Improving Schenectady’s schools: City needs major initiative to help poor

Yes, yes, the Schenectady City School District deserves its fair share of state funding and then som
Schenectady High School
Schenectady High School

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Yes, yes, the Schenectady City School District deserves its fair share of state funding and then some more — a lot more.

But even then, would school leaders be able to guarantee an increase in test scores and graduation rates?

I’m not talking about marginal increases over, say, a decade. I mean a substantial boost in half the time. Is it even possible? I have my doubts.

According to a recent wealth management report, school district residents are some of the poorest in all of New York.

That’s not a very profound statement. Schenectady has been home to the poor and disadvantaged for decades. It didn’t just happen overnight.

No matter how well things are going downtown or on Upper Union, poverty resides only a block or two away in nearly any direction.

You can’t reasonably expect the school district to do anything about it. Its main job is to provide a quality education to its students on a shoe-string budget.

In turn, a good education is supposed to lift people and families out of poverty. It’s a long process that quite clearly has mixed results.

But poverty begets poverty, and that puts the school district at a great disadvantage.

And while schools offer far more social services to students than ever before, it is still not enough to break the concentration of poverty in Schenectady that is crippling education.

So what can be done?

The popular belief is that local governments cannot solve many of the socioeconomic problems that their citizens are faced with.

That doesn’t mean Mayor Gary McCarthy and the Schenectady City Council shouldn’t try — I mean really try. They just need to get their priorities straight.

When the mayor announced the creation of a Smart City Advisory Committee at his State of the City address earlier this month, I had to roll my eyes at such a low-priority initiative.

Yes, Schenectady could be more energy efficient. There’s no question.

And yes, the city should embrace certain technological advancements that result in cost savings.

I am a firm proponent of the saying, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.”

But what about the families living in Schenectady that just had their power shut off this morning because they couldn’t afford to pay their energy bill?

Will the installation of LED lights at City Hall help them out? No, I’m afraid not.

The Smart City Advisory Committee is a worthwhile venture, but it should not be the highlight of the mayor’s 2016 platform.

There’s no doubt that McCarthy and council members are faced with an insurmountable task of having to address both the needs of the city — i.e. services and infrastructure — and the needs of residents.

I do not envy them, even if they did volunteer to take on such thankless jobs.

I know the HOMES program is successfully waging a slow and methodical fight against the spread of blight, and the Schenectady Land Bank is making great strides on its own. I know considerable coordinated efforts are being made in the name of progress, but more is desperately needed.

What would have had me nodding in complete satisfaction while listening to McCarthy’s speech was if he announced the creation of an advisory commission called HELP — Helping to Empower and Lift People.

Everyone wants lower property taxes, less crime and more revitalized neighborhoods. That is a given.

The only way to truly accomplish these things is to improve the lives of each and every city resident by empowering them to become more self-sufficient, so that they can lift themselves out of poverty and into a better life.

Not possible, you say? You’re right, it’s true, some people simply can’t or don’t want to be helped. But a majority of people who need help, actually want help. They just don’t know where to look for it.

Poverty is more complex than ever before. Solely throwing money at a problem is not a solution. This is about self-sufficiency, not handouts.

The poor need services like preventive care, counseling, continued education, work placement and, yes, some limited financial support based on individual needs.

I know there are federal and state agencies that offer many of the aforementioned services. Not to mention, there are numerous local and regional non-profits that are making great efforts to curb poverty.

It simply isn’t enough — at least not enough to really help Schenectady. There needs to be a concentrated effort on a local level.

That is why the city must take matters into its own hands.

What harm would come from the mayor appointing a commission of local leaders and experts — in the fields of education, social services, and health and human services — to explore alternative ways to fight poverty? None at all.

It could even be a Tri-City effort. Albany, Amsterdam and Troy are all struggling in very similar ways.

A broader discussion needs to be had about what can be done to reduce local poverty. The creation of HELP could be a starting point to a broader initiative.

I know Schenectady’s leaders do what they do out of compassion and not for money or for personal gain. They genuinely care about the city and the well-being of its residents.

So I say to them: Heed my advice. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this.

Robert Caracciolo is a native of Schenectady and a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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