Integration lets students be comfortable outside their ‘comfort zones’

I had the privilege of speaking as part of an alumni panel at my Alma mater to an audience of newly accepted students. I shared my experiences at that school and talked about what I gained by attending the school. The event was aimed specifically at minority students. This was my second time on this panel, so I was anticipating some of the questions students and/or their parents would ask.

One question that I regretfully didn’t completely answer was, “What was your first year like?” I spoke to the challenges of being away from home and the extremely humbling experience of being a first-year engineering student, but I did not get to get into the details. In my first semester, the school took back some of the financial aid that had originally been offered; my grandfather died; a close high school friend dropped dead in the middle of a volleyball game; I was homesick, dealing with extreme culture shock and my grades were seriously suffering.

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

One thing I had going for me was that most of my peers were valedictorians or had at the very least graduated at the top of their respective classes. Many of my peers came from far more advantaged backgrounds and had been writing computer code and building circuits since middle school. Even though I had none of these things going for me, what I realized was that we were all starting from ground zero on an even playing field.

At least that is how I framed it in my mind. Although I was completely out of my comfort zone, being at a place where everyone was performing at levels I’d never experienced drove me to meet them at the level. Being out of my element or what was familiar to me brought out what can only be described as a hunger in me to excel and do better.

Another thing that I had going for me was that the school provided support systems which enabled me to excel and learn how to learn. There was tutoring, study groups and office hours; I took advantage of any and every resource I could find. I learned to make friends with people who were smarter than me and could explain some of the tougher concepts that eluded me in class. Once I got my grades up, my scholarship money increased.

Recently, I heard a question: “How could taking a kid off of Genesee St. and sending him to school with Brighton kids make him better off? That doesn’t eradicate poverty, it just moves it around.” The easy response is that putting that kid in that situation statistically increases his or her chances of graduating greatly. High school graduates significantly improve their chances of escaping poverty. (For the most recent data, click here.) In the United States, a person’s earning potential increases with education attainment.

But let’s go back to the original misplaced notion of moving a kid from his or her norm and exposing him or her to something else. The thinking goes that students will only be comfortable in a place they know, surrounded by students like themselves. But I’d counter that with the fact that a person needs to be uncomfortable if he or she is going to grow, learn or excel. If a person remains in their comfort zone, accepting the norm for what it is how is change or growth possible?

I am supremely thankful that I had that opportunity to speak on that panel this month because I was reminded of what it was like to be hungry. In life, it is easy to fall into your day-to-day routines of work, kids, paying the bills and whatever happens in between as you get older.

One begins to teeter on complacency, content to “just get by,” but is that enough? Am I capable of more? Is that kid from Genesee Street capable of more? By allowing him or her to be comfortable, could it be argued that we’re lowering our expectations? This should not be acceptable.

When you take kids from poor city neighborhoods and give them a chance in a middle class school, you push them out of their element, expose them to the possibilities beyond their neighborhoods. That exposure to more, to the endless possibilities, can turn on that hunger, which may feed his or her drive to excel.







Schools essential to bringing families to Rochester

Recently, The Atlantic, published an article titled, “Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed” by James Fallows. He and his wife flew in a small plane all across the country for three years, visiting lots of cities. This is the list of signs he compiled on his journey:

  • Divisive national politics seem a distant concern.
  • You can pick out the local patriots
  • “Public-private partnerships” are real
  • People know the civic story.
  • They have a downtown
  • They are near a research university.
  • They have, and care about, a community college
  • They have unusual schools
  • They make themselves open
  • They have big plans
  • They have craft breweries
Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

Of course item No. 8 grabbed my attention. The article said that these schools seemed to be anything from “ ‘normal’ public schools to statewide public boarding schools. The common theme was intensity of experimentation.”

Evan Dawson, host of WXXI’s Connections did a show on the 11 Signs in February. Although a pretty good discussion ensued, very little had to do with education or any distinct schools in the Rochester area, I was admittedly a little disappointed. However, somewhere in the conversation one of the panel guests mentioned making Rochester a city that people want to move to.

Since my husband and I have had kids we’ve lived in four different American cities, including Rochester. Each time we’ve moved we have thoroughly examined the quality of education in that city or area available to our children. We’ve looked at test scores, demographics, etc., in some cases taking a couple of days off from work to visit several schools prior to moving.

