What exactly is the problem with Syracuse city schools? What is the reason behind the low test scores and mildly applaudable graduation rates that are slowly improving yet still pale in comparison to surrounding suburban schools? There might be, some argue, truth in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s stance that it is indeed a problem with inadequate teaching, reflected in low student performance on standardized tests.
But, what about the teachers who have been on both sides of the line that differentiates the “definitely going to college” crowd from the “might-not-even graduate” mass of city high-schoolers? These teachers — educational outliers who have taught in both city and suburban classrooms — own an unusual perspective mixed with a decided uneasiness to share.
Chrissy Quijano is one of them. She knows why so many — indeed most — choose not to say anything, or speak with so much care as to obfuscate as much as enlighten.
The 30-year-old Spanish teacher tiptoes through a conversation about her experiences as a teacher in two city school district vs. now, where she works in one of the county’s better-performing high schools: Westhill Senior High School.
Quijano, a Westvale native and Westhill High School alumna, peppers her comments often with “I don’t want to say anything wrong,” as she muses about the differences between two city schools where she’s taught (Anthony A. Henninger High School and Thomas J. Corcoran High School) and Westhill. Her cautiousness is akin to the uneasiness of a visitor to a new church who is plagued with knowing more gospel than the choir.
Quijano previously taught at Corcoran High School, where she had a much different experience than at Westhill.|Ricardo Imbert, staff photo
She knows she wasn’t at either place for very long. She knows that her students in the city face a different set of challenges than her suburban students who attend Westhill. She knows that talking about public schools can be polarizing. Yet, she knows that her 360-degree view of the schools in Onondaga County is something that’ embedded in who she is as a teacher now, something important.
The facts speak.
Some 84 percent of African-Americans in Onondaga County live in areas of low educational opportunity, according to the Central New York Fair Housing Council’s 2014 report. Some 51 percent live in areas that are characterized as having low or very low neighborhood opportunity, the same report found.
Conversely, over 55 percent of Onondaga County’s white population lives in areas of high or very high educational opportunity.
As black and white as these numbers are on paper, there is an ever-hazy gray area that clouds why some schools perform better than others.
Quijano still grapples with defining why her experiences at these three schools have been so drastically different, because she can’t find just one reason. She is careful.
“I think each of the schools, even though they’re in the same school district, they’re very different from each other,” she said. “The kids are coming from different neighborhoods. They’re coming from different dynamics from their neighborhood and from their home. I think the teachers and administrators have different challenges in each of those buildings.”
The young teacher is now at Westhill High School because of budget cuts that removed her from Henninger, then Corcoran and then a long-term substitute teaching position she had at Jamesville-DeWitt High School
At the city schools, she sometimes felt herself reaching for a dependable line of parental support not within her grasp. Aside from the many behavioral challenges she faced when managing her classroom, not being able to call up someone’s mom, dad or grandparent could be even more vexing.
“There were also times when you go to contact somebody and all the numbers that they’ve given, they don’t work anymore or they’ve changed and you can’t get ahold of anyone,” she said.
Quijano acknowledges how different her students’ home lives were from her own, and how much it affected their preparedness for the school day, their eagerness to tackle their own education.
“When I came home, I knew that I was going to have dinner ready for me. I knew that the lights were going to be on. I knew that I was going to have a ride to school the next day. There was never a question about that,” she said of growing up in a middle-class neighborhood with two college-educated parents and two older college-educated brothers.
Quijano, in many ways, reflects the average Westhill student. There, 91 percent of its student population was white in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the New York State Education Department.
She is representative of the 97 percent graduation rate claimed by Westhill for students who complete high school in four years. She is also like the typical 55 percent of Westhill students who plan to attend a four-year college after graduating high school, according to Westhill’s most recent state school report card.
Her background couldn’t be further from the average city school district child, who is typically black, attends a school system where the graduation rate is just over 50 percent, and where the plans of attending a four-year institution sits at just 20 percent.
Quijano fully realizes the differences between her and her city school students, about the privilege that was embedded in her skin and her zip code.
“That’s where you kind of get frustrated with the state and the government who wants the same expectations from a school like Corcoran as they do from Westhill,” she said.
“Every single kid at Westhill, just about, they have their materials. They have their backpack. You go to the city, you can count the kids who are leaving school that don’t have the backpack. … They live at one address today, and they’re going to live at another address a couple weeks from now. That instability within their environment makes it very difficult to come to school every day ready to learn, ready to go, and on top of that understand that value that is in it. When you’re seeing your dad or grandma or your grandpa just struggling day by day to support you the best that they can.”
Defining what exactly is “the best” for city schools is a puzzle.
Mario Rios Perez is a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Education, where he teaches about the political and cultural history of education to undergraduate and graduate students.
Perez said that teachers and parents must collaborate in order to change the discrepancies between such schools as Corcoran and Westhill, which sit a mere two miles apart. Moreover, he said that communities should consider re-districting themselves so that one group doesn’t haven’t more resources or advantages over another, as is the current state of school districts in Syracuse and throughout the country.
The recent Central New York Fair Housing report poses the question of a countywide school district, an idea many would say is simply out of reach.
“What schools do is a really powerful thing,” Perez said. “Schools are a space that legitimize hard work but also legitimize failure. In other words, if you go to school and you work hard, you’ll succeed. You’ll get a great job, have the possibility to move out of your neighborhood if that’s what you desire. Be happy in life. That’s the great American dream.”
Quijano witnessed not just a divide between schools, but within.
When she was a teacher at Corcoran, the school was divided into the A-building and the B-building.
The A-building mainly housed the International Baccalaureate (IB) students, students who were academically advanced and who could receive college credit. The B-building housed freshmen and all the other non-IB students.
Mario Rios Perez teaches political and cultural history of education at Syracuse University.|Lateshia Beachum, staff photo
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
Opportunity Indices: Syracuse rates among nation’s worst
According to research done by the Urban Institute, Syracuse is one of the worst-scoring U.S. cities when considering equality of opportunity based on race and ethnicity. To analyze the “opportunity gaps” that exist between whites and other races and ethnicities, the Urban Institute used five indicators of opportunity: residential segregation, neighborhood affluence, public school quality, employment and homeownership. The resulting opportunity scores were then mapped around three factors: housing and neighborhood opportunity, economic opportunity and educational outcomes.
According to the indices, Syracuse ranked 97th on a list of 100 metro areas in the research, earning an “F” when it comes to the opportunity gap between whites and African-Americans. When comparing ethnicities in Syracuse, namely the opportunity gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics, the research showed another low score: 92nd on a list of 100.
— 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
Quijano said students in the B-building knew they weren’t on the same playing field as students in the A-building. B-building students had to reach their building through a bridge, said Quijano, who taught mostly in the B-building.
“It was like the haves and the have-nots and they knew it,” she said. “That environment permeated through that building. It wasn’t good.”
Quijano now finds herself in an atmosphere that is seeped in success.
Instead of hearing conversation about whether or not someone will pass or fail a class or Regents exams, as she did in the city schools, she is now hearing conversations about how many colleges a Westhill high school student is thinking about applying to. Instead of hearing concerns about what will happen in the next few years, she is hearing about jam-packed student schedules that are the warm-up for reaching their five-year plan, something she said many of her city students didn’t have.
Westhill and Corcoran indeed are two miles apart — but where Quijano teaches today, it feels more like two worlds.