A Tale of Two Classrooms

Capacity: The maximum amount that something can sustain.

Raleigh N.C., real estate developer Bill Fletcher shared with us that the decision to integrate schools socioeconomically in Raleigh was a decision about capacity. Not building capacity or funding capacity or cafeteria capacity, but a teacher’s capacity to teach (and a student’s capacity to learn). Fletcher saw clearly that teachers in urban Raleigh classrooms did not have the capacity to meet all the needs of students in front of them.

It is a tale of two classrooms. One of my daughters was educated k-12 in the Webster Central Schools; the other began kindergarten in the city and is now a senior at the School of The Arts. Their respective third grade classrooms tell the tale. The Webster student began third grade fully meeting state standards, having arrived in kindergarten already able to read. Her classmates, by and large, were similarly prepared and encouraged to learn as teams working on class projects.

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.

My special needs student arrived at her third grade “inclusion” city classroom to a chaotic mess. District policy required 6 special ed children in her class of 22. My child is deaf and her special need was for a quiet learning environment in order to learn how to access sound via a Cochlear implant. The other 5 special ed students in her class had a range of behavioral needs that resulted in a classroom of continual emotional explosions. No student, not even the best general education student, could learn in this traumatic environment. As one student bit another, a third would scream obscenities or tear up learning materials. The teacher would spend hours and hours after school filling out the necessary forms to get the biters and screamers to a more appropriate learning setting. These were hours taken away from time she would have spent grading, planning lessons, communicating with parents, and attending staff meetings and professional development events. As a teacher, the toll of not being able to reach (let alone teach) your students is defeating. In this classroom, a student’s capacity to learn is subverted by the brain’s need to convert to protection mode. Learning doesn’t happen here.

Yes, there are buildings within the City School District in which classrooms are not chaotic and learning does happen consistently (Let’s replicate these!). And there are exceptionally gifted teachers in the district who take as part of their call the hours and hours of time outside the work day meeting their students’ extraordinary needs. Bless them. The reality, though, is that most students do not graduate on time, if ever.

In Raleigh, folks realized that urban teachers were being over utilized and suburban teachers were underutilized, given the needs of each population of students. Here in Rochester, our children’s capacity to learn is limited by the chaotic environment in which we’ve placed them. Our teachers’ capacity to teach is overwhelmed by the needs in the classroom. The Great Schools for All coalition’s research shows that classrooms in which fewer than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch (FRPL) are classrooms in which all students learn to their full capacity because their teachers are able to spend precious energy on helping students learn.

Here are comparative graduation rates for the 2013-2014 year:[i] [ii]

School District Grad Rate for General population Grad Rate for African-American Students % Free or Reduced Priced Lunch Students
Webster Central Schools           93            96              12
Wake County Public Schools           83            74              33
Rochester City Schools           43            42


A case can be made that teachers in suburban classrooms with a few FRPL students are underutilized and that urban teachers with classrooms filled with FRPL students are drowning. Why are we at the Great Schools for All coalition so passionate about socioeconomic integration of classrooms?

Because we strongly believe that every child can learn and each child deserves a chance.


[i]2013 | NY STATE – Report Card | New York State Education Department Data Site. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.

[ii] ACCOUNTABILITY AND TESTING RESULTS. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.



We know what to do, but will we do it?

I am running out of patience. Like most educators I am by nature an optimist. I have thought and written about the issues of poverty and education for a long time and I find myself restating the same points I have made in the past.

Ten years ago I reported in City newspaper (The Schools Problem? Concentrated Poverty,” March 30, 2005) on data from the 2003 International Reading and Literacy study on how our students were doing compared to students in other countries. This study found that U.S. schools with a student poverty rate below 25 per cent finished first in the world in literacy. The same study found the U S schools with student poverty rates between 25 and 50 percent ranked fourth in the world in achievement.

Most of those parents of students in those schools graded those schools highly. However students enrolled in high poverty schools scored well below international standards. I went to point out that 50 years of studies have showed us that despite pockets of success in urban schools due to a cadre of committed people, poor students invariably achieve better if they attend schools in which the poverty rate is under 40 percent. I doubt these data have changed much.

Then in a City article a few years later (“The Testification of Schools in America,” October 11, 2011) I wrote about what the top scoring countries had done to improve their education systems and found that our international competition provided poorer schools more staff development opportunities and support, smaller class sizes, subsidized day care and myriad of social services that helped diminish the effects of poverty. They also provided support for weaker schools from stronger schools by pairing those schools and sharing faculty and resources: think Brighton High School or Pittsford Sutherland sharing faculty, resources and students with Monroe or Edison.