In Rochester, I imagine there are many young families who are moving here from out of town who go through similar vetting processes prior to their move. Families are moving here for medical school, residencies, post-doctoral research at the U of R, RIT and other places of higher learning.

Families are moving here for professional and business opportunities. These families could be a linchpin in further developing the city of Rochester and our community, repopulating city neighborhoods and easing  the concentration of poverty in the city. However, when these families start the process of looking for excellent schools for their children, where are they going to find those excellent schools?

In order to entice families new to Rochester to live in the city we must offer  excellent “distinct” schools, the kinds of schools GS4A is promoting. Otherwise, these families will look to other options—likely outside the city. And these excellent distinct schools are important, too, for the young adults already living here, who will, as soon as their kids start school, look for place in the suburbs.

If Rochester is to once again, in Fallows’ words, “succeed,” we have to realize that excellent schools (which we cannot achieve until we address the concentration of poverty in city schools) are essential to revitalization. Without them, we cannot bring middle class families to our city.



Don’t let the problem define you—start with the end in mind

When I was in high school at Edison tech, I worked as a cashier at a neighborhood meat market. I remember walking to work one day and observing that the sun doesn’t seem to shine much here… I also remember thinking, I really don’t like this job very much, but how else was I going to pay my pager and look fresh—I knew my parents couldn’t cover me.

Needing to work to pay for clothes and a pager doesn’t qualify as a major life problem, but it can leave you with that feeling of being stuck, especially if you’re a teenager.

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

When faced with a large, rather daunting problem it is easy to believe that this is the way life is and this is how it will be. In some cases it is easy to allow your current situation to define you. This can be true of an individual, but it can also be true for a community. Allowing your current situation to define you limits the future possibilities as well as the potential solutions available.

Our current situation: Rochester is one of the poorest cities in the United States with the highest rate of childhood poverty of any comparably-sized city. This is a huge problem, but it is not intractable and we should not let it define us as a community.

Rochester is more than its poverty; we have to be forward-looking. We have to have in mind where we want to be, not just where we currently are.

This is where “Beginning with the end in mind”—borrowed from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—comes in. Yes, the current situation is not great. Actually, it’s pretty dismal. But where do we want to be? The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) has a goal of reducing poverty by 50 percent over 15 years.

That milestone is the end RMAPI has in mind. From there we’d have to work backwards to determine what policies and programs the community would need to implement and execute to get to that point.

So, the greater Rochester region has a current situation that is not great, but we do have an end in mind. This goal can only be reached with a huge community-wide effort that requires the successful implementation of many different solutions. A recent Democrat and Chronicle poll found that, while most people have not heard of the anti-poverty initiative, when its goals are explained, 91 percent say they support them.

One facet of this problem is the great discrepancy in the quality of public schools available to the young people in our community. GS4A is offering one important solution—socioeconomic integration of schools across school district boundaries. No, what we’re offering is not a silver bullet, but it could be one solution among many that can help us reach the end we have in mind.

Going back to my high school days, I knew I didn’t want to be a cashier forever. Somehow I got in my mind that I wanted to be an engineer back then, so I worked backwards to figure out what I needed to do to become one. I learned that I’d need a 4-year college degree in engineering. Then I found out what I needed to do to get into college. I learned that having 2 or 3 extra lunch periods a day wasn’t going to get me into college, so I started going to class. I started making small changes and achieving smaller goals to get to the end I had in mind. The sun still doesn’t shine all the time, but knowing where I’m going, knowing there are many different ways I can get to where I want to be next has made all the difference.

This is my hope—that we all recognize that we as a community are much more than our current situation. It is my hope that we can agree that working towards a goal of a 50 percent reduction in poverty is a worthy one, and one that we can work together to achieve.

In working toward this end, I hope we can all fully recognize that we need many solutions, big and small, to reach the goal. There are some solutions that will get us short-term returns, but in many ways we have to think longer term in order to achieve the transformative change RMAPI has in mind.

Transformative change is not easy to achieve. We can get there, but if we lose sight of the goal, pull back on the resources we need to reach it, or weaken our resolve, we’ll be just like the high school student who settles for the cashier’s job because staying on a career path is just too hard.

The business case for school diversity

My husband and I have been going back and forth on whether to keep our daughter in a Montessori school for one more year, her kindergarten year, or to just send her to the neighborhood public school.

