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upstate New York cities
Students in Kelly McCarthy’s first-grade classroom end the period with a vocabulary word game. Credit: Emmanuel Felton

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — There is something of an annual tradition among New York City mayors and school chancellors. Year after year, regardless of whether the city’s students fare better or worse on state tests, they declare victory — claiming the top spot among New York’s big city districts. This year, there’s even more to crow about.

New York City bested peers statewide on reading tests for the first time, with 38 percent of students passing, compared to 37.9 percent of students statewide. The city also gained ground on math tests. Statewide, 39.1 percent of students met standards in math, compared to 36.4 of city kids.

Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio used such results as evidence that mayoral control of schools should be made permanent. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it was proof that his initiative to break up large campuses into smaller, more personal schools was working.

On its face, such claims seem fair. New York City’s public schools, like those in the state’s other big cities, educate large numbers of (traditionally struggling) poor black and Latino students, and sometimes those students outperform even their white and more affluent peers in Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Yonkers on state tests. But the annual celebrating of New York City’s feats ignores deeper differences, say educators and education policy experts, who contend that those upstate cities exist in an entirely different world. In Rochester, for example, just 6.7 percent of kids scored proficient on English tests. In Syracuse, 10.9 percent of kids were proficient on reading tests while 10.4 were proficient in math.

While gentrifying large cities like New York have grown increasingly prosperous in recent years, smaller urban centers like Syracuse have seen large increases in poverty.

“Syracuse is now number one in the nation in terms of the percentage of black and Hispanic families living in high-poverty neighborhoods,” said Sharon Contreras, outgoing superintendent of Syracuse City School District. “I know kids can overcome poverty, but when students are living in abject poverty in segregated communities with poor health care and housing, that makes the work for our teachers all the more challenging.”

As New York City’s test scores have surpassed other cities’, the focus of the state’s school improvement efforts has largely shifted upstate to Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. Those cities have the highest percentages of campuses on the list of schools the state is looking to overhaul. The open question is whether there are things those cities can learn from New York or if the city’s success is mostly the result of its improving economy.

“Those upstate cities are virtually entirely dependent on the state for funding. They don’t have the choice to, say, tax real estate developers to fund their schools.”

Efforts to disentangle success from economics are made somewhat harder by New York’s decision not to adopt one of the national Common Core tests, which promised to allow more apples-to-apples comparisons among school districts across the country (though New York has a modified version of the Common Core standards in place, the state makes its own exams to test whether kids are meeting those expectations). If it were using a Common Core test, for example, New York City could be compared to other rapidly gentrifying cities like San Francisco, Washington and Boston. As more states, like New York, decline to adopt or drop those tests, that comparative data remains largely elusive.

Researchers at Stanford University recently set about solving this problem by creating a national database that uses a formula to put all the different state tests on a common scale. They found a strong correlation between wealth and test scores. While New York City is a middling district in terms of both affluence and scores, the upstate cities’ schools are among the poorest and lowest-performing in the country, doing about as well as notoriously troubled big city districts like Memphis, Cleveland and Detroit.

Related: How one innovative school district has closed gaps on harder Common Core tests

upstate New York cities
A hallway at Franklin Elementary school lined with tiny lockers and student art. Credit: Emmanuel Felton

Katrina Allen, principal at Franklin Elementary School in Syracuse’s Washington Square neighborhood, has watched her city transform from manufacturing boomtown to bust.

While Allen was born about 90 minutes southwest of Syracuse, in Elmira, New York, she moved to the city with her mother as a young girl.

“When my mom moved here it was a place with opportunities,” said Allen. “She got a job at Hutchings, the state mental health care facility here, and though we lived in public housing, it felt like I had options.”

While Hutchings is still around, many of the other large employers that provided a living wage to generations of Syracuse residents have moved on. At one point, General Motors, Chrysler and General Electric had a significant presence in the city. They’re all gone now.

Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo form the eastern edge of the Rust Belt — America’s former industrial heartland straddling the Great Lakes from New York to Wisconsin — that has been devastated by the flight of manufacturing jobs to lower-wage, nonunionized states and countries. This upheaval has had a profound impact on Syracuse’s schools and neighborhoods, said Allen.

“I’ve just told them to stick with the numbers and guess between multiplication or division. It’s almost always one of those.”

Hulking Franklin Elementary looks like a fortress in a neighborhood of small, closely packed houses in various stages of disrepair. Inside, Franklin feels a world away; little hands shoot up in brightly colored classrooms and orderly hallways are lined with students’ art. While just 8 percent of Allen’s students passed state reading tests last year, one could easily be fooled walking around the campus.

You can see the national Common Core standards in action at Franklin. In a second-grade math class, Margaret Barbato has her students write in their math journals why it’s important to use place values — so, for example, how 56 equals five tens and six ones — when adding and subtracting. In English classes, you see students reading books about exotic animals and dinosaurs. Under the Common Core, students are encouraged to read more nonfiction books to get ready for the reading they’ll do in college someday. Test scores, however, haven’t budged. Last year, the proportion of students passing the reading test didn’t move an inch and the percentage of students meeting math standards barely improved, moving from 10 to 11.

