Great Schools for All 2018 Resolutions

It’s very trendy to say that New Year’s resolutions are passé. Perhaps. Many now write about New Year’s  “intentions.” That’s fine. Either way, Great Schools for All sees this new year as a crucial one not only for our work, but for the students in our communities.

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

So whether resolutions or intentions, here is a short list. As you read it, we invite you to get involved, either with us, by reaching out at,  or by connecting yourself to some other group working on education.

1.   Raise our own sense of urgency and deepen our sense of commitment. Poverty’s impact worsens on our neighbors and we can’t let inertia or entrenchment impede us. Let’s embrace the thinking of Adam Morgan and Mark Barden (The Beautiful Constraint) who propose a change of perspective, from saying “we can’t…because” to “we can…if.”

2.   Get our proposal (and the thinking behind it) in front of more people.  We will reach out to grass roots and grass tops leaders, city and suburban, groups and individuals, educators, business people, regular old citizens. Help us!

3.   Diversify our leadership.  Simply put, we are too white. That’s our problem, and a fair critique, which we aim to address.

4.   Find other groups and individuals committed to education and collaborate with them. The more the merrier!

5.   Work with RCSD when our energies align,  support where appropriate and push where needed.

6.   Keep asking the question that Nikole Hannah-Jones asked us in November: Whose child (or children) are we willing to sacrifice? Her focus on integration and justice compels our work.

Join us and push us as we re-commit ourselves to a vison of great schools for all.


GS4A Resolutions for 2017

Yes, I know. New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken. Whether it’s giving something up (eating, smoking) or taking something up (exercise, salads), resolutions prime us for disappointment and discouragement.

Still, they express aspirations and hopes at the start of a new year. They present an opportunity to start anew on a clean page, when hopes are high.

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

The leadership team at Great Schools for All hopes that 2017 moves us forward in significant ways. We know that our goals are challenging, but we are recommitted to achieving them. In that spirit, here are a few (unofficial) resolutions for our work. We invite you to join us in our goals.


  • Tell our story with deepened passion to more and more people. At the heart of our work is the conviction that achievement will increase and graduation rates will rise only when the concentration of poverty in our schools is reduced. We need to remind people who have forgotten that, and introduce this concept to new friends.
  • Be creative and purposeful in developing models. We re-commit ourselves to talking to any and all about our work. We do not have a specific kind of school in mind, nor do we want to operate a school. As long as a school meets our goal of socio-economic integration, we’re good.
  • Continue to network. Many groups in our community are thinking about this, whether education or poverty. We are glad to fly the GS4A flag anywhere! Call us – we’ll show up.
  • Support those who are working in parallel ways to enhance education and reduce poverty. We are in this together and it will take a village to make a difference.
  • Launch an economically integrated summer program in the summer of 2017, working with partners and funders. This does not require any legislative change, only energy, collaborators and money. If you’re interested, let us know.
  • Ramp up our social media presence.
  • Strengthen our volunteer network.
  • Remember that the answer to “how” is “yes.”
  • Last, and most importantly, keep the children, youth and families – especially the poorest among us – at the center of our work. That will keep the urgency dialed up and will remind us of the importance of our work.

Again, this is an unofficial list, but we hope it will serve as a continual reminder of why we are doing this and how important it is. If you have resolutions to add, please share them with us. And more importantly, if you have time or energy or money to share, join us! And happy New Year!



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.”


“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.




Renewing an American Faith in Education

Every morning in my inbox I receive an email from something called The email includes a summary of a book, a kind of a contemporary Reader’s Digest Condensed Version for people who only have time—or perceive they only have time—to read a paragraph or two. I look at the topic each day. Some I read. Some I delete. Some I save until later.

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

Just a few days ago I receive a summary of a book by Paula Fass called The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. It was published in 2006, so is already a decade old. I Googled Fass and discovered that she taught social and cultural history at UC Berkeley for more than 30 years.

