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Four Questions For... Gene I. Maeroff, Education Writer and Leader

By Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center

At AVID Center, we are fortunate for our connection to many thought leaders, including our board members. Gene I. Maeroff has been a member of the AVID Center Board of Directors since December 2010. He has done spectacular work in education as a researcher, writer, and leader. Maeroff joined Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1996 as the founding director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.

He is President of the school board in Edison, New Jersey, the former national education correspondent for The New York Times, and was a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 15 books, including his latest, Reforming a School System, Reviving a City: The Promise of Say Yes to Education in Syracuse, published this year. Recently, Mr. Maeroff responded to my questions about his work overall, and particularly his new book.

Gira: In researching and writing your new book Reforming a School System, Reviving a City, what did you learn that informs your thinking about college readiness and success?

Maeroff: Preparation for college readiness begins early. I suspected as much and my work on my new book underscores this fact. It is not much of a stretch to say that this sort of preparation begins during the years before children even enter school. I saw in Syracuse, New York, a fairly typical medium-size city, that getting ready for college is an uphill struggle for many students. Some start kindergarten barely knowing colors or numbers and they suffer from knowledge gaps they may never close.

Both AVID and Say Yes to Education recognize this challenge. The fact that AVID, a program that started with high school students, now has a growing AVID Elementary division represents an attempt to address needs long before youngsters reach the secondary level. For its part, Say Yes urged Syracuse to implement universal kindergarten, but the Syracuse City School District (SCSD) still has a long way to go and its efforts are held back by funding shortages.

Say Yes’s program in Syracuse, covering the entire district, began in 2008 with kindergarten and the first three grades of elementary school. The program has been adding a grade level each year. So the full program is not yet at the high school level. Nonetheless, Say Yes has encouraged the school system to take steps that will help students in high school get ready for college. This includes tutoring, college advising, the implementation of Naviance®, and promoting a more rigorous curriculum.

Being familiar with AVID, I wished that AVID were more widespread through the Syracuse Public Schools. This would help greatly in achieving the readiness that Say Yes seeks to see inculcated in the system’s high school graduates. Alas, this is not the case. SCSD has had AVID, but it reduced AVID participation for financial reasons. The school board gets its funds from the city, is not fiscally independent, and the city teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

The hallmark of Say Yes is a college tuition scholarship for every qualified graduate of the Syracuse public schools. Thus far, more of the system’s graduates are attending college than would have without Say Yes. Yet a weakened AVID program is not providing all that a better funded AVID program would.

The good news is that AVID seniors in Syracuse plan to attend college at a higher rate than their peers who are not part of AVID. Their intention to go to college increases with the number of years they participate in AVID. In 2012, for instance, 75.6 percent of those in AVID said they expected to go to college, while only 56 percent of those not in AVID indicated this preference.

The bad news is that the impact of AVID on the participants’ test performance was not significant. They scored no better than non-AVID students on New York State’s Regents exams in math, English, social studies, and science. It could be that deficiencies in the district’s instruction and curriculum affected all students equally.

Gira: You have known AVID for a long time as an author, AVID Center board member, and district board president, in Edison, New Jersey. What is it about AVID that makes you such a proponent of our work?

Maeroff: I first heard of AVID as I was completing Team Building for School Change, a book published in 1993. It was too late to include anything about AVID in that book even though I belatedly thought it would have been appropriate. As I recall, my first conversation with Mary Catherine Swanson came at about that time. Thus, I was ready when I launched my work for Altered Destinies, published in 1998, to journey to California to visit schools with AVID so that I could describe the program as one of the vehicles for Making Life Better for Schoolchildren in Need, the subtitle of the book.

I have said frequently that AVID in my opinion is—more than anything else—a professional development program for educators. The benefits that accrue to youngsters as a result of AVID happen because their teachers and administrators hone their knowledge, sharpen their skills and alter their attitudes as participants in AVID’s programs. Then, they become change agents for altering the lives of the students. How could anyone who knows this not be a proponent of AVID?

