The problem with education in Schenectady is poverty
Listening to Schenectady parents speak passionately about their children’s education is uplifting, even if the problems the city school district faces today are much deeper than the argument over which model of education, K-5 or K-8, works best.
Ironically, no one seems able to substantiate which model is superior to the other. This makes the ongoing dispute between parents and the school board somewhat moot, albeit still an important discussion.
The fact is, the school district has been struggling with poor graduation rates, overcrowding and unsafe conditions since Linton merged with Schenectady High School in 1992. Having graduated from the school district just over a decade ago, I have firsthand knowledge of the type of educational environment that students deal with on a daily basis. No matter what halls I walked down, whether they were at Pleasant Valley, Howe magnet, Mont Pleasant or Schenectady High, there remained one constant — students at these schools were either willing to learn or not.
This notion is quite ubiquitous, but it is the most fundamental problem the school district faces today. Many students lack the will to learn and the reasons behind this unwillingness are deep and perceptible.
Now, if you want to try to argue that a K-5 or K-8 model facilitates a better educational environment for children and makes them more enthusiastic towards learning, go right ahead.
I’m placing most of my stock in parents. While a strong curriculum and apt teachers are imperative to a child’s education, it is parents that are the game changers.
But it would be unfair of me to arbitrarily blame parents for a poor graduation rate. No, the problem with education in Schenectady is the fact that it is competing against systematic poverty.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 the city of Schenectady had a poverty rate of 22.6 percent and its school district had a graduation rate of 58.9 percent. Not to mention, an estimated 17,000 Schenectady County residents received some form of public assistance via food stamps.
It probably isn’t a stretch of the imagination to presume that city residents make up a majority of the county’s food stamp recipients.
What isn’t a stretch at all, but rather a cold hard truth, is the direct link between poverty and education.
Those who don’t see this link just assume Schenectady has bad students. Those who only partially see the link assume parents are purely to blame for the failings of their children.
But it takes a keen eye to see that poverty is the all-encompassing issue when it comes to education. A student who lives in impoverished conditions might be less willing to learn, because the poor circumstances they are engulfed in at home put them at a severe disadvantage as opposed to a non-impoverished student.
Don’t believe me? Look at Schenectady’s neighbors to the left and right. In 2012 the city of Albany had a poverty rate of 25 percent and its school district had a graduation rate of 49.2 percent, while Amsterdam had a poverty rate of 19.9 percent and a graduation rate of 62 percent.
All three cities and their school districts had and continue to have higher poverty rates and lower graduation rates than the state average, which stand at 14.5 percent and 74 percent. So while I offer only a small sampling, the data clearly show the higher the poverty rate, the lower the graduation rate.
We can argue all day about education models, teacher evaluations and standardized tests; but if poverty remains unaddressed, then all of these things will amount to little when trying to improve graduation rates.
Furthermore, no amount of increase in spending on a per-pupil basis will significantly combat the effects of poverty.
Unfortunately for Superintendent Laurence Spring and the school board, they have no tools at their disposal to fix Schenectady’s poverty problem.
That’s not to say that after-school programs and subsidized lunches aren’t beneficial. Making sure students are properly fed and spend extra time with mentors are ways to improve education and even combat the effects of poverty, but fall very short in the grand scheme of things.
Changing the tide
And if government alone, with all of its resources, cannot solve poverty, and capitalism only seems to cause more disproportion, can anything really be done?
Perhaps a localized and collaborative effort on behalf of the school district, mayor, City Council, parents, students, community leaders and other players can effectively battle poverty and change the tide of education in Schenectady.
An effort such as this would require influential and like-minded people to come together and formulate a well-thought-out strategy. This strategy needs to adopt the concepts of outreach, recognition, information, guidance and assistance.
The disadvantaged must be made aware that their government and leaders care about them and their children’s education. But they also need to recognize that government cannot solve all of their problems and the educational opportunities presented to their children must be fully embraced.
There needs to be a mutual conversation between all parties, so the government and school district can best guide and assist impoverished parents and their children. This must be a long-term effort that breaks down social barriers, provides relief for economic difficulties and gets students on the right track toward learning.
The goal is to create an atmosphere of willingness, so schools in Schenectady can one day flourish and have a positive effect on the entire city.
Robert Caracciolo lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.