For the Mills family, hope’s at the end of a four-hour drive in a Dodge Caravan.
They’ve splintered their home with purpose. Dispirited by decades of consistent disappointment, they’re dividing their family between two states in pursuit of something better.
Next stop: Dalmatia.
None of the South Side family’s kids have been able to graduate high school, a result that seemingly assures a cycle of living with little. So the determined band is taking some unusual measures to improve their lot and get out the economic hole they’ve been in here for years. Half the family’s left Syracuse and moved to Dalmatia, Pennsylvania, leaving the others still struggling here — but planning to reunite eventually.
Here, home’s a busted house. The basement floods when it rains, wind blows through the legion of cracks, bugs crawl out the grates in the floors, and walls are broken from years without maintenance. The neighborhood’s not safe, and the nearest middle and high schools graduate only about half their students.
So they’re making a run for it — albeit a fractured and slow one in the lone family van.
According to the recent CNY Fair Housing Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing, this setting requires little imagination. It’s reality for many Syracuse families. It’s certainly so for the 10-person Mills family, which lives in a six-bedroom house on Midland Avenue that costs $800 a month.
The family exemplifies much that CNY Fair Housing’s report identified as problems: low economic, educational and housing opportunity for low-income or minority residents across the board. There’s little quality housing around Onondaga County for such families, but especially so in the city proper and for large families with limited transportation.
The family has done its best to defy its census tract and zip code. The latest strategy is simply to leave.
Now, only Andy Mills, the 63-year-old father, his two sons, 20-year-old Nathan and 16-year-old Frederick, and his 25-year-old daughter Alice and her boyfriend live in the house. Kim, the mother of Andy’s children, moved to Dalmatia about three months ago with three of the youngest children and 18-year-old Jimmy. She moved to live with her mother. At the end of March, she planned to leave her mother’s house for a five-bedroom home that costs $550 per month. She mainly moved to get her kids out of Syracuse schools, which she felt weren’t doing enough to maintain a good learning environment.
“The kids weren’t getting what they needed (in Syracuse). I sent them to school to learn, not to get bullied.”
It’s much like a controlled experiment, though the variables in it are people and the outcomes are lives. By dividing, they’ve seen what has been better and what has been worse with some of the family in Syracuse and some of it in Pennsylvania.
Andy Mills lives in Syracuse with three of his children.|Jake Cappuccino, staff photo
One of the biggest differences, much to Kim’s joy, is the safety and quality of schools. Jimmy, a senior, is the only child to experience both educational systems and his experiences indicate some differences between the districts. The Syracuse City School District has had a notoriously hard time handling discipline problems, while Line Mountain, the school district that serves Dalmatia, is known for order — with an online bullying complaint form to deal with discipline.
While the SCSD serves about 20,000 students, the LMSD serves only about 1,200. For its 2014-2015 school budgets, the LMSD had about $21.6 million compared to the SCSD’s $375.4 million, averaging out to about $18,000 per pupil for both districts. Yet, despite similar amounts on the budget side, Jimmy has been able to find success in Pennsylvania that he couldn’t find in Syracuse.
“I don’t think I got any passing grades (in Syracuse). (In Pennsylvania), I get 80s and 90s,” he said. He explained this drastic difference in terms of opportunity and safety. “The environment is quieter and more welcoming. (In Syracuse), it’s kinda’ threatening.” Indeed, the discipline problems in the district in schools like Henninger High School has been well-documented. In an article for syracuse.com in January 2014, teachers voiced concerns that school discipline was getting worse and that the administration wasn’t doing enough to maintain order.
In June 2014 as a part of President Obama’s Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a report on discipline was released about the SCSD. The report, “Getting Back on Track: Syracuse Report on Student Discipline Practices,” found that Syracuse suspensions exceeded national averages.
