Monday, October 29, 2007

Progress and continuing struggles in the Youngstown City Schools

The election is next week, and one of the hottest issues is the proposed levy for the Youngstown City Schools. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I talk with Dr. Wendy Webb, the district’s superintendent, about both the good things happening in the local schools and the continuing challenges.

New school buildings and significant renovations across the district are providing better learning environments for our students, and if we are to believe education scholar Jonathan Kozol, that will make a real difference. Better facilities not only increase access to technology, they also send a message that students and education are valued.

No doubt, the Youngstown City Schools continue to struggle with test scores and graduation rates, yet both have improved over the past few years. Graduation rates are up by about almost 18% since 2002, for example. Yet Youngstown’s challenges with educational achievement are not unique; most urban districts struggle with the same issues. While Youngstown continues to lag behind state targets, the improvements are real and significant. I think it’s also important to remember that the problems are much bigger than education. Students will always struggle to learn if they don’t have enough to eat, come from homes where daily life is a constant struggle, or have little hope about the future. The challenges sometimes feel overwhelming. And yet the local district is making progress.

Unfortunately, the Youngstown City Schools continue to face a serious financial crisis. Despite reducing staff and other expenses, the district’s budget will likely be several million dollars in the red by the end of the school year. It’s always hard to accept the idea of paying more, especially for a district that consistently lags behind in its performance. But the progress made over the past few years suggests there’s good reason to invest in the Youngstown City Schools. And if we want this community to be able to pursue a different kind of economic future, then we need to educate the next generation. As I see it, a vote for the levy is a vote for a better economic future for all of us.

I want to make one additional observation: the district could do a better job of telling its story. While the local press usually zooms in on the bad news, the district has plenty of evidence of progress. Yet finding that data on the district’s website is difficult. I went looking for links to include in this blog, but I couldn’t find the information I wanted. UPDATE: The district has now posted the latest issue of its "Dispatch," which includes some of the statistics on graduation rates and other news.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Tale of Two Faiths: Science and Religion

In recent years, public debates about creationism in the secondary curriculum have highlighted what seems to be an insurmountable divide between science and religion. This week, I’m discussing this divide with theologian Dr. John Haught. He’s a senior fellow in Science and Religion and the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, and he visited YSU recently as part of the Albert and Thomas Shipka Lecture Series. Along with writing books, such as God After Darwin and Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science, Haught provided expert testimony in one of the several court cases about the place of evolution in the school curriculum, in which he explained why "intelligent design" should not be taught in the science classroom.

For Haught, the idea that religion and science can’t fit together reflects a misreading of both. As he explains, the problem is not – as I had always assumed – about whether we read the creation story literally but about the religious implications of the key concepts of evolution. As Haught explains in our interview, and in the texts that you can access from his webpage, the apparent challenges to faith rest in the idea of a deity who could create a mutable world, especially one in which randomness and natural selection would play major roles. Yet, he suggests, these concepts do not necessarily contradict the core beliefs of Christianity.

Further, and even more interesting, is Haught’s claim that we might view science as another type of faith. The idea that we can only believe in what can be proven through material evidence and that nothing beyond that can possibly exist is itself an article of faith for scientists. So, he suggests, the conflict over evolution and creation is a conflict between two faiths.

As for how to resolve the conflict, Haught emphasizes the importance of education – not merely education in science or religion but education that examines the relationship between them. This should happen in schools but also among scientists and theologians. He believes that dialogue can be the first step to reconciliation.

Haught’s ideas reflect a complex and crucially important dialogue going on in American culture today, as we wrestle with the place of religion in public and private life. This is not simply a theological or philosophical debate; rather, it is a debate about what it means to live in a pluralistic society in which religion has almost always been at once contested and central, diverse and influential.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Diversity in the Mahoning Valley: Appreciation or Conflict?

On Lincoln Avenue this week, I’m talking with Anne McMahon, YSU Management Professor, about Partners for Workplace Diversity, a project she started 12 years ago to create a network of local businesses and organizations who could work together to address diversity issues in the workplace. The network includes YSU, several area banks, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, GM, and other local companies and groups. Along with sharing resources, the group sponsors a series of events every year, including workshops, awards dinners, and cultural events. This year, the events have included programs in disability awareness, treating patients from diverse backgrounds, and a kick-off breakfast. If you’d like more information, contact Anne McMahon.