Fass’ words captured my GS4A attention immediately. Without including the entire entry, here are some key passages…

“…The American faith in education was nowhere more pointedly ad­vertised than in the creation of the high school. The White House Conference on Child Health and Protection put this faith in ringing terms in 1934: ‘The school is the embodiment of the most profound faith of the American people, a faith that if the rising generation can be sufficiently educated, the ills of society will disappear. The con­stantly lengthening period of school attendance, the constantly en­larging contributions of money for the maintenance of the school, the rising standards of preparation of the teachers . . . these and many other evidences attest the faith of the people in their schools.’ …”

“Unlike the equivalents of high schools elsewhere in the West such as the lycée or gymnasium— places of exclusive higher learning at­tended by only a tiny fragment of the population— American high schools became democratic almost as soon as they became an im­portant part of the educational system.”

“American education was truly revolutionary in this re­gard, since it succeeded in enticing the majority of adolescents into a longer school regime and created a uniquely American institution to contain them. Nothing better expressed America’s new prominence in the world or Americans’ elevated expectations regarding the fu­ture. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, the vast ma­jority of adolescents, regardless of where they or their parents were born, were drawn into the ambit of the high school.”

I do not know if the “ills of society” will disappear if we achieve socio-economically integrated schools. What I do know is that we cannot continue on the path we are on, in Rochester, or other communities across the nation.

We are not making this up. It is in the best of our American history and is lodged deeply in our American DNA. Our task now is simply to seek to live into the legacy and promise of that history. That will take creativity and boldness and determination, which seem so very counter-cultural but which are essentially American. The good news is that we have history on which to base our efforts, if we simply remember it.



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




Our educational future depends on a ‘Yes, and’ approach

I lived in Chicago, for 17 years. One of the local icons was The Second City, a comedy institution of mystical reputation.

You might know The Second City as the launching pad for many great comedic talents who first found their way to Saturday Night Live and then to cinema stardom. John Belushi. Gilda Radner. Mike Myers. Bill Murray. Tina Fey. And many, many more.

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

People going to a Second City show for the first time often expect a version of a Saturday Night Live broadcast, but in reality, it’s something much different, and, in my mind, something much better. Saturday Night Live offers scripted segments with familiar characters. A Second City performance includes characters, though ones you’ve never seen before. And while it is lightly structured, it is also based largely on the practices of improvisation. At various points in the performance, audience members shout out concepts (a wedding, an interview) or characters ( a police officer, a cheerleader). The cast takes this input and crafts, usually, a clever and hilarious sketch. I’ve never laughed harder than at a Second City performance.

I have therefore become intrigued by the concept of improvisation. Bear with me. The best improvisers are not necessarily the funniest or cleverest. What they are is intuitive and collaborative. They understand themselves to be part of a team, and that their primary job is not to look good, but to maintain the premise of the bit and help all of the cast look good.

In her great book Bossypants, Tina Fey writes that the first two rules of improvisation are “say yes” and “say yes, and.” To say “yes,” Fey writes, means that you respect what your partner has started. She continues: “YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.”

Here’s the point: To address academic challenges in our region, and in particular the effects of high concentration poverty, will require a “yes, and” approach. To say “no” to anything, or even to say “yes, but” right now hinders initiative and contribution.

Great Schools for All is pushing a voluntary network of inter-district magnet schools that will allow students to move across borders—city and suburban—to experience great learning. We believe, based on our extensive research and experiences in Raleigh and beyond, that by reducing concentrations of poverty, students and families will move out of poverty, even as they continue to live in the communities where they have lived. Those same communities will also experience the benefits of this socio-economic integration.

That’s the “yes.” But remember the rules of improvisation. We, the GS4A team, are certainly trying to remember them. We know there are proposals in the community that are gathering significant and warranted attention, particularly those related to the work of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

The “and” of “yes, and” becomes placing the GS4A proposal adjacent to enhanced urban-suburban efforts, and potential suburban-urban efforts. It places our proposal adjacent to the “Beacon school” concept (or “anchor school,” or “community school”) that has a strong neighborhood school in place surrounded by a variety of important services and resources. It places our proposal adjacent to the RCSD’s grant to do pilot efforts with Brighton and West Irondequoit. Yes, and.

