New Center Targets the ‘Toxic Impact of Poverty’ on Students

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Citing the continuing need to support Mayor Bill de Blasio’s massive rollout of the pre-K for all program, along with the “toxic impact of poverty on children’s development,” the new president of the Bank Street College of Education Shael Polakow-Suransky announced the creation of a $5 million center at the college on Monday night aimed at closing the gap between the city’s rich and poor schoolchildren.

At a standing-room-only celebration at the Bank Street College’s campus at 112th Street, Polakow-Suransky, formerly the NYC DOE’s chief academic officer and senior deputy chancellor before he was appointed the eighth president of Bank Street in 2014, inaugurated the Straus Center for Young Children and Families to “advance understanding and policy in childhood education, and create practical applications for this work.”

A key goal of the new center, however, is to become a major player within the Department of Education and in Albany in advocating for policies and dollars focused on childhood development.

The larger context the center plays in, however, is the ongoing debate over how schools can offset the impact of poverty on children.

“Stress creates chemical, physical and emotional changes in a child’s makeup,” said Lynn Straus, class of 1957, and the center’s benefactor. “We must find more powerful ways to help children develop coping mechanisms.”

Straus, who is widely credited as the driving force behind the Head Start program in New York State, received a standing ovation when she rose to give brief remarks at the start of the program. In 2001, she and her husband, Philip A. Straus, gave a $7 million endowment to Bank Street, its largest private donation. The center is being supported with an additional $5 million endowment from Straus.

While the center will focus on children from newborn to 8 years of age, the primary area of need, at least according to keynote speaker and childhood development expert Dr. Lawrence Aber, is in the first three to four years of a child’s life, where there is “so much plasticity” in learning, but where so much can be affected by stress.

“Through the last decade or two, we have been able to identify programs that work to improve parents’ ability to read their babies’ and toddlers’ signals and to respond,” said Aber, the Willner Family Professor in Psychology and Public Policy at the Steinhart School of Culture, Education and Human Development at NYU, in an interview after the event.

In turn, as parents have become more attuned to their children’s signals, the children’s language becomes more advanced, their cognition becomes more advanced and their social-emotional lives become more advanced.

But all that effort has only moved the needle a fraction of the way to closing the achievement gap for children in high poverty, high stress situations, said Aber, comparing it to the effect of adding 50 points to an SAT score of 500.

“It’s an improvement, but going from 500 to 550 isn’t going to get you into to Harvard. We want to go from 500 to 600.”

With the creation of the Straus Center and the endowment, Bank Street will have a chance to wield more clout in the field of education policy, and, hopefully, spur greater financial investment in childhood education, said Aber. “It gives the Bank Street College of Education a chance to be a major player in research-based improvement in practice-based policy.”

In an interview after the event, Polakow-Suransky explained how Bank Street wanted to provide the practical tools as well as the policy to help the city make effective change.

The center’s goal “is to provide a set of tools and resources for education officials so that they have things at their fingertips, ‘Here’s the research that says this is the best curriculum, the best professional development, salaries, here’s what you need to think about,'” to get new initiatives up and going as smoothly as possible, said the school president; or, as Polakow-Suransky explained to his audience on Monday night, to take the knowledge gleaned from the areas of neuroscience, biology and cognitive psychology, and develop evidence-based, scalable models that address and close the achievement gap, effectively turning theory into policy, with the goal of affecting policy city wide.

Ruth Ford covers education for City Limits. Got a tip? Send it here.