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Book review: Hope and despair in the American city. Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh

The Hamilton Community Foundation has a position paper on Hope and Despair.

Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh

By Gerald Grant

Harvard University Press ($27.50)

The workforce of 2025 goes to kindergarten this September.

There’s a lot riding on these five-year-old freshmen. By the time they graduate from college and university, the Conference Board of Canada estimates Ontario will have a shortage of 360,000 skilled employees. That shortage could hit 560,000 vacant jobs by 2030.

The fate of those kids will go a long way in deciding the future of our community. So it’s in our collective interest that every once of those kids stays in school, realizes their full potential and graduates to success. For that to happen, we need to deal with the poverty that’s swamping our lower city. Because when poverty overruns a school, kids can’t learn and teachers can’t teach.

If we’re lucky, we still have time to make a choice. Do we stay the course and become the Syracuse of the North? Or do we borrow from the playbook of Raleigh, North Carolina?

The answer’s obvious.  A 2007 study by the Brookings Institution ranked U.S. cities on two measures: growth in terms of employment and annual payroll and economic well-being in terms of family income, the extent of poverty and unemployment rates. Out of 302 cities with more than 50,000 residents, Syracuse ranked 297th on growth and 279th on well-being. Raleigh ranked 13th on growth and 24th on well-being.

Author, professor and Syracuse resident Gerald Grant offers a cautionary tale for Hamilton. In Syracuse, an invisible wall went up between the inner city and suburbs. “On one side of the wall were greater and greater concentrations of the poor and minorities – those with the greatest needs,” says Grant. By 2000, more than half the kids in Syracuse public schools were poor and three quarters of fourth and eight grade students were failing state tests in reading and math.

“On the other side of the wall, in the suburbs, where less than 2 per cent were black and only 4 per cent lived in poverty, 70 to 85 per cent of schoolchildren passed the same tests,” says Grant.

Grant and his wife joined with neighbours to spearhead community renewal and rebuild depleted social capital in their urban neighbourhood. There was a Westcott East Neighbourhood Association, two nonprofits rehabilitating housing and the Westcott Community Development Corporation reviving the business district. Taken together, these efforts made a difference.  But Grant says it wasn’t enough and community activists can only do so much.

“Reclaimed neighbourhoods in cities like Syracuse are islands of success in a slowly rising sea of poverty. Despite the real gains we made in Westcott, little that we accomplished was able to touch the underlying problems of increasing poverty, joblessness and failing schools that afflicted the city as a whole. It takes vision and action on a larger scale to change the context within which neighbourhood reforms will succeed.”

So here’s what vision and action look like. In Raleigh, they found the courage and political will to integrate elementary schools. Inner city kids went to suburban schools. Suburban kids went to inner city schools. Raleigh also created magnet schools with unique programs that drew kids from the city and the suburbs.  No elementary school could have more than 40 per cent of pupils who were poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches.  

In 1998, Raleigh announced that 95 per cent of kindergarten to Grade 8 students would achieve at or above their grade level in the state’s math and reading tests within five years. The 95 per cent goal drove real reform, creating new cultures of leadership and teaching. In 1994, 71 percent of kids were passing the state’s math and reading tests. By 2003, 91 per cent of kids were passing the tests. Passing rates for kids from low-income families went from 55 to 80 per cent.

In 2006, 94 per cent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that their child’s school provided a high quality educational program and 96 per cent said the school was a safe place to learn.

“Breaking down the wall between affluent suburbs and impoverished inner cities created a ‘healthy balance’ of rich and poor in every classroom,” says Grant. “The policy guaranteed that all schools would have a core of middle-class students who would establish a floor of positive expectations and create student networks across class lines that would benefit poor students. Schools with a majority of middle class parents will not tolerate incompetent teachers, or drinking fountains that don’t work, or restrooms with no toilet paper.”

Raleigh redistributed social capital by changing and expanding the networks of opportunity for poor and minority students. “Social capital is the yeast that makes a good school rise,” says Grant. “The goal is not just to close test scores. The goal is to provide more opportunities for people to freely associate across racial, ethnic and economic lines.  The diverse social networks that children form in Raleigh schools promise benefits not just for themselves but, in the long run, for the nation.”

