GS4A: quiet, but still very active

Yes, we’re still at it! Quietly but steadily, Great Schools for All continues to work behind the scenes to build support for the creation over time of a network of voluntary cross-district socioeconomically diverse magnet schools offering opportunities not otherwise available in our current schools – new schools designed to improve outcomes for all students, especially those living with the effects of concentrated poverty.

Decades of research clearly indicate that the odds of graduation and other measures of student success dramatically improve for low-income students in such integrated schools, reducing disparities between low-income and middle-income students. Moreover, students of all income and racial/ethnic groups in such schools benefit from improved decision-making, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, teamwork and ability to process diverse perspectives and approaches, and improved preparation for the increasingly-diverse workforce and society of the future. More recent research also indicates that the benefits continue into adulthood, with students from such schools experiencing higher levels of family and income stability, less dependence on public assistance, and less involvement in the criminal justice system.

We realize there are many obstacles to introducing systemic change at a time when school districts are dealing with the pandemic, fiscal uncertainty and dwindling resources, in addition to the need to address issues of racism in our schools and community, On the other hand, crises present opportunities for new approaches to be considered, and many organizations throughout the community are looking at ways in which we can use the crises of the moment to think creatively about new initiatives and approaches to many issues, including the educational opportunities we provide for our students. Continue reading

Raleigh/Wake County graduation rates continue to increase for all subgroups; disparity gaps cut in half

In the Raleigh/Wake County public school system, more than 35 magnet schools of varying grade levels have been established over the years, each deliberately drawing a socioeconomically diverse student population. GS4A representatives spent three days visiting the district several years ago, and were impressed with the strong schools and the student outcomes. There have been many changes since we visited, including some frustrations as a result of political and demographic shifts in the community.  But throughout these changes, graduation rates have continued to increase steadily across all racial and ethnic subgroups over the past 10 years, with the biggest gains among Black and Hispanic/Latino students.  Gaps in graduation rates between white students and Latino and Black students have been cut in half during that time. Rates for all subgroups far exceed those among Rochester City School District students.  For more details, see the five-page report here.

Rochester needs socioeconomically diverse, cross-district magnet schools

Excerpt from a Rochester Beacon opinion from April 22, 2019 by Mark Hare and Don Pryor

“GS4A is not advocating the creation of a single countywide school district. Rather, we support a network of voluntary interdistrict schools. Our niche at GS4A has been to insist on a public school system that does its job to sharply improve the odds of success for all children—and in particular for those most at risk of failure. Socioeconomically diverse schools can significantly improve the odds.”

School integration actually drives social mobility

From Children of the Dream by Rucker Johnson

“We are frequently told that school integration was a social experiment doomed from the start. But as Rucker C. Johnson demonstrates in Children of the Dream, it was, in fact, a spectacular achievement. Drawing on longitudinal studies going back to the 1960s, he shows that students who attended integrated and well-funded schools were more successful in life than those who did not — and this held true for children of all races.

“Yet as a society we have given up on integration. Since the high point of integration in 1988, we have regressed and segregation again prevails. Contending that integrated, well-funded schools are the primary engine of social mobility, Children of the Dream offers a radical new take on social policy. It is essential reading in our divided times.”

A promising Path Forward for city schools

The Rochester City School District’s recently-released Path Forward plan contains a number of clear references to directions GS4A strongly advocates. Among these:

  • Expand and replicate several popular and effective existing District schools, including School Without Walls, World of Inquiry and its expeditionary learning approach, School of the Arts, The Children’s School.
  • Under “Future Concept Schools,” the plan advocates the creation of two magnet schools (one high school and one elementary school), each designed to draw students from both the city and suburbs. At least one suburban district and college, and other possible partners, have already been identified as potential collaborators in the development of the school concepts outlined in the plan. Many critical details would need to be worked out before these and related ideas can be implemented, but the fact that these concepts are part of the Path Forward plan is encouraging. GS4A looks forward to working with the district and other potential partners in the development of these initiatives.
  • Efforts to expand the numbers of teachers of color and to make the curriculum at all levels more culturally sensitive and relevant to students.

