ROCHESTER — Natividad Santiago said she supports plans for the Rochester Children’s Zone because the city’s Hispanic community is in desperate need of hope.
During a public hearing held in Spanish last month, Santiago said that she feels the Children’s Zone officials’ goals to provide an array of social services — health care, child care, family support and education — under one umbrella offers many possibilities for Hispanic families to have a brighter future.
“I am delighted with this program,” she said. “Now, what I would like to see is the implementation. … (The program) looks strong.”
Implementation is soon to begin for the Children’s Zone, which has been in the planning and design stage for more than a year. Since the Children’s Zone covers northeast Rochester, where a large percentage of Hispanics live, planning members sought to gather more input specifically from them, said Maribel Torres, an outreach coordinator working for the Children’s Zone.
“Sometimes, Latinos don’t want to get involved because of the barrier with language,” said Torres, who organized the hearing that was held June 6 at St. Michael Church on North Clinton Avenue. “We wanted to hear what is the Latino vision and the youth vision and concerns and put everything together, as we are moving from plan to action.”
Jana Carlisle, the Rochester City School District’s chief planning officer and head of the Children’s Zone, said she was pleased with feedback the hearing garnered. The hearing also provided a learning experience, she added.
“Some people say we should have done it (a hearing) a year ago,” Carlisle said. “This process is fraught with that. This is going to be error-ridden. It’s new territory. Much of what we’re trying to do is create ownership for one’s life in the community.”
Because the idea of a Children’s Zone is still so new, building acceptance for the plan among all communities is an important part of the huge undertaking, Carlisle added.
“We’re not just correcting bus schedules,” she said. “We’re trying to get people to do different things from a different value system. We have to build time in to allow people to adapt.”
Hilda Rosario Escher, president and chief executive officer of Ibero-American Action League, agreed with the need to get members of the Latino community to step up and be part of this planning process since the Children’s Zone will directly have an impact on them.
Latino children make up 30 percent of the students who will be affected by Children’s Zone plans, according to Carlisle.
“Our kids are not graduating from high school,” said Rosario Escher, who has been serving on the Children’s Zone design team. “That is something that affects us, affects the whole community. This is an initiative, an effort to try and change all of that. Their (Latinos) voice needs to be heard.”
The plan itself will provide a vision that will take the district decades into the future, Carlisle added. Meanwhile, since last June’s kick-off, design and planning subcommittees have coordinated such tasks as getting community input and setting priorities and strategies for what can be accomplished in the next two to three years, she said.
According to information the from the Children’s Zone community plan released in March, former Superintendent Manuel Rivera was inspired by the work of Geoffrey Canada in Harlem’s Children’s Zone. Rivera sought around-the-clock support for children in seven of the city’s higher-need schools in northeast Rochester — representing 13 percent of the district’s student body — by developing and providing strategies and solutions to improve those students’ health, wellness, educations, living conditions and potential livelihoods.
Through community input, the local Children’s Zone plan now includes 40 multiyear objectives and 186 strategies that “call for widespread and deep change within the Rochester Children’s Zone community as well as institutional and policy levels outside of the community,” according to the March report.
The northeast Rochester neighborhoods were chosen because they are home to the most academically challenged students who are living in the highest concentrations of poverty, according to district officials. The area’s demographics include a 42 percent below-poverty rate, a median household income of about $19,000 and 68 percent of households headed by women.
Because of this economic reality, educational change cannot happen in a vacuum, Carlisle said. For example, the plan looks at coordinating city economic development of neighborhoods with renovation of school buildings, she said.
“So, that it’s not that schools get renovated and nothing around (them) does,” Carlisle said. “We try not to have things be happenstance.”
While the Harlem Children’s Zone was funded by private donors, the vast majority of the Rochester Children’s Zone will come from the school district, she added.
Private donations have totaled $150,000 thus far, with $4 million for implementation anticipated from Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Carlisle said. According to a Rochester Children’s Zone financial report, the total costs of implementation are not yet known.
Some ideas gathered in the planning process, however, have already been set in motion for some of the northeast area schools, Carlisle said.
At Mary McLeod Bethune School No. 45, a family and student support center has nearly eliminated student suspensions, she said. The Jordan Health Center and Daj Hammarskjold School No. 6 have become partners to provide students and families at School No. 6 with direct access to the health center.
“This is a really exciting opportunity to look at the issues our community faces and try to find a different approach to make those better,” Rosario Escher said. “To really look at what are the causes, what are the roots of those issues and how can we together as a community design a plan to face and to work on those issues.”
Ibero also collaborates with School No. 6 for a tutoring and mentoring program at the school, she said, that provides the kind of program the Children’s Zone is about. In essence, Ibero has adopted the school, she said, and provides a program that helped cut suspension rates in addition to providing after-school academic support and before- and after-school child-care services and meals.
“The kids that live in the northeast area, some of them come to school hungry,” Rosario Escher said, noting that Ibero is “providing wrap-around services to the kids so the kids have a better chance at being successful.”
Santiago said she hopes all parents and students will take advantage of the opportunities the Rochester Children’s Zone planners hope to provide.
“If they would take advantage, there wouldn’t be as much need in the Hispanic community,” she said.
Margie Ortiz, who raised six children who graduated from high schools here and in Puerto Rico, agreed. She said she hopes the plan will help those students who find themselves in trouble in school and on the streets.
“To keep them off the streets and away from violence … we need to educate these teenagers that hang out on the streets,” Ortiz said.
She added that she was grateful to have the opportunity to hear about the Children’s Zone in her native language during the June hearing, and she hopes the initiative is successful.
“For the education of our children, it’s good … so they stay away from harmful vices,” Ortiz said.