I recently sat in on a Rochester Board of Education committee meeting that focused on approaches to improve student outcomes, particularly graduation rates.
You know the context: Despite board priorities and the efforts of a parade of superintendents over the past several years, the district has struggled to move four-year on-time graduation percentages above the mid- to upper-40s.
Don Pryor is a researcher for the Center for Governmental Research and a member of the GS4A leadership team
Ongoing approaches and promising new and modified initiatives were discussed at this meeting. The back and forth between board and staff reflected a sense of, “this time it will be different,” that these efforts and the dedication of board members, administration, teachers and principals, parents and students will combine to move the needle toward significantly improved student achievement and graduation rates.
I’m a believer in “the promised land,” and the potential of numerous encouraging initiatives throughout the district, under goals set by the board and being carried out under the promising leadership of new superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams. And yet…and yet, concentrated poverty levels remain high, and no school in the district has a poverty population below 60 percent. Our local history—reinforced by consistent research findings across school districts throughout the country—strongly suggest that there are limits to what any of these internal promising initiatives can do to overcome the insidious effects of concentrated poverty, unless accompanied by other systemic interventions.
Great Schools for All strongly supports the district’s laser-sharp focus on a variety of actions to strengthen internal standards, structure and operations; to strengthen individual schools; and to improve achievement levels and academic and support programs for children. But GS4A also believes that this is a “Yes…And Also” proposition: That it is also important to simultaneously develop community-wide plans, shaped by all the existing research, to launch a network of socioeconomically diverse cross-district schools that are most likely to result in dramatic improvements in student achievement and graduation rates for the poorest children in our community.
While efforts of the district, and of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), focus appropriately on ways to strengthen supports in individual schools and neighborhoods, national research makes clear that these important efforts will be enhanced and that the ultimate goal of “lifting children out of poverty” will be more rapidly attained if the concentration of poverty in individual schools can be minimized. While, of course, there will always be individual kids who defy the odds, overcome the effects of poverty, and excel, research demonstrates that diverse schools can improve the odds for the majority of city children who, through no fault of their own, are being taught in schools with high concentrations of poverty.
Cross-district, socioeconomically diverse magnet schools have demonstrated their success in numerous communities across the nation. Not only do they improve the performance and graduation rates of poor students, they also improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills for all students, poor and more affluent/middle class students alike. Voluntary magnet schools can offer cutting-edge academic opportunities that not even the most affluent school districts can afford to offer on their own, and in so doing draw students from both urban and suburban school districts. Local parent survey data, and the experience of other communities across the country, indicate that there is strong support for such opportunities.
Several encouraging developments are under way locally that could lead to such schools in Monroe County.
GS4A is having constructive conversations with leadership in the City School District and with leadership in several suburban districts to explore these possibilities. Discussions are in very early stages, but offer the potential to create diverse educational opportunities to benefit students throughout Monroe County.
Simultaneously, GS4A’s Magnet Schools Committee has developed a process that will soon seek proposals from parties interested in collaborating with school districts or other community partners in the development of one or more socioeconomically diverse magnet schools.
Related plans are also being finalized for a series of community gatherings designed to bring together interested parties from various sectors throughout the county to develop ideas for diverse cross-district magnet schools that would respond to student and parental needs and desires by offering opportunities not currently available in any school district.
More details will be announced about these initiatives in the near future, so stay tuned. Efforts are also underway to expand Great Schools’ community engagement, outreach and advocacy efforts in all sectors of the community; to strengthen ongoing communications; and to expand diverse summer learning programs throughout the community. If you are interested in learning more about, or participating in, any of these efforts, please let us know by emailing Lynette Sparks, the Great Schools co-convener at firstname.lastname@example.org
We say Yes to RCSD and RMAPI efforts to strengthen existing schools and neighborhoods, but lasting change must also include collaborative efforts across districts that will improve outcomes for students living in poverty, sharpen the cultural competencies of all students and strengthen the workforce of the future.