We need all the good ideas we can get, and we know that no one idea, even the GS4A proposal, will address every challenge and solve every problem.

Tina Fey writes that in improvisation “there are no mistakes, only opportunities.” We should not be daunted by the potential of mistakes in order to avoid doing something. Rather, we should be buoyed by the potential for creativity and innovation that collaboration offers.

What would it look like for us to say “yes, and” to the ideas before us, for the sake of children, our most precious resource?

City children deserve a level playing field

I grew up in small-town Ohio, and from the moment school ended in the spring until the first day of class in the fall, you could find me playing sandlot baseball.

We played in a field – no pitcher’s mound, no fences, no backstops, no baselines, no bases, actually. If we didn’t have enough players to field two full teams, we agreed to hit to one side of the field or the other, and we sometimes played “pitcher’s hand,” where the pitcher became the de facto first baseman. We umpired the games ourselves, and every so often a disagreement would end up in a little fistfight, that would quickly be settled.

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

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

As I said, we played in a field, a real field. The grass was rarely cut (we never knew who actually owned the field), and there were rocks and bumps and uneven places throughout. There were few “true hops” —the kind of predictable bounce you expect on a field that is level and well-maintained. Instead, the ball would bounce where it shouldn’t and one of us would get whacked in the face, left with a split lip or a bloody nose. That’s what happens when the field isn’t even. Still, we kept coming back and we played on. It is one of my distinct childhood memories.

Sometimes you have nowhere to play except on that uneven field. But a level field is always better — because the players always have a better chance to succeed when they can see the ball coming and know how it will bounce.

What does this have to do with the Rochester city schools? We know that there are dedicated and talented administrators working at 131 W. Broad Street who are committed to raising achievement. They have crafted an action plan that is bold and creative.

We know, because we meet them every day, that there are wonderful principals and teachers in each of the buildings. They teach because they care. They are proud of their profession and committed to their students.

We know that families care. I have participated in the district’s “attendance blitzes,” and while every so often we encounter a family whose child is not in the classroom for no particular good reason, what we most often encounter is a family trying to make it work — multiple jobs, unsafe neighborhoods, transportation issues. Yes, families do overcome odds, but the myth that children and families can succeed if they just increase their effort is, to me, just that — a myth. There’s just so much you can do when the field is uneven and the ball bounces where it should not.

We know that many people in this community care and want change. Lots of organizations are committed to supporting education. I have lived in Rochester for 14 years, so I don’t have a long history, but I believe it when people say the tone of the conversation over the last several years is different. It is more hopeful, more positive.

I am not a policy person, nor an educator. For these purposes, what I am is a neighbor and citizen, an amateur who cares. But I have become convinced, through what we learned in Raleigh, that things ultimately can’t change unless the playing field is levelled.

Administrators, teachers, community members and particularly children and family members are doing all they can. But if a ball is going one way, hits a rock and bounces in a different direction, hitting you in the face, what can you do?

Yes, we as a community need to provide teachers and students with the best tools possible, helping them make the most of a very rocky playing field. But I am also convinced that levelling that field — through deconcentrating poverty, through racial and socio-economic desegregation, though other structural means — will make the game so much more enjoyable, for fans to watch and players to play.

Urgency and hope make great schools a possibility

What has most impressed me about the Great Schools for All (GS4A) conversation is how open the community is to having it. Ever since the Raleigh team returned a year ago (read more about that experience here), we have been invited again and again to tell the story of how that community turned around its once struggling school system.

That does not mean there is not skepticism, or hard questions, or more work to be done. It does mean that our community is hungry, hungry for a different conversation, hungry for an alternative narrative.

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

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

Our response will not be Raleigh’s response, but people have been taken by the Raleigh experience for two reasons. One, there are elements from their success in economic deconcentration that we might borrow or adapt. And two, the Raleigh model, while not an apples to apples comparison to Rochester, worked. We need success stories to give us a glimpse of what a different educational and economic reality here would look like.

