Education Day 2019

By Caitlin E. Moriarty, CenterState CEO – Tech Garden

Leadership Greater Syracuse’s 2019 Class recently gathered for their Education Day to be exposed to themes of inequality and potential action items that might help level the playing field in order to provide an equal opportunity for all in education. The day was organized to focus on three main themes of inequality – funding, literacy, and mental health support. However, a multitude of other themes and points of interest emerged through the powerful speakers, experiences, and discussions that took place throughout the day. The LGS cohort arrived at the OCM BOCES Thompson Road Campus to hand-decorated brown bags full of healthy snacks and coffee to prepare them for a day of candid realities, blatant inequity, and challenged notions.

Each speaker was asked the same two questions: 1) From their perspective, what is the biggest inequality impacting the Syracuse area education system, and 2) On an individual level, what can we do to pursue a more even playing field for all in education. Some of their answers and insights are provided throughout this post.

LGS alumni and friends Jamie Alicea, Superintendent of the Syracuse City School District (SCSD), and Jody Manning, District Superintendent of OCM BOCES, kicked off the day with some truths and realities on both of their wonderful education organizations. For example, the SCSD has 21,153 students enrolled. These students speak 84 different languages and are from over 60 different countries. Four out of five of these children are considered to be from low income households. OCM BOCES just celebrated their 70th Anniversary last year and their Innovative Tech program celebrated a 100% graduation rate with 82% of students going on to pursue a college degree. Both expressed a hopeful, but dissatisfied, perspective which helped set the appropriate mindset to be able to accept and celebrate the progress and wins, and be simultaneously disappointed and angered by other realities and systemic shortcomings that would be seen and heard throughout the day.

Both men believed that the greatest inequality impacting the Syracuse area education system is the zip codes system. They believe the zip codes are forcing the 700 school districts in NYS to compete when they should be collaborating. A county wide system would increase access by eliminating silos. As individuals, they recommend speaking up about eliminating the zip code system.

Taking their very own field trip, the LGS class jumped onto a bus and made their way to Dr. Edwin E. Weeks Jr. Elementary School where they met with Michael Collins, Executive Director of the adjoining Northeast Community Center, and Diane Vitello, Principal of the Dr. Weeks Elementary School. Led by staff, the LGS class was able to take an in-depth tour of the renovated school, popping in and out of different classrooms, where they were able to interact with students, witness how they are leveraging technology in their classrooms, and hear about how Dr. Weeks is successfully utilizing restorative practices with their students (i.e. starting their day off with yoga, and instead of detention being allowed a space to process and destress before making their way back to class).

Some of the additional inequalities and challenges that emerged at Dr. Weeks include how students who live within 1 ½ miles of the school without access to cars (regardless of age) must walk, how student absences are typically a result of having to take care of younger siblings or parents, how only 1/5 students are currently able to read on grade level, and how parents from other countries are qualified for jobs, but their credentials from foreign institutions aren’t recognized in the US, which is one of the many reasons they have trouble finding employment.

Michael Collins shared that the biggest inequality impacting the Syracuse area education system is, simply and obviously, segregation. As individuals, he recommended making every effort to be aware of segregation, be intentional about seeking where to have a positive impact, and make the effort to affect change on the system.

At the Northeast Community Center, LGS students made offerings to their basic needs pantry, and two mental health professionals shared the complex challenges of trying to provide mental health support to students in schools. They shared:

  • There is a limited number of clinicians with a maximum case load of 35 students, so students are put on waiting lists and turned away on a drop-in basis
  • Hiring more clinicians requires the school to have funding available up front, because all funding support is reimbursement based
  • Clinicians need permission from a parent or guardian to speak to the child, but also be able to visit that child at home. They are finding that families are not willing to permit these mental health clinicians to have access to home visits, and therefore, do not give permission to treat the child at all
  • Clinicians are only able to bill for 45 minutes even if that child and their parent needs multiple hours of that mental health professionals time
  • The mental health clinician has no way of being informed if there is a lapse in insurance coverage for that child’s family

So, even when schools are able to make mental health support available, it is extremely limited as a result of these challenges.

“These Kids Are Figuring Out Shit, Without Shit.”

  • Deka Dancil, LGS Class of 2019

Back at OCM BOCES, the culinary students offered an absolutely delicious lunch before the LGS cohort took tours of the amazing CTE and Innovation Tech programs. They were clearly excited to witness the project-based and experiential learning methodologies and incredible facilities and equipment available to these students. However, many from LGS were shocked to learn that the facilities and opportunities at OCM BOCES are not available to students who belong to the SCSD, but only to students of the suburban districts. While the SCSD does also have CTE programs, they are not even comparable to what OCM BOCES is able to offer.

Heading into the afternoon lineup of speakers, Rick Timbs, Executive Director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, addressed what could have been the very dry topic of how schools are financed, with easily one of the most engaging and eye-opening presentations of the day. He started off his presentation with a verbal warning against averages, “My head is in the oven, my feet are in the freezer, and on average, I feel just fine.” The purpose of this warning was to illustrate that the average figures so often used do not tell a truthful story. He also defined the difference between equality – giving each person the same thing, and equity – providing the same outcome or fairness in every situation. He explained the unreliability of the funding equation that unsuccessfully decides how much each school is awarded state funding. Moral of the story – the equation consists of FRPL stats (free or reduced-price lunch) being reported out by cafeteria managers, and census poverty data that is almost 2 decades old. He explained the challenge of trying to share a small pie of funds available where every school demands a piece, even if their wealth is 74 times greater than the average for NYS. The funding process for our education system is very, very broken.

Dr. Timbs believes that the underfunding of Pre-K and early literacy is the biggest inequality impacting the Syracuse area education system. As individuals, he recommends talking to legislature to infuse funding into pre-k with a bigger slice of the pie focused on literacy skills. Which was a perfect segue to our last speaker of the day…

Ginny Carmody, Executive Director of the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County and the last speaker of Education Day, agrees with Dr. Timbs that funding and focus on literacy skills and access to books is the greatest inequality impacting the Syracuse area education system. As individuals, she encourages promoting and taking advantage of great opportunities like the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, where all children residing in Onondaga County can receive a new book every month from birth until the age of 5 for free!

This Education Day intentionally provoked the re-evaluation of educational institutions, methodologies, and assumptions. LGS’s 2019 Class walked away knowing there is much room for improvement, but there is also progress being made, available calls to action, and passionate leadership taking ownership of implementing solutions to increase equity in funding, literacy, mental health support, and more to level the playing field in pursuit of an equal opportunity for all in education.