Pat Body: De-emphasize the Testing?
by Walt Shepperd - Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
Pat Body, president of the Syracuse Board of Education and a Democrat running with the endorsement of the Working Families Party, assesses the waves of public education reform.

“With Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, schools have a certain amount of years to make progress, and if they don’t, they’re called ‘persistent low-achieving schools,’” she says. “So what happens with Race to the Top is if you have a persistently low-achieving school, you have four options. You can close the school. You can move the principal if the principal has been there three years. You can move the principal and 50 percent of the staff if you’ve already used the moving of the principal, which we did in seven of our schools. Or you can charterize the school.

“We closed Elmwood. We closed Levy, and we have seven more schools that were considered persistently low achieving, and we had to do something with them,” she says. “We also had to come up with a plan on how they were going to make progress. We applied for a federal grant to help us put in programs and support systems for the children to help them improve over the next three years. We created an iZone, or Innovation Zone with the seven schools, with extended hours, providing professional development for the teachers and support systems for both teachers and students. What we’re hoping is that we can prove that the children have made progress over the next few years.”

She says the board members are hoping to see a change by the end of the first year—by June. Hoping, she emphasizes, for some growth—and for federal and state governments, growth is determined by standardized testing.

Photo: Edward Colelli

Photo: Edward Colelli

“Not as a board member,” she maintains, “but as a person who had a child go through this school district, who graduated myself through the Syracuse school district, I question all the testing we’re doing. I think we’re spending way too much time testing and not enough time teaching. We should measure whether a child has adjusted socially. Social interaction is extremely important: the behaviors of the children if we can get them interested in the programs, interested in learning, excited about learning. I think if they can come up with theoretical concepts, that’s what’s important. When you’re going to be evaluated on the testing, when you can’t look at individual children as individuals, it becomes a problem.”

Body, 62, a social worker, was born and raised in Syracuse, graduated from Central High School and SUNY Oswego. Emphasizing another personal, rather than institutional, perspective, Body acknowledges that college is important, but those not interested in traditional higher education should be given the opportunity to learn trades and enroll in technical programs.

“It would reduce the number of dropouts,” she says. “I have a college education and I earn less than my plumber.”

Body sees the Say Yes program as well-intentioned. “I think it has provided a lot,” she says. “Many of our students have gone to college. Some of them would not have gone to college. Some of them would have gone to college anyways, but they don’t graduate with extreme debt. The college tuition is very important. The support systems that Say Yes has put in are very important: children who would not have had glasses, dental care, sometimes social work, sometimes parents need to be referred to an attorney.”

For Body, Say Yes has also played a role in fostering collaboration between city and county in areas of conflict. But she doesn’t see that collaboration reaching the level of merger.

“I think it would be wonderful to merge the city and the county schools,” she says. “Most of the people in the county would not agree with that. There’s been some studies done that when you merge children who are poor with children who are not, often times all the children do better. One of the reasons I stayed in the city when my child was born was the diversity. He went to school with all different colors and races and is a well-rounded adult. If the county merged with the city school districts and everybody had an opportunity for all the same resources, everyone would benefit.”

A city with high poverty rates, she insists, cannot meet the needs of a school district with revenues based on property tax.

“Communities must unite,” she maintains, “and tell {state office holders} you either give us the money we need, or we’re voting you out.”