To all our suburban friends: We need your help

The Urban-Suburban program is nice. Over the years many Rochester schoolchildren who would otherwise be consigned to a high poverty and underperforming school have been given the opportunity to attend a suburban school and learn alongside a middle class population.

But there is another side to this successful program. It allows some to think that serving about 2 percent of the city’s schoolchildren contributes to solving the problem of economically segregated schools—and this could not be further from the truth.

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.

Our current school district system in Monroe County, like those in many other urban areas, has kept all but those 700 kids in the Urban-Suburban program from gaining any access to suburban schools. This is the result of generations of back room dealings and goofy school district borders that look like the scribbles of a kindergartner.

A new report but ED Build  features an interactive map of school district borders across the United States. The maps of Monroe County school districts should make us ashamed. The City School District is surrounded by school districts drawn in odd shapes that sit next to Rochester with one of the highest student poverty rates in the country. West Irondequoit and its poverty rate of 10 percent borders Rochester. So, too, the oddly shaped districts of Brighton and Penfield and, just blocks away, Pittsford—with poverty rates in the 6 percent range. The Wheatland-Chili district has a finger-shaped section thrusting to the city district, while Gates and Greece make up the western borders.

Across the county, district lines drawn years ago fence off the affluent and middle class suburbs, effectively isolating and excluding poor minority populations in the city. As a result, property values have risen in the suburbs and fallen in the city, which affects the funding of the schools.

Then these districts and villages worked to keep low-income housing out of their communities. Some have even blocked apartments and condos that were intended for working class and middle income people. These housing policies have incentivized wealthy communities to wall themselves off against the City School District and schoolchildren, which has lead to poorer and poorer city schools.

We in the city know that our friends in the suburbs care because they march to protest racist flyers left at their homes and pride themselves on including phrases on their district material and mission statements extolling diversity as strength. But the actions of these districts and villages do not always align with their stated philosophies on diversity.

Our Great Schools For All (GS4A) group wants what is best for all children: equity realized through socially integrated magnet schools. To be sure, many in our group, myself included, would favor a countywide school system that would allow students to attend any Monroe County school. After all, as we know, it takes less than ½ hour to get just about anywhere in the county. But a countywide system is neither politically nor legally viable, so the weirdly drawn boundaries must stay. Instead critics of our plan tell us to embrace school choice and other options. But that is a false choice because our kids cannot choose Brighton, Penfield, or Webster. They can only choose another school where more than 80 percent of their peers are poor.

So we challenge our suburban neighbors to embrace plans for truly diverse schools all across our county. The Urban-Suburban program is just not enough to overcome a half-century of political machinations that have isolated the city. The children of Rochester have been sacrificed to keep property values up.

Historically, when parents have moved to the suburbs for the schools, they’ve said they are just taking care of their family and that it is not their intent to segregate poor kids in the city. I’m sure that’s true—but the end result for the children of Rochester is the same.

But here is the toughest part. We desperately need our suburban allies to help rectify these educational inequities. We cannot do it without you because you have the power both financially and politically to move us forward. And we know from our spring 2016 countywide parent survey that 87 percent of parents, city and suburban, now support diverse schools for their kids. If the suburbs advocate for change it can happen. By supporting the work of GS4A and pushing to open socioeconomically diverse schools for all children in Monroe County, you help save a generation of kids and, in the process, help your own children by modeling compassion and morality for them.

Thanks for thinking about this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More of the same leads to more of the same

An item in the recent news cycle reminded us of the enormity, complexity and urgency of the problems our community faces:

An update to a 2013 ACT Rochester/Rochester Area Community Foundation report confirmed a rising concentration of poverty in city neighborhoods and an expanding number of census tracts where the poverty rate stood at 40 percent or higher. (Democrat and Chronicle, September 21, 2016) One-third of Rochester residents live in poverty and another one-third require some form of assistance. Those figures reverse themselves in suburban communities. As Edward Doherty, the author of the poverty report and update, said, “we don’t really have a poverty problem. We have a concentration of poverty problem.”

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

It was the original RACF report that first got the attention of Great Schools for All. GS4A has become convinced that it is the concentration of poverty in our city, more than any other factor, which contributes to low achievement and low graduation rates. It is not about how much families care, or how hard children work. It is not about RCSD capacity to change, to somehow do better, though there will always be issues of functionality and capacity facing any large urban school district.

From the very start, GS4A’s agenda has been shaped by the evidence that concentrated poverty is the key difference-maker in achievement and graduation. That’s why we read the recent news with such interest, and such concern.

It is very true that many in our community are talking about poverty like never before. That is good. We were heartened by the launch of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), and were pleased when several GS4A reps were appointed to the education team. We fully agree with these commitments found in the RMAPI report:

“Investing in evidence-based initiatives to address the impact of poverty on children’s learning by targeting literacy proficiency and high quality instructional practices.”

And

“Drive toward socially and economically diverse schools across Monroe County…”

That second affirmation especially lies squarely in the GS4A wheelhouse.

My day job is in the church. We are an institution, more than government, business, education and many others, where change comes slowly and is often unwelcome. The church historian Martin Marty once joked that it takes 500 years for the church to change its mind on anything!

So I understand how difficult such deep structural and organizational change can be. I am not a numbers person, but the numbers tell a story. Poverty is getting worse in our community, more concentrated. So achievement levels and graduation rates cannot change substantively. They just can’t, even with the best of intentions and the most dedicated of practitioners. And so we are looking at another generation of our children facing the cruel and crushing cycle of poverty.

It will take many people and many ideas to change the course of this ship. But the ideas need to be big— no tweaking around the edges. And the political will must be huge—all in.

The GS4A proposal for a network of inter-district magnet schools that will offer distinctive programming and achieve a 50/50 poverty split is not a panacea, magic pill, or silver bullet. But it is bold. And it has been proven in other communities to move the needle.

Is Rochester ready to try something truly different, something big, something bold? At GS4A, we think the answer is yes. And we are sure that more of the same approach to education will lead to more of the same disheartening headlines.