The final session on "The Community's Role in Raising Achievement" was a spirited and constructive discussion tying together many of the themes brought out during NYSUT's three-day "Every Child Counts" symposium and followed an admonition from plenary speaker Richard Rothstein to "light a fire and be vocal about the things you know."
Norm Fruchter, director of the Community Involvement program at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, spoke from his experiences as a community activist and leader in New York City.
"When the schools that need the most get the least," he said, "then the community needs to raise demands about fundamental change. Without the community's energy, will, passion and commitment, little change will occur." He credited the United Federation of Teachers - NYSUT's largest affiliate -- for being an active partner in the fight for good schools.
Fruchter gave a recent example of the community/union partnership: When research showed that 40 percent of the middle schools in central Brooklyn had no science labs, the coalition sprung into action. Working closely with political allies on the New York City Council and coordinating parent involvement, an agreement was reached that each of these schools would have a lab by 2010.
Acknowledging the importance and difficulties inherent in these efforts, Fruchter said: "If parents can't get in the door of the school to be heard, what chance do children have?"
Karen Scharff, executive director of New York State Citizen Action, stressed similar themes based on her organization's relationships with politicians and school districts around the state.
"For communities to change, we organize on the grass-roots level so that elected officials have no choice but to respond," Scharff said. "Whether it's about schools, smaller class size, pre-K or after-school programs, parents have to have a voice."
"We link issues together," she added. "For example, we need living-wage jobs in a community so parents can provide for their children -- the students in our schools -- every day." Scharff also cited the importance of quality health care for all children as another organizing opportunity and a factor that needs to be addressed in efforts to end the gap.
Debbie Benson is the executive director of New York State Children and Family Services, which works with state agencies to coordinate services for children.
"The governor recognizes the vital link between health care and quality education for children," Benson said. She stressed the Spitzer administration's interest in programs for toddlers and three-year-olds, as well as its support for parent education programs that she said stagnated under the previous governor.
Maria DeWald, president of the state Congress of Parents and Teachers, drew applause when she told conference attendees that "educating children is the mission of our nation, not just our schools," as she addressed those critics who play the "blame game" with public schools.
"We have to start from the belief that engaging parents and the community is central to our work, not external to what we do," DeWald said. "Understanding who is in our school community should be part of a school's professional development program."
Gene Rodriguez, coordinator of the Capital District Worker Center, spoke about the importance of making available good jobs at a living wage as part of an overall program to keep communities economically vibrant and able to provide for their youngest members.
He applauded the work of several retired Albany district teachers who are providing free remedial reading and math lessons to job applicants trying to enter union programs in the construction industry.
The Rev. Dr. Edward B. Smart, pastor of Albany's historic Israel A.M.E. Church and chair of the African-American Coalition for Empowerment, spoke about the church's key role in raising children:
"In the black community, education isn't just the role of the parents; we know that children need mentors," he said.
Smart said that many clergy "believe that the current education system has failed children and we have to do a better job." While advocating coalition-building and community involvement to address the problems, he added that "the highest-paid people in the community should be educators," because of the vital role they play.
He said that his church in Albany tries to fill societal gaps by giving adults employable skills and providing a summer camp with a variety of learning opportunities.
Moderator Ed Dague, a longtime Capital District television newsman, offered this provocative - and timely -- summary in wrapping up the discussion: "America will find global warming a minor inconvenience if we don't address the huge crisis of the achievement gap."