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Another Voice: Death penalty for schools doesn’t get at the real problems

By Timothy G. Kremer

What does it mean to impose a “death penalty” on low-performing schools? That’s what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has suggested recently.

While the governor’s unfortunate choice of words made for a memorable sound bite, his proposed means of administering the execution – a state takeover of schools, charter school conversions or mayoral control – address none of the root causes of poor student performance: poverty, transiency, absenteeism, inconsistent parental support, not to mention an untouchable teachers’ contract and a persistent rise in costs.

The Buffalo News recently pointed out that the lowest performing city high schools have the highest concentration of English language learners and a high level (80 percent) of students living in poverty.

Many studies point to the connection between a student’s poverty and poorer academic performance. Evidence that links poverty to learning disabilities and psychological stressors that affect student achievement is mounting, according to the American Psychological Association.

Fortunately, in a follow-up interview with The News, the governor pivoted to a more promising solution to lower performing schools: the concept of community schools. Community schools address many of the risk factors in students’ lives by offering mental health programs, health clinics, family support services and access to legal advice – and they get results. Graduation rates in Cincinnati Public Schools jumped from 51 percent to more than 80 percent since the adoption of Community Learning Centers over a decade ago, according to the Coalition for Community Schools. Students receiving additional services, such as tutoring, experienced larger gains in reading and math scores compared with students who did not receive services. The achievement gap between white and African-American students also decreased.

In Boston, children who were part of the City Connects program in kindergarten through grade five scored higher on state exams in English and math when they reached grades six to eight, according to the coalition.

Cuomo’s Community Schools Grant Initiative is a step in the right direction to promote student achievement and foster resiliency for students, families and communities most in need.

Under that program, 30 schools will receive up to $500,000 in grants over three years to provide academic, health, extracurricular and social services. But the $15 million in grant funding made available through his initiative isn’t enough to cover the need in Buffalo much less the rest of the state. Still, the grants are a lifeline, offering a much better chance at success than a death penalty.

Timothy G. Kremer is executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.