Integration lets students be comfortable outside their ‘comfort zones’

I had the privilege of speaking as part of an alumni panel at my Alma mater to an audience of newly accepted students. I shared my experiences at that school and talked about what I gained by attending the school. The event was aimed specifically at minority students. This was my second time on this panel, so I was anticipating some of the questions students and/or their parents would ask.

One question that I regretfully didn’t completely answer was, “What was your first year like?” I spoke to the challenges of being away from home and the extremely humbling experience of being a first-year engineering student, but I did not get to get into the details. In my first semester, the school took back some of the financial aid that had originally been offered; my grandfather died; a close high school friend dropped dead in the middle of a volleyball game; I was homesick, dealing with extreme culture shock and my grades were seriously suffering.

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

One thing I had going for me was that most of my peers were valedictorians or had at the very least graduated at the top of their respective classes. Many of my peers came from far more advantaged backgrounds and had been writing computer code and building circuits since middle school. Even though I had none of these things going for me, what I realized was that we were all starting from ground zero on an even playing field.

At least that is how I framed it in my mind. Although I was completely out of my comfort zone, being at a place where everyone was performing at levels I’d never experienced drove me to meet them at the level. Being out of my element or what was familiar to me brought out what can only be described as a hunger in me to excel and do better.

Another thing that I had going for me was that the school provided support systems which enabled me to excel and learn how to learn. There was tutoring, study groups and office hours; I took advantage of any and every resource I could find. I learned to make friends with people who were smarter than me and could explain some of the tougher concepts that eluded me in class. Once I got my grades up, my scholarship money increased.

Recently, I heard a question: “How could taking a kid off of Genesee St. and sending him to school with Brighton kids make him better off? That doesn’t eradicate poverty, it just moves it around.” The easy response is that putting that kid in that situation statistically increases his or her chances of graduating greatly. High school graduates significantly improve their chances of escaping poverty. (For the most recent data, click here.) In the United States, a person’s earning potential increases with education attainment.

But let’s go back to the original misplaced notion of moving a kid from his or her norm and exposing him or her to something else. The thinking goes that students will only be comfortable in a place they know, surrounded by students like themselves. But I’d counter that with the fact that a person needs to be uncomfortable if he or she is going to grow, learn or excel. If a person remains in their comfort zone, accepting the norm for what it is how is change or growth possible?

I am supremely thankful that I had that opportunity to speak on that panel this month because I was reminded of what it was like to be hungry. In life, it is easy to fall into your day-to-day routines of work, kids, paying the bills and whatever happens in between as you get older.

One begins to teeter on complacency, content to “just get by,” but is that enough? Am I capable of more? Is that kid from Genesee Street capable of more? By allowing him or her to be comfortable, could it be argued that we’re lowering our expectations? This should not be acceptable.

When you take kids from poor city neighborhoods and give them a chance in a middle class school, you push them out of their element, expose them to the possibilities beyond their neighborhoods. That exposure to more, to the endless possibilities, can turn on that hunger, which may feed his or her drive to excel.







Why “Breakthrough?”

Elsewhere on our website, you will read our new proposal for Breakthrough Schools. It is the result of hours and hours of work and creative energy. It is not a curriculum, or a business plan. It is a roadmap to those things.

Remember that the Great Schools for All (GS4A) goal is a regional, voluntary network of magnet schools that will help reduce the effects of crushing and concentrated poverty and give every child the opportunity to receive an excellent education, regardless of their zip code.

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

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


That last sentence is a mouthful. The concept is at once simple and complex. Kids can succeed when the playing field is levelled, and currently, because of concentrated poverty in the city, the playing field simply is not level. It can’t be. We continue to receive comments that poverty is an excuse, that children and families—if they work hard enough—can succeed academically. I’ve heard that in meetings I’ve recently attended.

We know that there are exceptions, admirable exceptions. But will all due respect, we disagree. Poverty matters. Both our own experiences and our research indicate that the levels of poverty our children face—fueled in large part by structural racism–make real and sustained achievement impossible. Not difficult, but impossible.

  • And so Great Schools for All.
  • And so our proposal.
  • And so Breakthrough Schools.

We are not marketing experts, so there may be a better term down the road than “Breakthrough.” This is not about branding at all, and people will be able to call schools what they want, we presume.

But for the moment, let’s consider that term—“breakthrough”—and why we are lifting it up.

It is energized and suggests motion and forward progress. It has the letter “K” which people say is a memorable sound—who knows!

But more than that…We are seeking to break through so many things with this proposal.

  • poverty barriers
  • low graduation rates
  • restrictive geographic boundaries
  • old ways of doing things
  • accepted results

We are seeking to break through the old into something new. We are seeking to break through conversation and discussion to action. We are seeking to break through how things are to how things might be.