Great Schools for All looks forward to working with city and suburban school officials and all sectors of the community to help develop these ideas and support for their implementation.

Taking steps to shape new initiatives with diversity

I recently sat in on a Rochester Board of Education committee meeting that focused on approaches to improve student outcomes, particularly graduation rates.

You know the context: Despite board priorities and the efforts of a parade of superintendents over the past several years, the district has struggled to move four-year on-time graduation percentages above the mid- to upper-40s.

Don Pryor is a researcher for the Center for Governmental Research and a member of the GS4A leadership team

Ongoing approaches and promising new and modified initiatives were discussed at this meeting. The back and forth between board and staff reflected a sense of, “this time it will be different,” that these efforts and the dedication of board members, administration, teachers and principals, parents and students will combine to move the needle toward significantly improved student achievement and graduation rates.

I’m a believer in “the promised land,” and the potential of numerous encouraging initiatives throughout the district, under goals set by the board and being carried out under the promising leadership of new superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams. And yet…and yet, concentrated poverty levels remain high, and no school in the district has a poverty population below 60 percent. Our local history—reinforced by consistent research findings across school districts throughout the country—strongly suggest that there are limits to what any of these internal promising initiatives can do to overcome the insidious effects of concentrated poverty, unless accompanied by other systemic interventions.

Great Schools for All strongly supports the district’s laser-sharp focus on a variety of actions to strengthen internal standards, structure and operations; to strengthen individual schools; and to improve achievement levels and academic and support programs for children. But GS4A also believes that this is a “Yes…And Also” proposition: That it is also important to simultaneously develop community-wide plans, shaped by all the existing research, to launch a network of socioeconomically diverse cross-district schools that are most likely to result in dramatic improvements in student achievement and graduation rates for the poorest children in our community.

While efforts of the district, and of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), focus appropriately on ways to strengthen supports in individual schools and neighborhoods, national research makes clear that these important efforts will be enhanced and that the ultimate goal of “lifting children out of poverty” will be more rapidly attained if the concentration of poverty in individual schools can be minimized. While, of course, there will always be individual kids who defy the odds, overcome the effects of poverty, and excel, research demonstrates that diverse schools can improve the odds for the majority of city children who, through no fault of their own, are being taught in schools with high concentrations of poverty.

Cross-district, socioeconomically diverse magnet schools have demonstrated their success in numerous communities across the nation. Not only do they improve the performance and graduation rates of poor students, they also improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills for all students, poor and more affluent/middle class students alike. Voluntary magnet schools can offer cutting-edge academic opportunities that not even the most affluent school districts can afford to offer on their own, and in so doing draw students from both urban and suburban school districts. Local parent survey data, and the experience of other communities across the country, indicate that there is strong support for such opportunities.

Several encouraging developments are under way locally that could lead to such schools in Monroe County.

GS4A is having constructive conversations with leadership in the City School District and with leadership in several suburban districts to explore these possibilities. Discussions are in very early stages, but offer the potential to create diverse educational opportunities to benefit students throughout Monroe County.

Simultaneously, GS4A’s Magnet Schools Committee has developed a process that will soon seek proposals from parties interested in collaborating with school districts or other community partners in the development of one or more socioeconomically diverse magnet schools.

Related plans are also being finalized for a series of community gatherings designed to bring together interested parties from various sectors throughout the county to develop ideas for diverse cross-district magnet schools that would respond to student and parental needs and desires by offering opportunities not currently available in any school district.

