To all our suburban friends: We need your help

The Urban-Suburban program is nice. Over the years many Rochester schoolchildren who would otherwise be consigned to a high poverty and underperforming school have been given the opportunity to attend a suburban school and learn alongside a middle class population.

But there is another side to this successful program. It allows some to think that serving about 2 percent of the city’s schoolchildren contributes to solving the problem of economically segregated schools—and this could not be further from the truth.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Our current school district system in Monroe County, like those in many other urban areas, has kept all but those 700 kids in the Urban-Suburban program from gaining any access to suburban schools. This is the result of generations of back room dealings and goofy school district borders that look like the scribbles of a kindergartner.

A new report but ED Build  features an interactive map of school district borders across the United States. The maps of Monroe County school districts should make us ashamed. The City School District is surrounded by school districts drawn in odd shapes that sit next to Rochester with one of the highest student poverty rates in the country. West Irondequoit and its poverty rate of 10 percent borders Rochester. So, too, the oddly shaped districts of Brighton and Penfield and, just blocks away, Pittsford—with poverty rates in the 6 percent range. The Wheatland-Chili district has a finger-shaped section thrusting to the city district, while Gates and Greece make up the western borders.

Across the county, district lines drawn years ago fence off the affluent and middle class suburbs, effectively isolating and excluding poor minority populations in the city. As a result, property values have risen in the suburbs and fallen in the city, which affects the funding of the schools.

Then these districts and villages worked to keep low-income housing out of their communities. Some have even blocked apartments and condos that were intended for working class and middle income people. These housing policies have incentivized wealthy communities to wall themselves off against the City School District and schoolchildren, which has lead to poorer and poorer city schools.

We in the city know that our friends in the suburbs care because they march to protest racist flyers left at their homes and pride themselves on including phrases on their district material and mission statements extolling diversity as strength. But the actions of these districts and villages do not always align with their stated philosophies on diversity.

Our Great Schools For All (GS4A) group wants what is best for all children: equity realized through socially integrated magnet schools. To be sure, many in our group, myself included, would favor a countywide school system that would allow students to attend any Monroe County school. After all, as we know, it takes less than ½ hour to get just about anywhere in the county. But a countywide system is neither politically nor legally viable, so the weirdly drawn boundaries must stay. Instead critics of our plan tell us to embrace school choice and other options. But that is a false choice because our kids cannot choose Brighton, Penfield, or Webster. They can only choose another school where more than 80 percent of their peers are poor.

So we challenge our suburban neighbors to embrace plans for truly diverse schools all across our county. The Urban-Suburban program is just not enough to overcome a half-century of political machinations that have isolated the city. The children of Rochester have been sacrificed to keep property values up.

Historically, when parents have moved to the suburbs for the schools, they’ve said they are just taking care of their family and that it is not their intent to segregate poor kids in the city. I’m sure that’s true—but the end result for the children of Rochester is the same.

But here is the toughest part. We desperately need our suburban allies to help rectify these educational inequities. We cannot do it without you because you have the power both financially and politically to move us forward. And we know from our spring 2016 countywide parent survey that 87 percent of parents, city and suburban, now support diverse schools for their kids. If the suburbs advocate for change it can happen. By supporting the work of GS4A and pushing to open socioeconomically diverse schools for all children in Monroe County, you help save a generation of kids and, in the process, help your own children by modeling compassion and morality for them.

Thanks for thinking about this.








More of the same leads to more of the same

An item in the recent news cycle reminded us of the enormity, complexity and urgency of the problems our community faces:

An update to a 2013 ACT Rochester/Rochester Area Community Foundation report confirmed a rising concentration of poverty in city neighborhoods and an expanding number of census tracts where the poverty rate stood at 40 percent or higher. (Democrat and Chronicle, September 21, 2016) One-third of Rochester residents live in poverty and another one-third require some form of assistance. Those figures reverse themselves in suburban communities. As Edward Doherty, the author of the poverty report and update, said, “we don’t really have a poverty problem. We have a concentration of poverty problem.”