But instead of following the lead of the countries that are out-performing us, when Rochester’s schools are in trouble we compare the apples of suburban schools with the oranges of city schools, set up “Choice” incentives that encourage competition not cooperation, and apply punitive accountability standards that label schools as failures and deny that market forces, politics and discriminatory housing practices have anything to do with low student achievement.

I concluded that article by asking that the education and business communities work together to follow the lead of our international competitors by creating partnerships between the haves and have-nots. This is at the heart of what GS4A is trying to do.

In an article two years later in the Democrat and Chronicle, I asked why advocates of school choice did not include more equitable regional solutions in their school choice plans (which turn out to be about choosing among city schools, not offering interdistrict choices).

After that article a group of like-minded advocates that became GS4A held two community discussions on the issues of regional solutions to poverty and education. And people from business and the suburbs did respond. Many advocates from outside Rochester have allied themselves with us and other groups in the community and are engaged in discussions on changing Monroe County schools. We are thankful and grateful to them.

Still, as I review my notes, articles and files from the last two decades I find myself saying the same thing. And as I talk to my friends in the suburbs I hear the same arguments from them that the problem with the city is that parents do not take personal responsibility for their kids and that their great grandfathers pulled themselves out of poverty and up by their bootstraps and these city folks can too. And when I answer arguments of these people who say it’s the parents’ fault I find myself feeling sorry for the children who are mired and low performing schools…. Even if it is somebody’s fault.

I’m tired of making the argument that we are once again at a tipping point. We have been making this argument for the last 25 years. And through it all, the clock continues to tick on yet another generation of city kids. No I take it back. It’s not a clock: It’s a time bomb.

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





The ‘moral’ response to school inequity

When you start a conversation about the impact of high poverty schools on a child’s academic and social success, data doesn’t matter.

Not because there is no good data (there’s plenty of research to show that when almost every child in a school arrives way behind their middle class peers and lacking the experiences and supports we all need to learn, their chances are not very good), but because most of us look at poverty as a moral problem. And we evaluate that problem either as a social condition, over which we have little personal control, OR as the result of personal failure—and people who see poverty as failure do not believe socioeconomic integration or a surge in new resources will improve failing schools.

Call it what you will—a narrative, a paradigm, a personal philosophy. The way most of us look at poverty depends on something more powerful than data.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

I’ve had more than my share of arguments over the years. I spent 30 years trying to convince people that there’s an important correlation between the percentage of very low-income students in a school and academic outcomes. And after I set out all the facts, someone at the table would invariably say, “I just don’t think poverty is the problem. It all comes down to the family.”

And that’s not an untrue rejoinder. If more families were stable, living on decent incomes, well-connected to educational, business, social and religious institutions, then, yes, the children from those families would be better off. It’s true, but so what? How does knowing that direct us to a solution?

But now that I’m mid-way through my 60s, I  no longer care about winning those arguments. I care about change, and changing hearts. The research can guide us toward a solution to high-poverty schools, but it won’t change minds or hearts.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University, has written extensively on the psychology of morality. He cites several “moral foundations” that are often identified as politically “liberal” or “conservative” values. In fact, these foundations, he says, are better described as personality traits than political philosophies.

Last summer, Haidt was interviewed on National Public Radio’s On Being program by host Krista Tippett. Their conversation makes the research understandable and accessible.

In simplest terms, Haidt says, liberals and conservatives both value compassion and fairness.  But while these two are the centerpieces of a liberal moral  philosophy (care for the poor and others in need, and equality of opportunity in schooling, housing, jobs, etc.), they are often lower on the conservative values hierarchy. The more important moral values for the conservative personality, he says, are loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Very few of us are pure archetypes. We live along a continuum of these moral values. While some liberals, for example, might liken authority to authoritarianism, loyalty to “drinking the Kool-Aid,” and sanctity to religious fanaticism, most of us are somewhere in between. We can appreciate that authority is essential to social order, that loyalty can mean commitment to family or community, and that sanctity can mean working hard to improve one’s behavior as part of an lifelong quest to be a better, more responsible, human being.

The point is that much of what we commonly perceive as political debate is actually a clash of moral priorities that have little to do with policy matters and everything to do with how we see ourselves as human beings.

What this research says to me is that in advocating for socio-economically diverse schools, we must understand that while systemic change is necessary to promote real equality of opportunity, many, many parents will be far more attracted to schools that challenge their children to excel and take responsibility for their own educations. I think we can offer both, and I think we must.