In this interview from January 2016 PBS’ Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with Pedro Noguera of the University of California, Los Angeles, about the ways to solve this problem.
In this interview from January 2016 PBS’ Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with Pedro Noguera of the University of California, Los Angeles, about the ways to solve this problem.
In the wake of last week’s police shootings in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul and the killing of five Dallas police officers, Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociologist and author, wrote a fiery, angry commentary for the New York Times Sunday Review.
White Americans, Dyson wrote, can’t understand why black Americans are so angry over police shootings when those same African Americans never say a thing about “black-on-black” homicides all across urban America. Dyson says the charge is complete nonsense, but “nearly beside the point. Black people protest, to one another, to a world that largely refuses to listen, that what goes on in black communities across this nation is horrid, as it would be in any neighborhood depleted of dollars and hope—emptied of good schools, and deprived of social and economic buffers against brutality. People usually murder where they nest; they aim their rage at easy targets.
“It is not best understood as black-on-black crime; rather, it is neighbor-to-neighbor carnage. If their neighbors were white, they’d get no exemption from the crime that plagues human beings who happen to be black. If you want interracial killing, you have to have interracial communities.”
I’m sure that many of Dyson’s readers will see his remarks as “extreme” or “hysterical,” but there is a truth to his premise: You cannot understand people, let alone care about them or build community with them from afar. The racial divide in America is the product of persistent segregation—separate schools, churches, neighborhoods. And distinctly different expectations—of success and happiness, or failure, hardship and early death—depending on where you come from.
If you are white (especially if you are affluent), ” you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy,” Dyson says. “…Those binoculars are…stories, bad stories, biased stories, harmful stories, about how black people are lazy, or dumb, or slick, or immoral, people who can’t be helped by the best schools or even God himself. These beliefs don’t make it into contemporary books, or into most classrooms. But they are passed down, informally, from one white mind to the next.”
Most of us spend most of our lives with people who are like ourselves. We are tribal in many ways. But in a wide open free society like America, we need to build institutions and opportunities for meaningful interaction with those not like us. When we wall ourselves off, the promise of America dies—because the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is meaningless when so many are denied access to equal opportunity.
We at GS4A advocate for school integration because we know, from decades of research, that diverse schools can dramatically improve the odds for success for children in high poverty segregated schools. But integration is about more than good grades and higher graduation rates, as important as those are. Schools are one of the places where children should have the opportunity to interact with kids who are different from themselves.
Schools should be places where children can put aside those binoculars and experience the “texture of intimacy” that is so essential to their growth as human beings and as citizens. Schools should bring together rich and poor, white, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and refugees in an environment that will make them all better for it.
Segregation not only stokes the fires of bigotry and mistrust, it destroys community and deprives us of the creative problem solving that’s only possible when we learn to work together.
The good news is that young adults “get” all this in ways that their parents and grandparents may not. As our recent survey of city and suburban parents confirms, that vast majority of parents today (people in their late 20s to early 40s) want their kids to attend fully diverse schools, and they don’t care if that means traveling across school district to boundaries to achieve integration. Of course, they want those schools to have rich academic programs and to be safe. But they reject segregation without reservation.
That means the door is open. We have the opportunity in Rochester and Monroe County to begin to remove the barriers that have for so many decades denied our children the gift of each other—and denied our community the chance to use our collective skills to build a more just, more prosperous, more vital society.
Believe me, I know that school integration is a heavy lift, and often it feels like an impossible lift. I’ve been engaged in conversations around the topic for more than 30 years in Rochester, where conventional wisdom has it that nothing can be done because there is no support for any further programs to address the isolation of the poorest children in our community. That’s what Urban-Suburban is for, right?
As an aside, CW also once held that the Soviet Union would never fall, that Ronald Reagan could never be elected president, that our state Legislature could never pass an on-time budget, and that the Red Sox would never end the curse of the Bambino. In other words, conventional wisdom—like its kissing cousin, common sense—always holds that something that has not happened will never happen. This is neither wise nor sensible.
So take heart. We may now finally be at a breakthrough point. How so?
Resistance can still be found to particular integration initiatives. As an April story in The Atlantic reported: “Pushback comes both from families at high-performing schools who are happy with the status quo, and from families at struggling neighborhood schools who want them improved instead of turned into a citywide series of magnet programs that might result in their kids trekking across town each morning. ”
There is, the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg says in the same story, a “discrepancy between what science suggests and how politicians act.” The consensus of social scientists, he noted, “is that socioeconomic and racial integration is one of the best things communities can do for young people to help them succeed in school and in the workforce. But politicians are ‘scared to death of the issue.’ However, Kahlenberg said, he thinks there are signs that change is beginning to happen.”