John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church and co-convener of Great Schools for All

John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church and co-convener of Great Schools for All

It was the original RACF report that first got the attention of Great Schools for All. GS4A has become convinced that it is the concentration of poverty in our city, more than any other factor, which contributes to low achievement and low graduation rates. It is not about how much families care, or how hard children work. It is not about RCSD capacity to change, to somehow do better, though there will always be issues of functionality and capacity facing any large urban school district.

From the very start, GS4A’s agenda has been shaped by the evidence that concentrated poverty is the key difference-maker in achievement and graduation. That’s why we read the recent news with such interest, and such concern.

It is very true that many in our community are talking about poverty like never before. That is good. We were heartened by the launch of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), and were pleased when several GS4A reps were appointed to the education team. We fully agree with these commitments found in the RMAPI report:

“Investing in evidence-based initiatives to address the impact of poverty on children’s learning by targeting literacy proficiency and high quality instructional practices.”


“Drive toward socially and economically diverse schools across Monroe County…”

That second affirmation especially lies squarely in the GS4A wheelhouse.

My day job is in the church. We are an institution, more than government, business, education and many others, where change comes slowly and is often unwelcome. The church historian Martin Marty once joked that it takes 500 years for the church to change its mind on anything!

So I understand how difficult such deep structural and organizational change can be. I am not a numbers person, but the numbers tell a story. Poverty is getting worse in our community, more concentrated. So achievement levels and graduation rates cannot change substantively. They just can’t, even with the best of intentions and the most dedicated of practitioners. And so we are looking at another generation of our children facing the cruel and crushing cycle of poverty.

It will take many people and many ideas to change the course of this ship. But the ideas need to be big— no tweaking around the edges. And the political will must be huge—all in.

The GS4A proposal for a network of inter-district magnet schools that will offer distinctive programming and achieve a 50/50 poverty split is not a panacea, magic pill, or silver bullet. But it is bold. And it has been proven in other communities to move the needle.

Is Rochester ready to try something truly different, something big, something bold? At GS4A, we think the answer is yes. And we are sure that more of the same approach to education will lead to more of the same disheartening headlines.




What can Dallas teach Rochester about voluntary socioeconomically diverse schools?

The Rochester/Monroe County community has something to learn from conservative Dallas? The same Dallas which has recently experienced tragic race-related killings? The same Dallas that is overwhelmingly segregated by race and income? The same Dallas in which public schools have largely been deserted by middle class families, leaving behind public schools about 85 percent of which have student enrollments of at least 80 percent low-income children?

The answer appears to be: Yes we do. And this is especially important because of the disturbing similarities between Rochester and Dallas: Like it or not, we recognize our own high degree of racial and economic segregation between our city and suburban areas, and the high concentration of poverty that impacts all of our city schools.

Don Pryor is a researcher for the Center for Governmental Research and a member of the GS4A leadership team

Don Pryor is a researcher for the Center for Governmental Research and a member of the GS4A leadership team

So what does this have to do with what we can learn from Dallas about school diversity and voluntary integration of schools? Seemingly quite a bit. But first, some brief local context.

Readers will recall that a recent survey of 600 parents of school-age children, evenly-divided between Rochester and suburbs, found compelling evidence that large majorities of both city and suburban parents would consider socioeconomically-diverse magnet school options for their children, even if it means crossing school district lines, as long as those schools provide academic and cultural opportunities not available in their home districts.

But even though the findings suggest strongly that attitudes and behaviors are changing among today’s generation of parents across our community, and that there is a substantial degree of support for diverse schools, survey responses are not necessarily predictive of actual decisions.

Enter Dallas. Now we have new evidence that connects the dots between what parents here say, and what parents in Dallas are actually doing. Recent experience there suggests that significant numbers of parents are not only saying they would consider diversity in their decisions about schools, but are specifically making that an integral factor in their actual decision. To read more, click here.