Probably, most AVID students have not enjoyed the advantages that typically are conferred on children who come from more affluent families. Success in school is immeasurably aided by such advantages. AVID cannot make up for everything that has not occurred previously in students’ lives, but it fills in a lot of the blanks. Anyone who hopes for better outcomes in our nation’s schools, particularly those in less advantaged settings, should seek to ensure that AVID prospers.

I have seen through my own eyes as a journalist and author, as a school board president in New Jersey, and as a member of the AVID Center Board of Directors the contributions that AVID can make to help youngsters get serious about their education and their ambitions.

I have witnessed this in a high school in San Ysidro, California, near the international border with Mexico, where the parents of some of the students crossed in the dead of night hoping to give better lives to their children. I have seen it in a high school just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, where low expectations had been the norm. And I have seen it in a high school in Edison, New Jersey, where students who never thought it would happen to them ended up on the honor roll.

Gira: A main feature of your new book is the work of the non-profit Say Yes to Education. How are AVID and Say Yes complementary and what can we learn from each other?

Maeroff: AVID and Say Yes to Education are indeed complementary. Both aim to move students into higher education. Each targets traditionally underserved students. Each operates from a position exogenous to the school system itself. The teachers and administrators do not receive their paychecks from either AVID or Say Yes.  Boards of education are independent of AVID and Say Yes.

AVID, though, does more clearly penetrate the classroom than Say Yes does. The professional development that AVID provides through Summer Institutes and other trainings goes further in influencing pedagogy and content in the classroom. While Say Yes encourages professional development and recognizes it as part of the Say Yes Theory of Change, the district itself remains responsible for making it happen.

These are the elements of the Say Yes Theory of Change:

  • Allocate resources in strategic ways that support educational goals
  •  Foster site-based accountability and learning autonomy based on a belief that lasting change does not come top down
  • Support professional development that enables educators to act in behalf of new expectations and responsibilities
  •  Provide vigorous curricula that have been proven to work with similar groups of students
  •  Promote data-informed decision making using a student monitoring and intervention system developed under the auspices of Say Yes
  •  Recruit, develop, and retain effective teachers and administrators who have incentives to do good work

What I would like to see, as a person who knows AVID from the inside as a member of the national board, and one deeply familiar with Say Yes as an outsider who spent several years documenting its work in Syracuse, is for the places in which Say Yes operates to adopt AVID as a basic part of their mission. It would be dynamite.

Gira: Your new book—as well as your previous work—examines how urban areas respond to educational needs. What are the critical factors in integrating the work of schools systems with the infrastructure of cities as that of other governmental agencies?

Maeroff: AVID could gain by learning about how Say Yes has carried out its mission in urban settings, which are the only venues in which Say Yes has operated. Such learning would be very timely as AVID acts on its new Urban Imperative. Before it attempted whole-district reform in Syracuse and Buffalo, Say Yes had programs for individual schools and for small groups of students in Philadelphia; Hartford; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and in the Harlem section of New York City.

Much has already been discussed within AVID about collaborations in the cities in which AVID decides to initiate pilot projects. This thinking within AVID holds that AVID should not try to go it alone in the cities; it would gain by forming partnerships.

Collaboration has been key to the work of Say Yes in Syracuse. It began, for instance, with the recognition that Onondaga County, not the City of Syracuse, was the main provider of social services for students in the Syracuse City School District. Thus, Say Yes acted as a broker or a conduit to see that the two levels of government worked together to facilitate delivery of services. “The school district has the kids and the county has the resources,” said Ann Rooney, deputy county executive for human services and a former city budget director.

Say Yes sets out to puncture the silos in which the levels of government operate, as separate from each other as strangers huddled in opposite corners of an elevator in a high-rise. As AVID moves into cities it, too, will have to find ways to bring people together on behalf of better education for the children who live in these places.

Gene I. Maeroff’s new book is Reforming a School System, Reviving a City: The Promise of Say Yes to Education in Syracuse, published in November by Palgrave Macmillan. More information is available at his web site— www.genemaeroff.com.

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