Exposing an Invisible and Silent Monster Devouring Our Children (part 1)

April 23, 2008 at 1:29 pm 2 comments

This is the first in a series of three posts on the historic community response to lead poisoning in Rochester New York.

After becoming Principal of an urban, high-needs elementary school in Rochester, I set out to “level the playing field” for my school’s children and community. After raising nearly seven million dollars, replacing almost the entire school teaching staff, and creating numerous school/community partnerships, I noticed that I still had a core of children with critically serious learning and behavioral deficits. Puzzled by this, I was the first principal known to review my school children’s public health records, and what I found horrified me. What follows is a three-part story of the epic battle with what I call “the invisible and silent monster that devours our children”. — Ralph Spezio

“Leveling the Playing Field: Bringing Resources into a High-Needs Elementary School”

Enrico Fermi Elementary School No.17 had one of the highest rates of poverty (98%) of any school in Rochester when I was principal from 1990 to 2002, and as the leader of that school, I believed it was my responsibility to “level the playing field” for the children and families that were a part of our school community. When we bring resources into a school that are directly related to the improvement of teaching and learning, some are directly related to financial resources and some do not cost a cent. Even though we raised nearly $7 million dollars in the twelve years of our work, many of the most important initiatives were based upon school/community partnerships.

The following are just a handful of the partnerships and projects that were initiated to help close the gap for the children in this community:

  • I stopped the open enrollment busing so that our school could become a true community school. This school is on Orchard Street, bordered by Jay St., Saxton St., and Campbell St. and the children walked to this school from their houses in the surrounding community.
  • Because there was no pre-kindergarten program at School No.17, I formed a partnership with Kodak, and using Edison Technical and Vocational High School Students, built a building for pre-school. We then brought in a full Montessori program and were the first pre-school program in NYS to have received NAEYC National Accreditation.
  • We changed almost the entire teaching staff at School 17 and hand-picked our classroom teachers from a unique urban teacher preparation program that we developed in partnership with SUNY Brockport. This program received national attention because it not only brought minority men and women into the urban elementary school, but it also was three times more stringent than the traditional method of teacher preparation.
  • We partnered with St. Mary’s Hospital (now Unity Health) and built the first community health center of its kind in NYS that was attached to the school and is open to the entire community even when the school is closed. The children are viewed in the context of the entire extended family, and because of a sliding fee scale, no one is turned away.
  • We partnered with Strong Health, doubled the size of the community health center to include a full service dental facility operated by Strong’s Eastman Dental Center. This center has over four dentists, two operating rooms, and also has a sliding fee scale so that even without dental insurance, everyone is embraced and cared for. When the school is closed, this facility also can remain open.
  • Developed Project Success which was a before and after school tutoring program that brought in over 80 college students from St. John Fisher, Roberts Wesleyan, and RIT each week. We had large academic summer school programs and integrated programs with the Charles Settlement House, which is directly across the street from the school
  • We secured a grant for violins, violas, cellos, and stringed bass and crafted a partnership with the Eastman School of Music to have a full stringed orchestra at Enrico Fermi Elementary School.
  • We developed a partnership with the Empire Statesmen and the Rochester Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps to form a tuxedoed elementary school marching band.
  • We developed a huge and vibrant Parent/Teacher Organization that was a chartered PTA at School 17. Each classroom had a Classroom Parent, both primary and intermediate grades had Parent Advisory Councils, parents were a welcomed and equal partner on the School Planning Team, and monthly PTA meetings brought very large numbers of parents for a dinner meeting (with child care) which was directed and run by the neighborhood parents.
  • There are too many more partnerships and initiatives to continue to list here, but I believe that the above begins to explain what is meant by “level the playing field”….

I’d like to be clear when I say that the above partnerships and programs made a tremendous difference in the lives of children and families in School 17, and the Community Health and Dental Center continues to be a state and national model. All of these initiatives made a significant difference in developing a healthy, child-centered culture within the entire School 17 community and all of this translated directly to student achievement.

However, I can say that I was still very concerned with a large segment of our children that had very serious learning and behavioral challenges and frankly, I was quite puzzled as to the source of those serious deficits.

Next: “Lifting the Rock and Exposing the Monster”


Entry filed under: Children, Environmental Health.

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