Mike Koprowski, the Dallas school district’s chief of transformation and innovation, says “we cannot deny that high-poverty environments create significant learning challenges, and diverse schools consistently prove to be dramatically better learning environments for all students, both middle-class and low-income alike.” Accordingly, in this new school year, Dallas has launched what we would consider a voluntary magnet school, Solar Preparatory School for Girls, a K-8 STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) school that, “for the first time in district history,” uses socioeconomic diversity as the primary criterion in admissions decisions. Fifty percent of the seats in the school are reserved for low-income students (based on free- and reduced-price lunch designation) and the other half for students who do not qualify and are considered middle-class students.

As in this community, there were skeptics who said, “Wealthier families wouldn’t risk enrolling their child in a school that’s half poor,” and that Dallas was not ready, given its troubled history and recent past. But in fact, the reality is that the school is oversubscribed, as “applications poured in from all corners” of both the poor and wealthy sectors of the community. The district received 360 applications for 198 seats, far surpassing district expectations, with waiting lists from both low-income and middle-class families.

Of course the ultimate test is yet to come, as student success, skills and cross-cultural understanding are measured in the coming months and years, but Dallas officials are encouraged that, “Many families are seeking diverse learning environments for their children and won’t succumb to false fears about people from different backgrounds,” and that “Dallas is poised to contribute to an overdue but critical national dialogue” about the intersection of race and class and diverse schools offering new opportunities not previously available to their students.

We now know that a critical mass of parents in Rochester and its surrounding suburbs have expressed readiness for such diverse options for their children. A number of specific ideas for cross-district, socioeconomically-diverse magnet schools are in various stages of discussion and development—including schools focusing on themes and curricula as diverse as a military academy, a river/waterways school, photonics, and health-sciences, among others. Various school district superintendents, colleges and universities, and other potential providers are beginning to come together to flesh out ways the GS4A principles for diverse specialty schools can be made reality.

We now need YOU. We are urging parents, teachers, school administrators and others who are interested in supplementing these ideas and helping develop additional new school options to sign on. We are in the process of establishing groups to help flesh out the principles and framework underlying magnet Breakthrough Schools, to begin to shape ideas for specific Breakthrough Schools of the future, and to make sure the perspectives of all affected parties are included in our deliberations. And we are also interested in finding ways to incorporate student perspectives.

This is the time for broad GS4A principles to be converted into action steps. YOU and your input are needed and encouraged. Click on the Contact link at the top of this page to indicate your interest.

Lancaster starts talking about school integration

When it comes to moving toward school integration, do the facts really matter?

Yes and no. (I know, not the answer anyone wants to hear.) As my GS4A colleague Jeff Linn wrote last week, people acquire attitudes over time. Our thinking does evolve based on our own experiences  and on how the people closest to us think about various ideas. It’s complicated.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But rarely do we see a major attitude change, let alone public policy changes, based simply on what the evidence—however abundant—tells us.

But Rochester is not the only place struggling to find a fact-based solution to high poverty schools when people show little inclination to change.

Jeff Hawkes, a reporter for LNP, a daily newspaper in Lancaster, Pa.,  and Lancaster online, posted an August 28 story that sounds like what we’ve seen in Rochester. (An aside: Hawkes interviewed GS4A co-convenor Lynette Sparks, W. Irondequoit superintendent Jeff Crane and me for a sidebar story on our work here.)

The Lancaster school district is smaller than Rochester’s, but it has the same poverty and racial isolation issues we have.

Hawkes lays out the case for socioeconomic diversity:

“Integrating schools to restore economic balance boosts achievement levels among poor children without negatively impacting other students, researchers say.”

And, he wrote, there is local experience to support those findings going back four decades.

“Poor children at Manheim Township, Hempfield and other schools got an academic boost where they’re outnumbered by more affluent children…Specifically, at the 10 most affluent elementary schools in the suburbs, 60 percent of the disadvantaged children pass the language arts test. But at the 10 highest-poverty schools, all in the city, only 40 percent pass.

