Is There a Market for Interdistrict Magnet Schools?

In meeting after meeting with a wide range of community residents and leaders, Great Schools for All proponents hear variations on these same legitimate questions:

• Will anyone be interested in interdistrict socioeconomically-mixed magnet schools?
• Would any students want to attend?
• Would any parents send their kids outside their home districts to attend a theme-focused magnet school?
• Is it possible to generate the critical mass of urban and suburban students needed to justify investments in these schools, strategically situated in the city and suburbs?

And in response, skeptics say: No. Not likely. Probably not. Interesting idea, but unlikely to happen.

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

Others, however, say: Hold on. Not so fast. Let’s not jump to such negative conclusions when we don’t even know the details of what such schools might look like. Let’s reserve judgment until we have specific proposals to consider.

In that context, I’ve been struck recently by several developments and observations suggesting that there may well be a potential market just waiting for interdistrict magnet schools that would appeal to interests and values now beginning to surface throughout our community.

For example, earlier this month, several hundred high school students from the city and 12 suburban school districts spent a day discussing racism and ways to come together across historic but ultimately artificial geographic boundaries to address issues of diversity, breaking down stereotypes, expansion of interdistrict opportunities, ways to address change. As one suburban student noted, “Change and diversity are coming—it’s not going to always be the way it’s been. So the community will have to get used to it.”

A suburban student recently wrote a thoughtful letter to the editor of the Democrat and Chronicle expressing concern about the “harsh disparities that continue to exist between Rochester schools and suburban schools….A student’s opportunities in public education shouldn’t be this different between schools that are only twenty minutes apart.” The letter went on to say, “It doesn’t feel right, that some people just get lucky—this needs to change.”

A small group of students representing city and suburban schools have been meeting occasionally under the guidance of teachers to discuss breaking down barriers between city and suburban schools. A group of city students regularly discusses ways to change the educational system, including crossing existing district boundaries. A class of students at a local private school has been discussing ways to advocate for changes that would have the potential to bring more students together across racial, socioeconomic and geographic lines.

Talk is cheap, and none of this proves a willingness to actually cross district lines to attend magnet schools, but it does suggest that many young people share the values and value the outcomes that this GS4A initiative is designed to address, and may be amenable to having the conversation, when more concrete options are proposed.

And what about the adults? Over the past couple of months, GS4A has conducted several focus groups of parents and guardians of students about evenly split between city and suburbs. Asked about pulling their kids out of existing schools to cross district lines to attend more economically diverse schools, initial reactions were to stay put. But when specific examples of potential diverse magnet schools were raised for consideration—types of schools their children would not now have available to them—the conversations typically changed, and levels of interest perked up.

Asked if they would be willing to consider having their children cross district lines to access such schools, many said yes, they would be open to the possibility. Asked how much of a barrier transportation might be to such decisions, most said that their kids were already spending considerable time on buses in both city and suburbs, so that by itself would not constitute a knockout factor in their decisions.

And, of course, some city parents have already opted to send their kids outside district lines to access schools in the Urban-Suburban program. So again, at this point this is all just talk, but it certainly does not suggest the automatic “No way” response we have received from some stakeholders.

Even district superintendents with whom we’ve met have acknowledged that they have students who may well be interested in attending such schools if they provide academic opportunities unavailable in their own districts.

And beyond local speculation about what might happen here, there are examples in communities across the country where significant numbers of students have made conscious choices to cross urban and suburban lines to attend socioeconomically-diverse magnet schools that offer academic options not otherwise available to them in their neighborhoods or home districts: including more than 20,000 in Raleigh/Wake County, NC, and many others in places like Omaha, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Hartford, Montgomery County, MD and other communities where students and their families have made such choices.

So let’s not be so quick to assume that there would be insufficient interest in supporting a network of diverse magnet schools as a way of reducing the effects of poverty, and better preparing both urban and suburban students for their future and the future well-being of our community.

To further test this proposition, we’ll be conducting a professional survey of several hundred urban and suburban parents later this winter to more formally gauge the level of support for particular types of interdistrict magnet schools.

Is Rochester finally ready for bold changes?

Who are we? Better yet, who do we want to be as a community?