As a recent Century Foundation report notes, at least 91 school districts now use socioeconomic status as a factor in assigning students, up from just a couple in 1996, and around 40 in 2007.
It always takes time for political change to catch up with changes in public opinion. Conventional wisdom is hard to reverse even when it’s so clearly wrong. But in Rochester, the new GS4A parent survey (link to it off this page), has shown that today’s parents of school age children do not object to integration at all—when it comes with new and exciting types of curriculum. Huge majorities of both city and suburban parents here now say they want (not just tolerate) much more diverse schools for their children because they believe that when schools look more like the world we live in, they will better prepare children to succeed in that world.
Further evidence that the tide is turning: The Obama administration has proposed incentives to promote socioeconomic diversity as central to turning around failing schools. As a story in Education Week reported earlier this month, while the president’s proposed $120 million for diversity programs was rejected by a Senate panel, “the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation sent a letter to state and local leaders …asking that they put their heads together and figure out how to knock down barriers to diversity in housing and schools.
“The education department has also proposed giving projects that seek to improve socioeconomic diversity a leg-up in grant competitions. It has proposed funding projects through the Investing in Innovation program that would focus on diversity.”
This is how change happens. It’s never as quick as we’d like. And it is never easy. But the door is open. And the time is now.
At Great Schools for All, we know that socioeconomic diversity is the bedrock of any successful reform of high poverty segregated urban schools.
But I am always reminding myself that what we propose is not magic. For decade many urban school districts have played a huge part in the marginalization of racial and ethnic minorities, who are overwhelmingly poor.
And reversing the consequences of bad choices is going be difficult.
First, there are institutional dilemmas. Rather than follow the evidence—integration is the building block of academic success and higher level creative and critical thinking skills—policy makers in most states, including New York, chose instead to believe that throwing money and resources at segregated high-poverty schools would lead to educational equity.
Instead, the poorest schools are in worse shape than ever and the proponents of more resources blame teachers (and teacher unions), school boards, parents and even the students themselves for the crisis at hand.
It is extremely difficult now to persuade the policy makers who have poured vast sums of public money into failed educational ventures that it’s time to try something else.
But parents, too, face dilemmas when it comes to integration.
If you are not familiar with the work of New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, you should be. She is without question one of the most compelling and knowledgeable journalists writing about the struggle for educational integration.
In a magazine story headlined,”Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” Hannah-Jones explains that she and her husband and daughter live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, “a poor but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn.”
The schools in Bed-Stuy, like most of the schools in one of the world’s most diverse cities, reflect deep “racial and socioeconomic divisions.” Most middle class families send their kids to private schools or to one of a handful of diverse, academically exceptional magnet schools. The poor are left behind in schools that reflect the academic and social consequences of marginalization.
Hannah-Jones grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where, thanks to a court-ordered desegregation plan, she was able to attend a “rich white school.”
“I remember those years as emotionally and socially fraught, but also as academically stimulating and world-expanding,” she writes. “Aside from the rigorous classes and quality instruction I received, this was the first time I’d shared dinners in the homes of kids whose parents were doctors and lawyers and scientists. My mom was a probation officer, and my dad drove a bus, and most of my family members on both sides worked in factories or meatpacking plants or did other manual labor. I understood, even then, in a way both intuitive and defensive, that my school friends’ parents weren’t better than my neighborhood friends’ parents, who worked hard every day at hourly jobs. But this exposure helped me imagine possibilities, a course for myself that I had not considered before.”
After plainly explaining the benefits of integration, her thinking takes a turn:
“Integration was transformative for my husband and me. Yet the idea of placing our daughter in one of the small number of integrated schools troubled me. These schools are disproportionately white and serve the middle and upper middle classes, with a smattering of poor black and Latino students to create ‘diversity.’ ”
In New York, she says, just 15 percent of more than one million students are white, but they are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, “which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers.”
She acknowledged that all the research says children like her daughter would be better off in one of the city’s integrated magnet schools, but she persuaded her husband (after many arguments) to send their daughter Najya to P.S. 307, one of Bed-Stuy’s poorer schools.
“One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change. Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrate it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically. As a reporter, I’d witnessed how the presence of even a handful of middle-class families made it less likely that a school would be neglected. I also knew that we would be able to make up for Najya anything the school was lacking.”
Turns out that P.S. 307, led by a charismatic principal was a great fit for Najya, but within a couple of years, school officials redrew feeder boundaries to ease overcrowding in a largely white middle class school nearby—assuring that P.S. 307 would be more segregated than ever.
Hannah-Jones and her husband had done what they could to open P.S. 307 to a more integrated future, but the system seems likely to overwhelm their efforts—and those of a few other pioneering middle class families.
Integration is a heavy lift in a country where it is no longer national policy.