“The 20-point gap raises questions for the Lancaster region: what would happen if every school was economically integrated, assuring that poor kids from the city learned with middle-class kids from the suburbs?”

Seven years ago, in 2009, David Rusk, a Washington, D.C.-based urban policy consultant (and author of Cities Without Suburbs and several follow-up books), “recommended Lancaster County rethink its tradition of neighborhood schools. He wrote a 51-page report called ‘Classmates Count’ showing how the segregated nature of Lancaster County’s neighborhoods reinforced educational disadvantage,” Hawkes reported.

” ‘Where a child lives (in Lancaster County) largely shapes his educational opportunities, not because of what the school board does but because of who his classmates are,’ Rusk wrote in a report that the that the county planning commission authorized but never followed up on. In the seven years since Rusk issued his report, the concentration of poverty at most of the city’s schools has only deepened, and poor students continue to fall behind their peers.”

Whatever the merits of integration, it’s a very challenging goal. Hawkes cites Jonathan Betel, who runs a Pennsylvania statewide education advocacy group, as saying that you can’t separate socioeconomic diversity from race.

Because the obstacles to integration in Pennsylvania appear so daunting, Cetel said he prefers to focus on strategies that lift up inner-city children in their neighborhood schools. Makes more sense, he says to build “high performance schools” in the poor neighborhoods the students come from.

Except that it won’t work for the vast majority of kids.


Likewise, Lancaster superintendent Damaris Rau said she and her staff are hoping to overcome the consequences of poverty by using learning strategies intended to “help kids reach their full potential.”

“It might work, but I don’t know,” Rau said, referring to integration. “We have to focus on the here and now. We can’t sit around and hope something like that is going to happen when we have children sitting in front us today.”

Sound familiar?

It takes years, maybe decades, for legislators and school officials to catch up to the reality that high-poverty schools can never yield the opportunities that more affluent students experience in middle-class schools. It takes even longer for them to believe (as the GS4A parent survey clearly indicates) that today’s parents are more than willing to consider integrated schools that are open to kids from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

So no, I don’ think studies will lead directly integration—no matter how compelling the evidence. What we need first and foremost are pioneers—a few school superintendents, boards, principals and innovators who are willing to lead by example. We need folks who will launch an integrated school and let the outcomes and word-of-mouth build support for broader change.

Attitudes, Behaviors and Magnet Schools

Sometimes I think we are making progress in helping folks understand the need for magnet schools in Rochester. And then I make the mistake of reading a letter in the newspaper or an on-line post somewhere that vilifies city kids as lazy and parents as criminals. Or I hear someone blame the poor for being poor or lazy. And I wonder how can we change their attitude?

Attitude change is a topic that I know little bit about because I researched it for my doctoral thesis years ago at Penn State. My thesis was: The Development of a Reliable and Valid Scale to Measure Writing Attitudes. Don’t look for it on Amazon.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Attitudes are learned and evolve based on our experiences. We acquire them gradually. They are affected by important events and the people associated with them like our parents, friends and teachers. We know that individuals are likely to ignore or discount information that people outside their circle tell or show them. We all favor information from people close to us. And this information shapes our attitudes. This reasoning seems particularly relevant today in a political climate in which people are likely to tune into the news they want to hear from people who share their perspectives.

The concept of attitude contains a quality of evaluation: that is, you are for or against something or like or dislike a group’s ideas and institutions. But attitude can change. Many factors can contribute to attitude change:  education, feedback, media, socialization and getting to know people who may have different attitudes.

My old research got me wondering  what role attitude plays in our quest to create socioeconomically diverse magnet schools. On one hand the results of the GS4A survey seem to indicate that people would put their kids in more socio-economically integrated settings if they thought the school would be good fit. But some of the research on attitudes and their effect on behaviors make me wonder.

