With the mayoral election eight months away, candidate (and City Council president) Jose Tosado has begun carving out his platform, with the city’s high drop-out rates topping the list.
Tosado points to state figures showing that Springfield students are failing to finish high school in alarming rates—he calls it a “catastrophic” trend. In the 2009-2010 school year, the city’s high school drop-out rate was 10.5 percent; by comparison, the statewide rate was 2.9 percent.
Among the cohort of students who would have graduated high school last year, only 53 percent of Springfield kids graduated within four years, compared to a statewide average of 82.1 percent. Springfield’s girls fared better than its boys, with 57.2 percent of girls, compared to 48.9 percent of boys, graduating on time. Only 46.4 percent of Hispanic kids graduated within four years, compared to 80 percent of Asian students, 61.5 percent of white students, and 55.2 percent of black students.
Within that cohort, one-third of Springfield Hispanic students (who account for 58.3 of the total school system population) dropped out, compared to 22.7 percent of black students, 21.5 percent of white students and 6.7 percent of Asians. Thirty-seven percent of kids with limited English proficiency dropped out.
The challenges faced by the city’s schools cannot be understated. According to state data, a staggering 84.2 percent of the city’s students come from low-income households (the statewide figure is 34.2 percent). Almost one-quarter don’t speak English as their primary language, and 14.1 percent are considered not proficient in English. More than 22 percent are classified as special education students.
This being an election year, of course, Tosado places a good chunk of the blame on his rival in this fall’s election, incumbent Mayor Domenic Sarno (who, by virtue of that position, also serves as chair of the School Committee). “Young people are dropping out at increasing rates. The trend is clear and catastrophic,” Tosado said in a recent campaign announcement. “But the current administration continues to see dropouts themselves as the problem, rather than as a symptom of a system that is broken. Until the root causes are addressed, nothing will change.”
Tosado vows a “transformative approach” to fixing the city schools, and cites the model of the celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone Project, which offers a range of programs for both kids (charter schools, after-school tutoring, leadership programs) and their families (health programs, parents’ education, credit counseling). “Tosado will use a ‘prenatal through college’ student-centered approach that anticipates every risk factor in order to keep kids on track,” according to his campaign. “This wrap around approach will require a realignment of resources and a degree of multi-sector collaboration the city has never seen.”
“‘Not my job’ will no longer be a legitimate excuse,” added the candidate, who vows that a “culture of accountability and performance … will pervade my entire administration.”
As for the guy currently in the mayor’s office? “Right now, what you see is a panicked attempt to produce short-term test improvements and stave off state take-overs,” Tosado charged of the current administration. “That’s not an environment where you’re likely to see smart approaches to long-term success. If long-term success is your goal, the challenges become things like language barriers, health disparities, violence, poverty, unemployment, and incarceration. That’s what the barriers are for real families in Springfield.”
Tosado’s announcement is short on details of just how to bring such as ambitious model as the Harlem Children’s Zone to Springfield. That project’s successes are due to a mix of political support, a dynamic leader (founder Geoffrey Canada, perhaps best recognized from an American Express commercial focused on the HCZ), and, last but not least, money. (Prince recently announced that he was donating $1 million to the project.) Pulling off such an effort successfully would also require an impressive coordination of many social service organizations—including those which now operate more as competitors than collaborators.
Could that model be duplicated, even on a smaller scale, in Springfield? Tosado, in his campaign materials, maintains it can: “The resources and services are already there. All that’s needed is commitment, leadership, and the courage to hold ourselves accountable.”