High-poverty schools not just a city problem

That was then, more than a generation ago, with significant concerns being raised about the effects of “bright flight” among both white and non-white students and the declining middle class enrollment in Rochester city schools. This is now, and now is so much worse, with time running out to turn things around in our community.

“Then” was 1979. I recently reconnected with a Center for Governmental Research report published that year, Race and Education in Rochester, written in conjunction with a broad-based Citizens’ Advisory Committee concerned about the emptying out of 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

The focus of that report was on racial diversity and integration, with no reference to socio-economic diversity and the effects of the concentration of poverty, which frames so much of today’s discussions about urban education. Nonetheless, the parallels and connections between the issues raised in that report and the realities of now are unmistakable.

Meanwhile, child poverty rates in the city have doubled during these years, and State Education Department reports indicate that 90 percent of all RCSD students now are classified as economically disadvantaged/low-income.

In the 1979 report, concerns were raised about increasing racial segregation and isolation in our city schools: At one end of the spectrum, the student population in 13 of 58 schools at that time was at least 80 percent minority, including 10 schools that were 90 percent or more minority; while at the other end, 14 schools had at least 75 percent white enrollment, including two exceeding 90 percent. The minority populations in the other 31 schools ranged between 26 percent and 76 percent. In retrospect, compared to 2015, the district in 1979 was relatively integrated. Today, all but five city schools have minority populations of at least 80 percent. Socioeconomically, only three city schools today student populations that are less than  80 percent poor, and even in those three “best” schools, around 2/3 of the students live in poverty.


Why does this matter? Because national research demonstrates clearly that once concentrations of poverty in schools get much higher than 40 percent of enrollment, overall achievement levels decline.

And every single one of our city schools now significantly exceeds that 40 percent mark! This doesn’t mean that individual students can’t succeed in such settings (we all know of dramatic success stories in spite of such concentrations), but the percentage of successful students will be much lower in high-poverty schools than in lower-poverty schools. And this is important, not just for the poorest students, but also for the more affluent, because socioeconomic integration leads to cross-cultural learning and diversity better prepares students for the work force of the future.

The 1979 report held out hope for decreased segregation of city schools, and offered some viable approaches that could have worked then within the city. But it is no longer possible to cap the number of low-income students in city schools at 40 percent without partnerships with other districts. The 1979 report referenced the desirability of considering strong special-focus magnet schools that could draw students from both city and suburbs, and noted that “the problems are not just the [City] School District’s to solve,” and that the segregation and growing concentrations of poverty demand that the larger community beyond the city borders must be “also responsible for part of the solutions.”

If that was true more than a generation ago, with far less concentrated poverty than today, how much more true is it today? The future of another generation of students, and the future well-being of our community, are at stake.

(The 1979 CGR report referenced here is not available online. If you would like to see a copy, email Don Pryor at dpryor@cgr.org)

Quality Summer Learning programs proof of a ‘sharing community’

A year ago, eleven of us traveled to Raleigh, N.C. to see what deconcentrating poverty looks like in a large urban school district. Schools don’t look different in Raleigh. Teachers don’t teach differently. What is different is how the Raleigh community feels about education. Every child in Raleigh is a child of promise, rather than a child at risk. School buildings are sharing communities. Because most schools in Raleigh are designed to cap the number of children from poor families (defined as those eligible for free or reduced price federal lunches) at 40 percent of the student population, 60 percent of families in a building have resources to share. Think about that. This deliberate 40/60 composition is a reflection of the community’s commitment to sharing. Walking into Joyner elementary school, I see a rack of clothes for those in need. The Joyner PTA stuffs backpacks with food each Friday afternoon to give to students at the social worker’s discretion. Sharing is part of the Wake County Central School District’s DNA.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

But it’s not about the stuff. The Great Schools for All coalition here in Rochester has been working on concrete action steps to eliminate high poverty urban schools because the needs of so many poor children can overwhelm a school’s staff and resources. The same principle applies to summer learning: a socioeconomically diverse program reflects a commitment to sharing that will benefit both the poorest and most affluent children.  We’ve learned that a quality summer learning program (QSLP) engages students by weaving summer learning through a well-designed curriculum, exercise and enrichment and assessment of student progress. Some students in Rochester learned last summer through building rockets, learning scripts, and playing building-sized board games. Quality learning requires a lot of stuff. But Raleigh’s success is not about the stuff, it’s a mindset of caring about every student.

