Solutions to high-poverty schools must be Both…And

Research and success stories from across the country make it clear that de-concentrating poverty and increasing socioeconomic diversity in schools significantly improve academic outcomes for poor students, without adversely impacting the performance of those who are more affluent. And while poverty is most concentrated in Rochester schools, many suburban districts also face growing rates of poverty in their classrooms.

So we must engage both city and suburbs in finding a variety of ways for the good of our entire community to get to what Beth Laidlaw referred to last week as the Yes Zone.

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

Various potential systemic changes that would help reduce concentration of poverty have surfaced through the broad GS4A process, incorporating research and ongoing community conversations. These include, for example:

  • voluntary magnet schools open to students from anywhere in the county,
  • shared learning partnerships between combinations of districts or schools, and
  • broadening the Urban-Suburban program to expand movement of students from suburban to city schools in addition to the current city-to-suburban transfers.

But as we think about systemic change to foster diversity for as many students as possible, we must also be aware of those not included in magnets, or charter school options, or the Urban-Suburban program. We must be very careful not to inadvertently drain more students and resources from the city, leaving those students whose families did not voluntarily choose an alternative program concentrated in schools that are even poorer and more racially isolated than city schools are today.

Frankly, this has been a problem in the past with the one-way Urban-Suburban program, and it’s a problem with many of our charter schools, which are often just as segregated as other city public schools. While these programs have offered attractive options for many city families, they have often attracted many of the brightest and most motivated kids and families, leaving greater concentrations of behavioral problems and economic and racial isolation behind. So in our work to create expanded options and more socio-economically integrated schools, we have to be mindful not to inadvertently make things even worse for those not included.

So, what might all this mean and look like in the future? First, it means not just transferring city students to suburban schools. As leaders of the Urban-Suburban program recognize, it needs to be a suburban-to-urban program as well, to create greater economic and racial balance. And for that to happen, there must be strong magnet schools in the city that offer options that suburban kids will want to be part of.

Such programs exist, and with replication or expansion of available slots, we have received strong indications that numbers of suburban students would be interested in attending city schools such as P-Tech at Edison, School of the Arts, School Without Walls, Montessori, World of Inquiry expeditionary learning, and the International Baccalaureate program at Wilson Magnet School. Expanding opportunities for new suburban students while maintaining existing slots currently filled by city students would increase diversity in the schools and reduce the concentration of poverty. GS4A wants to work with the City School District to help strengthen and promote these programs so they are better options for both city and suburban students.

City magnet schools could be supplemented by others developed on campuses or in other school districts. These magnets would draw students from any district because they would provide special-focus opportunities that could not cost-effectively be offered by individual districts. Raleigh, Omaha, Minneapolis and other regions have proven the value of such schools in attracting diverse student bodies and strengthening academic opportunities and outcomes across city and suburban boundaries.

An array of magnet schools offers great potential but also the likelihood that many neighborhood schools will remain segregated, at least initially. We must make better use in the meantime of resources to strengthen promising but struggling neighborhood schools. Highlighting the urgency, some 15 of those schools are currently on the state list of “receivership schools” targeted for special attention over the next couple years. GS4A has consistently said multiple solutions will be needed to counter the effects of concentrated poverty. So while we continue to focus on systemic changes, we also support those working to strengthen neighborhood schools, through the receivership process and in other ways, so that better schools will be available for those who choose to remain in schools where they are.

We hope these schools will evolve as strong neighborhood schools, perhaps developing strengths that could over time make some of them magnets for city and suburban middle class students, to help further strengthen both diversity and neighborhood-based schools.

There is no one single approach to addressing poverty concentrations in our schools, as we must look for both broad community-wide systems change and stronger in-place neighborhood schools, rather than seeing one or the other as THE solution. Together, we must find varied pathways that can contribute to reducing the effects of concentration of poverty as part of this community’s array of anti-poverty solutions.



Let’s work at finding our ‘Yes Zone’

I write this from Jamison Square in the heart of the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. This urban beach is Portland’s biggest kid magnet. An ingenious design fills the shallow basin every 15 minutes with water spilling from layers of mini waterfalls emerging from the sandstone benches. The continuous drainage eliminates stagnant water and greatly reduces the risk of accidental drowning. Even the youngest Portlanders frolic here safely.

