The city of Syracuse’s public educational system, and its long-term economic health, are nearing a tipping point. According to a recent study by the Century Foundation, Syracuse has the highest rate of extreme poverty concentrated among blacks and Hispanics of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas.

Like many other urban school systems, Syracuse City School District (SCSD), where I serve as chief academic officer, has faced a number of challenges: Retaining teachers past their third year of teaching, too many competing initiatives that were unaligned to larger goals, and—most pressing—low academic performance among disadvantaged students.

A couple years ago, we took a fresh...

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