Improving education is topic of Chamber of Commerce breakfast

May 21, 2013 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Even though GQ Magazine has dubbed Brooklyn “the coolest place on the planet,” this “coolness” doesn’t necessarily translate to the entire borough. All in all, the borough has a 10 percent unemployment rate, a third of its children live in poverty, fewer than half of its students read at grade level, and only 64 percent graduate on time.

So said Morty Ballen, founder and CEO of Explore Schools, speaking at a breakfast Tuesday morning at Brooklyn Law School. Other speakers at the breakfast, co-sponsored by Explore and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, included Chamber President and CEO Carlo Scissura; Karen L. Gould, president of Brooklyn College; and David Banks, president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation. Errol Louis, host of NY1’s “Inside City Hall,” served as the moderator.

Although several topics were discussed, the focus was on how the downward trend among youth can be reversed and how the business community can help out. The answer that got the most applause came from Banks.

Children, he said, need “grit” – not the type of grit that expresses itself in macho posturing, but the type that will help them get up over and over again even when they are shot down. As a child, he was impressed by the fact that when Muhammad Ali was asked what he was thinking after he was knocked out by Joe Frazier in the 15th round, he replied, “I was thinking about how I could get back up again.”

Ballen began by talking about his charter-school network, which now has 1,400 students up to the age of 14 in six schools. He said that he doesn’t see his schools in competition with traditional “district” schools – “we measure ourselves against ourselves.” He said “co-location” with district schools doesn’t have to be a problem—the two schools can work together over issues like access to the cafeteria and the library.

Banks, who heads four Eagle Academy high schools (which are not charter schools) said that the situation among young people is particularly acute among minorities. “There are seven New York City neighborhoods,” he said, “that produce 70 percent of all prison inmates in the entire state.”

Banks’ Eagle schools are for boys only, and 95 percent of their graduates go to college. Extremely important, he said, is the process of providing mentors for the boys. “Only 32 percent of African-American families have fathers at home,” he said.

Gould, of Brooklyn College, pointed out that many students’ problems don’t end when they enter college. About 15 percent of all students, she said, drop out after their freshman year. Although the college is winning that struggle, it is now seeking to minimize the dropout rate after students’ sophomore and senior years.

In general, she said, it’s very important to get more high-school students to see the campus, to get into their minds what a college looks like. Even if the students decide to go to a different school, she said, the result is positive.

“Thirty years ago,” she said, ‘many professors bragged about how many students they flunked.” Those days, she stressed, are over.

Scissura emphasized the importance of getting businesspeople to hire, or have as interns, young people so they can learn skills such as showing up early, dressing in appropriate attire, and so on.

Many youths from projects and other low-income environments, said Scissura, have great talents but don’t know who bring them to the attention of people who could help them.

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