What does the success of a public school system have to do with the prosperity and attractiveness of a town? Potentially, a great deal, particularly if it is a small or medium-size city where the economy has fallen away in recent decades.
Time has not treated the Rust Belt cities of the Northeast kindly. Places that thrived by “making things” have been in decline for decades. Think of Providence, R.I., and jewelry; Springfield, Mass., and small manufacturing; Waterbury, Conn., and brass; and Allentown, Pa., and textiles and apparel.
In Trenton, a slogan painted on the side of the bridge across the Delaware River connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania boasts: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” But about all that is made in Trenton today are the laws the New Jersey legislature enacts in the Statehouse just a few blocks from the bridge. The days of manufacturing pottery, steel, and rubber seem as distant as George Washington crossing the Delaware on a stormy night etched in history.
Invariably, the public school systems in postindustrial cities like Trenton have wasted away alongside the economies. Low test scores, high dropout rates, and inadequate preparation for college and careers have characterized public education when hard times have gripped such cities. The public schools struggle to cope as the enrollments of racial and ethnic minorities grow.
Urban metropolises such as New York City, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles can still get by with faltering public schools that families with any degree of choice avoid. These major-league cities enjoy large-scale service economies and function as entertainment hubs for people who either have no children in the public schools or commute to jobs from the suburbs.
Consider Philadelphia, where the museums and orchestra, along with the sports teams and businesses, flourish while the impoverished school system limps along. But small and medium-size cities lack the attractions that enable urban centers to prosper despite dismal schools.
Syracuse, N.Y., fits the profile of places where public education deteriorated as the city’s economic engine sputtered. Once, many of the country’s air conditioners were manufactured in and around Syracuse—the home of the Carrier Corp.—which no longer makes any units in the city. During the last decades of the 1900s, school statistics in Syracuse steadily slipped until only about half the students made it to graduation. Middle-class families fled along with industry.
Then, in 2008, along came the nonprofit Say Yes to Education Foundation, of New York City, with an offer that Syracuse (like those approached by Vito Corleone) could hardly resist. At the time, Syracuse was one of the only upstate New York locales willing to comply with the non-negotiable criteria that Say Yes put forth: set a goal of postsecondary completion; commit to transparent and sustainable fiscal management; partner with higher education, government, and the private sector; and use data to determine what works.
Among the first to step forward to grasp the Say Yes banner was Stephanie A. Miner, then a member of the Syracuse common council and now the city’s mayor. “I could list 10 education issues that have been the flavor of the month,” she said. “The only answer I heard for education’s problems was ‘more money.’ This was the first time that I saw a solution.”
In exchange, Say Yes promised to raise enough money to provide college-tuition scholarships for all qualified graduates of the city’s five public high schools. In turn, the Syracuse school district pledged to work with Say Yes to improve the system.
This meant, as a new superintendent hired with the backing of Say Yes recognized, that the schools had to set expected learning outcomes, create a more coherent curriculum, improve special education, monitor student progress, extend learning time, address social-emotional needs, and provide more professional development for teachers.
The universal-scholarship approach is similar to ones taken by the Pittsburgh Promise and the Kalamazoo Promise: Supporters of school improvement also obligated themselves to confer scholarships on all high school graduates in order to enhance those Pennsylvania and Michigan communities.
A stated goal in Pittsburgh, for example, is to “deploy a well-prepared and energized workforce.” And in Cincinnati and the nearby Kentucky cities of Newport and Covington, some 300 organizations, including government entities, service organizations, and business groups, created Strive, an effort dedicated to upgrading public education for the sake of the communities as well as for the students.
Elsewhere, recognizing that government and business have a stake in school reform, some two dozen municipally based foundations, nonprofits, and mayors’ offices formed themselves into a network called the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust.
More than in most locales, Say Yes in Syracuse —and since 2012, in Buffalo, N.Y., as well—has linked school reform and scholarships to urban revival. The aim is a smarter workforce to lure business and industry, a healthier residential real estate market, less demand for social services that serve the needy, and lower crime rates. “This will make the city and the county more attractive to people who want to buy homes and raise their children in a safe environment,” Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler told me.
Say Yes, in other words, sold Syracuse on the notion that better public schools could retain the dwindling middle class and attract more such people, while enfranchising families that had lost hope. Say Yes’ effort in Syracuse differs from similar programs in the extent of its ambitions.
Among the lessons from Syracuse are these: Collaboration by school systems with other entities can capture opportunities for real change; improved public education has the potential to give a community greater appeal; and, regardless of outside help, the school system itself must be willing and able to address its deficiencies.
The Syracuse experience shows that school reform is a protracted undertaking requiring patience for the long haul on a train that transverses treacherous terrain toward a destination that appears to keep fading into the distance.
The tuition scholarships already ensure that many more of Syracuse’s high school graduates go on to higher education. In other positive signs, downtown construction in the city has increased and juvenile crime has ebbed since Say Yes moved into Syracuse.
But still only half the students get high school diplomas in four years and, according to state education department figures, fewer than 10 percent of students in 3rd through 8th grade in Syracuse met or exceeded standards in English and math in April 2013 testing, as compared with statewide averages of 31 percent on the new, more challenging curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards.
Now, five years after Say Yes’ arrival, which coincided with the onset of a lingering recession that has threatened to upend good intentions, fiscally stressed Syracuse is inching along.
The promise of better days remains, drawing President Barack Obama to Syracuse last August to proclaim in a speech: “We’re hoping more cities follow your example because what you’re doing is critical not just to Syracuse’s future, but to America’s future.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Cultivating Hope in Struggling Smaller Cities