Given the labour shortage facing Hamilton, the invisible wall that divides our city and the poverty that’s overrunning our lower city schools and neighbourhoods, now would be a good time to import Raleigh’s vision, courage and political will. The kids heading off to kindergarten in September deserve nothing less. And postal codes shouldn’t be limiting the potential of any student in Hamilton.

Book review: The Language of Trust

The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics

By Michael Maslansky with Scott West, Gary DeMoss and David Saylor

Prentice Hall Press

$31

It’s not what you say. It’s what we hear.

And a lot us aren’t buying what you’re saying and selling.

Not only aren’t we buying it. We don’t believe you. Or trust you.

You give us facts. We say you’re giving us half-truths and telling only one side of the story.

You cite experts. We ask about their qualifications and find our own talking heads who think like us and repudiate you.  

You give us statistics to prove your point. We find stats that disprove your point.

The reality is that your worldview – your truth — isn’t our truth. And as employees, voters and consumers, our truth trumps your truth. What’s more, you can’t and never will change our view of the world.

Welcome to what author Michael Maslansky calls the post-trust era. Maslansky, who’s one of corporate America’s leading communications and research strategists, says trust died sometime back in 2008.

“I believe it is the fundamental reason why our public discourse, our corporate communication, and our traditional sales techniques have pretty much fallen off a cliff,” says Maslansky.

We’re distrustful of everyone and everything around us. “We don’t trust the government to look out for us. We don’t trust companies to do right by us. We don’t trust each other to take responsibility for ourselves anymore. And we don’t even trust our own families to be there for us.”

Public relations firm Edelman tracks the public’s trust in everything from media to banks. The firm’s 2009 Trust Barometer found that three out of four Americans were less trusting of business than they were a year earlier. In fact, trust levels were down across the board in every major market segment.

In our post-trust era, we’re all skeptics. Maslansky says a skeptic is someone who challenges ideas in search of the truth. Thanks to the wonders of the Web, we have more information than ever before to guide our search for the truth. We’ve seen behind the curtain and know how marketing, advertising and public relations works.  We really don’t want to be told what to think and we’re unimpressed by hype and spin. And to top it all off, we have much shorter attention spans. Which means you have less time than ever before to build credibility and trust.

So how can anyone sell a breakthrough product, service, solution or big idea to a workplace, a marketplace and a community that’s overrun by skeptics?  Maslansky proposes four principles for communicating with credibility.  

1. Be personal. It’s never about you and it’s always about us. “Selling a product or idea has little to do with your company, what you’re offering or your ideas,” says Maslansky. “It has everything to do with your audience and what they believe, think and want.” So when you’re communicating with us, make it relevant. Make it tangible. Make it human. And make yourself real.

2. Be plainspoken. If we can’t understand you, it’s your fault. And we’re going to listen to someone else who’s easier to understand.  Remember that we don’t know what you think we know. Simple doesn’t always mean short. “It is always better to use five words to tell a clear story than use two and leave people confused,” says Maslansky. And say enough but not too much. “Sometimes the most effective way to build credibility and create an effective message is to stop talking.”

3. Be positive. Negativity breeds contempt. Scare tactics and negative messages erode trust and push us away. Far better to be for things rather than against them.

4. And be plausible. Life isn’t perfect and neither is what you’re selling. Acknowledge the flaws that all of us believe exists with your big idea or breakthrough product. Tell us about the pros and cons. Dial down self-congratulation and dial up authentic information.

“A world that once looked up to experts and complexity, believed in promises made, and responded to threats and fear now demands authenticity and simplicity,” says Maslansky. “The messages and approaches that worked well in the past must be re-evaluated in light of this new paradigm. The language of trust is built around just a re-evaluation.”

There’s a lot riding on how you talk and what we hear. We’re living in an interconnected world with no shortage of challenges. Smart solutions need to find an audience that’s willing to buy in, get to work and make things happen. The sooner the better.

“The mentality of saying whatever is expedient, creating false urgency, making a sale or killing a piece of legislation at all costs, and scurrying back into our holes will eventually destroy us,” says Maslansky. To restore trust, we need authentic communications built on honesty, transparency, empathy and acknowledgement. “In this era of mistrust, words are more important than ever.”

So let’s start by being personal, plainspoken, positive and plausible in how we talk with each other.