by Kelly Lawler)
In 2008, city leaders in the upstate New York city of Syracuse made an audacious gamble: They bet that a large-scale improvement of public schools — including a push to send all of their kids to college — could turn their economy around. To undertake the effort, they brought in a little-known New York City-based non-profit called Say Yes to Education Inc. It had pursued similar ventures throughout the Northeast, including intervening in kids' lives early on and sending many urban kids to college, but never on this scale.
The effort intrigued author Gene Maeroff, who spent five years investigating. The result is his new book, Reforming a School System, Reviving a City (Palgrave Macmillan, $30). Maeroff is no stranger to urban school politics — the former national education correspondent for The New York Times, he's now president of the Edison, N.J., school board. USA Today's Greg Toppo spoke to him recently:
Toppo: What makes Syracuse and its schools appropriate for an intervention like this?
Maeroff: Syracuse and Say Yes were a good fit for two reasons: The city's economy began suffering long before the Great Recession and the quality of its schools had been slipping for years. Say Yes offered the prospect of improving the city by giving it many more college graduates as a result of its scholarship program. The city and the school system needed resuscitation. Say Yes's scholarships are a costly intervention and the expense would be prohibitive in a large city like Chicago or Los Angeles. Say Yes, from the start in 2008, has been raising funds from private donors, foundations and other sources to build an endowment that will have the ability to fund the scholarships in perpetuity.
Q: Say Yes essentially audited the education that Syracuse students were receiving. What were the findings?
A: Say Yes commissioned and paid for exhaustive audit reports by consultants on the district's human resources; curriculum and instruction; finances; special education; technology; and mental health supports. Most school systems seldom if ever comb through their operations in so revealing a manner. Say Yes and the district made the findings public.
While the schools were found wanting, in many respects the audits were a candid starting point for improving operations. The audits pinpointed, for instance, areas that were overstaffed, the need for more rigor in the curriculum, unevenness in the allocation of funds to individual schools, policies that assigned too many youngsters to special education, questionable use of technology funds, and ways to provide better social-emotional supports.
Q: You write that Say Yes has helped strengthen the school board. How did they do that, and what's the effect been?
A: In the eyes of many, including some of its members, the school board in Syracuse was dysfunctional. Say Yes's arrival marked a turning point, simply because many citizens saw the public schools in a new and more encouraging light. Some new members were elected to the board and even the holdovers appeared to commit themselves to change.One of the most important results was their willingness to let Say Yes play a role in the search for a new superintendent. The school board retained the legal power to make the actual appointment but took advantage of Say Yes's extensive network of contacts to find top-flight candidates, including Sharon Contreras, who eventually took the job.
Q: You also talk about how the program is beginning to play a part in "reviving a city." What does that look like? Can we see results yet?
A: Say Yes reasons that the scholarships will enhance the city itself, especially by enabling the public schools to hold on to middle-class families and attract more. Families of all income levels are eligible for the scholarships. As a result, Say Yes hopes that homes in Syracuse will become more desirable, a pool of more college-educated young people will draw business and industry to town, crime will decrease and the need for social services will diminish.
These changes will take years to realize. Downtown construction has recently had a rebirth of sorts and juvenile crime has ebbed, but it is speculative to credit these changes solely to the impact of Say Yes. Some buyers say that the scholarships were a factor in purchasing homes in the city, but others still say that they want to see more improvements in combating crime and in the academic quality of the schools.
Syracuse is typical of small- and medium-size postindustrial cities in the Northeast and the Midwest in the problems of its economy and its public schools. If it can become a model of rejuvenation then there will be much for other towns to learn.