If you are paying for a 6-week QSLP (at The Harley School, or Nazareth College, or Lego Camp, for example), your child can expect quality instruction reinforced through exercise and enrichment (field trips, plays, rocket launchings). The City School District reports that as many as 12,500 students will be involved in some form of summer learning, but very few of those who need quality summer learning this year can afford $1000 or more for summer programs like those above. Maybe two in ten of our city’s children will be lucky enough to be selected for a free QSLP.

Hundreds of city children will attend day camp through the YMCA – a fun experience, but not a QSLP. Only 64 students from Schools 33 and 8 will be chosen for the Y’s free QSLP held at the Carlson branch. Many many children each summer sign up for Monroe Public Library’s Summer Reading Program which tracks the amount of time and number of books a child reads. Only 300 students, though, will be selected for the Library’s QSLP run by EnCompass. Only 700 children will be able to participate in the City School District’s premier QSLP, held last year at the School of the Arts, where the entire building became a game of Clue as students puzzled out a mystery.

And for our children in extreme poverty who find their way to a QSLP, the lack of food, clothing, and transportation continue to be barriers to learning. If your only meals are the breakfast and lunch served at school, you may choose not to eat. The directors of QSLPs report that some students squirrel away school meals in backpacks so that their siblings will have something to eat when they get home. Other children sit pool-side during swim time because they don’t own a swim suit or towel. And if transportation is not provided to the QSLP, students don’t go.

Scaling up the few free excellent quality summer learning programs in Rochester to fully enroll all the students needing them is not about getting more stuff, it is about sharing. If we adopted Raleigh’s perspective that each child is a child of promise and that schools are caring communities, we could leverage education and foundation dollars to support this critical learning. Join us on Tuesday, May 5th, from 8:00-12:30 at the GS4A  at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church as we hear action steps proposed by the Summer Learning work group as well as five other work groups from the Great Schools Coalition. In this atmosphere of promise and sharing, a caring Monroe community will discern ways to wrap our arms around our city’s children. It’s not about the stuff, it’s about the caring.



What Rochester can learn from Louisville

New York State just can’t quite face the fact that until it deals with high poverty schools, its weakest performing schools cannot be turned around.

On the one hand, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the State Ed department and the Regents have acknowledged this year that we have two school systems – one for the rich and one for the poor. They have endorsed efforts to achieve socio-economic integration across district lines (the Rochester City School District has submitted to Albany three grant requests, each aimed at integrating high-poverty schools).

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

On the other hand, the just approved state budget calls for a state takeover of 18 underperforming schools (including four in Rochester) unless their districts can turn them around – which, of course, they cannot. So prepare yourself for more Albany attacks on administrators and teachers for their inability to fix schools that Albany (and the entire education research establishment) knows cannot be fixed without integration.

As a new report from the Albany-based Fiscal Policy Institute succinctly puts it: “Teachers cannot control the backgrounds of their students, and they cannot overcome the resulting disadvantages on their own. In addition to an adequate increase in aid, broad-based solutions that address the academic, social, and health needs of students and engage the local community are needed.”

On the question of engaging the wider community, check out this March 27 piece by Alana Semuels, staff writer for The Atlantic: “Louisville–the city that believed in desegregation.”

Semuels explains that in the early 1970s Detroit and Louisville faced similar problems with high poverty, racially isolated and underperforming urban schools. An integration plan in Detroit was famously overturned by the US Supreme Court, but Louisville found a way to integrate, as did several other (mostly Southern) urban communities.

High-poverty districts that failed to integrate, Semuels writes, face “growing inner-city crime, low academic achievement levels for black children who live in the city, and a hollowing out of the city by middle-class families.” Sound familiar?

With a city-suburb integration plan, Louisville slowly built a school system that affords every child an excellent school (although, as she notes, there was initial opposition to the plan, and there continue to be parents who are dissatisfied that their children cannot always attend their first choice of schools).

The Louisville plan engaged the larger community in the struggle for educational equity, which is just what upstate New York cities must do. Early on, Semuels says, “Thousands of protesters rallied against busing at the district’s schools, protesting and vandalizing police cars until the governor called in the Kentucky National Guard to supervise buses for the first few days. But something strange happened as the integration plan continued. Many of the residents’ fears failed to materialize, and after a few years the protests ceased.

