A trendy cabaret in Brooklyn was packed to the balcony on the night of the first presidential debate, drawing a crowd of 250 for Tackling Poverty, a new series sponsored by the nonprofit City Limits. The sleek Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO leaves the impression of distance from the topic, yet as City Council Member Letitia James pointed out, it lies within a 15-minute walk of two struggling public schools. Neither have enough books, one has a high number of special needs students and at the other, one in five students live at a shelter. Her opening remarks began the first panel of the series, which focused on education as a solution to poverty.
Three experts in the field of education and one U.S. State Attorney gathered to discuss meeting needs from from outside the school system, at a time when the Department of Education must cut its budget mid-year and the poverty rate in New York City has reached its highest point in a decade.
Huge color-coded maps of New York City and Brooklyn hung to either side of the stage, and James solemnly named the housing projects located in the areas whose colors indicated the lowest education attainment levels and the greatest poverty. The maps were created by series partner Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH), whose president, Ralph da Costa Nunez, reminded the audience of two Brooklyn trends.
“Brooklyn is the hottest borough, where people want to live,” he said, also pointing out that 24 percent of the city’s poor live in Brooklyn. He described a destabilization that has led to growing competition for low-income housing, and said Brooklyn is the “biggest feeder into the shelter system.” His remarks cited that three out of four children in NYC public schools receive free lunch and that 70 percent of the homeless in shelters have children.
The Robin Hood Foundation, which calls itself “the largest private poverty-fighting organization in New York City,” funds both public school programs and charter schools and was represented on the panel by Emary Aronson, its director of education and a New Yorker educated in the public school system.
“Education is the most powerful poverty fighting tool,” was her preface to addressing the issue of co-locating charter schools in public schools, something James had indicated hurt the latter.
“Your zip code should not be your destiny,” she said, referencing the fact that parents can apply to send their children to schools outside their districts. She went on to say charter schools in New York City aren’t “draining public schools.”
A general lack of collaboration between schools even in the same district was criticized by Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a direct action group that organizes parents in the 20-odd schools of District 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant and a small part of Crown Heights. While he builds partnerships and after-school programs he said that what is lacking is a mechanism to match people to educational programs and services that may be available to them.
“Teachers say, ‘We’ve got services here,’ but they’re outstripped by the level of need,” he said.
He added that poverty is not the only factor in hindering a child’s education, but other social issues are as well, such as abuse and broken homes.
The panelist who traveled farthest for the talk was David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh. Moderator Geoff Decker, a reporter for GothamSchools, asked him, “What is an investment in education?”
He came to his answer from a crime-fighter’s perspective.
“You can’t prosecute your way out of crime,” he said, naming “prevention and re-entry programs” for former inmates as progressive tools for his office. Saying that a future prison population can be predicted by childhood reading rates, he emphasized educational investments in early childhood reading, middle school math and improving graduation rates.
He also confidently announced that “mentoring is a silver bullet,” in terms of improving school performance.
Stephan Brumberg, professor of education at Brooklyn College, shared some New York education history throughout the evening and announced that a new mentoring program, Strive for College, was coming to Brooklyn. Founded in St. Louis in 2010 by an undergraduate student, the program pairs college undergrads with low-income high school students to guide them through applying for, enrolling in, and paying for college.
While the 1.5 hour talk did address extra-curricular programs, education history, partnerships and philosophical issues, the basic resources and services lacking in schools was not a focus.
Kesi Foster, a CUNY graduate and volunteer for the Coalition for Educational Justice, left the talk disappointed that state and federal funding for districts facing high levels of poverty were not discussed.
“Griffith mentioned that the school his child attends has more extra-curricular activities than the schools in the district they live in. I wish the panel addressed those inequities, because I don’t know how schools are supposed to solve the complex problems of systemic poverty if they’re not systemically funded fairly, based on their communities’ needs.”
“I believe Griffith was the only panelist who mentioned the need for more money to implement effective programs,” Foster continued. “In my mind, adequate support would mean every school in New York City has a library, every class has enough textbooks for students, every school has an adequate number of social workers and guidance counselors, no children are taking classes in makeshift trailers. But that’s not the case.”
Last month DNA Info reported that more than 8,000 students had classes in trailers and in a report released on Thursday, Controller John Liu recommends spending $170 million to hire 1,612 high school guidance counselors, which would improve college readiness and the student to counselor ratio to 100 to one, reports the New York Daily News.
Mark Anthony Thomas, director of City Limits, looked forward to turning the talk into action after the event, and perhaps serving as that missing mechanism to connect people to opportunities.
“The panelists cited a number of successful models, projects and research…There are immediate steps we can take to maximize the resources that are currently in place, providing more awareness to schools, parents and communities about what successful programs and services are available.”
The next installment of Tackling Poverty will focus on local and national policy on urban poverty and homelessness and take place at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem on Nov. 14.