I really wanted her to round out the Montessori school curriculum and finish the program so that she can get the most out of her experience in a Montessori school. My husband doesn’t want to pay tuition anymore and thinks the neighborhood school is a great option. Over the course of several weeks, we met with principals, directors, and teachers; we saw different portfolios, reviewed different curricula and there was a lot of discussion. In the end we decided to keep our daughter at the Montessori school for her kindergarten year. We decided the extra year of tuition was an investment in her future even if we couldn’t quantify it.

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

Like many families, we are starting early to makes sure our daughter is on the path toward a great education. By 2020 approximately 67 percent of jobs, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, will require more than a high school diploma. And of course, one must actually graduate from high school in order to pursue education beyond high school. The “more than” implies an associate’s degree, certificate program, bachelor’s degree or further education.

In 2014, Monroe County graduated 79 percent of its high school seniors in four years (92 percent when RCSD graduation figures are not included), which is on track with the rest of the state, even a little better. So as a county, by the numbers, it doesn’t look like we’re doing so bad… However, if we look at the city of Rochester, there is some work to do.

Four Year Cohort 2014 Graduation Rates:Grad rates





On the surface, it may seem that at least suburban Monroe County students are on track to become the workforce of tomorrow, but are they? What does the workforce of tomorrow need to look like? What kind of skills will candidates need to address the business needs of tomorrow? Can a business environment be vibrant, if new ideas, perspectives and solutions aren’t present? To my point: In schools that are highly segregated along both racial and socioeconomic lines, both our city and our suburban students are deprived of the diverse environment that will prepare them world that awaits them.

GS4A is proposing a network of voluntary county-wide magnet schools with the intention of drawing a socio-economically diverse student body. The schools of course would be cutting edge and offer programming that a single district cannot offer by itself. These schools would be open to all students within Monroe County. This implementation has been shown to bring up graduation rates of economically disadvantaged students in counties around the country without bringing down the graduation rates of students who are not economically disadvantaged.

According to a recent report from the Century Foundation, “A New Era of Civil Rights,” over 80 school districts across the country have made intentional efforts to diversify their schools by socioeconomic status. The report highlights Cambridge, MA, which first implemented a universal public school choice in 2000 in an effort to diversify its schools. The 2014 four-year graduation rates in comparison to Boston and the state of MA are shown below.

Four Year Cohort 2014 Graduation Rates:

Cambridge grad rates


In supporting and forming partnerships with county-wide magnet schools, the business community would in turn partake in the formation the viable, diverse and well equipped workforce of tomorrow that Monroe County needs to be competitive economically.

The Case for Diversity

Diversity in a workplace can drive economic growth and enable businesses to capture a greater share of the consumer market. This is important because the ethnic and racial landscape of the country is changing according to Census data. Having different points of view and vantage-points on your team will help your company grow and adapt to the changing demographic landscape of the country and better prepare us for global competition as well.

According to the Center for American Progress, “Recruiting from a diverse pool of candidates means a more qualified workforce. When companies recruit from a diverse set of potential employees, they are more likely to hire the best and the brightest in the labor market. In an increasingly competitive economy where talent is crucial to improving the bottom line, pooling from the largest and most diverse set of candidates is increasingly necessary to succeed in the market.”

The unfortunate truth is that by and large, students of color are not graduating at the same rates as their Caucasian peers, as shown in the chart above. If we look at the breakout in terms of economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged Monroe County students in that same year, the graduation rates are just as lopsided. Currently the pool of diverse candidates for businesses is limited, but it doesn’t have to be. The local business community can help assure a diverse workforce of the future by supporting reforms now that are most likely to improve gradation rates for the students who are not fully prepared for tomorrow’s workforce.

Do students —even suburban students—who are graduating in Monroe County have the skills and abilities companies need to move to the next stage? Companies like Microsoft, Intel, Delta Airlines, Exxon, State Farm and Target are upping the ante on the workforce of tomorrow; not only are they investing in public education, they are developing partnerships with schools and school districts to ensure that students are gaining the skills and talent they are looking for in their workforce of tomorrow.

We hope that Rochester area companies will also invest in educating tomorrow’s workforce. But at GS4A we think that means more than supporting cutting edge programs and donating in-kind services. It means supporting the multi-district Monroe County magnet schools that can improve city graduation rates and provide city and suburban students the opportunity to grow in a diverse environment.