Again, it’s just a name, and, admittedly, we haven’t spent much time on marketing and branding. But we have spent lots of time, and energy, on the proposal, and learning about all of the factors and dynamics that got us where we are and that might allow us to break through.

Please read our proposal and let us know what you think. And please read Mary Anna Towler’s column on the Great Schools proposal in the April 20 City Newspaper.


Media inquiries: John Wilkinson at




Is there a real interest in interdistrict magnet schools? Yes

One of the concerns Great Schools for All advocates hear consistently is something along the following lines: Nice idea, but who’s going to develop public magnet schools that offer unique specialized academic opportunities that will attract socioeconomically diverse students from across school district lines?

Well, it turns out that a number of such opportunities are either in place or in various stages of active development.

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

Several magnet programs already exist within the Rochester City School District and are in the process of opening their doors to interested suburban students. RCSD is developing other partnerships with one or more suburban districts. In addition, several potential magnet school operators are in various stages of developing proposals for interdistrict schools.

Let’s take a brief look at some of these existing and emerging options.

Existing districtwide Suburban-Urban programs within RCSD:The city school district is actively recruiting suburban students to magnet schools heretofore only open to city students. It has a formal application form available on the district website for students interested in exploring one or more of the following schools, as part of the district’s new Suburban-Urban Transfer Program. By actively soliciting students from all suburban districts, the program is intentionally designed to be the reverse-direction counterpart of the longstanding Urban-Suburban Transfer program, with its historic flow of students from the city to participating suburban districts.

  • Edison Tech (Edison Career and Technology High School) has been reconfigured to provide rigorous academic and technical coursework and work-based learning opportunities, and the opportunity to earn college credits while in high school. It is designed to be a positive force in the regional economy by offering the opportunity to develop skills and experience in areas such as Construction, Architecture and Design; Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering; Digital Media and Communications; and P-TECH (described in more detail below).
  • East High School is a collaborative effort of the city school district in partnership with the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. The UR in effect is acting as the superintendent overseeing the lower school (grades 6-8) and the upper school (grades 9-12) programs at East. The programs offer an extended school day and increased instructional time, along with several targeted career pathway programs developed with input from college and industry partners and offering practical experience as part of the learning process—including culinary arts, information technology, medical careers, precision optics, teaching and learning institute, and vision care.
  • Wilson Magnet International Baccalaureate Program offers an internationally-recognized and accredited program for high school students. The program emphasizes critical thinking and analysis, the development of research skills, connections between traditional subjects and real-world challenges, and community service. Students are able to earn up to a full year of college credit while in high school, and students with an IB diploma who are accepted at the University of Rochester receive a full-year scholarship for four years.
  • The Leadership Academy for Young Men is focused on creating academic, business and leadership opportunities for its all-male student body. The program emphasizes personal integrity, discipline, accountability and mutual respect. It operates in partnership with the UR to provide leadership and mentorship opportunities, and with the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (Junior ROTC) to develop character, discipline, leadership and academic success. The program is available to male students in grades 7 through 12.

Developing partnerships between RCSD and other school districts: Three emerging programs are being developed as pilots by theRCSD in conjunction with other districts, using funding available through a federal socioeconomic diversity grant. The programs being developed this year are designed to create academic opportunities for both city and suburban students that would not otherwise exist except for the cross-district offerings.

  • P-TECH Rochester is a “grade 9-14” academic and career program that integrates the best elements of high school, college and the professional world. The program is accepting applications from students from any suburban district. Students will focus primarily on science, math and technology, participate in extended day and summer programs, take courses at both Edison Tech and Monroe Community College, and be exposed to mentors and internships at major companies in the Rochester region. P-TECH students will earn both a State Regents diploma and a two-year Associates Degree from MCC, without paying any college tuition.
  • School 50 and West Irondequoit Pre-Kindergarten Collaborative is designed to pilot an inter-district socioeconomic exchange program building on the Universal Pre-Kindergarten program at School 50 in the city. Five of the slots in that program will be dedicated to students from the West Irondequoit district in the first year beginning this fall. Those students in turn would be guaranteed spots in School 50’s Kindergarten program in the 2017-18 school year. Parents at School 50 are being asked to partner with the families of the new WI students to aid in the transition. The pilot program has the potential to be a building block for expansion in the future.
  • School 12 and Brighton Dual Language and Enrichment Program is initially focusing on shared enrichment activities between School 12 and the French Road Elementary School. School 12 features the HOLA program, a dual-language enrichment program providing instruction in both English and Spanish. Ultimately this unique program is expected to attract middle class families from the surrounding neighborhood in the city as well as students from Brighton. The initial year will focus on developing relationships, understandings and exchange activities between students in the two schools, with enrollment of suburban students expected beginning the following year.

