Archive | September 2013

Falling in(to data!)

Greetings, and happy fall! I don’t know about the rest of you, but fall is my favorite season, and I’m lucky to be spending it in such a beautiful place. I snapped this shot of the Kodak building on my lunch break today – for some reason, these clouds strike me as distinctly fall clouds.

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In any case, I’m settling in at my AmeriCorps placement, the Rochester Education Foundation (REF). I work with a very small team on various efforts, including donating books to the RCSD, supporting high school career readiness, and working on strengthening a Rochester College Access Network. The latter project is to be my focus, and word around the water cooler is that I’ll be working on a college access manual for RCSD high school students. As with many urban school districts, Rochester’s college attendance rate is relatively low, but its attrition rate is worse. A recent REF report discusses the main challenges facing RCSD students in getting into college, and it’s likely that those same factors make it hard to students to stay there. College attrition is something I’d like to learn more about (for example, how do factors like individual race and class affect college attrition?) so hopefully I’ll get to explore that here.

To understand where our kids are coming from, it’s important to look at some data on life in Rochester. On my first day on the job, I found ACT Rochester, an incredible resource from the Rochester Area Community Foundation. Their “About Us” section says it all:

ACT Rochester’s purpose is to change the culture of community problem-solving and associated decision making through the use of credible, independent and timely data. … The website creates a “one stop shop” for data and analysis, over 100 indicators, as well as links to more than 300 community initiatives and resources.

Cool, right? For each of its “indicators” (things like “unemployment rate” or “tourism spending”) there is an interactive bar graph that compares data from Rochester, Monroe County, surrounding counties, and New York State as a whole. (Regrettably, not all the graphs display an option to look at Rochester data, so you sometimes have to make do with Monroe County, which is not making do at all since whatever relevant information there might be about the city itself is completely obscured by the economically-advantaged suburbs.)

But enough of my whining. Here are a few bar graphs that I found particularly illustrative of life in young Rochester. I’ve pasted a non-interactive image, just to liven up the post, but I highly recommend clicking the link and tinkering with the options. Simply click on one of the counties listed below the graph to see how other places match up (or, more likely, don’t match up) with Rochester.

Rate of Teen Pregnancy


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Violent Crimes 

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Infant Mortality Rate – one of the highest in the country, I’ve been told.

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Reports of Domestic Violence

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Student Performance on Grade 3 English, by Race/Ethnicity – one of the strongest indicators of high school graduation. Note that each racial/ethnic group performs relatively parallel to their location, with the exception of white students in Monroe county.  Unlike their black, Hispanic, and Asian counterparts, white students in Monroe county perform well above the surrounding counties and above the state level. The fact that white and Asian students in Monroe county are far out-pacing their counterparts in Rochester, compared to the small margin by which black students in Monroe county surpass their suburban counterparts, points to a racially structured suburban advantage.

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These charts help us to understand a bit more about the environment in which the RCSD is trying to educate its students. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I suspect it’s the only place to start from when trying to make real gains in improving educational outcomes. For a more national perspective, here is an elegant graphic from the Lumina Foundation, illustrating higher education by state. It’s a seriously beautiful visualizer; click around to get a sense of which states have the highest percentage of people holding advanced degrees.

I get dizzy just thinking about this stuff. DATA ARE SO COOL. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section. Until next time,



Food for thought

WOOF. All apologies for taking so long to post again. This has been the first week of AmeriCorps orientation, and I have to say that it has been wonderful meeting all my fellow members (or AmeriFriends, as our director calls us). Everyone is, as far as I can tell, smart, bright, funny, and genuine. I’m happy to serve with them.

This week has been all about getting to know each other (ice breakers for days) and getting ready to serve Rochester’s schools. As is probably no surprise at all, the latter is a heavy task. Any school district comes with its unique problems, but Rochester is particularly “needy.” The following are just a few statistics about RCSD:

  • 7th highest rate of childhood poverty per capita
  • 100% of RCSD students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch during 2012-13 SY
  • 5% of students were deemed “career ready” (above 80% on english and above 75% on math state tests, taken in 11th grade)
  • 5.6% of third graders reading proficiently according to Common Core Standards
  • (1st) Lowest black male graduation rate in the country

It’s hard to address statistics like this. For one thing, they are terribly depressing, and difficult to address positively. For another, measures like state-determined “career readiness” and proficiency according to new Common Core Standards are newly-implemented. That means that a veritable clown car of stakeholders determined that our old standards were insufficient, and raised the bar. Unfortunately, the result is an arbitrary change in standards that often punishes students who already attend underserved districts like the RCSD. As a RCSD administrator described it to us today, it’s like the line that determines a home run has been extended by one hundred yards. While the current needs of the RCSD can hardly be boiled down to only two factors, it’s safe to say that, like most public schools, the current tension is between “ideal learning” and “teaching the test.” Is there a way to do both?

As suggested by the last stat posted above, RCSD also suffers from de facto school segregation. This is a very complicated issue that I don’t fully understand yet, so I’ll have to address it in another post. I’m hoping to learn more, hands-on, as the year progresses.

Lastly, I want to mention something totally awesome that I learned about in orientation yesterday. A guy from Foodlink stopped by to tell us about their services, and to explain the nuances of perpetual hunger and “food insecurity.” Foodlink is basically a clearinghouse for donated food. They absorb donations, funding, and even recycled goods from local grocery stores and redistribute it to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc etc. Their website explains it better.



This is a photo of the Curbside Market, a roving grocery store that drives all around the city of Rochester, selling produce at absurdly discounted prices. Such services are especially important for people who have a hard time getting to a grocery store.

So, I’ll leave with two very interesting things the Foodlink rep told us about. Definitely check out their website if you’re curious to learn more. There are always opportunities to volunteer.

  1. Did you know that shelf-stable, canned food is good for about six months after the expiration date? It is! Apparently, expiration dates are put on canned goods mostly as a safeguard against lawsuits. That means that places  like Wegmans pass off their “expired” canned goods the day after they expire to organizations like Foodlink, and Foodlink gets to distribute that perfectly-good food to people who need it. Our presenter said, kind of offhandedly, “I guess that’s one of the perks of living in a litigious society.” And he’s got a good point. A loophole that benefits the food insecure is indirectly created by measures that intend to protect food distributors from lawsuits. In Merton’s language, we’d call this kind of loophole a latent function of what our presenter referred to as a “litigious society.” Latent functions like this can often indirectly benefit needy populations within cities, as they do for street vendors in Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk.
  2. Our presenter impressed upon us that, when push comes to shove, food is often the lowest priority for families that live in poverty. When families or individuals have a very limited income, they tend to spend their money on housing (i.e. rent or mortgage payments) and on healthcare (often the catalyst for poverty), but not on food. As someone who’s never experienced poverty, I had to wonder: among the “basic necessities,” how does food come to be a luxury? I didn’t understand why families in poverty would perceive rent as more important than dinner. The Foodlink rep explained to me that food is temporary. I took him to mean that, unlike a sweater or pair of sneakers, food is gone once it’s used. As a result, it may be the case that families in need don’t see food as a worthwhile investment, seeing as how they’re just going to need more come tomorrow (and to be clear, I intend food to mean groceries in this context — often, impoverished families will buy inexpensive, low-nutrient food as a stop-gap, which produces its own problems). He also said that you can be hungry. While this didn’t seem to make sense at first — how could hunger be a sustainable state? — I think he was saying that hunger is something you can get used to. When income is tight or nonexistent, healthcare is a non-negotiable cost, nor is housing, especially when young children are involved (and they often are). Going hungry, however, seems a small price to pay if all of the other important things are taken care of.