This park started out as a vacant lot on which a memorial was to be built. Community members disagreed about the memorial’s design. Opposing sides, over time and in consultation with experts, came together around the current design, with the water feature added after further thought. Jamison Square is a micro model for bringing about systemic change to a divided community.

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.

The Great Schools for All Coalition seeks to create that productive safe space where the community, over time and in consultation with experts, comes together around proven strategies for helping all students succeed. The experts we’ve consulted believe that children in school buildings steeped in poverty have significantly more hurdles to jump over to be successful. Not that poor kids can’t learn, but that any child who comes to school hungry, wearing the same clothes as yesterday and the day before, without having slept well or completed homework, is not prepared to soak up knowledge.

We understand that buildings with 40 percent or fewer students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch are buildings where teachers are not overwhelmed by the needs of students and every child is able to fulfill her promise.  We’ve read about successful strategies in Hartford and Omaha and Minneapolis and we’ve visited schools in Raleigh, NC, using socioeconomic integration and have seen the evidence of success first hand. What we seek now is to create the productive safe space for conversation and community engagement to experiment with these ideas locally. Having 18 schools districts with many different constituents in Monroe County make this a potentially difficult and very robust conversation, but not an impossible conversation.

The kind of productive safe space GS4A wants to cultivate is referred to as the “Yes Zone” by Neal Ewald, Senior Vice President of Green Diamond Resource Company. Ewald’s logging company tussled with activists for decades over cutting old growth forests. Ewald and the activists eventually engaged in conversations that identified a common thread of interests. Following this thread, the activists and loggers found their Yes Zone, the place to experiment with different designs around a core idea.

The Legislative Work Group of GS4A aims to introduce legislation that would turn Monroe County into a type of  “Yes Zone,” where school districts could work together to socioeconomically integrate learning. Such a place is not currently available due to legal obstacles. Successful ideas coming out of the GS4A Yes Zone may include magnet schools open to students from anywhere in the county, shared learning partnerships between two or three districts, or shared sports and arts facilities along the lines of the BOCES model. And, of course, the Yes Zone will allow us to consider your proposals.

What is our Yes Zone’s coalescing idea — our common thread?

That all children can learn and each child deserves a chance.

Join the conversation at


A consolidated county school district is not in the cards

For as long as I can remember, the idea of a consolidated school district has been a favorite Monroe County whack-a-mole—a pest to be hammered back into its hole whenever it rears its head.

So it’s not surprising, I suppose, that when people first hear about the Great Schools for All goal of countywide or interdistrict schools to integrate middle class and poor children across district lines, they think we’re calling for merging all 18 school districts in the county.

We’re not. And here’s why.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

People in Rochester are very attached to their school districts and see them as essential to local control of their schools and their children’s education. There’s no reason to upend all of that — or to have an argument that gets in the way of our fundamental purpose: guaranteeing that every child has access to a truly great public school.

It’s true that we often cite the consolidated Raleigh/Wake County, NC, school district as a model for our proposals. But the Raleigh situation is quite different from ours. In the mid-1970s, Raleigh and Wake County did consolidate school districts, but there were just two — a city of Raleigh district and a Wake County district that governed all schools outside the city. While it was controversial, that merger required a simple vote by the state Legislature — not the convoluted process such a merger would require in Monroe County.

Moreover, while consolidating city and suburban districts under one governing authority  might be an efficient way to manage steps toward integrating middle class and poor children, consolidation is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. In fact, you could easily imagine a consolidation that focused simply on improving economies of scale as a way to hold down taxes — while leaving segregated schools in place. There’s nothing about consolidation that guarantees access to a great school for every child.

So our interest in Raleigh is not in the merger process, but in what we can learn about the types of magnet schools that attract a wide range of families, about the ways the school system develops transportation plans for moving children across the county, about the many ways each school looks to build a community that embraces and works for poor and affluent children alike, and about the procedures that help create and maintain a socio-economic balance of students in each school.

And what we’ve seen is that Raleigh, like Hartford, Omaha and Minneapolis, can help us figure out the problem and develop a Rochester-centric approach to eliminating high poverty schools. That’s what GS4A is all about.

Many of us in the Great Schools organization have no philosophical opposition to school district consolidation, but we believe that we can achieve our goals without consolidation  and that a long, drawn out struggle over consolidation would likely last many years and end in failure — as another generation of children struggle in high poverty city schools.

