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.

foodlink

 

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.

Onwards!

 

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New Adventures

Allow me to explain. This blog will address my experience during a year of service at the city school district in Rochester, New York. While I am nervous about a lot of things (for example, I won’t know what I’m doing at the schools for at least a few more weeks), I’m excited to learn more about my beautiful city, to meet new people, and to gain a better understanding of mechanisms of inequality in “low-performing” schools.

This brings me to the sociological aspects of this blog. After an incredible experience with the discipline at my Alma mater, I’m excited and terrified to say that I’m applying to graduate programs in sociology for next fall. I’m probably going to keep the grad school stuff to a minimum here, due in equal parts to pride and anxiety, but I hope to use this space as a means of exploring sociological concepts as they apply to my experience at the Rochester City School District (henceforth referred to as RCSD). This isn’t to say that my experience and my thoughts about the subject will be sociologically sound; I suspect much of it will be subjective  and pseudo-scientific. I’m hoping that this will be a collaboratively educational experience, so if you’re reading this (Hi!), I hope you’ll comment and discuss things with me as the year goes on. (This will also discourage me from letting this web address expire like a beached whale on the shore of failed blogs.)

Lastly, as a twenty-one-year-old human in suburban America, I’m doing a lot of exploring, in general, so this blog will probably also address the peculiarity of phenomena such as counterfeit adulthood, living with one’s parents, binge-watching television (but not on a TV), and other sundries.

To start us off, here’s an article about the pilot program currently underway at RCSD, which comes from the Ford Foundation and the Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning:  

http://online.wsj.com/article/APe977340f867b4deeb79124e8b5c10fe0.html

I don’t know about you guys, but one of the things that most jumps out at me about this article is the argument that progress can be mapped using local and state assessments. I only got a B+ in my education class sophomore year, but even I know that state testing can only tell us so much about the actual learning process, and that these measures often inhibit curriculum by redirecting time and energy to “teaching the test.” I’m skeptical that New York’s testing will be able to adequately measure that changes that the TIME initiative will have in Rochester. However, I think it’s pretty cool that our local, city school district is willing to take drastic measures to address the frustratingly-low graduation rate. Many of my family members are educators, so I am entering this year with a fair amount of bias and opinion, but I hope my hands-on experience will be… educational. Alright, that’s enough for today.

– Chelsea

p.s.

Not really sure how much of this information I am legally allowed to disclose, so this may become censored as time goes on. I read through my contract and it didn’t come up, but that contract may have been written before a time when any yahoo could get a free WordPress web address. As with everything else, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.