America's Innovative Leaders: Mayor Robert Duffy

Implementing a long-term strategy to address a major problem like crime or illiteracy is a difficult and risky proposition for a mayor.
by | May 20, 2010

Implementing a long-term strategy to address a major problem like crime or illiteracy is a difficult and risky proposition for a mayor, who is under constant pressure to produce results quickly. The benefits of such an endeavor, no matter how well-executed, may not be apparent for years. And even if the mayor is willing to take the lead, others may not follow.

When Robert Duffy took office as mayor of Rochester, N.Y., in 2006, he placed improving the literacy rate at the top of his policy agenda, citing it as a crime-reduction strategy. In his inauguration speech he argued that "the best deterrent to jail is a high school diploma." The Rochester Literacy Movement that Mayor Duffy spearheads has since produced a substantial increase in pre-K enrollment and maintained these increases despite temporary cuts in state subsidies. The RLM has also yielded seven three-way partnerships (university-corporation-elementary school) that focus their combined resources on improving literacy rates, as well as a robust AmeriCorps VISTA program that operates out of the public library system, delivering customized literacy resources and programs to students and their families. The ultimate payoff from these efforts may not arrive for some time, but this is a promising start.

Making literacy a top priority was an interesting decision for Duffy considering he had previously spent nearly 30 years in the city's police department, eventually becoming chief in 1998. How does a dedicated law enforcement professional come to decide that literacy deserves the most attention?

For one thing, reading has always held an important place in the Duffy family. His mother, a dedicated teacher, kept the television turned off and limited phone calls most evenings to encourage her son to read, an example Duffy now follows with his own two children. But it was an experience in the police department that helped Duffy connect literacy to crime reduction. In 1992, while working on a community-drive effort to combat illegal drugs, a business leader told then-Captain Duffy to "forget all the things you're focusing on. Literacy is the issue. It's education. That's why these kids are selling drugs." The comment struck a chord, and stayed with him all the way to the mayor's office.

The new mayor was eager to lead a long-term campaign to improve literacy, but knew that garnering the support to make it work would not be easy. For starters, Duffy needed to leverage both the public library system and the public schools, over which he had no direct authority as mayor. To get them on board, Duffy made a compelling case to local officials by revealing some disheartening data: As of January 2006, only 39 percent of students graduated from the city's high schools; 57 percent of adults read at a sixth grade level or lower; the city continued to struggle against high unemployment; and perhaps most significantly, high school dropouts committed nearly half of the crimes in Rochester.

By the time Mayor Duffy convened a literacy summit in September 2006, every area of the community had become involved. More than 200 people attended, including corporate executives, parents, educators, leaders from faith-based organizations, childcare and healthcare professionals and the government. A year later, Duffy formally announced the Rochester Literacy Movement: "We have a crisis in literacy in Rochester, and we are announcing a community call to action to address one of the root causes of poverty and criminal behavior."

In early 2008, the mayor incorporated parallel efforts by the public school system's newly-appointed superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizard. The two agreed that driving change in education and literacy would require major support from the community, and to build that support they agreed to establish the REAL Commission, a leadership council which includes representatives from the private sector. The commission's goal is not to teach reading but to foster collaboration across agencies and sectors, leveraging resources already on the ground. Neither the RLM nor the REAL Commission is a budget line item for the mayor or the superintendent; they are funded primarily through grants as well as private, public, and in-kind contributions.

By focusing on solutions to community problems, the commission facilitates greater cooperation and collaboration within the community. Historically, the poor graduation and school retention rates led the community to demand that schools be held accountable. Duffy challenged the community to accept greater responsibility for student outcomes, and to adopt a more collaborative posture to drive constructive change. Representatives from the school system and other agencies are now more willing to have candid discussions about their needs and the challenges they face.

The commission focuses largely on early childhood needs, but has also determined that addressing the literacy needs of the entire family is essential to the child's success. Their approach is essentially three-pronged:

Increasing pre-kindergarten enrollment. The REAL Commission set out to increase enrollment in the city's pre-K program -- and in turn restore Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) funding -- through community outreach and transportation support. In 2007, the first year that RLM was actively engaged, pre-K enrollment increased by 10 percent (167 students) over the previous year. By the middle of the 2008-2009 school year, enrollment increased by another 70 students. By meeting and exceeding the state's enrollment targets, Rochester was able to secure UPK funding for an additional 49 seats.

New York State was at one point compelled to cut UPK subsidies across the entire state due to the recession, threatening to reverse the commission's pre-K enrollment progress. But thanks in part to a powerful response from a reinvigorated community -- which sought to soften the blow by raising over $200,000 in pre-K scholarships for the neediest families -- the state decided to restore Rochester's UPK subsidies once more.

Focused school partnership program. Rochester's seven elementary schools each partner with one corporation and one university which dedicate financial, intellectual and human resources toward various methods of literacy promotion. Time-Warner, for instance, has adopted one public school, and members of its staff volunteer to mentor and tutor.

Public library system. Besides adding weekend hours to all library branches, Mayor Duffy forged a partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service to establish a comprehensive AmeriCorps VISTA program within the library system. Eleven full-time VISTA workers have delivered customized literacy programs and resources to families and children through Rochester's public libraries.

Mayor Duffy's endeavor remains in its initial stages, but the increase in graduation rates over the past three years, from 39 percent to 52 percent, may be an early indicator signaling the benefits of a family-inclusive approach. A positive impact on citywide literacy, and on crime, may not be detectable for several years, but the best innovations often stem from thinking that is unfettered by a fixation on attractive, shorter-term outcomes -- enduring change rarely comes so cheap. By identifying a root cause and making it a long-term priority, by forging unique partnerships and leveraging existing resources, Mayor Duffy may be killing two birds with one well-aimed stone.

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