability and opportunity to graduate.
“Some say this is too high, but we don’t. We have overcome a deficiency of certified teachers resulting in 97 percent of the district’s faculty being certified (by New York State). That’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
“Our goal is to move forward. No more pilots (programs). We need to insure that our programs are scalable (the right size) and sustainable,” he continued. “To the sustainability end, we have our financial house in order.
We are ‘right sizing’ the district, reducing by 57 positions. We have fair contracts with our bargaining units and a projected increase of $5,000,000 in our fund balance.
“We must insure that the CFE (Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit settlement) is paid. I will be the first one back in court if it is not.”
Work to be done
While the “big dollars” Say Yes program is not costly to the district, such things as building repairs are, and there is much repair and renovation that is needed. A number of schools are in line for renovation, with Blodgett the main thorn in the side of the SCSD.
Renovating Blodgett is not only necessary educationally, but also important in order to retain an important sense of community on the West Side.
“People want to rebuild that community,” he said.
Emphasizing that the process has taken too long, the superintendent said, “Blodgett has become a symbol of unwillingness to move forward. We need to put this in the hands of the people who build schools and get out of their way.”
“Currently it is estimated that the renovation will cost $10,000,000 but that works out to only about $9 per household as the taxpayers’ share.”
Lowengard concluded with another of his beliefs in the form of a pledge to the community on behalf of the SCSD — “We will give our young people hope and we will give our adults a sense of accomplishment that they have provided for their children.”
The finale of the event was an apt metaphor for the state of the schools. Five young Syracuse students, Shaughnessy Jones (Lincoln) Shabbak Hampton (McKinley-Brighton) Declan and Austin Shaughnessy (Franklin Magnet) and Love Nicholson (McKinley Brighton), performed Akua Goodrich’s poem “The Voice of 20,000.”
The poem is a reflection of the energy, hope and promise of the district. It includes this line: Teach me! Together we can accomplish everything, anything, all things.
Editors’ note: for Akua Goodrich’s complete poem, see next week’s City Muse right here in the City Eagle.