Seriously, are we ready and willing to take the steps needed to solve the problems of poverty and decline that have beset us now for more than a generation? Or, will we once again, take comfort in stereotypes and settle for investing more money in the same old approaches that have failed in the past?

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Progressive values are in our bones. Rochester’s proximity to Lake Ontario, which afforded quick passage to Canada, gave rise to a thriving abolitionist community here in the mid-19th Century, and later to an active suffragist community fighting for women’s right to vote. Austin Steward, born to slavery in Virginia, became Rochester’s first black store owner and a leader in anti-slavery causes. Reverend Thomas James, an emancipated slave from New York, settled here and took up the cause, along with anti-slavery activists William Bloss, Isaac and Amy Post and the great Susan B. Anthony.

Sometimes called “America’s First Boomtown,” Rochester was the gateway to the west with the opening of Erie Canal. In the 150 years after the canal opened, Rochester innovators and entrepreneurs made and sold everything from perfume and candy, from shoe polish and beer to eye glasses and precision optics. We built ships, manufactured soap and buttons, elevators and steam engines. Photocopying—xerography—was invented here, and was consumer photography.

The rich and powerful of Rochester built theaters and art museums, endowed colleges and hospitals, donated land for expansive public parks, and, with others, invented the idea off lifelong employment with strong, growing and far-reaching companies. Rochesterians designed and implemented effective local governmental institutions, and later built the best organized neighborhoods in the United States (so said the Brookings Institution back in the 1970s).

Led by Marion Folsom (a Kodak executive who virtually invented the nation’s first retirement system and later served as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1955 to 1958), Rochester organized what  might have ben the finest health care system in the county, build on collaboration among hospitals, rather than competition.

Yes, Rochester came to be known as Smugtown for a reason—an Old Boys’ Club that ran government, business and civic matters with unseemly hubris at times. And I have no interest in romanticizing the “Good Old Days;” this was not a perfect community. It was, however, a much more effective community, a place with leaders who—while they certainly had blind spots when it came to missing the racial divide of the early 1960s—were genuinely interested in solving problems.

But that Can-Do city has become the No-Can-Do city over the last 30 years, our leaders unwilling or unable to even imagine the structural changes that could reverse the decline that has emptied city neighborhoods and impoverished its schools. They have redefined success from problem solving to capping taxes.

We’re a mystery in some ways. We no longer have the corporate giants that once dominated the landscape, but we are blessed with hundreds of innovators who are building smaller, more nimble 21st century companies. We are still an incredibly generous community, with more volunteers per capita than just about any place in America, and with newer philanthropists (Dennis and Lawrence Kessler, B. Thomas Golisanso and Max and Marian Farash among them) still endowing a range of civic and humanitarian causes.

And yet, collectively, we have learned to accept some of the worst poverty and most segregated schools you can find anywhere in America. For all kinds of reasons, children who populate our racially isolated, high-poverty city schools have to beat incredible odds to graduate high school, let alone to ready themselves for work or college. Most will never reach their full potential.

Are we not embarrassed; are we not ashamed to send so many children to schools as segregated and deprived as the worst schools in the deep south before the Civil Rights era?

We have resignation, not outrage; we tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do, that if the parents of poor children would work harder, they could move to Brighton or Pittsford and get their kids  into a better school.

For 30 years we have been collectively silent as this crisis has deepened.  Not one school board, nor village or city council, or town board has even called for a discussion of alternatives to high poverty schools. The business community hasn’t offered a whimper of  resistance. Neither political party has made an issue of it. Our religious leaders have said nothing at all.

But today we have an opportunity to repair the damage, to do right by the children who most need a community behind them.

Suddenly, poverty is an issue. People are talking. The Rochester-Monroe Anti Poverty Initiative has been promised $500 million in state support for programs that will cut poverty here by 50 percent over 15 years. GS4A believes that evidence based solutions—notably socioeconomic integration of our schools— must be a part of that discussion.

We hope you will join us in supporting bold new efforts at collaboration among school districts—the kind of problem-solving initiative that Rochester once was known for.