Magnet schools in development by other providers: A number of other providers outside of school districts are considering the creation of magnet schools that are not currently available in any single school district. Such providers include local colleges and independent operators considering various types of specialized academic offerings, locations and partnerships. For understandable reasons, it would be premature to say more at this point, as plans are in the early stages of development, but they appear promising. More details will be provided as they become more fully developed.

So to those who suggest that interdistrict magnet schools are pie in the sky and will never be developed, the emerging evidence suggests that several already are well along the road to being created and even in place, some with student recruitment actively underway. Stay tuned for further developments as these initial building blocks of a potential system of magnet schools evolve.


State should fix failing schools, not just threaten them

The federal government is scaling back its role in the schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB), will enhance the authority that states and school districts have over their schools.

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.

For advocates and friends of GS4A, which is promoting the establishment of magnet schools in Rochester to decrease the effects of poverty and segregation, here are some elements of  the new law and other factors to consider as it takes effect:

  • The U.S. Department of Education will require states to identify their poorest performing schools. States will be allowed to direct more money to these schools. This could be up to 7 percent of the Title I money allocated to the state.
  • The poorest performing schools—those in the lowest 5 percent statewide—will be defined as priority schools. Schools  with a graduation rate of less than 67 percent also qualify as priority schools. Focus schools are a step up from the priority schools but still have high numbers of non-proficient students in sub-groups.
  • New York State’s accountability system is currently based on math and English Language Arts assessments in grades 3-8 and Regents exams at the high school level along with graduation rates.
  • The “opt out” movement” is the wild card here. It is unclear how the Department of Education and New York will determine accountability status if large groups of students refuse to take the assessments or if they will be penalized for high numbers of opt outs.
  • There are still racial, language, disability and other sub-group components that factor into a school’s status and districts will have to design evidenced-based plans to turn these schools around. Each state will define what that evidence is, which may turn out to be more than a semantic argument.
  • Schools that fail to improve for up to four years must be taken over by the state.
  • While the U.S. Department of Education still requires testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, states can scale back the role these tests play in gauging school progress.
  • States can move away from the Common Core curriculum and teacher evaluations linked with student test scores, as New York State has done.

There is much more in the law and terms like “quality,” “evidence” and “accountability” will no doubt be interpreted differently state-to-state and district-to-district. But this is a new era that gives states and localities more flexibility to try new ideas with schools mired in poverty. And Rochester has nothing but high-poverty schools.

The trouble is, flexibility doesn’t seem like much help for a school district as burdened by poverty as Rochester. As RCSD parents, my wife and I received a letter last week listing the Priority Schools, Focus Schools, and schools in Good Standing.

Twenty-eight of the 51 schools on the list are priority schools. There are two charter schools included on this list. Let that sink in. The students in these 28 schools are among the lowest 5 percent in the state and they comprise over half the schools in Rochester. In fact these 28 schools comprise about 16 percent of the statewide list. When you add in the Focus schools, there are only 10 schools in Good Standing in Rochester.

So I went to the master list of all the schools in the state (found here) and started looking for schools in Monroe County, but I stopped after finding that all the schools in Brockport, Brighton, Churchville Chili, Fairport, Honeoye Falls Lima and others in Monroe County were in good standing. I did not get to the P’s. There are a lot of schools on this list. But I doubt that parents in Penfield of Pittsford made got same letter that I did.

So no matter how much flexibility we have in measuring progress in the Rochester city schools, there is no massaging the central reality: We are past the tipping point. Some of the charters have made modest progress and schools 7, 15, 23, 25 and a few others are holding their own—for right now. School of the Arts and School Without Walls are also in Good Standing. But they are the only high schools in Good Standing.

Academic progress and accountability are important. But this annual ritual of assessment only serves a purpose for those districts, schools, principals and teachers who can use the data to improve outcomes. You see that is how assessment works. When I was a principal our school used the results of state and local assessments to understand the gaps that we needed to fill in our curriculum and the skills that we needed to develop in our students. Then we could adjust our professional development to provide teachers with support in these areas. But the city’s problems cannot be addressed by shifting resources or tweaking instructional techniques. The RCSD cannot fix its schools—no matter how many times the state threatens to take them over.

As a city parent and a city taxpayer I’m tired of report cards that do no more than belittle city schools. If New York State truly wants to turn around priority schools, it should provide the opportunities and the financial incentives for the inter district collaboration that can actually produce better outcomes for the poorest kids in our community.

This annual scolding just doesn’t cut it.