Parents have a duty to make the best choices they can. We can admire middle class parents who commit to poor urban schools and work doubly hard to make sure their children get the educational benefits they won’t get in those schools. And we can understand why middle class parents who have the means, relocate to a suburban district that promises great academic outcomes.
But Nikole Hannah-Jones’ very moving story is a powerful reminder that even the most thoughtful parents cannot always find a great school for their kids. The only way to make that a reality is through public policy that guarantees it.
Today’s blog comes to us thanks to an email blast from retired School Without Walls principal Dan Drmacich, who sent us a May 4 blogpost by New York City education reformer Diane Ravitch, who referenced a response from a South Carolina professor to an April 29 New York Times story.
Blogging on blogs.
But this is good stuff and well worth sharing with you.
The Times story, “Money, Race and Success: How your school district compares,” lays out a variety of charts showing how clearly race and income are tied to educational outcomes:
“What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.
“Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.”
Well, yes, all that is well known. But the story also notes, “The data was not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.”
Hold on, says Professor Paul Thomas, of Furman University in South Carolina (see his full post here): “Let’s stop trying to find the ‘miracle’ in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.
“Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.”
He goes on, and I like this analogy enough to steal it, “Education reform…is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river. And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to ‘make’ all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream. But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.”
I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating. We should celebrate these outliers, marvel at them, even look for aspects we can replicate and learn from. But anecdotal success is not success when it comes to school districts.
When we discuss the idea of Great Schools for All—the principle that every child deserves equal access to a great school, that a socioeconomically diverse school environment makes all kids smarter and dramatically improves the odds of graduating high school for the poorest students—we often hear about how Charter School X helped some kids improve reading scores, or how Super Teacher Y changes her students’ lives and gives them hope where there was none before.
Yes, that does happen. We should never underestimate the power of very gifted and dedicated adults to change lives. It is truly inspiring. GS4A doesn’t deny that; we cheer it.
But the job of public education is to develop structures, policies and strategies that result in nearly every child—90 percent or better—graduating on time and ready for work, work training or higher education.
Thanks to Professor Thomas for making that point so well.
Unlike every fresh Donal Trump insult, the push to re-integrate American schools has not gone viral. Yet.
Most Rochesterians, like most Americans, have no idea that in numerous think tanks, state houses, and at the U.S. Department of Education, integration—along socioeconomic lines—is a very hot topic. Slowly, policy is catching up to the research.
At GS4A, we hope to place Rochester at the forefront of this essential change to the way we improve public education. (Click the link to our proposal for Breakthrough Schools on this page.)
According to a recent article in The Atlantic, at a panel last month, U.S. Secretary of Education John King (previously the New York State commissioner of education), said that “the need for ‘urgency’ when it comes to making classrooms more socioeconomically and racially diverse is sometimes thwarted by communities who see the current lack of real integration as a fact over which they have no control. That, he argued, is simply not true.”
At the same forum, according to The Atlantic, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a champion of school integration, “suggested…that one reason for the lack of momentum is a discrepancy between what science suggests and how politicians act. The consensus of social scientists, he noted, is that socioeconomic and racial integration is one of the best things communities can do for young people to help them succeed in school and in the workforce. But politicians are ‘scared to death of the issue.’ However, Kahlenberg said, he thinks there are signs that change is beginning to happen.”
Kahlenberg, who has supported and helped guide the work of GS4A, noted that at least 91 school districts now use socioeconomic status in assigning students to schools.
Indeed, President Obama has called for a $120 million in grants for the purpose of increasing socioeconomic integration, and GS4A submitted a brief position paper during the USDE’s open comment period on the grant proposals.
In a new blogpost on the Shanker Institute website, Kara Finnigan, associate professor at the University of Rochester and Jennifer Jellison Holme, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, argue that the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) “could be used to reduce segregation is by incorporating diversity into school turnaround strategies. ESSA requires states to intervene in three categories of schools: those graduating less than one-third of their students; the lowest 5 percent of schools receiving Title 1 funds; and schools where subgroups are struggling. States are allowed to set aside up to 7 percent of funds for ‘evidence based’ interventions.”
Finnigan and Holme also note that “another way to address between-district segregation is through inter-district magnet schools, like those implemented in Hartford, Minneapolis, and Omaha. These schools promote diversity by drawing students from multiple districts across a region, and they have been shown to yield improvements in academic achievement for students who participate. ESSA reauthorized and increased funding for the $96 million Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), and for the first time allowed MSAP funding to be used for magnet schools created by a collaboration of multiple school districts (i.e. city and suburban districts joining together). ”
We have a long road yet to journey. But every grant, every initiative, creates opportunities for success—and those successes in ordinary schools, in ordinary communities will slowly build support for the using the power of integration to create new opportunities where few now exist.