“It’s as though ‘people are amazed to discover that people from another race or ethnic group are actually pretty similar to them,’ said Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.”

I do not wish to suggest that socio-economic integration is a magical formula that delivers an instant fix. It is, more accurately, an essential condition for real equality of opportunity and the steady improvement by students who otherwise would be very likely to fail.

And, there are secondary benefits – quite apparent in Louisville, and absent in Detroit.

Samuels cites Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, who conducted a study comparing housing segregation in four cities that had different school-integration policies. “When parents decide to buy a home, they often make choices based on neighborhood schools. This has an effect on home prices: One Connecticut study found that buyers were willing to pay $7,468 more for a house near a less diverse school. But parents in Louisville know that whether they buy a house in the city or the suburbs, their child will go to a school that has similar resources—and racial breakdown—as other schools in the district.

“ ‘When families are thinking about moving around the metro area, they know that any neighborhood is going to be linked to a school with a racial composition that reflects the broader-metropolitan area,’ ” she (Siegel-Hawley) said. ‘It helps disentangle the school-housing relationship.’ ”

Will New York start to see the wisdom in Louisville’s choices?

Urban-Suburban growth encouraging, but not sufficient

For 50 years, the Urban-Suburban program has been this community’s only path to racial integration of schools – providing an opportunity for minority students from Rochester to attend a suburban school.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

This is a good thing – a very good thing – both for city students who escape high-poverty schools where their chances for success are slim, and for the suburban students who experience the diverse world that awaits them after high school.

This spring four new districts (Spencerport, East Irondequoit, East Rochester and Hilton) voted to join the program. Come September 2015, 11 of 18 suburban districts will be participants. This change is not without opposition, as Pittsford Sutherland junior Chyna Stephens, a city resident and Urban-Suburban student, discovered when she attended a contentious hearing in Spencerport.

The good news is that Urban-Suburban enrollment, now just under 600, will grow substantially – and other districts are said to be interested in joining next year. Even better, Urban-Suburban leaders say they will no longer focus exclusively on race in selecting participants, but will also consider socio-economic status. This is an important change that should help the community focus on the devastating effects of poverty on education.

GS4A is committed to socio-economic integration that ultimately results in the elimination of high-poverty schools (those with a free and reduced price lunch population of 40 percent or more). Not a single city school has a poverty population under 60 percent.

Urban-Suburban is an important part of the solution, but its expansion will not, by itself, solve the problem of high-poverty schools. It is unlikely Urban-Suburban will ever be large enough to achieve that goal – even if the city and suburban districts are able at long last to find ways to attract suburban students to unique city programs.

Urban-Suburban, however, is a model for additional city-suburban interdistrict agreements. Those offerings could include countywide magnet schools (open to all students, but with a cap on the number of low-income students), one-to-one partnerships between city and suburban schools, early college schools in each quadrant of the county, etc.

We face a huge challenge, one that can only be met with a package of creative and expansive strategies. The expansion of Urban-Suburban (the first year with more than one new participating district in decades) suggests that our community may finally be ready to make sure that even the poorest students in Rochester have access to a great school.


Register For May 5th Education Event

Please join participants from a broad section of the Greater Rochester community on May 5, 2015 to build consensus around action steps to reduce the concentration of poverty in the Rochester city schools. The GS4A Coalition is looking for partners in progress as we build on work begun at our November 2014 conference, and continued by six working groups formed to develop possible responses to the crisis of high poverty schools.

When:  Tuesday, May 5, 2015 from 8am-12:30pm

Where: Mt. Olivet Baptist Church

141 Adams Street

Rochester, NY  14608

Cost: None

Event Schedule:

8:00am Registration and Refreshments

8:30amWelcome and Review of Progress to Date

9:00am Working Group Reports and Recommendations

10:30am Break

10:45am Break-out Groups for Feedback and Responses

12:00pm Summary and Next Steps

12:30pm Adjourn

Register Now:

Questions:  Email or call Lynette Sparks or John Wilkinson at 585-271-6513.

Erica Bryant on concentrated poverty

I read with interest Erica Bryant’s D&C column over the past weekend that focuses precisely on the key concern of Great Schools for All: the concentration of economically disadvantaged students in any given school. Only one school in Rochester meets school reformers’ guideline of fewer than 40%, she said. Yet the New York State Education Department is encouraging that school to accept more students from poor families. Please see “Keep middle-class kids in charter schools.”