Partners for Workplace Diversity approaches cultural differences with a focus on appreciation and inclusion, and, as Anne explains in our interview, they try to ensure that people enjoy their events, instead of coming away feeling frustrated, angry, or guilty. That allows people to engage more positively with people who are different from themselves. At the same time, we live in the 4th most segregated community in the U.S., and racial divisions continue to present serious problems here. And these are problems of conflict, economics, and access to opportunity, not problems of tolerance or appreciation.

Partners for Workplace Diversity make a useful start on addressing the divisions that can keep people apart. Their emphasis on the idea that everyone has something valuable to contribute works well to engage audiences in thinking about difference. Unfortunately, diversity is simply not something we can always feel good about – especially in the Mahoning Valley, where our divisions create obstacles for moving ahead.

On another note, it’s pledge week at WYSU. If you appreciate what you hear on the station, whether that’s Lincoln Avenue, Morning Edition, or the great music, I hope you’ll help support us.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Transforming the Rust Belt into a Tech Belt

My guest on Lincoln Avenue this week is Congressman Tim Ryan. We’re talking about the Tech Belt Forum that he hosted at YSU on October 1 and his vision of creating a regional network to attract investment and new ideas that will help transform the “rust belt” into a “tech belt.”

Ryan is working with Pennsylvania Representative Jason Altmire on this project, making it the latest addition to an emerging array of regional projects. While some in the local community worry about maintaining local identities – and local control, it seems that we – as a region and locally -- have more to gain by cooperating than by focusing on competition. As Ryan notes in our interview, despite some historical divisions, our region faces some similar challenges and opportunities. And when it comes to securing funding, foundations and investors are likely to believe that their investment will go farther if it serves a whole region rather than just one locality.

Ryan also talks about the need for new approaches to education in order to prepare this area’s young people for new kinds of jobs. As a region, we have relatively few adults with college degrees, and if we are to build a high-tech economy, we will need to improve the quality and quantity of education that our children have. Ryan cites the robotics program at Warren Harding High School and the new health care magnet school that the Youngstown City Schools have established at Choffin as examples of programs that are taking new, more hands-on approaches to engaging young people in science. We didn’t get the chance to discuss “No Child Left Behind,” but it’s clear that Ryan sees the need for new policies and priorities in public education. I agree. Unless we change the way we approach education, we won’t be able to improve our education rates in this Valley.

After having several conversations with local leaders about efforts to support the development of a technology economy in northeastern Ohio, I’m still somewhat skeptical about whether this is enough. Even if we were able to add 1000 new jobs in technology industries, we would still have thousands more workers who have been left behind by manufacturing and who don’t have the training to more into high-tech jobs. Building a technology economy will certainly help, but we need more – more training, more protections for workers, more small businesses, more education.

You can share your thoughts about the Tech Belt concept here, by posting a comment, or you can write directly to Ryan.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Is technology the answer?

This week on Lincoln Avenue, my guest is Chris Mather, the Director of TechLift, a new project that provides support for developing hi-tech businesses in northeastern Ohio. Chris was in town for a kick-off event to introduce the project’s goals and services to local business people.

TechLift is one of several projects aimed at transforming this region from an area known for heavy industry, especially steel and auto manufacturing, into an area known for creative technical innovations. Chris hopes to accomplish that by mentoring business developers, helping them secure funding, and helping them connect with suppliers, staff, collaborators, and clients.

As Chris notes during the interview, many of the areas around the country that have successfully put technology at the center of their economies have been able to draw on the expertise and support of major research universities. Here in northeast Ohio, we bring a different legacy to technology development. While relatively few people in the region have college degrees, we have a long history of making both raw materials and machinery, and those are two of the five areas of focus for TechLift: advanced materials (meaning specialty metals, among other things) and electronics (including instruments and controls). Both of these are also areas of technology development that bring both specialized jobs for highly-trained professional staff and at least some jobs for more ordinary workers.

As with other projects focused on technology development, TechLift seems like a worthwhile project that will contribute to the region’s economic growth. Yet I think we should be wary of looking to technology as the savior for the Mahoning Valley. Can we develop new technology-based businesses in this area? Yes. Will such businesses provide jobs for the majority area workers who don’t have specialized training? No. Such companies will contribute to the local economy, and we should welcome them. But they are not, in and of themselves, enough for us to have a secure economic future. Too many area residents will still be left under- and unemployed, or working in fields that are steadily shrinking. These new businesses will help, but repairing the local economy will also require that more of our young people take education seriously and that we encourage the development of many kinds of businesses. We also have to work to ensure that the jobs created here pay well, have decent benefits and safe working conditions, and that the profits, as much as possible, feed back into this community.

What do you think? Where do you see hope for the local economy and our community’s future?