The recent denial of the proposal to extend the Keystone XL pipeline is evidence of the bedbug strategy used by 350.org. For many years, its members organized to bring light to the disadvantages of an enhanced cross-continental pipeline. 350.org members strategized about when, where, and how to protest for maximum annoyance to the government officials reviewing the Keystone XL application. Perhaps it was the 1200 arrested at the White House in 2011, or the 100,000 citizens who pledged to risk arrest in 2014 should the State Department approve the pipeline extension, or the many petitions, phone calls and emails sent by its members. The daily barrage of actions aimed at making the issue visible to decision makers was the key.
Soon the Great Schools for All coalition will propose legislation to enable school districts in Monroe County to collaborate across district lines. What forms might these collaborations take? Of course, we will be seeking projects that promote learning in socio-economically integrated classrooms. But which classroom? Which buildings? Which students? From which districts?
Here is something to consider: Join the call for a change in the state’s charter school legislation to permit (if not require) charters to have socio-economically diverse student bodies, with students drawn from several school districts. Presently, charters must give preference to students from the district in which they are chartered, which generally means that city-based charter schools are high-poverty schools with all the usual problems.
Such an amendment might also require that failing charters be replaced with schools far more likely to help students succeed.
We already have an example. The Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS) is a stand out on the local charter landscape with its students consistently performing as well as students in many suburban districts. Contrast this with the performance of students at the Urban Choice Charter School where less than ten percent of third graders met or exceeded state learning outcomes on Math and ELA tests. While I am not a fan of standardized tests and especially not a fan of using test scores to justify closing schools, a compelling case can be made here. Because the charter system was established as an alternative to failing schools, I believe we should have a very low tolerance for failing charters.
GCCS’s history of solid performance and unique curriculum will attract suburban families. Twenty six percent of GCCS’s students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch (FRPL) which accords with the established claim that in schools with a cap on FRPL students, all students thrive and students living in poverty have a markedly higher performance. The school’s curriculum is based on the model of expeditionary learning which focuses on active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that teaches compassion and good citizenship. At GCCS, Students learn hands on about local and global history with all grades studying the same period at the same time. A change in the charter law would make it much easier to replicate success stories like GCCS.
Where would you suggest we begin to build inter-district relationships? We welcome your innovative ideas about cross-district pollination. And we encourage you to ask your legislator to support legislation to would bring down barriers to collaboration.
Capacity: The maximum amount that something can sustain.
Raleigh N.C., real estate developer Bill Fletcher shared with us that the decision to integrate schools socioeconomically in Raleigh was a decision about capacity. Not building capacity or funding capacity or cafeteria capacity, but a teacher’s capacity to teach (and a student’s capacity to learn). Fletcher saw clearly that teachers in urban Raleigh classrooms did not have the capacity to meet all the needs of students in front of them.
It is a tale of two classrooms. One of my daughters was educated k-12 in the Webster Central Schools; the other began kindergarten in the city and is now a senior at the School of The Arts. Their respective third grade classrooms tell the tale. The Webster student began third grade fully meeting state standards, having arrived in kindergarten already able to read. Her classmates, by and large, were similarly prepared and encouraged to learn as teams working on class projects.
My special needs student arrived at her third grade “inclusion” city classroom to a chaotic mess. District policy required 6 special ed children in her class of 22. My child is deaf and her special need was for a quiet learning environment in order to learn how to access sound via a Cochlear implant. The other 5 special ed students in her class had a range of behavioral needs that resulted in a classroom of continual emotional explosions. No student, not even the best general education student, could learn in this traumatic environment. As one student bit another, a third would scream obscenities or tear up learning materials. The teacher would spend hours and hours after school filling out the necessary forms to get the biters and screamers to a more appropriate learning setting. These were hours taken away from time she would have spent grading, planning lessons, communicating with parents, and attending staff meetings and professional development events. As a teacher, the toll of not being able to reach (let alone teach) your students is defeating. In this classroom, a student’s capacity to learn is subverted by the brain’s need to convert to protection mode. Learning doesn’t happen here.
Yes, there are buildings within the City School District in which classrooms are not chaotic and learning does happen consistently (Let’s replicate these!). And there are exceptionally gifted teachers in the district who take as part of their call the hours and hours of time outside the work day meeting their students’ extraordinary needs. Bless them. The reality, though, is that most students do not graduate on time, if ever.
In Raleigh, folks realized that urban teachers were being over utilized and suburban teachers were underutilized, given the needs of each population of students. Here in Rochester, our children’s capacity to learn is limited by the chaotic environment in which we’ve placed them. Our teachers’ capacity to teach is overwhelmed by the needs in the classroom. The Great Schools for All coalition’s research shows that classrooms in which fewer than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch (FRPL) are classrooms in which all students learn to their full capacity because their teachers are able to spend precious energy on helping students learn.
|School District||Grad Rate for General population||Grad Rate for African-American Students||% Free or Reduced Priced Lunch Students|
|Webster Central Schools||93||96||12|
|Wake County Public Schools||83||74||33|
|Rochester City Schools||43||42||
A case can be made that teachers in suburban classrooms with a few FRPL students are underutilized and that urban teachers with classrooms filled with FRPL students are drowning. Why are we at the Great Schools for All coalition so passionate about socioeconomic integration of classrooms?
