Yes, it matters who sits next to you in school, and life

Great Schools for All is singularly focused on ending the concentration of poverty in city schools. We are committed to scocioeconomic integration of schools across the county — aiming to cap the number of low-income students in any one school at 40 to 50 percent of the student body.

But many people wonder why integration matters at all. If schools have adequate resources, shouldn’t that be enough? Does it really matter where you go to school, or who you sit next to, or how many poor students are in your building? Yes, it does matter, and there is plenty of research to back that up.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But sometimes you have to look beyond the school to understand why. Two years ago, I wrote a report on a pilot program for RocCity SCHOLARS—an organization that sought to identify exceptionally academically gifted freshmen at East High, kids who might be able to succeed at one of the country’s elite colleges if they had the right supports.

The scholars selected for the program were surrounded not just with tutoring help, but with a full range of cultural bridges to prepare them for the world that awaited them: behind-the scenes visits to the RPO, Rochester City Ballet, the Memorial Art Gallery, GEVA Theater; book discussions with professors and students at area campuses; major sporting events; college visits; meals at elegant restaurants; shopping trips to update their wardrobes. The idea was to be sure that they were prepared, not just academically, but socially and culturally, for campus life at a school where most of the other students come from very affluent or wealthy families.

There was almost no chance that these gifted students would find their way out of extremely poor neighborhoods or into an elite college without the relationships they found with RocCity SCHOLARS — a network of successful adult mentors (called “scholar guides”) who could connect them to the world beyond their schools and their neighborhoods.

One of the report’s most telling comments came from the East High School police resource officer, who said, “They (the students) are never engaged in anything beyond their neighborhoods; their world is the school, their home and the corner store.” Poverty for these kids means isolation and isolation means they can live their whole lives without seeing a path forward.

We all need constant contact with people who know how to succeed, who can encourage us, point us in the right direction and help us build the networks of connections that are essential to success.

Kids in high poverty schools rarely have those relationships. That’s why it matters where you go to school, or who you sit next to, or how many poor students are in your building.

And in Rochester the isolation that is poverty is even more pronounced than it is in most places.

Zeroing in on Place and Race is that latest in the Measure of America series by the Social Science Research Council. The paper compares the rates of “youth disconnection” among 98 U.S. cities.

“Disconnected youth are teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school,” the report says. It further states, “The costs of disconnection are high, both for individuals and for society. Disconnected youth are cut off from the people, institutions, and experiences that would otherwise help them develop the knowledge, skills, maturity, and sense of purpose required to live rewarding lives as adults.

“Our research shows that …  residential segregation by race disproportionately harms black teenagers and young adults.”

So where does Rochester stand on this indicator? We rank 47th out of 98 metro areas for the average rate of disconnection. Our 13.4 percent rate is slightly better than the national average of 13.8 percent.

The Rochester rate of disconnection among white youth is 9.8 percent — well below the national average of 11.3 percent. But the disconnection among African American youth is a distressing 30.8 percent, well above the 21.6 percent national average. Only Baton Rouge, LA, and Las Vegas, NV, have slightly higher rates of disconnection among African American youth.

Most telling is the gap between white and black disconnect rates: 21 percent in Rochester— the highest gap among all the cities surveyed.

Race and place matter, the authors of the Measure of America series conclude, and together they can pack a devastating blow to a community.

School integration alone won’t solve the crisis of inequality in our community, but it is an essential part of any solution. The truth is, where you live, who you interact with, and who sits next to you in school dramatically shape your chances of success.



















City children deserve a level playing field

I grew up in small-town Ohio, and from the moment school ended in the spring until the first day of class in the fall, you could find me playing sandlot baseball.

We played in a field – no pitcher’s mound, no fences, no backstops, no baselines, no bases, actually. If we didn’t have enough players to field two full teams, we agreed to hit to one side of the field or the other, and we sometimes played “pitcher’s hand,” where the pitcher became the de facto first baseman. We umpired the games ourselves, and every so often a disagreement would end up in a little fistfight, that would quickly be settled.

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

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

As I said, we played in a field, a real field. The grass was rarely cut (we never knew who actually owned the field), and there were rocks and bumps and uneven places throughout. There were few “true hops” —the kind of predictable bounce you expect on a field that is level and well-maintained. Instead, the ball would bounce where it shouldn’t and one of us would get whacked in the face, left with a split lip or a bloody nose. That’s what happens when the field isn’t even. Still, we kept coming back and we played on. It is one of my distinct childhood memories.