Attitude and behavior (the A-B relationship) are imperfectly correlated. Studies as far back as 1930s have found that variables like vested interest and who is asking the survey questions affect the answers. So a person may respond that they will send their children to a magnet school in the city but when push comes to shove they may not do so or be influenced by others who think it is a bad idea.

However, the A-B relationship does not only work in one direction. We can change attitudes by first changing people’s behaviors. For example over the past forty years our behaviors changed when legislation was passed requiring us to recycle. Now it is second nature for us to separate plastics and paper into different bins and many of us strive to maintain these behaviors because we think it is good for future generations and our planet. We changed our behaviors and our attitudes followed.

So the question is, “How do we change behavior that will change attitudes?” or, “How do we change attitudes that will change behavior?” when we know that people often ignore the research or new ideas because it is not shared by their family and friends?

I guess we just keep plugging away person by person. We had the political will to put recycling in place because we determined as a culture that there was no other way and eventually when asked to comply with new behaviors people found that it made sense and they changed their attitudes.

So continue to talk with and listen to your friends and family who may not have thought about the issue of socioeconomically diverse magnet schools and how they can help us all. It may change someone’s attitude.



A tale of two schools

This  video, “A tale of two schools: Race and education on Long Island,” was produced a few years back by the Erase Racism project.

It is 26 minutes long, but I encourage you to stay with it to the end. David is a senior at Wyandanch High School, which is poor and lacks resources, not to mention high expectations. Owen attends the far more affluent Rockville Center High School, which is resource-rich and where he has become friends with many affluent students.

Their experiences clearly show why and how integration is so important to student success.


Integration not likely to happen by good will alone

Here’s a couple of  videos that explain how segregation happen today.
The first is from 2014, and explores how the schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, have been resegregated— showing how legislators and judges have permitted the slippage. Meanwhile, students from an earlier generation  of integrated schools talk about how their lives have been better for it.


In this interview from January 2016 PBS’ Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with Pedro Noguera of the University of California, Los Angeles, about the ways to solve this problem.

Renewing an American Faith in Education

Every morning in my inbox I receive an email from something called The email includes a summary of a book, a kind of a contemporary Reader’s Digest Condensed Version for people who only have time—or perceive they only have time—to read a paragraph or two. I look at the topic each day. Some I read. Some I delete. Some I save until later.

John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church and co-convener of Great Schools for All

John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church and co-convener of Great Schools for All

Just a few days ago I receive a summary of a book by Paula Fass called The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. It was published in 2006, so is already a decade old. I Googled Fass and discovered that she taught social and cultural history at UC Berkeley for more than 30 years.

Fass’ words captured my GS4A attention immediately. Without including the entire entry, here are some key passages…

“…The American faith in education was nowhere more pointedly ad­vertised than in the creation of the high school. The White House Conference on Child Health and Protection put this faith in ringing terms in 1934: ‘The school is the embodiment of the most profound faith of the American people, a faith that if the rising generation can be sufficiently educated, the ills of society will disappear. The con­stantly lengthening period of school attendance, the constantly en­larging contributions of money for the maintenance of the school, the rising standards of preparation of the teachers . . . these and many other evidences attest the faith of the people in their schools.’ …”

“Unlike the equivalents of high schools elsewhere in the West such as the lycée or gymnasium— places of exclusive higher learning at­tended by only a tiny fragment of the population— American high schools became democratic almost as soon as they became an im­portant part of the educational system.”

“American education was truly revolutionary in this re­gard, since it succeeded in enticing the majority of adolescents into a longer school regime and created a uniquely American institution to contain them. Nothing better expressed America’s new prominence in the world or Americans’ elevated expectations regarding the fu­ture. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, the vast ma­jority of adolescents, regardless of where they or their parents were born, were drawn into the ambit of the high school.”

I do not know if the “ills of society” will disappear if we achieve socio-economically integrated schools. What I do know is that we cannot continue on the path we are on, in Rochester, or other communities across the nation.

