From children ‘at risk’ to ‘Children of Promise’

I am a racist; most likely you are, too. My racism took root in the ’60s in my hometown, Detroit. I was 7 when Detroit burned.  If you are a Baby Boomer, chances are your racist tendencies were reinforced by watching Detroit burn on the evening news in 1967. That summer my Dad told me over and over that it was the fault of the black people— the idea of “righteous rebellion”  had not reached mainstream America.

Fortunately, Mom tempered this racist indoctrination, constantly insisting that there is good in everybody. I arrived in Rochester in the ’80s with this duality: believing strongly that there is good in everyone and trying to squelch my internal racist legacy. I believe it is this same duality that leads us to label Rochester’s youngest as “children at risk.” This label is not serving our children very well.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

We’ve been struggling with the cycle of poverty/poor education/violence for decades—usually approaching a solution by addressing the needs of “children at risk”… at risk of witnessing murder, at risk of going to bed hungry, at risk of not finishing school, at risk of getting into mischief after school. So we tried to break the cycle by mitigating risk: keeping children indoors, providing food, shelter, and clothing, rerouting buses, mandating after school camps (often poorly supervised quasi-detention centers).

The risks are real and our solutions have been draconian.  What are the results? A child who walks through his day of rerouted buses, marginal but free breakfast and lunch, and imprisoned after school care. A child who understands quite clearly that society sees him as other, as less than, as dangerous. All this energy spent on minimizing risk leaves precious little time and resources for a child to learn and thrive and believe in himself.

One day in July of 1994, I had an experience that helped me stop seeing our children as being at risk and begin to see our youngest as children of promise. I had been cleaning streets for weeks in the Northwest quadrant of the city. Each day, children who lived on those streets came out to help the volunteers. One morning a neighborhood kid I’ll call Gina cut herself picking up debris. Gina was 6, just getting over chickenpox and we had become buddies. As we walked hand in hand into McDonalds to clean her cut, Gina says,

“Are you black?”

“Nope,” I replied.

“Are you Puerto Rican?”


“Well, you can’t be white because my brother says all white people are evil.”

As stunned as I was by her words, my teaching instincts kicked in. “Well, Gina, I’m white. Do you think your brother is right?”

“Nope, he’s not right.”

In that small moment I saw Gina’s promise in her ability to use reason to transcend falsehood—the same way I’ve used reason to transcend the racist influences on me.

If we can think of Rochester’s youngest as our children of promise, rather than as “children at risk,” we will see many different solutions to breaking the poverty cycle.  The Great Schools for All coalition believes that expanding the Urban-Suburban program, integrating summer learning programs with a mix of middle class and low-income students, creating magnet elementary, middle and high schools, and a regional educational planning structure each are part of the solution. We saw these solutions at work in the Raleigh school system where all children are considered children of promise.

After two years of study, the FR=EE Race and Education Action and Change Work Group invites our community to acknowledge our racism and partner to build Anchor Communities around our children of promise in city schools. Anchor communities provide support for schools as communities by providing books and other learning supplies, afterschool  art instruction—all while building relationships with the families and teachers of our children. These are great efforts, but we are just getting started.

If you are a member of a suburban church, I encourage you to partner with a city church to share children’s programming. If you are a member of a suburban YMCA, encourage your staff to share programming with children of promise at the YMCAs in the city. If you are part of any organization that serves children, consider partnering with one similar organization in the city to share one experience this year. Of course, the Great Schools  for All coalition (contact Reverend Lynette Sparks at ) and FR=EE’s Education Group (contact Reverend Judy Davis-Crossroads at and Fred Tanksley at ) welcome you to help us work to fulfill the promise we know lives in each child.


Quality Summer Learning programs proof of a ‘sharing community’

A year ago, eleven of us traveled to Raleigh, N.C. to see what deconcentrating poverty looks like in a large urban school district. Schools don’t look different in Raleigh. Teachers don’t teach differently. What is different is how the Raleigh community feels about education. Every child in Raleigh is a child of promise, rather than a child at risk. School buildings are sharing communities. Because most schools in Raleigh are designed to cap the number of children from poor families (defined as those eligible for free or reduced price federal lunches) at 40 percent of the student population, 60 percent of families in a building have resources to share. Think about that. This deliberate 40/60 composition is a reflection of the community’s commitment to sharing. Walking into Joyner elementary school, I see a rack of clothes for those in need. The Joyner PTA stuffs backpacks with food each Friday afternoon to give to students at the social worker’s discretion. Sharing is part of the Wake County Central School District’s DNA.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

But it’s not about the stuff. The Great Schools for All coalition here in Rochester has been working on concrete action steps to eliminate high poverty urban schools because the needs of so many poor children can overwhelm a school’s staff and resources. The same principle applies to summer learning: a socioeconomically diverse program reflects a commitment to sharing that will benefit both the poorest and most affluent children.  We’ve learned that a quality summer learning program (QSLP) engages students by weaving summer learning through a well-designed curriculum, exercise and enrichment and assessment of student progress. Some students in Rochester learned last summer through building rockets, learning scripts, and playing building-sized board games. Quality learning requires a lot of stuff. But Raleigh’s success is not about the stuff, it’s a mindset of caring about every student.

If you are paying for a 6-week QSLP (at The Harley School, or Nazareth College, or Lego Camp, for example), your child can expect quality instruction reinforced through exercise and enrichment (field trips, plays, rocket launchings). The City School District reports that as many as 12,500 students will be involved in some form of summer learning, but very few of those who need quality summer learning this year can afford $1000 or more for summer programs like those above. Maybe two in ten of our city’s children will be lucky enough to be selected for a free QSLP.

Hundreds of city children will attend day camp through the YMCA – a fun experience, but not a QSLP. Only 64 students from Schools 33 and 8 will be chosen for the Y’s free QSLP held at the Carlson branch. Many many children each summer sign up for Monroe Public Library’s Summer Reading Program which tracks the amount of time and number of books a child reads. Only 300 students, though, will be selected for the Library’s QSLP run by EnCompass. Only 700 children will be able to participate in the City School District’s premier QSLP, held last year at the School of the Arts, where the entire building became a game of Clue as students puzzled out a mystery.

And for our children in extreme poverty who find their way to a QSLP, the lack of food, clothing, and transportation continue to be barriers to learning. If your only meals are the breakfast and lunch served at school, you may choose not to eat. The directors of QSLPs report that some students squirrel away school meals in backpacks so that their siblings will have something to eat when they get home. Other children sit pool-side during swim time because they don’t own a swim suit or towel. And if transportation is not provided to the QSLP, students don’t go.

Scaling up the few free excellent quality summer learning programs in Rochester to fully enroll all the students needing them is not about getting more stuff, it is about sharing. If we adopted Raleigh’s perspective that each child is a child of promise and that schools are caring communities, we could leverage education and foundation dollars to support this critical learning. Join us on Tuesday, May 5th, from 8:00-12:30 at the GS4A  at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church as we hear action steps proposed by the Summer Learning work group as well as five other work groups from the Great Schools Coalition. In this atmosphere of promise and sharing, a caring Monroe community will discern ways to wrap our arms around our city’s children. It’s not about the stuff, it’s about the caring.