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Where students at Syracuse's new city-wide schools come from

Ryan Delaney
Mary Habib and her six-year-old son, Jackson, wait for the bus to Syracuse Latin Academy. They chose to attend Latin instead of Roberts Elementary, which is much closer.

From the Habib family’s front door in their Strathmore neighborhood home, they can see Roberts Elementary School. But instead of crossing the street to school on this drizzly fall morning, six-year-old Jackson and his mom, Mary, are standing on the corner waiting for the bus.

While waiting, Mary prods Jackson to shows off the Spanish he’s learning so far in the school he chose to go to, instead of Roberts. He counts to seven, but then admits gym is actually his favorite subject.

When the bus arrives, Mary sends Jackson off with a kiss and a wish of, "have a good day, buddy."

Jackson is off to Syracuse Latin, the city’s newest elementary school. It’s a 10 minute bus ride away on the other side of the city. 

The Syracuse City School District replaced two traditional schools this fall with city-wide academies in an attempt to improve their performance. This is part of a national trend away from neighborhood schooling.

"This was an opportunity for him to do better than fine."

Syracuse Latin is the school district’s attempt to revamp the struggling Hughes Elementary School it was ordered by the state to reimagine. Latin offers a classical curriculum for students who passed an admissions exam.

"He would of done fine at Roberts; Roberts is a great school," Habib said about her son. "But this was an opportunity for him to do better than fine."

A similar experiment is happening with Fowler High School, which was turned into a public service-themed academy. Syracuse has a technical high school that is also city-wide. The transformation of Fowler leaves the city with three high schools that draw students based on their geographic locations.

Parents driving or bussing their kids across town to a better school is not a new thing, according to Syracuse University education professor George Theoharis. "Syracuse is this mix between what we see and we used to understand as neighborhood schools," he said.

"But the reality is, so many students don’t attend the school that is labeled their catchment area school," he added.

Choosing to go to a school far away means giving up a connection to the school around the corner, he said.

"When we are engaged in a school, we see it as being better than those other schools," said Theoharis. "So if you’re living across the street from a school and that is not your school, it’s ‘those other schools,’ perhaps we’re going to be less connected to that school."

Most of the 298 students at the Public Service Leadership Academy at Fowler high school come from the western half of Syracuse, where the school is located, with a sprinkling of kids from all corners of the city.

Neighborhood concentration of PSLA at Fowler students

Click here to view the map in full screen.

Over at Syracuse Latin, 80 students enrolled this fall for Kindergarten and first grade, which is below the district’s target. Only about a fifth of those students are from the neighborhood the school sits in. That makes the student body more geographically diverse than the PSLA.

Neighborhood concentration of Syracuse Latin students

Click here to view the map in full screen.

"For families, it was new," said Latin principal Kelly Manard. "It was something that was brand new and something different to put your kid on the bus and send them across the city, as opposed to walking them to the school just up the street."

The school district says the demographics of these new academies aren’t that different than the makeup of their traditional schools. They credit a fairly diverse city. 

Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO
A first grade classroom at Syracuse Latin.

Mary Habib, Jackson’s mother, says sending her son to a school in a different neighborhood was a good thing.

"When you have kids who are going to a neighborhood school, you have a lot of people who are from the same economic background," said Habib. "This was a chance for him to see people from all over the city."

Inside a first grade classroom at Latin, the teacher passes out crayons while singing their color in Spanish.

On her way out the door, Principal Manard looks back and says, "see, just like any other school."

Except with more focus on foreign language than coloring.