Sometimes you have nowhere to play except on that uneven field. But a level field is always better — because the players always have a better chance to succeed when they can see the ball coming and know how it will bounce.

What does this have to do with the Rochester city schools? We know that there are dedicated and talented administrators working at 131 W. Broad Street who are committed to raising achievement. They have crafted an action plan that is bold and creative.

We know, because we meet them every day, that there are wonderful principals and teachers in each of the buildings. They teach because they care. They are proud of their profession and committed to their students.

We know that families care. I have participated in the district’s “attendance blitzes,” and while every so often we encounter a family whose child is not in the classroom for no particular good reason, what we most often encounter is a family trying to make it work — multiple jobs, unsafe neighborhoods, transportation issues. Yes, families do overcome odds, but the myth that children and families can succeed if they just increase their effort is, to me, just that — a myth. There’s just so much you can do when the field is uneven and the ball bounces where it should not.

We know that many people in this community care and want change. Lots of organizations are committed to supporting education. I have lived in Rochester for 14 years, so I don’t have a long history, but I believe it when people say the tone of the conversation over the last several years is different. It is more hopeful, more positive.

I am not a policy person, nor an educator. For these purposes, what I am is a neighbor and citizen, an amateur who cares. But I have become convinced, through what we learned in Raleigh, that things ultimately can’t change unless the playing field is levelled.

Administrators, teachers, community members and particularly children and family members are doing all they can. But if a ball is going one way, hits a rock and bounces in a different direction, hitting you in the face, what can you do?

Yes, we as a community need to provide teachers and students with the best tools possible, helping them make the most of a very rocky playing field. But I am also convinced that levelling that field — through deconcentrating poverty, through racial and socio-economic desegregation, though other structural means — will make the game so much more enjoyable, for fans to watch and players to play.

More Diverse Schools can Create WIN-WIN for All

If Great Schools for All had a mantra, it would be WIN-WIN. We don’t have to accept as inevitable huge gaps between winners and losers, where students’ success or failure is pegged to their zip codes and family income.

In a WIN-WIN environment, our community would rally around educational reforms and systemic changes that would reduce these disparities. That’s what GS4A is all about.

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

All children are capable of learning and succeeding academically, regardless of where they live, and we’re all aware of examples of bright, motivated kids who have risen up from impoverished backgrounds to succeed, despite the odds. But we also know, from decades of research, that the deck is stacked against students in high-poverty schools. When the poverty population of a school tips past 50 percent, the odds of success are statistically much lower.

And every school in Rochester far exceeds the tipping point, with predictable academic consequences in most. So why is our community willing to accept this situation?

The city has many successful students, and a number of successful, popular schools. But what if we could find ways to strengthen those schools, retaining current students, but expanding the socio-economic diversity in each? What if we could open more slots in these schools and offer them to more affluent students, to create a more diverse student body? Or replicate the most successful schools based on the initial models? We could create a WIN-WIN situation by offering, on a voluntary basis, well-regarded city programs such as School of the Arts, School Without Walls, Montessori, World of Inquiry expeditionary learning, and the International Baccalaureate program at Wilson Magnet School to students who have few or no such options even in well-off suburban districts .

And what if we were to create additional voluntary magnet schools across the county, based on models that have proven successful in other urban communities, offering opportunities that would not be available within most individual school districts, and that would be so exciting and unique that both urban and suburban students would want to attend?

The research makes clear that poor children perform much better in schools that are economically mixed than they do in high-poverty schools. And their success does not come at the expense of the middle class students in those schools. As one example, in Raleigh/Wake County, N.C., where 35 economically-diverse magnet schools have been created, subject to policies capping proportions of low-income students at roughly 45 percent per school, graduation rates for low-income and racial-minority students have steadily increased in recent years to more than 70 percent — some 30 percentage points higher than for comparable students in the more economically segregated Rochester schools. Meanwhile, the more affluent Raleigh suburban student graduation rates have increased slightly during those same years to more than 90 percent—rates comparable to Monroe County suburban rates. Disparities in rates have not been eliminated, but have been significantly reduced in Raleigh.

What is not to like about such a situation, and how would that not represent a WIN-WIN for all in Monroe County if we could move in such a direction?