“People walk in and they’re like ‘wow, it’s so quiet and nice here,’ ” said Allen. “Well, what did you expect?”

Allen said that most people in the greater Syracuse area have all but given up on the city and its schools.

“People are surprised that I live and raise my sons in the city. My librarian, one of my secretaries and our hall monitor — those are the only people here who live in the city,” added Allen. All of her teachers live and send their children to school in the more affluent suburbs.

Related: How little is too little money for schools?

“It’s very difficult to compare Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse to New York City,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), a left-leaning education advocacy group. “There’s tremendous poverty in all four cities, but there’s tremendous wealth in New York City. Those upstate cities are virtually entirely dependent on the state for funding. They don’t have the choice to, say, tax real estate developers to fund their schools.”

The upstate districts face fiscal issues New York City doesn’t. The fleeing middle class, who take their tax dollars with them, have left the districts largely reliant on fickle state funding. AQE recently put out a report showing that the state collectively owes school districts billions of dollars, stemming from a decades-old school-funding lawsuit. Easton puts the number owed the three upstate districts alone at $200 million. According to New York State Department of Education data, New York City is able to spend about $2,000 more per pupil per year on instruction than the upstate urban districts. Syracuse spends the least on instruction of the four districts.

But not all of Syracuse’s problems can be directly tied back to its poor finances and sky-high levels of student poverty. Syracuse also stands out for having the highest suspension rate among the state’s traditional school districts. Researchers have linked suspensions with lost learning time and lower test scores. Nearly half of Syracuse’s 20,000 students were suspended during the 2013-14 school year. At Franklin, Allen says she’s worked hard to keep those numbers low, just 2 percent of her students were suspended that school year.

45% of Syracuse’s 20,000 students were suspended at least once during the 2013-14 school year.

“We have this simple unwritten rule: love our babies,” said Allen. “It’s about remembering that many of our students have really hard lives so they may not handle regular issues like other people. Leaving their homework at home could turn into an emotional outburst.”

Allen concedes her school is not perfect. Namely, she is looking to give her kids a recess period, which has also been linked to higher achievement. She points out, however, that they do get a period of music, art, physical education or library time every day. Her teachers use that time to collaborate, plan and learn from each other.

Some argue that Syracuse could be doing more, pointing to New York City as an example of where innovation has improved student achievement.

Outgoing Syracuse Superintendent Contreras agrees that her district can do better, but she feels like lawmakers need to take a more active role in turning around high-poverty, low-resourced districts like hers.

“We have a lot more work to do to prepare teachers to work with these students, and it’s true students can overcome anything,” said Contreras. “But that’s easier said than done. The state and federal government has to give us the resources that we need.”

Related: Closing gap for immigrant students under Common Core in Kentucky is a moving target

upstate New York cities
Syracuse’s Washington Square Neighborhood. Credit: Emmanuel Felton

Charles Sahm — director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for free market solutions — argues that much of New York City’s success can be attributed to the proliferation of high quality charter schools and other innovations, but he concedes that “New York City does have a bit of unfair advantage. A lot of the talented people who want to get into education reform do come here,” said Sahm. “It’s true that in these smaller communities upstate, it’s harder to attract outside talent, but I believe that we can’t expect all teachers to be Rhodes Scholars. That’s where the importance of supporting teachers and giving them a good curriculum comes in. That’s something successful charter networks like Success Academy and Icahn have figured out.”

Back at Franklin, Allen feels like her staff has made great strides in improving their craft this year.

“We have created an environment where teachers go to each other and ask for help,” said Allen. “A teacher can say, ‘I’m not strong with this strategy or in this content area. I need help.’ That wasn’t easy at first, having teachers admit their weak points, but now they’re learning from their peers and from our instructional coaches and that has led to all of our students receiving better instruction.”

But increasingly the school is facing a new challenge in trying to raise test scores. In the earlier grades especially, large proportions of their students are refugees new to the country.

Across Syracuse, students speak more than 70 different languages at home. At Franklin, 29 percent of students are still learning English. While New York State translates some tests into Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian and Spanish for students still learning English, those translated tests don’t do much to address the language gap at Franklin. Allen says that students speak 26 different languages at Franklin, but only two of her students are Spanish speakers, while large contingents speak languages from South and Southeast Asia.

In the days leading up to the state tests, math teacher Joseph Pirozzi was working with his third-graders, many recent refugees, to get them ready for their first round of annual standardized tests.

“I have some really sharp kids, but when they get to the word problems they’re going to be completely lost,” said Pirozzi. “I’ve just told them to stick with the numbers and guess between multiplication or division. It’s almost always one of those.”

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