In schools, “opportunity gap” between races is extreme
Among Onondaga County’s 18 school districts, the Syracuse City School District has the most students: 20,000. The second largest, North Syracuse Central Schools, has 9,000. But despite the large number of students in city schools, the educational opportunities are much better elsewhere. And with 84 percent of the county’s black students enrolled in Syracuse City Schools, this means that many African-Americans are being raised in an environment with low educational opportunities.
To better assess the disparities between school districts based on race and ethnicity, CNY Fair Housing used the Educational Opportunity Index. It takes several factors into account: percentage of adults with a college degree, percentage of youths enrolled in school, student poverty, classroom size, and 4th-grade reading and math proficiency scores. The resulting data showed that 84 percent of African-Americans live in areas with low or very low educational outcomes, while Hispanics and Asians face the same obstacle. More than half of the white population, on the other hand, lives in areas of high or very high educational opportunity.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Private market practices in rentals, lending and homeowner’s
insurance put some people at a disadvantage: minorities, families with children, people with disabilities and transgender individuals
There are many private market practices in rentals, lending and homeowner’s insurance that have been impediments to fair housing in Central New York. These practices include denying rental housing to individuals with mental illness and families with children, mortgage underwriting that leads to minority applicants being denied, and the fact that landlords can deny housing based on tenants’ gender identity. There are many recommended solutions to these problems. Among them: increasing access to sustainable mortgages for racial minorities; promoting gender identity as a protected class; supporting systemic investigations of housing discrimination; educating housing providers in fair housing laws; supporting fair housing education for protected classes; and supporting tenants’ rights education for all renters.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Race and geography: A striking imbalance
CNY Fair Housing found differences in poverty levels seen through geography and race. Geographically, the study found that in Syracuse and the surrounding areas, economic wealth is unevenly distributed. The city has large areas of concentrated poverty that is surrounded by more wealthy suburbs. Generally, in the city of Syracuse, Hispanic/Latino and Asian individuals are three times more likely to live in poverty, and black individuals are 2 1/2 times more likely to live in poverty compared to whites. Ethnic and racial minorities are almost exclusively found in the city, while the suburbs are more populated with whites.
Median household income for Onondaga County, including the city of Syracuse, is nearly double the median income for Syracuse alone. The study broke down the median household income by race and family type. It found that white households in the city earn 50 percent more than African-American or Asian households. Female-headed households have a median income that is close to 50 percent less than male-headed household and three times lower than households with married couples. CNY Fair Housing identifies these disparities in household income as one of the factors that affect housing opportunities.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Jimmy recalled a return visit to Henninger where he met with the principal to explain how he had improved so much. Jimmy didn’t mince words when he said basically the same thing as the teachers. “I said the environment was safer and I didn’t have to worry about someone fighting me or trying to sell me a drug I don’t know,” he said.
In terms of opportunity, Jimmy mentioned his ability to split time between a technical school for car collision and auto body repair, and classes at Line Mountain High School. He said in Syracuse he never knew about such an opportunity. “There could be many things here, but they won’t give you a chance here (in Syracuse). (The) schools here don’t provide access to that technical stuff,” he said.
Syracuse is introducing those kinds of options, but for students like Jimmy they were never realistic: too many suspensions, compounded by a learning disability. But now, Jimmy has almost graduated and will probably stay in Pennsylvania after he graduates to work on cars.
None of the older children, all of whom went to school in Syracuse, have high school diplomas. Nathan dropped out after repeat suspensions; now he studies for his GED and spends a lot of time at Beauchamp Library. He was bullied a lot in school and had a hard time letting things slide. In the last bullying incident before he dropped out, he had to be restrained from retaliating by a security guard and teacher. Somehow in the struggle, a door was broken, Nathan was blamed and suspended, and he never went back to Nottingham High School.
“They were always quick to suspend me,” he said.
He recalled: “One time that really stands out is when a girl punched me in the hallway cause I bumped into her.” The school couldn’t do anything because the incident wasn’t caught on camera. “(The) bullying was the last straw for me.”
