Defining the Problem

While it has become cliché to say “poverty is no excuse” for the failure to learn, poverty is a huge impediment to learning — not because poor children cannot learn, but because poor children in Rochester arrive at the school doors with so many disadvantages and in such numbers that they overwhelm even the finest teaching staffs.

What does that mean, exactly? Early in life, poor children lack the opportunities and experiences that prepare them for school. They often have health issues — from obesity to nutritional deficiencies to poor eyesight —that have been untreated or under-treated and that make learning much more difficult. They are less likely to come to school with basic reading or math skills than their middle class cohorts. They live in families or neighborhoods where very few people have had a positive school experience — and it rubs off. They go through school never having the enriching experiences — family vacations, concerts or music lessons, youth sports, or summer jobs — that open them to life and career paths that could be theirs with the right education.

Any good teacher can help a few disadvantaged students, especially in classrooms where middle class children can be tapped to help other students and where poor and more affluent students can benefit from each others’ life skills and experiences. But teachers who face classrooms where every child is performing below grade level are fighting a losing battle.

How bad is it in Rochester? About as bad as it can get, actually. An analysis of the most recent U.S. Census numbers by the Rochester Area Community Foundation reveals that:

  • Nearly 33 percent of Rochester residents live below the poverty line, making this the 5th poorest city among the top 75 metro areas in the country.
  • But the poverty rate for children, 18 and under, is just over 50 percent in Rochester — the highest poverty rate among comparably sized cities in America.
  • Even worse, at 16.2 percent Rochester as the highest rate of “extreme poverty” (defined as the percentage of people living on less than half of the official federal poverty level) of any comparably sized city in the country. And the official poverty level dramatically understates the reality of poverty. For example, the official poverty line for a family of 3 is $19,530, while independent economists says that family needs $47,391 a year to be self-sufficient.

In the Rochester schools, the poverty numbers are even higher. Not a single school has a poverty population below 60 percent, and many have poverty populations that approach 90 percent of the student body. (According to the most recent numbers, under 3.5 percent of Pittsford students live in poverty, while the figure is just over 9 percent in Brighton and just under 24 percent in the Churchville-Chili district.) The Rochester city schools, reflecting that poverty crisis, have an official graduation rate that hovers around 50 percent. Yet, a few years ago, the New York State Regents reported that only 5 percent of city graduates are prepared to enter college or hold a job. In 2012, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, reported that just 9 percent of African American male students graduate from Rochester schools.

While nationally there are anecdotal examples of a few high poverty schools or programs within schools that have better outcomes, no high poverty school district in the country has found an effective strategy to mitigate the impact of poverty on educational performance. Some districts, notably in the South, have consolidated city and suburban districts and integrated their schools to cap the poverty population in each school — at a figure that does not overwhelm the staff.

In Raleigh/Wake County, N.C., for example, administrators work to keep the poverty population around 40 percent. That strategy has produced dramatic improvements. Roughly 70 percent of low-income and minority students graduate on time (subsequently these rates have increased to around 80 percent or more), while the graduation rates for more affluent students remains at about 90 percent — similar to graduation rates in suburban Rochester.

The Great Schools for All coalition does not specifically advocate for school consolidation in Monroe County but does strongly believe that reversing the decline of city school is most likely to occur in concert with a spectrum of voluntary programs aimed at achieving socio-economic integration of schools across Monroe County.

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