Editor’s note: As part of the Staten Island Advance/SILive.com’s year-long undertaking, “The Disparity Project,” we are shining a spotlight on the differences in opportunity and outcomes across the borough, focusing on key areas that include criminal justice, economic security, housing and education. This is the first of a series of stories focusing on educational inequities and struggles on Staten Island.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Low proficiency rates in reading and math. Chronic absenteeism. Lack of resources. These are just a few of the challenges facing many schools on the North Shore of Staten Island — problems that are not inherent in other schools in the community, according to some of the borough’s educational leaders and recent data.
Impactful disparities exist between schools within the North Shore itself, and between schools on the South Shore compared to those on the North Shore, where schools are ethnically, racially and economically more diverse than the rest of the borough, research shows.
“We’re largely a segregated school system in New York City, whether it’s designed or not in such a way, housing values and prices largely influence the socio-economic activity and the trauma involved within our communities,” said Anthony Cosentino, the principal at PS 21 in Elm Park, who explained there are large obstacles facing some of the schools on the North Shore — and many of those issues are linked to food insecurity, transportation, housing and community engagement.
IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS
More than 50% of the student population in each North Shore elementary school is classified as economically disadvantaged, according to 2018 data from the state and city education departments. And some fear that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could widen the educational gap for some students — including those in low-income families.
Noliwe Rooks, a professor of literature at Cornell University, told the Advance/SILive.com this past spring that New York City children who were already struggling are going to fall further behind during the coronavirus pandemic.
“…The longer that this goes on and as long as we’re clear this is going to go on … the children who are struggling, who are already behind grade level, who are socio-economically vulnerable, who are homeless, are going to fall further behind,” she explained.
Jennifer March, executive director of Citizens’ Committee for Children (CCC), said that persistent inequality on the North Shore presents a unique set of challenges in ensuring not only that the needs of vulnerable children and families are met — but that all households thrive and are upwardly mobile.
“No other community district has such a high share of residents both living in poor households and in higher-income households, and these disparities are echoed across every issue impacting child and family well-being, including housing, health care, and education,” she explained, referring to differences between neighborhoods within the North Shore.
KEY DATA POINTS
In 2018, the CCC released a report, titled “The North Shore of Staten Island: Community Driven Solutions to Improve Child and Family Well-Being,” showing the wide social and economic inequities within the borough, and their impact on education.
The CCC is an independent, nonpartisan, privately supported child advocacy organization.
“Community members feel that unequal education outcomes are largely the result of an unequal distribution of resources, and that students and their families at many schools on the North Shore need more school-based services,” the study found.
Reading and math proficiency rates on the North Shore differ by neighborhood, according to the CCC report.
For example, in 2017, schools in Westerleigh had 60% of students in third through eighth grade proficient in reading and 62% proficient in math — compared to Stapleton schools, which had 29% of students proficient in reading and 25% in math, the data showed. While Grymes Hill-Park Hill had 48% of third- through eighth-graders proficient in reading and 41% proficient in math that same year, the report stated.
The CCC grouped some of the North Shore neighborhoods together in its reporting, including Grymes Hill-Park Hill and St. George-New Brighton.
Students at North Shore schools are also more likely to be chronically absent (missing more than 20 days of school), the CCC report found. On the North Shore, 28% of kindergarten through eighth-grade students and 37% of high school students were chronically absent during the 2016-2017 school year, according to the data.
The report found that greater numbers of students in temporary housing tend to have higher chronic absenteeism rates — which could reflect barriers that rise from housing insecurity.
“When you have food insecurity, when you’re worried about income, when you’re worried about transportation and family care, education oftentimes has to take a back seat, because you have to provide for your home and make a home that’s safe, and provide enough for your family,” Cosentino said. “So it’s hard to really spend a lot of time at the school, to be involved in the school, to have conversations and build relationships in the community … So those are the challenges. How do you support the families to reprioritize their actions and their time when they have so many challenges and liabilities on their plate?”
With high rates of students in temporary housing and shelters on the North Shore, students often leave the progress and relationships they make at school behind when forced to deal with stressful situations at home, he added.
The CCC said students and families at schools needed more onsite school-based services, as well as year-round recreational programs and opportunities for parent engagement that are linguistically and culturally inclusive.
Louis Bruschi, principal at Dreyfus Intermediate School (I.S. 49) in Stapleton, said the disparities on the North Shore are “based on family resources and the infrastructure in the community.”
Bruschi was previously the principal of PS 78 in Stapleton before becoming principal of I.S. 49 in 2018.
“A lot of the students who we have served are in NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] housing, and those are assigned units, and there’s a lot of movement in the community,” he said.
He explained that the resources in the community aren’t necessarily obvious or available to people who move into NYCHA homes, which is why Community Schools are so important.
“The transient nature of the community, and the population is just all over, and not being able to access all the resources that are necessary — it puts people at a disadvantage for a long time,” Bruschi explained. “[They’re] spending years recovering not having that access.”
Both PS 78 and I.S. 49 are part of the city’s Community Schools initiative, which was launched in 2015 by Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate academics, health and social services inside of schools and better connect students and families to support they need through partnerships with community-based organizations.
EQUITY VS. EQUALITY
Kendall Spiller, special assistant of Workforce Development at the state’s Department of Labor, said that it’s important to note the difference between equity and equality. Schools can receive the same amount of money — but where the money is allocated varies depending on what exists at the school already.
He offered the example that one school will use money to upgrade tablets from their older models, while the second school doesn’t even have tablets, but needs to use the money to get new textbooks. The two schools are equal in receiving the same amount of funding, but the second school will continue to fall behind without technology.
“I understand that students are the priority, as they should be. No student should be left behind, but the isolation and demographics of Staten Island challenge that concept. We should not have our schools competing to offer a sufficient education when we can allow external support[s] from CBOs [community-based organizations] and even elected offices. We can all progress together,” Spiller said.
Many schools on the North Shore receive additional monies and grants to increase opportunities for struggling schools, such as Title 1 funding, which is federal money given to schools with a high percentage of kids from low-income families to help ensure those schools meet state academic standards.
“That’s usually the argument that everyone is quick to say, ‘Well the schools on the North Shore are Title 1 schools, so they’re getting that additional funding.’ However, why are those schools lacking? And I mean lacking — in like a large margin. It’s not even close,” said one Staten Island educator, who requested anonymity.
He added that many schools on the North Shore fall short on the opportunities they can provide to their students, including sports and recreation programs.
“Sometimes it’s the parents being able to fill in the gaps, where on the South Shore, parents are making more so they’re able to do more — like PTA programs that are able to raise more money. Whereas, at schools like I.S. 49, it seems like almost every year they have to reach out to community leaders and other people outside of their community asking for donations,” he said. “So I think it definitely has been a struggle for a lot of North Shore schools being able to provide a lot of those things that South Shore schools come very easy to them.”
If you’re a parent, student, or teacher who has been affected by disparities and inequities that exist in Staten Island schools, specifically on the North Shore, we want to hear from you. You can reach out to education reporter Annalise Knudson at email@example.com.