More details will be announced about these initiatives in the near future, so stay tuned. Efforts are also underway to expand Great Schools’ community engagement, outreach and advocacy efforts in all sectors of the community; to strengthen ongoing communications; and to expand diverse summer learning programs throughout the community. If you are interested in learning more about, or participating in, any of these efforts, please let us know by emailing Lynette Sparks, the Great Schools co-convener at lsparks@thirdpresbyterian.org

We say Yes to RCSD and RMAPI efforts to strengthen existing schools and neighborhoods, but lasting change must also include collaborative efforts across districts that will improve outcomes for students living in poverty, sharpen the cultural competencies of all students and strengthen the workforce of the future.

What can Dallas teach Rochester about voluntary socioeconomically diverse schools?

The Rochester/Monroe County community has something to learn from conservative Dallas? The same Dallas which has recently experienced tragic race-related killings? The same Dallas that is overwhelmingly segregated by race and income? The same Dallas in which public schools have largely been deserted by middle class families, leaving behind public schools about 85 percent of which have student enrollments of at least 80 percent low-income children?

The answer appears to be: Yes we do. And this is especially important because of the disturbing similarities between Rochester and Dallas: Like it or not, we recognize our own high degree of racial and economic segregation between our city and suburban areas, and the high concentration of poverty that impacts all of our city schools.

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

So what does this have to do with what we can learn from Dallas about school diversity and voluntary integration of schools? Seemingly quite a bit. But first, some brief local context.

Readers will recall that a recent survey of 600 parents of school-age children, evenly-divided between Rochester and suburbs, found compelling evidence that large majorities of both city and suburban parents would consider socioeconomically-diverse magnet school options for their children, even if it means crossing school district lines, as long as those schools provide academic and cultural opportunities not available in their home districts.

But even though the findings suggest strongly that attitudes and behaviors are changing among today’s generation of parents across our community, and that there is a substantial degree of support for diverse schools, survey responses are not necessarily predictive of actual decisions.

Enter Dallas. Now we have new evidence that connects the dots between what parents here say, and what parents in Dallas are actually doing. Recent experience there suggests that significant numbers of parents are not only saying they would consider diversity in their decisions about schools, but are specifically making that an integral factor in their actual decision. To read more, click here.

Mike Koprowski, the Dallas school district’s chief of transformation and innovation, says “we cannot deny that high-poverty environments create significant learning challenges, and diverse schools consistently prove to be dramatically better learning environments for all students, both middle-class and low-income alike.” Accordingly, in this new school year, Dallas has launched what we would consider a voluntary magnet school, Solar Preparatory School for Girls, a K-8 STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) school that, “for the first time in district history,” uses socioeconomic diversity as the primary criterion in admissions decisions. Fifty percent of the seats in the school are reserved for low-income students (based on free- and reduced-price lunch designation) and the other half for students who do not qualify and are considered middle-class students.

As in this community, there were skeptics who said, “Wealthier families wouldn’t risk enrolling their child in a school that’s half poor,” and that Dallas was not ready, given its troubled history and recent past. But in fact, the reality is that the school is oversubscribed, as “applications poured in from all corners” of both the poor and wealthy sectors of the community. The district received 360 applications for 198 seats, far surpassing district expectations, with waiting lists from both low-income and middle-class families.

Of course the ultimate test is yet to come, as student success, skills and cross-cultural understanding are measured in the coming months and years, but Dallas officials are encouraged that, “Many families are seeking diverse learning environments for their children and won’t succumb to false fears about people from different backgrounds,” and that “Dallas is poised to contribute to an overdue but critical national dialogue” about the intersection of race and class and diverse schools offering new opportunities not previously available to their students.

We now know that a critical mass of parents in Rochester and its surrounding suburbs have expressed readiness for such diverse options for their children. A number of specific ideas for cross-district, socioeconomically-diverse magnet schools are in various stages of discussion and development—including schools focusing on themes and curricula as diverse as a military academy, a river/waterways school, photonics, and health-sciences, among others. Various school district superintendents, colleges and universities, and other potential providers are beginning to come together to flesh out ways the GS4A principles for diverse specialty schools can be made reality.