Because we strongly believe that every child can learn and each child deserves a chance.
[i]2013 | NY STATE – Report Card | New York State Education Department Data Site. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.
[ii] ACCOUNTABILITY AND TESTING RESULTS. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.
I write this from Jamison Square in the heart of the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. This urban beach is Portland’s biggest kid magnet. An ingenious design fills the shallow basin every 15 minutes with water spilling from layers of mini waterfalls emerging from the sandstone benches. The continuous drainage eliminates stagnant water and greatly reduces the risk of accidental drowning. Even the youngest Portlanders frolic here safely.
This park started out as a vacant lot on which a memorial was to be built. Community members disagreed about the memorial’s design. Opposing sides, over time and in consultation with experts, came together around the current design, with the water feature added after further thought. Jamison Square is a micro model for bringing about systemic change to a divided community.
The Great Schools for All Coalition seeks to create that productive safe space where the community, over time and in consultation with experts, comes together around proven strategies for helping all students succeed. The experts we’ve consulted believe that children in school buildings steeped in poverty have significantly more hurdles to jump over to be successful. Not that poor kids can’t learn, but that any child who comes to school hungry, wearing the same clothes as yesterday and the day before, without having slept well or completed homework, is not prepared to soak up knowledge.
We understand that buildings with 40 percent or fewer students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch are buildings where teachers are not overwhelmed by the needs of students and every child is able to fulfill her promise. We’ve read about successful strategies in Hartford and Omaha and Minneapolis and we’ve visited schools in Raleigh, NC, using socioeconomic integration and have seen the evidence of success first hand. What we seek now is to create the productive safe space for conversation and community engagement to experiment with these ideas locally. Having 18 schools districts with many different constituents in Monroe County make this a potentially difficult and very robust conversation, but not an impossible conversation.
The kind of productive safe space GS4A wants to cultivate is referred to as the “Yes Zone” by Neal Ewald, Senior Vice President of Green Diamond Resource Company. Ewald’s logging company tussled with activists for decades over cutting old growth forests. Ewald and the activists eventually engaged in conversations that identified a common thread of interests. Following this thread, the activists and loggers found their Yes Zone, the place to experiment with different designs around a core idea.
The Legislative Work Group of GS4A aims to introduce legislation that would turn Monroe County into a type of “Yes Zone,” where school districts could work together to socioeconomically integrate learning. Such a place is not currently available due to legal obstacles. Successful ideas coming out of the GS4A Yes Zone may include magnet schools open to students from anywhere in the county, shared learning partnerships between two or three districts, or shared sports and arts facilities along the lines of the BOCES model. And, of course, the Yes Zone will allow us to consider your proposals.
What is our Yes Zone’s coalescing idea — our common thread?
That all children can learn and each child deserves a chance.
Join the conversation at gs4a.org
I am a racist; most likely you are, too. My racism took root in the ’60s in my hometown, Detroit. I was 7 when Detroit burned. If you are a Baby Boomer, chances are your racist tendencies were reinforced by watching Detroit burn on the evening news in 1967. That summer my Dad told me over and over that it was the fault of the black people— the idea of “righteous rebellion” had not reached mainstream America.
Fortunately, Mom tempered this racist indoctrination, constantly insisting that there is good in everybody. I arrived in Rochester in the ’80s with this duality: believing strongly that there is good in everyone and trying to squelch my internal racist legacy. I believe it is this same duality that leads us to label Rochester’s youngest as “children at risk.” This label is not serving our children very well.
We’ve been struggling with the cycle of poverty/poor education/violence for decades—usually approaching a solution by addressing the needs of “children at risk”… at risk of witnessing murder, at risk of going to bed hungry, at risk of not finishing school, at risk of getting into mischief after school. So we tried to break the cycle by mitigating risk: keeping children indoors, providing food, shelter, and clothing, rerouting buses, mandating after school camps (often poorly supervised quasi-detention centers).
The risks are real and our solutions have been draconian. What are the results? A child who walks through his day of rerouted buses, marginal but free breakfast and lunch, and imprisoned after school care. A child who understands quite clearly that society sees him as other, as less than, as dangerous. All this energy spent on minimizing risk leaves precious little time and resources for a child to learn and thrive and believe in himself.
One day in July of 1994, I had an experience that helped me stop seeing our children as being at risk and begin to see our youngest as children of promise. I had been cleaning streets for weeks in the Northwest quadrant of the city. Each day, children who lived on those streets came out to help the volunteers. One morning a neighborhood kid I’ll call Gina cut herself picking up debris. Gina was 6, just getting over chickenpox and we had become buddies. As we walked hand in hand into McDonalds to clean her cut, Gina says,
“Are you black?”
“Nope,” I replied.
“Are you Puerto Rican?”
“Well, you can’t be white because my brother says all white people are evil.”
As stunned as I was by her words, my teaching instincts kicked in. “Well, Gina, I’m white. Do you think your brother is right?”