We’ve spoken to business groups, to religious groups, to educational groups of all kinds. We’ve spoken one-on-one and in large auditoriums. And people have listened. They are hungry. We are hungry.

In my day job, I use the words “urgency” and “hope” quite a bit. Those words apply to the GS4A conversation, and to the broader work around education, and poverty, and race in our community. Here’s why.

Urgency indicates the need to take action, to organize a response. But it does not indicate that the action is reactive, or the response made from a panicked place. Change is needed, but that change cannot be driven by fear, or despair, or anxiety. Our schools need a new profile, and soon, for the sake of our children and the sake of our community. But timely change can’t be knee-jerk change. We look around and assess, gather information, foster conversations. And we act – urgently.

Hope indicates that change is possible (to paraphrase Susan B. Anthony’s well-known affirmation that “failure is impossible”). Hope differs from optimism and it differs from wishful thinking. Our educational reality will not change simply because we wish it to be so. We do the hard work, the urgent work. But hope indicates that such change is possible. It is what we are counting on.

People have been open to the GS4A conversation because they carry with them, at heart, senses both of urgency and hope. We understand the realities as much as we ever have, fueled in part by our work and aided to a great degree by research and analysis from the RACF. We know the challenges, and they are significant.

Yet we know that if we do not address these challenges now, another generation of our children, our most precious resource, will be consigned to a future whose contours we know all too well.

I am mindful that many groups are thinking about these things, and that many efforts have been made, even in recent memory. We have been privileged to share our experience with many of these groups and their leaders. Our hope is to collaborate, not to duplicate and not to interfere. We do believe that our focus on deconcentrating poverty as a means to educational achievement is a unique contribution to our communal eco-system.

Will the GS4A effort, in collaboration with others, finally move the needle? I am convinced that if change does not happen soon, that our community’s narrative will continue in its familiar way. Our children will suffer and our community will decline. That simply can’t be the case.

That is what fuels our urgency. The possibility of change fuels our hope.

A Message From The GS4A Co-conveners

Welcome to Great Schools For All (GS4A). We are grateful that you have found our website, and, at a deeper level, we hope you find our mission and vision compelling, so much so that you would connect with our work.

Who are we? We are a group of citizens, urban and suburban, residents of Monroe County, who care very much about the education our children are experiencing with a special focus on the educational experience in the city of Rochester. We are teachers, writers, business people, not-for-profit leaders, faith leaders, parents, grandparents. Most of us do not have education related careers, but we all care deeply about education.

We know that children can learn, teachers can teach and families want to support their children. We know that individual children and families can overcome the great barriers of urban poverty to succeed; we also know the documented and extraordinarily disproportionate concentration of poverty in the city of Rochester makes learning extremely difficult.

We know that all urban school systems in the U.S. face problems; Rochester’s problems are more pronounced, as documented in the recent Rochester Area Community Foundation report, which is now receiving wide-spread attention. We are glad for the attention; it highlights the critical need of our work.

We know that many individuals and groups in our community care about children and education, and we are glad to work with them and step out of the way as needed. Our unique contributions exist both in who we are (grass roots and grass tops, broad-based) and in our approach. Our focus is on discovering ways to de-concentrate levels of poverty. That naturally would involve different forms of collaboration.

Last year, we visited Raleigh, N.C., and learned much from them. We also know that communities across the country are engaging in new ways to address this problem. We hope to learn from them. We do not specifically advocate for school consolidation in Monroe County; we do strongly believe that reversing the decline of city schools is most likely to occur in concert with a spectrum of voluntary programs aimed at achieving socio-economic integration of schools across Monroe County.

To that end we have had several community-wide events that have generated five working groups, which you can read more about throughout this website.

This is a very organic and fluid movement. We have been heartened by the level of enthusiasm and commitment we have experienced thus far – it is an indication of how much this community cares about its children and in setting us on a different future course.

Join us! Share your questions, concerns and ideas with us! Get involved, if not with GS4A, then in some form or fashion in our community. Our children deserve it, and the need is now greater than ever.


Lynette Sparks and John Wilkinson, Co-conveners

Great Schools For All Coalition