We now need YOU. We are urging parents, teachers, school administrators and others who are interested in supplementing these ideas and helping develop additional new school options to sign on. We are in the process of establishing groups to help flesh out the principles and framework underlying magnet Breakthrough Schools, to begin to shape ideas for specific Breakthrough Schools of the future, and to make sure the perspectives of all affected parties are included in our deliberations. And we are also interested in finding ways to incorporate student perspectives.

This is the time for broad GS4A principles to be converted into action steps. YOU and your input are needed and encouraged. Click on the Contact link at the top of this page to indicate your interest.

Parents countywide say ‘Yes’ to diverse cross-district magnet schools

In a blog I wrote in April, I explored whether there was a positive response to doubters who may like the concept of diverse public magnet schools, but who wonder who’s going to develop such schools and who if they would attract socioeconomically-diverse students across district lines.

The conclusion was Yes—a number of such opportunities are either already in place or are in various stages of active conceptualization or 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

Now we have powerful evidence that “if you create it, they will come.” A countywide survey of parents of school-age children demonstrates keen interest among parents—across geographic, income, racial and ethnic lines—in considering socioeconomically-integrated magnet schools that would draw students across school district lines to access specialized academic offerings that even the most affluent districts cannot afford to offer on their own.

The survey is posted elsewhere on this GS4A website. The survey was conducted by Metrix Matrix, a respected local survey research firm, with the costs underwritten with the generous support of the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation. GS4A is grateful to both organizations for making this important survey possible.

Metrix Matrix completed telephone interviews with 602 parents of school-age children, 301 from the city and 301 from the suburbs. The survey results were weighted to reflect the distribution of households with children across the county. The survey findings reflect a representative sample of the county and city population in terms of economic and racial/ethnic makeup.

For detailed findings, see the report. But just a few headlines to capture the most salient findings:
• Almost 90 percent of the parents indicated that they would consider enrolling a child in one or more of 7 potential magnet school options identified in the survey. Most of those selected three or more magnet options of interest.
• About 70 percent would consider magnet options with a mix of 50 percent low-income and 50 percent middle-class students. Research over the past 50 years has consistently demonstrated that such a mixture of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds contributes to improved outcomes for both poor and middle-class students, both in terms of academic achievement, graduation rates and critical thinking skills, creativity and the ability to learn to collaborate together.
• Almost two-thirds of all parents would be willing to have their child transported to a magnet school if it were no more than 30 minutes from their home.
• Furthermore, three-quarters of all parents indicated that they would consider sending their child to a magnet school on a voluntary basis, even if it were outside their home district, if transportation needs were met and it provided opportunities not available in their home district.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? As we have discussed our ideas throughout the community we have heard considerable support for the concept of diverse magnet schools, but also skepticism about how much interest there would be from parents in having their children attend diverse magnet schools.

This survey shows clearly that, although generally satisfied with their current educational offerings, parents overwhelmingly say that they want a richly diverse educational environment for their children and that they do not want to limit their children to the programs available in their home districts if better alternatives exist elsewhere in the community.

Of course what people say on a survey does not necessarily predict what they would do in real life. But the evidence is so strong and compelling from the survey that it is hard to ignore: that there is a large critical mass of parents throughout urban and suburban segments of the county who value the opportunity to provide their children with academic options not currently available to them, and to expose their children to the types of cultural diversity that will characterize the increasingly-diverse society and workforce of the future.

The results challenge the skeptics who have long said parents would reject even voluntary integration across district lines. Indeed, the results suggest strongly that significant numbers of parents of today’s school-age children support the concept of more diverse schools, even if it means crossing school district lines, and even more specifically want their own children to at least have the opportunity to consider options created by such specialized, diverse schools.

For additional discussion of the implications of the survey findings, and to hear more about specific magnet options in various stages of consideration and development, please plan to join GS4A in a community event open to everyone, on Thursday, June 9 at 7pm at Third Presbyterian Church at the corner of East Avenue and Meigs Street. We hope to see you there.

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.