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Profile in Partnership: Geneva 2020

Trina Newton

Graduation rates. Career and college readiness. Literacy.

When Mark D. Gearan, president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, asked the Geneva City School District its priorities in 2009, those were at the top of the list.

At that time, less than three quarters of graduating Geneva High School seniors were entering college and graduation rates hovered around 70%. While serving on the White House Council on Community Solutions chaired by First Lady Michelle Obama, Gearan was exposed to the “collective impact” theory modeled in Cincinnati, Ohio’s StriveTogether program. By working in collaboration, individuals, businesses, and nonprofits have tackled the student achievement crisis in Cincinnati and moved the dial on a number of indicators of student success including high school graduation rates, and reading and math scores.

Gearan began meeting regularly with other community leaders—from the school district, the hospital, local businesses and houses of worship—and soon after, Geneva 2020 was formed, harnessing the resources of the Geneva community to invest in the future of Geneva’s children.

“We had great clarity from the Geneva school system in terms of what they need and where our areas of focus should be,” Gearan says. From lab coats to college preparation to job-shadowing, “Geneva 2020 lets groups, individuals and organizations know where they’re needed and how they can help.”

“A community is only as strong as its school district,” says Trina Newton, Geneva’s superintendent. “To succeed, students need critical thinking skills, so we need to plant the seeds early and utilize the resources we have at our fingertips.”

“The major organizations in the city and the community all benefit when our work reflects the notion of ‘collective impact,’” says Greg Baker ’00, principal of Geneva High School. “The school district is not able to face its considerable challenges— including financial, programmatic and preparing college and workready citizens—without drawing on the many resources available here in Geneva. To accomplish our mission we will need to continue to look for innovative solutions and offer compelling programming to our families to ensure that all of this city’s children receive a world-class education.”

Lucile Mallard

Strong Foundations for 2020
As former chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service and a parent of students enrolled in Geneva public schools, Gearan imagined that a collective effort “could work in Geneva because it’s what people have been doing here for years. Geneva 2020 always felt organic and achievable because we have a very engaged, very collaborative community, which provided a strong foundation to build upon.”

For example, since 2004, the HWS Summer Academy has welcomed more than 50 Geneva High School students of color to campus for an immersive two-week learning program that includes college-level courses taught by HWS faculty in a variety of disciplines. As of 2013, 100% of the program’s graduates had gained college acceptance.

The Geneva Scholarship Associates, another forerunner to the Geneva 2020 partnership, is a community-driven organization that has provided endowed scholarship support since 1968 to more than 190 academically and financially deserving students from Geneva to continue their education at HWS.

The first scholarship for Geneva High School students of color was also established in 1968 by the Geneva League of Women Voters and the Geneva NAACP in memory of the late Molly Lydenberg, the first director of the Geneva Human Rights Commission. Today, the scholarship committee is made up of members of both organizations and has financially assisted more than 100 graduating students in furthering their education.

In that same spirit, Geneva’s Martin Luther King Jr. Committee established a scholarship fund in 1975 to aid graduating Geneva High School students of color in meeting the costs of pursuing higher education. Since its inception, the Committee—comprised of local leaders like Lucile Mallard, president of the Geneva NAACP, and former president Rosa Blue P’72, P’77, P’84, P’84, L.H.D.’12 —has helped to send more than 200 local students on to college.

“People of color are underrepresented in the political arena, in the school system, in city employment—education is important to making these changes,” says Mallard, a longtime advocate for educational access and opportunity. When she relocated to Geneva from Georgia with her family in 1957, she came from an all-black school and entered seventh grade in Geneva as “one of maybe only two students of color in the class.”

Today, 24% of Geneva identifies as Hispanic/Latino, African American or Black.

Mallard cites the importance of her ongoing education through coursework, leadership conferences and community service. “Education is a big part of my life,” she says. “And pushing young people to succeed. It’s important to be proactive and get involved. Geneva’s come a long way but there’s always work to be done.”

Seeing Results—and Building on Them
For the many Hobart and William Smith students engaged in the Geneva 2020 initiative, the size of the city offers “actionable scale” in the face of “issues that at first seem intractable,” says Gearan. “Engagement on this level prepares our students to be citizens, no matter where they ultimately live.”

“Every community faces challenges, but we also have to recognize that every community has incredible strengths, Geneva especially,” says Aly McKnight ’15, a sociology and public policy double-major who volunteers with the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva. “Right now, real, statistical change is being made in the school district because the community thought about its strengths. That’s the kind of community Geneva is.”

“We’re trying to find innovative ways to help the community, meeting students where they are, on their own terms and providing the resources to help them succeed,” says Aminata Dansoko ’15, a double major in environmental studies and political social studies. Dansoko is a civic leader for Boys & Girls Club, organizing HWS volunteers and working with Geneva students. “The challenge is to continue developing access to resources, to make sure the school grows with the community and to work with students to form relationships.”

Geneva 2020 has already helped move the graduation rate from 70% in 2010 to 82% in 2013, and increased the number of students entering college from 74% in 2009 to 76% in 2013.

“One of our goals is to graduate 90% of our students by 2020,” says Newton. “For every three students that walk across the stage, that’s one percentage point. Thinking about it like that makes it a little more realistic.”

As for college and career readiness, the Geneva City School District’s partnerships with area colleges—Alfred University, the University of Rochester, Finger Lakes Community College and the New York Chiropractic College in Seneca Falls—to introduce students to the coursework and opportunities of higher education. Through Geneva 2020, Hobart and William Smith open their doors to Geneva students for campus tours (every 2nd, 6th and 9th grader spends one day on the HWS campus) and seminars on the admissions process, financial aid and study abroad, “to use our assets to make a material change in the lives of Geneva’s children,” Gearan says.

Students in Geneva’s West Street School (pre-k through 2nd grade) are now in their first year of learning the Mandarin language, while students at North Street (3rd through 5th) are in their second year of the program. Some Geneva High School students are interning with local businesses and with the Geneva Police Department, while others explore biomedical sciences through a partnership with Geneva General Hospital and Project Lead the Way, a non-profit that offers programming, networking and teacher development to encourage students to pursue their interests in science, technology, engineering and math.

In the 2013 high school academic competition, MasterMinds, Geneva won the Rochester regionals and advanced to compete at the state level. The district has produced National Merit Finalists for three consecutive years—“no other school in the region can say that,” Newton says.

The Geneva Schools are “headed down the right path,” says Baker. “To continue to thrive we must continue to strengthen our meaningful partnerships with the people and organizations that want to help us. We have had considerable help from the many grants we have been awarded in the past few years. We are very lucky to be in a location of remarkable beauty that also has world-class colleges, a hospital, and a community that is keenly interested in working together for our mutual success. The story moving forward is an exciting one.”

“We already have the leadership and people in place, with amazing ideas,” says Newton. “It takes time and resources, but Geneva’s size makes it manageable.”