Following the Path of Education out of the Mean Streets

Queens College Education Professor Soribel Genao researches strategies for reversing the educational disparities faced by children in poor neighborhoods—like the one in which she grew up

Soribel Genao (Educational & Community Programs) grew up on the rough streets of New York’s Lower East Side. Today she tries to identify which interventions and techniques help children from poor neighborhoods succeed in school.

Genao and three younger brothers were raised by their mother, a Dominican immigrant who supported the family as a home health care aide. “Because she worked all the time, she made a point of having us enrolled in community programs,” recalls Genao. Such programs, and the mentors Genao found along the way, helped shape her life.

Through her elementary and middle school years, she was an enthusiastic participant in a local program of the National Dance Institute. She doubts she would have succeeded academically “had it not been for dance and the discipline it entailed.” Then, in the late 1990s, Genao attended Seward Park High School, which struggled with extremely high truancy and dropout rates; it eventually closed. Nonetheless, she took advantage of a mentoring program at Seward Park and found a teacher who was very interested in her—experiences that convinced her, unlike most of her classmates, to enroll in college.

After completing a bachelor’s in mass communications at St. John’s University and a master’s in urban affairs at Hunter College, Genao directed programs for disadvantaged youth at a nonprofit organization, Wildcat Service Corporation. There, she discovered the huge difficulties in trying to make a difference in young peoples’ lives. Bringing low-income students to college fairs or on campus visits was often a frustrating experience. The students had few educated role models and sometimes needed extra support for such problems as homelessness, pregnancy, or run-ins with the law, but support was usually lacking. In addition, Genao found that educators and officials were frequently out of touch with the realities of these young people’s lives, or were overworked and unable to provide extra help.

Already a scholar at heart, she wanted to determine which of her agency’s interventions were most successful. But when she proposed carrying out an evaluation, she was told she wasn’t equipped to do so without a doctorate. So she earned a PhD in public administration at Rutgers University. Her dissertation concerned how to measure the impact that partnerships between public schools in Newark, New Jersey, and public, private, or nonprofit organizations had on improving students’ performance. These partnerships offered such services as internships, mentoring, job training, and after-school programs that the school system could not provide on its own. At the same time, she helped develop the Newark school system’s alternative high school initiatives, which partner with outside organizations to provide services to overage and undereducated students.

Genao had gravitated to a hot pedagogical topic. The issue of how to overcome the educational disparities faced by low-income children had attracted intense interest. It still does. Despite all the research, children brought up in poor neighborhoods typically get an inferior education and end up in lower-paying jobs than children from more affluent areas. “I came from that kind of [low-income] environment,” observes Genao. “I had people to guide me; I had the will to succeed only because others wanted me to succeed.”

Exceptionally caring and enterprising principals have made a big difference at their schools, she says. Today, her research focuses on how school districts can replicate such gains through alternative models using outside partnerships. In collaboration with a colleague in SEYS, Genao won a grant to study improvements in social studies programs at two schools in Queens and Brooklyn.

At QC, she teaches the management of teaching and learning technology for school leaders. Her graduate students sometimes enlighten her. As working teachers, they help her keep in touch with the day-to-day problems at public schools.

For more about Queens College visit Phyllis Cohen Stevens
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Maria Matteo
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