We are not making this up. It is in the best of our American history and is lodged deeply in our American DNA. Our task now is simply to seek to live into the legacy and promise of that history. That will take creativity and boldness and determination, which seem so very counter-cultural but which are essentially American. The good news is that we have history on which to base our efforts, if we simply remember it.



School integration is about more than grades and graduation rates

In the wake of last week’s police shootings in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul and the killing of five Dallas police officers, Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociologist and author, wrote a fiery, angry commentary for the New York Times Sunday Review.

White Americans, Dyson wrote, can’t understand why black Americans are so angry over police shootings when those same African Americans never say a thing about “black-on-black” homicides all across urban America. Dyson says the charge is complete nonsense, but “nearly beside the point. Black people protest, to one another, to a world that largely refuses to listen, that what goes on in black communities across this nation is horrid, as it would be in any neighborhood depleted of dollars and hope—emptied of good schools, and deprived of social and economic buffers against brutality. People usually murder where they nest; they aim their rage at easy targets.

“It is not best understood as black-on-black crime; rather, it is neighbor-to-neighbor carnage. If their neighbors were white, they’d get no exemption from the crime that plagues human beings who happen to be black. If you want interracial killing, you have to have interracial communities.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

I’m sure that many of Dyson’s readers will see his remarks as “extreme” or “hysterical,” but there is a truth to his premise: You cannot understand people, let alone care about them or build community with them from afar.  The racial divide in America is the product of persistent segregation—separate schools, churches, neighborhoods. And distinctly different expectations—of success and happiness, or failure, hardship and early death—depending on where you come from.

If you are white (especially if you are affluent), ” you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy,” Dyson says. “…Those binoculars are…stories, bad stories, biased stories, harmful stories, about how black people are lazy, or dumb, or slick, or immoral, people who can’t be helped by the best schools or even God himself. These beliefs don’t make it into contemporary books, or into most classrooms. But they are passed down, informally, from one white mind to the next.”

Most of us spend most of our lives with people who are like ourselves. We are tribal in many ways. But in a wide open free society like America, we need to build institutions and opportunities for meaningful interaction with those not like us. When we wall ourselves off, the promise of America dies—because the promise of  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is meaningless when so many are denied access to equal opportunity.

We at GS4A advocate for school integration because we know, from decades of research, that diverse schools can dramatically improve the odds for success for children in high poverty segregated schools.  But integration is about more than good grades and higher graduation rates, as important as those are. Schools are one of the places where children should have the opportunity to interact with kids who are different from themselves.

Schools should be places where children can put aside those binoculars and experience the “texture of intimacy” that is so essential to their growth as human beings and as citizens. Schools should bring together rich and poor, white, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and refugees in an environment that will make them all better for it.

Segregation not only stokes the fires of bigotry and mistrust, it destroys community and deprives us of the creative problem solving that’s only possible when we learn to work together.

The good news is that young adults “get” all this in ways that their parents and grandparents may not. As our recent survey of city and suburban parents confirms, that vast majority of parents today (people in their late 20s to early 40s) want their kids to attend fully diverse schools, and they don’t care if that means traveling across school district to boundaries to achieve integration. Of course, they want those schools to have rich academic programs and to be safe. But they reject segregation without  reservation.

That means the door is open. We have the opportunity in Rochester and Monroe County to begin to remove the barriers that have for so many decades denied our children the gift of each other—and denied our community the chance to use our collective skills to build a more just, more prosperous, more vital society.

Finding common ground between charters and traditional public schools in the RCSD.

There are rarely simple solutions to complex issues. Students in my Leadership classes get used to hearing me say that we must look at problems “in context” and try to find some common ground.

The role that charter schools play in the Rochester City School District is one of those complex issues.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

A recent article in Education Week (June 8, 2016) reported that charter schools started 25 years ago with the support of then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Albert Shanker. The intent was to give teachers a chance to create their own experimental schools under the umbrella of the school district.