The race factor in the challenge of socioeconomic integration

I recently read two articles that gave me pause. The first, “How Woodrow Wilson Shut the Door on K-12 Education for African Americans,” discussed the significance of recent protests at Princeton University by students who have urged the trustees to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson supported the Ku Klux Klan—indeed he screened the racist film Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the Klan, at the White House—but more damning is the role his administration played in education policies that set black students back for generations.

Studies, spearheaded by the Wilson administration, focused on training black students in vocational education for service and manual labor jobs. The article cites the 1917 report by Thomas Jesse Jones (a philanthropist who worked closely with the Wilson administration) called “Negro Education,” which disparaged black parents and teachers who wanted an academically rich curriculum for African Americans and pushed back at African American educators like W. E. B. Dubois who wanted black students to focus more on academics.

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

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

This was not a new argument for the time. Booker T. Washington and others were focusing more on training African-Americans for lesser jobs. Even so-called progressives, like John Dewey, echoed this view and thought that black students would be better served by curriculum (in all black schools of course) that focused on manual labor. These “studies” during the Wilson administration had a chilling effect on African-American students for decades afterwards.

Fast-forward 100 years to a December 12 Washington Post story that cites Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments during a hearing on the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions policy.

There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well as opposed to having slower track schools where they do well.” Or this one:“ I’m not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer and maybe some— you know when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks admitted to lesser schools turn out to be less. And I don’t think it stands to reason that is a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.”

And finally: “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re—that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too—too fast for them.”

It sounds like Justice Scalia would be comfortable sitting for that screening of Birth of a Nation.

As the Post article notes, the University of Texas and most colleges would have no problem admitting black students who need extra help as long as they are playing football.

African American students who play sports are often provided with the supports they need to succeed in college. And a case can be made that colleges need to provide better supports and scaffolding for students from many underrepresented populations.

And if that means more attention must be paid to students who have not been prepared to do college-level work, then so be it. I have worked with professors who complain about unprepared students yet do little to adjust their teaching methods to better serve all their students.

But for our purposes, the bigger issue is the rigor and academic preparation that must be provided to low-income students—many of whom happen to be African American—mired in high poverty schools in Rochester. The experiences and privileges that prepare predominantly middle class students for college cannot be overlooked in this equation.

Students from Brighton, Penfield, Webster and any number of suburban communities are raised with the expectation from parents and teachers that they will attend college. And those schools and families do everything in their power to provide these students with the connections, schooling and experiences for this inevitability.

Contrast this with the expectations of poor African-American students from Rochester, among the poorest cities in America. These students have no social capital, few connections with someone who has attended college and parents who are struggling to make ends meet. These parents cannot provide their kids with the experiences that prepare them for college level work and their teachers, many of whom work tirelessly to serve them, often don’t have ownership in the neighborhoods where they live. For example, when I was a principal in the Canandaigua City School District about two-thirds of the teachers and staff lived in the city of Canandaigua. What percentage of teachers in Rochester live with these kids and know their lives?

As I read the reports and work of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, it appears that more people would like Rochester to focus on neighborhood schools to provide healthcare, community activities, parent education and schooling for their children. I understand this wish. I remember an African-American gentleman who took a course from me way back in 1990. He was educated at an all black school in the south in the 1950s. He told the class that although his school was in horrible condition and had limited resources he knew that the teachers cared about him. Actually I think he used the word love. Later upon moving north, he said he did not feel that love.

GS4A has worked for the past year and a half to try to open up urban schools to suburban students while advocating that suburban districts take more of city students. That is a Sisyphus type task. We recognize that suburban districts may not be ready to accept thousands of students from the city. So we are focusing also on trying to open up schools in Rochester that could attract middle class students from the suburbs. This two-way exchange is important to achieving socioeconomic integration and to demonstrating that many city schools can do well by students when the demographics of the classroom are right.

The phrase “white privilege’ is becoming meaninglesslike “diversity.” Still, the idea that middle-class, predominantly white, suburban school districts have provided for their children while letting the children in the city suffer cannot be overlooked. Nor can the words of Supreme Court Justice Scalia once again showing us how far we have to go when it comes to considering race in America.

Discussing race is never easy but until we acknowledge how privileged we are as white people in this country we cannot move forward. We can address this issue or we can in the words of Justice Scalia leave “slower track students where they do well,” which will guarantee us another hundred years of Wilson’s thinking.