Because of her family in Pennsylvania, Kim knew the schools were different, knew her kids could do better, and knew that Syracuse schools were not working for her kids. “They have zero tolerance for bullying (in Pennsylvania). I wish Syracuse schools were like the schools are there. It’s way better for Jimmy,” Kim said. Because of Jimmy’s success, Kim plans to bring Fred, the 16-year-old son, down to Pennsylvania for school since Fred just dropped out.
According to data from the CNY Fair Housing report, this story is typical for a family that lives where the Mills family does: census tract 58 ranked the lowest in educational opportunity. Indeed, the whole city is either “low” or “very low,” according to the housing report.
The Mills family can’t move out of the city to the suburbs, where rent would be unsustainable — yet where all the better-opportunity schools are clustered. Because of that, the younger members like Nathan and Fred have had to attend struggling city schools. In 2014, Henninger, Nottingham, and G.W. Fowler High School, the schools where the Mills kids had gone, had graduation rates of 49 percent, 60 percent, and 30 percent respectively, according to data from the New York State Department of Education. In 2014, the whole district had a graduation rate of 51 percent, compared to the statewide average of 76 percent.
Not being able to graduate means not being able to get a job, leaving Nathan where he is now: living at home, jobless.
He tried to get a job at Pizza Hut once. It wasn’t kitchen work or waiting on tables. It was a job outside waving an advertisement sign. The interview went well; he thought he got the job, but he never got the call. “If I could find a stable job that pays good where I know I won’t be fired for a while, I would gladly do it.”
Without a job, he can’t make enough money to get out of the house. But that’s not the only thing keeping him at home. The family only has one car, an 11-year-old red Dodge Grand Caravan minivan. Andy uses it every week to go visit the rest of the family in Pennsylvania, which means Nathan can be stuck for days at a time without independent transportation.
The house is a few blocks away from a bus stop, but with limited income, Nathan often can’t afford to get around. He collects about $730 in Social Security income per month for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and social anxieties.
So, not being able to afford transportation means even if Nathan could find a job, it would have to be close to where he lives on Midland. The problem, Nathan identified, is “not really being able to get a ride if I can get an interview.” The CNY Fair Housing report corroborates Nathan’s experience. “While generally, there is a reasonable amount of access to this service within the City of Syracuse, service to the outer suburbs is limited both in terms of the locations of bus routes and the frequency in which those lines are operated,” the report said.
But Andy can’t really make any additional money, either. He used to be employed as a heavy equipment operator. He operated cranes for 31 years before being fired about four years ago from Murtaugh Recycling for talking back to his boss about the crane breaking down while Andy was operating it.
The work left him with a bad back and shoulders that, when combined with his diabetes, forced him onto Social Security disability. He collects about $880 per month, most of which goes to rent and utilities. “Between rent and National Grid, you got no money,” Andy said. In February, one of the coldest Februaries on record in Syracuse, utilities cost about $450. So, with little money left over after expenses and little opportunity for new income, Andy and Nathan are stuck here for now.
They both hope to get out of Syracuse. Andy wants to move to Pennsylvania and Nathan just wants out of Syracuse. He’s considering moving to Pennsylvania too, but he doesn’t have high hopes to get out of the house on Midland Avenue soon.
Said Nathan: “I’ll probably be here awhile.”
Transportation services are limited from the Mills’ neighborhood, making it difficult to get to job interviews.|Jake Cappuccino, staff photo
The 2009-2010 report Getting Back on Track: Syracuse Report on Student Discipline Practices, showed the SCSD had the 186th highest suspension rate (30.8 percent) of 5,984 districts surveyed nationwide.
Of 8,180 suspended students, 38.2 percent were African-American, 29.5 percent were Hispanic, and 19.1 percent were white. In New York state, Syracuse had the fourth-worst suspension rate among districts surveyed.
The state has ordered Syracuse to hire a monitor to oversee discipline. According to the state’s recent numbers, 30 percent of all students were suspended at least once during the 2012-2013 school year. For 2011-2012, 25 percent of black students were suspended at least once, versus half that for whites —12 percent.