The rift between the traditional schools and the charter movement was created some years later when court rulings allowed charter schools to become unbound by district rules and teacher contracts. Some of us in the field saw these changes as another iteration of “teacher bashing,” a practice that has occurred with regularity since the advent of schools. We also worried about the “industrialization” of education. Indeed I remember reading an article in a business journal years ago that advised people to get in on the ground floor of the education industry since oil, steel and textiles were not going to be as good an investment.

The foundations and institutes that moved into chartering schools made no apologies or excuses for doing away with unions. They believed that that schools could and should be run more like businesses with a bottom line measured mainly by student test scores. They correctly pointed out that over the past decade 2/3 of people nationally supported charters and that, in their view, school choice was a civil rights issue.

The Education Week article reported that charter school students represent about 5 percent of the 50 million K-12 public school students in the United States. Charters in 14 cities, including Detroit and Philadelphia, enroll 30 percent of the schoolchildren in the district. Nationally African American students make up 28 percent of charter school enrollments. Overall they make of 15 percent of the public school population.Thirty-five percent of all charter school students are white, while 50 percent of all public school students are white. The article goes on to say that Latinos do not attend charters at the same rate as African American perhaps because they often hit a language barrier.

None of these data surprise anyone. Indeed closing the achievement gap for African American students is a priority for many charter schools. In Rochester, charters almost exclusively serve children who would otherwise be attending the Rochester City School District. Many of the students are poor and black. Some of these schools are to be commended for their work.

But charter schools have contributed to the maintenance of racially segregated schools. Few charter founders have advocated for or designed schools with programs or curriculum that would attract a middle class population with the exception of Genesee Community Charter School (full disclosure—my kids attended prior to being accepted to School of the Arts).

But to counter that argument a school choice advocate offers a defense of all black urban charters by stating that segregation is when the state forces people of color into inferior circumstances. Black people choosing to stay with schools that have a lot of other black people in the city is not segregation. This is an important point. Given the choice between a struggling public school in a poor neighborhood and a charter, families often chose charters.

So where is the middle ground between recognizing that the best chance for poor non-white kids to achieve is in more integrated settings and the reality that for many city residents the charters provide a viable alternative even though they may perpetuate segregated schools?

Here are some ideas:

  • Charters should allow teachers to sign a three- or five-year contract. This solves the problem of inept leaders firing teachers who disagree with them. It also addresses the charter agencies’ wish to do away with tenure. And while I disagree with eliminating tenure, this solution may be a “win-win” by offering some job security for teachers while incentivizing innovation, as was the original intent of charters. Teachers with job security will gain more ownership in the school and be more likely to stay for the 6 to 8 years it takes to start to master their craft.
  • Charters should sign contracts with parents promising that they will not give up on a child and return him to the public school system because he did not fit into their system. Then we can stop resenting charters for wanting it both ways. Everyone knows that this happens and if charters agree then we can put to rest the tired argument of “creaming students” that has driven a wedge between the sides. But to do this the charters need more resources and professional development on working with Special Needs Children. And that must come from the existing district, which could include them. Could this be another win-win?
  • Actively recruit and provide funding for existing charters to become magnet schools that develop unique programs and curriculums that attract an ethnically and socio-economically diverse We need both traditional schools and charters to innovate and design Technology, Health Care, Arts and Dual Language Schools that attract all socioeconomic classes and ethnicities.
  • Expand “choice” programs to inner ring suburbs. The GS4A legislative group continues to work with our political leaders to allow poor students more options in more affluent school districts. That is real choice.

Racially and socio-economically diverse schools still provide the most powerful path for poor and non-white kids to graduate from high school and college and join the middle class.

This has been our mantra at Great Schools For All from the start. And we have to find common ground to make this a reality. Charters are part of the solution. Our public schools in Rochester are also part of the solution. And our Monroe County school district neighbors are part of the solution.

You may not agree with my views on what our schools could and should become. And that’s ok. But I hope that you agree that the education of 28,000 students in the RSCD and the urban charter schools are linked to the health of our city and region and that we can learn from each other.