I attended all three of the recent GS4A town hall meetings in city and suburban locations, and was struck by the strong support for increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity in our schools, and the practical and societal impacts that can result from such initiatives. I was also struck by the need to clarify our message and broaden our constituency.
Some seem to believe that Great Schools for All’s central message is simply to strengthen the Urban-Suburban program. Some suggest that we are primarily about deconcentrating poverty and dispersing it, rather than focusing on reducing it. Others imply that we are not supportive of efforts to strengthen city neighborhood schools. And others think there is little in our proposals that applies directly to suburban students. To all of the above, we say, Not True. Or only partially true.
From the beginning, the volunteer-driven GS4A initiative has attempted to make it clear that no one solution or approach will solve the issue of underperforming urban schools. We believe multiple approaches will be needed, and that all segments of the community will need to be engaged, offering a variety of solutions.
GS4A has focused our efforts on promoting systemic changes that would involve creation of targeted-focus magnet schools that would draw students on a voluntary basis from across urban and suburban school district lines, as well as a variety of other shared learning partnerships between combinations of schools. Such cross-district collaborative partnership schools, as has been demonstrated in communities throughout the country, offer urban and suburban students alike specialized opportunities to learn in unique schools that are responsive to diverse student needs and interests that even the most affluent districts could not afford to offer on their own.
But we recognize that not all students will be interested in crossing district lines. Most suburban students will choose to remain in their home districts. And many urban students will choose to remain in city public schools. But we believe that there will be a critical mass of interested students from both city and suburbs who will choose to seek out magnet opportunities, once these options are fleshed out and they realize how beneficial such programs can be, both for the individuals involved and for the long-term economic benefit of a better-educated, diverse future workforce.
And in the meantime, what happens to those students who will choose to remain in neighborhood-based city schools? We embrace and strongly support efforts to strengthen those schools, including efforts to promote the Beacon schools concept of strengthening both school resources and academic offerings, and the development of strong family support services linked to the schools and their surrounding neighborhoods.
We also support the efforts to create new and strengthened academic models in the City School District’s state-designated poor-performing “receivership schools.” Efforts to reimagine and strengthen these schools can, we believe, improve academic performance, rejuvenate surrounding neighborhoods, and potentially create magnet models that not only strengthen the core neighborhood schools, but also draw a socioeconomically-diverse array of students to help mitigate the impacts of the concentration of poverty in some of those schools, as has happened in cities like Raleigh, Hartford, Omaha and other communities.
Strengthening neighborhood schools in the city is viewed, appropriately, by many city leaders and parents as a critical strategy in reducing poverty and its impact in the city. We agree. This must happen. But we are also mindful of the overwhelming evidence from research over the past 50 years that makes it clear that—no matter how much we do to strengthen neighborhood schools—if they remain schools where the majority of students live in poverty, not all, but most students in those schools will continue to fail to meet academic standards and the demands of the work force of the future. So yes, we must tackle poverty by creating stronger neighborhood schools and the support services around them. But we should simultaneously craft long-term systemic solutions, such as evidence-based magnet schools and cross-district collaborative programs that help lift students out of poverty by improving their educational outcomes.
The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative provides an opportunity to address the critical role education can play in reducing poverty in our community. The Initiative’s initial report has lifted up the importance of increased socioeconomic diversity in strengthening the academic performance of high-poverty students, without any negative impacts on the performance of more affluent students. The development of specific anti-poverty strategies in the coming months provides an opportunity to come together as a community of concerned city and suburban leaders and parents to develop both place-based/neighborhood-focused and systemic community-wide solutions to strengthen education outcomes that will benefit the entire Rochester and Monroe County community.
GS4A believes that we basically all want, and care deeply about creating, better opportunities and futures for our kids. We may have different thoughts about how we get to this goal, but if we’re starting with the same hoped-for destination, we should be able to find the common ground that enables us to move forward together, using multiple approaches to help us get there: various strategies and approaches that complement and build on each other.
GS4A would love to help facilitate bringing together city and suburban adults and students interested in having an honest discussion about where we differ, but where we can also find the commonalities in efforts to strengthen our schools, so that we can be allies and mutually supportive where possible, modify or clarify approaches as needed, and find ways to mobilize resources toward common purposes. Let us know if you’re interested.