In addition to enhancing academic performance, creation of more voluntary diverse learning environments would also expand cross-cultural understanding among all groups of students, and better prepare them—urban and suburban, black, Hispanic and white, well-off and poor—for the far more demographically diverse workforce that awaits them in the future. Students would have more academic choices than could now be provided by most individual school districts, and the economic vitality of our community would be enhanced by a larger pool of better-educated workers to populate our future work force.

Under more diverse voluntary-choice school scenarios, there is an immense upside potential for our community, with no obvious losers. Clearly the details of how this happens will be critical, but why would we not embark on this journey to explore a variety of possible solutions to reduce our odds of failure and significantly increase the odds of WIN-WIN outcomes for our community?

All of this is a work in progress. GS4A intends to talk with school district officials and survey parents and community leaders across the county concerning these issues over the coming weeks before any proposals are finalized. Anyone interested in joining the process, please email at

From children ‘at risk’ to ‘Children of Promise’

I am a racist; most likely you are, too. My racism took root in the ’60s in my hometown, Detroit. I was 7 when Detroit burned.  If you are a Baby Boomer, chances are your racist tendencies were reinforced by watching Detroit burn on the evening news in 1967. That summer my Dad told me over and over that it was the fault of the black people— the idea of “righteous rebellion”  had not reached mainstream America.

Fortunately, Mom tempered this racist indoctrination, constantly insisting that there is good in everybody. I arrived in Rochester in the ’80s with this duality: believing strongly that there is good in everyone and trying to squelch my internal racist legacy. I believe it is this same duality that leads us to label Rochester’s youngest as “children at risk.” This label is not serving our children very well.

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.

We’ve been struggling with the cycle of poverty/poor education/violence for decades—usually approaching a solution by addressing the needs of “children at risk”… at risk of witnessing murder, at risk of going to bed hungry, at risk of not finishing school, at risk of getting into mischief after school. So we tried to break the cycle by mitigating risk: keeping children indoors, providing food, shelter, and clothing, rerouting buses, mandating after school camps (often poorly supervised quasi-detention centers).

The risks are real and our solutions have been draconian.  What are the results? A child who walks through his day of rerouted buses, marginal but free breakfast and lunch, and imprisoned after school care. A child who understands quite clearly that society sees him as other, as less than, as dangerous. All this energy spent on minimizing risk leaves precious little time and resources for a child to learn and thrive and believe in himself.

One day in July of 1994, I had an experience that helped me stop seeing our children as being at risk and begin to see our youngest as children of promise. I had been cleaning streets for weeks in the Northwest quadrant of the city. Each day, children who lived on those streets came out to help the volunteers. One morning a neighborhood kid I’ll call Gina cut herself picking up debris. Gina was 6, just getting over chickenpox and we had become buddies. As we walked hand in hand into McDonalds to clean her cut, Gina says,

“Are you black?”

“Nope,” I replied.

“Are you Puerto Rican?”


“Well, you can’t be white because my brother says all white people are evil.”

As stunned as I was by her words, my teaching instincts kicked in. “Well, Gina, I’m white. Do you think your brother is right?”

“Nope, he’s not right.”

In that small moment I saw Gina’s promise in her ability to use reason to transcend falsehood—the same way I’ve used reason to transcend the racist influences on me.

If we can think of Rochester’s youngest as our children of promise, rather than as “children at risk,” we will see many different solutions to breaking the poverty cycle.  The Great Schools for All coalition believes that expanding the Urban-Suburban program, integrating summer learning programs with a mix of middle class and low-income students, creating magnet elementary, middle and high schools, and a regional educational planning structure each are part of the solution. We saw these solutions at work in the Raleigh school system where all children are considered children of promise.

After two years of study, the FR=EE Race and Education Action and Change Work Group invites our community to acknowledge our racism and partner to build Anchor Communities around our children of promise in city schools. Anchor communities provide support for schools as communities by providing books and other learning supplies, afterschool  art instruction—all while building relationships with the families and teachers of our children. These are great efforts, but we are just getting started.

If you are a member of a suburban church, I encourage you to partner with a city church to share children’s programming. If you are a member of a suburban YMCA, encourage your staff to share programming with children of promise at the YMCAs in the city. If you are part of any organization that serves children, consider partnering with one similar organization in the city to share one experience this year. Of course, the Great Schools  for All coalition (contact Reverend Lynette Sparks at ) and FR=EE’s Education Group (contact Reverend Judy Davis-Crossroads at and Fred Tanksley at ) welcome you to help us work to fulfill the promise we know lives in each child.