“Nope, he’s not right.”
In that small moment I saw Gina’s promise in her ability to use reason to transcend falsehood—the same way I’ve used reason to transcend the racist influences on me.
If we can think of Rochester’s youngest as our children of promise, rather than as “children at risk,” we will see many different solutions to breaking the poverty cycle. The Great Schools for All coalition believes that expanding the Urban-Suburban program, integrating summer learning programs with a mix of middle class and low-income students, creating magnet elementary, middle and high schools, and a regional educational planning structure each are part of the solution. We saw these solutions at work in the Raleigh school system where all children are considered children of promise.
After two years of study, the FR=EE Race and Education Action and Change Work Group invites our community to acknowledge our racism and partner to build Anchor Communities around our children of promise in city schools. Anchor communities provide support for schools as communities by providing books and other learning supplies, afterschool art instruction—all while building relationships with the families and teachers of our children. These are great efforts, but we are just getting started.
If you are a member of a suburban church, I encourage you to partner with a city church to share children’s programming. If you are a member of a suburban YMCA, encourage your staff to share programming with children of promise at the YMCAs in the city. If you are part of any organization that serves children, consider partnering with one similar organization in the city to share one experience this year. Of course, the Great Schools for All coalition (contact Reverend Lynette Sparks at firstname.lastname@example.org ) and FR=EE’s Education Group (contact Reverend Judy Davis-Crossroads at raceandEd@gmail.com and Fred Tanksley at email@example.com ) welcome you to help us work to fulfill the promise we know lives in each child.
A year ago, eleven of us traveled to Raleigh, N.C. to see what deconcentrating poverty looks like in a large urban school district. Schools don’t look different in Raleigh. Teachers don’t teach differently. What is different is how the Raleigh community feels about education. Every child in Raleigh is a child of promise, rather than a child at risk. School buildings are sharing communities. Because most schools in Raleigh are designed to cap the number of children from poor families (defined as those eligible for free or reduced price federal lunches) at 40 percent of the student population, 60 percent of families in a building have resources to share. Think about that. This deliberate 40/60 composition is a reflection of the community’s commitment to sharing. Walking into Joyner elementary school, I see a rack of clothes for those in need. The Joyner PTA stuffs backpacks with food each Friday afternoon to give to students at the social worker’s discretion. Sharing is part of the Wake County Central School District’s DNA.
But it’s not about the stuff. The Great Schools for All coalition here in Rochester has been working on concrete action steps to eliminate high poverty urban schools because the needs of so many poor children can overwhelm a school’s staff and resources. The same principle applies to summer learning: a socioeconomically diverse program reflects a commitment to sharing that will benefit both the poorest and most affluent children. We’ve learned that a quality summer learning program (QSLP) engages students by weaving summer learning through a well-designed curriculum, exercise and enrichment and assessment of student progress. Some students in Rochester learned last summer through building rockets, learning scripts, and playing building-sized board games. Quality learning requires a lot of stuff. But Raleigh’s success is not about the stuff, it’s a mindset of caring about every student.
If you are paying for a 6-week QSLP (at The Harley School, or Nazareth College, or Lego Camp, for example), your child can expect quality instruction reinforced through exercise and enrichment (field trips, plays, rocket launchings). The City School District reports that as many as 12,500 students will be involved in some form of summer learning, but very few of those who need quality summer learning this year can afford $1000 or more for summer programs like those above. Maybe two in ten of our city’s children will be lucky enough to be selected for a free QSLP.
Hundreds of city children will attend day camp through the YMCA – a fun experience, but not a QSLP. Only 64 students from Schools 33 and 8 will be chosen for the Y’s free QSLP held at the Carlson branch. Many many children each summer sign up for Monroe Public Library’s Summer Reading Program which tracks the amount of time and number of books a child reads. Only 300 students, though, will be selected for the Library’s QSLP run by EnCompass. Only 700 children will be able to participate in the City School District’s premier QSLP, held last year at the School of the Arts, where the entire building became a game of Clue as students puzzled out a mystery.
And for our children in extreme poverty who find their way to a QSLP, the lack of food, clothing, and transportation continue to be barriers to learning. If your only meals are the breakfast and lunch served at school, you may choose not to eat. The directors of QSLPs report that some students squirrel away school meals in backpacks so that their siblings will have something to eat when they get home. Other children sit pool-side during swim time because they don’t own a swim suit or towel. And if transportation is not provided to the QSLP, students don’t go.
Scaling up the few free excellent quality summer learning programs in Rochester to fully enroll all the students needing them is not about getting more stuff, it is about sharing. If we adopted Raleigh’s perspective that each child is a child of promise and that schools are caring communities, we could leverage education and foundation dollars to support this critical learning. Join us on Tuesday, May 5th, from 8:00-12:30 at the GS4A at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church as we hear action steps proposed by the Summer Learning work group as well as five other work groups from the Great Schools Coalition. In this atmosphere of promise and sharing, a caring Monroe community will discern ways to wrap our arms around our city’s children. It’s not about the stuff, it’s about the caring.