Just in case you were wondering about that long convoluted process I mentioned above, the New York constitution does not specifically permit the Big 5 school districts (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City) to merge with other school systems. State law does permit, and even encourage, suburban, rural and small city districts (with populations below 125,000) to consolidate to achieve savings and/or a wider array of programs. But outside the Big 5, school districts are autonomous, governed by elected school boards with their own taxing authority. Their budgets are subject to voter approval, but their finances are not tethered to the municipalities in which they operate.

Neither state law nor the constitution offers any guidance regarding mergers with large city school districts. The issue is legally murky and mysterious.

The Big 5 districts are essentially departments of their city governments. Their boundaries are co-terminus with the cities. They have elected school  boards, but those boards have no taxing authority. The local revenue the Big 5 receive comes from the municipal tax levy; city and school funding are part of the same budget pot and are jointly subject to a constitutional tax limit.

This fiscal dependence on the city makes a merger with other districts problematic.

Logically, it seems that a constitutional amendment is needed to permit Big 5 districts to consolidate with others. An amendment could be adopted only after two consecutive legislatures approve a revision making city school districts independent of city government (there is no legislative constituency for such an amendment), followed by a statewide referendum (there is no statewide voter coalition in support of this change). An amendment is about a likely as a Lake Ontario going dry in the next 10 years. Even if an amendment were to be approved, it would only make consolidation possible, not mandatory. Voters here would have to embrace the change.  Consolidation may be a means to an end, but it is not the only means, nor is it available to Rochester.

We can either wage a quixotic campaign for consolidation, or we can try to solve the problem. GS4A has opted for the latter.

Parenting only one factor in student learning


Hardly a week goes by without someone writing a letter to the paper to say that what is really wrong with the Rochester City School District is poor parenting. The writers imply that city kids will achieve if their parents did a better job of raising them. To me there is an implied and not so subtle message in these opinions: The writers are better parents. If city parents did as good a job as them then the kids would do better in school.

I wish I had their confidence. I know that I have been and continue to be an imperfect parent in helping raise my two children now 20 and 17. As a principal I ran a school of over 900 kids but I am still never sure when to nag or back off my own kids. It remains a tough job and my wife Linda and I are luckier than most because we are blessed with the resources of a job, house and decent income, unlike many city parents.

I wondered what  the research on parenting and schools tells us about this issue. So I took a deeper look and referred to the best resource I know on the topic:  educational researcher John Hattie’s Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analysis relating to Achievement.

Here is a quick and simplified tutorial: A meta-analysis takes the results of multiple studies on a topic and synthesizes them by assigning a value up to 1.0. The higher the value the more effect: a value over .40 could be regarded as making a difference while values of less than that would have to be considered more carefully. While a meta analysis is not perfect, it does provide context and is considered one way to make educational research coherent for practitioners.

One of the highest effects on student achievement, one controlled by teachers, is known as “formative assessment” (.90), which is feedback given to students that informs them what they have done incorrectly and/or what they need to change to make it correct. For example an effective teacher will point out where a math student made the error in a formula or what they could do to make a piece of writing clearer to their audience. On the other hand the effect of homework has been found to be .29 and would indicate that it has a much smaller effect on student achievement. Hattie’s work is fascinating and it is easy to lose yourself in reading the effects and the studies.

So how much can we blame parents for their kids’ achievement? Would kids do better if they were parented better? Let’s see if the research backs that up?

• The highest effect across all variables related to parents and achievement was parental expectations and the home environment which included stimulation for children — like reading to them, trips to museums, vacations and enrichment activities that are part of middle class child rearing. It was .80.
• The link between achievement and socio economic status is .57.
• Parental interest in schoolwork including homework had a moderate effect of .38.
• Parental supervision of things like cell phones, TV and video games has a low effect of .18.
• Parental monitoring of student grades — using opportunities to check on their kids’ progress — has a    close-to-insignificant effect at .12.
• Controlling parenting actually had a negative effect on student achievement at -.09.

Hattie’s work and his analysis help provide some clarity and show us that there are many variables contributing to effective schools and student achievement. He writes that parents can have a significant effect on their children’s achievement in terms of encouragement and expectations, however lower socio economic parents struggle to understand the language of learning and are disadvantaged in the methods used to encourage their kids to achieve. He concludes that many poor children are asked to live and work in two worlds. And that is one more than many of us have had to manage.

Jeff Linn teaches educational administration at the state College at Brockport and he is a member of the GS4A leadership team.