Instead of our regular blog post, this week, we want to call your attention to a couple of opportunities:
The purpose of this event is to feature the perspectives of young adults through 10-15 minute “TED Talk” style presentations that showcase “ideas worth spreading” as it pertains to social justice issues that impact our community. Each talk will be focused on social constructs that adolescents face (racism, segregation, misogyny, adultism, etc.) as well as thoughts on how we might come together to deconstruct and resolve these issues and make our community a better place.
Last year, this event outgrew the venue in Nazareth College’s forum, so there is a new location to match the magnitude of the event! This year’s young people will give their “TED Talk” style presentations at the Lyric Theatre, 440 East Avenue in downtown Rochester on Saturday April 23, between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm!
Registration prior to the event is required but admission is free of charge. Please share widely with your networks. For more details and to register online, click here.
This spring, Great Schools plans to launch a series of videos on our website, on Facebook and perhaps on other forms of social media. these videos will be personal stories that can help put a human face to our message—that would underscore the chronic problems in high poverty schools, and/or highlight the benefits, for both poor and middle class of students, of truly socioeconomically and racially diverse schools.
We are looking for parents, teachers, students and others with stories to share. These videos will be short—typically just two to three minutes—and tightly focused. If you think you have a story that would help us better tell our story, please contact Mark Hare at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Send a brief biography and a short summary the story you’d like to share.
The headline in the February 12 Washington Post shouldn’t surprise anyone who has looked carefully at the consequences of segregating low-income and minority children: “How segregated schools turn school kids into criminals,” it said.
The story looks at what happened when a lawsuit in the early 2000s effectively dismantled a highly successful school integration program in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, NC.
At GS4A, we often write that socioeconomic integration is important because the demography of classrooms and schools is so important to educational outcomes. In the presence of middle class students, parents and expectations for success, poor children show dramatic improvements. But the demography argument cuts both ways.
With resegregation, the performance gap (between white and black, rich and poor students) in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools began to widen. Meanwhile, according to the Post, “a non-white boy who went to school that was 60 percent minority, instead of 40 percent minority, would be about 16 percent more likely to get arrested, according to the data.”
Why? “Taking so many at-risk kids from the same neighborhood, and packing them together into the same school, magnifies the bad influences they have on each other.”
Diversify schools along socioeconomic lines and you can both reduce juvenile crime and get more kids through high school ready for the next phase of life—be it college, work training or a job.
Across the country, new strategies for school integration are proliferating (because the evidence makes the case for it), yet there are and long will be communities that resist integration and fear its consequences, especially for affluent suburban children.
But that fear is unfounded.
In another Post story, of Feb. 9, education reporter Amy Layton, says that despite efforts to desegregate schools in some places, the communities that have worked hard to keep their schools integrated have much to show for it.
“In Hartford, CT, for example, black and Latino students from the city attend regional magnet schools along with white students from more affluent suburbs. In 2013, there was no gap in state reading test scores for third-graders, meaning white, Latino and black students all scored about the same. The achievement gap also was eliminated between Latino and white students on the fifth-grade reading test. And by 10th grade, the gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers was 5 percentage points on the reading test, compared with a statewide average of 28 points.”
Not every community that has used regional magnet schools as a tool for socioeconomic integration has eliminated the achievement gap, but the yawning gaps caused by segregation narrow dramatically in every case I know of. And who knows? We might be able to develop a Rochester-centric plan that can completely eliminate the gap over time.
But improved test scores and graduation rates are not the only reason to support using magnet schools to end socioeconomic segregation.
A brand new analysis of findings from across the country makes it clear that integration is as important for middle class and wealthy kids as for poor kids. Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo, in “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students,” write:
“White students in particular benefit from racially and ethnically diverse learning contexts in that the presence of students of color stimulates an increase in the complexity with which students—especially white students—approach a given issue. When white students are in racially homogeneous groups, no such cognitive stimulation occurs. Research shows that ‘the mere inclusion of different perspectives, and especially divergent ones, in any course of discussion leads to the kind of learning outcomes (for example, critical thinking, perspective-taking) that educators, regardless of field, are interested in.'”
In other words, integration makes all kids smarter and better prepares them for living and working in a diverse world—a world in which success depends as much on empathy, creativity and collaboration as it does on academic achievement.
“When I think back on all the c*** I learned in high school; It’s a wonder I can think at all.”
—”Kodachrome” by Paul Simon (1973)
Those lyrics (listen here ) spoke to me the moment I first heard them, 43 years ago. Not because I had a terrible high school experience, but because I could relate to having to sit through many classes taught by teachers who neither inspired nor informed.
For most people I know, that was the norm. If you had two or three teachers who truly inspired you, consider yourself pretty lucky. Most teachers are ordinary. That’s what a bell curve is all about. Most of them are not bad teachers, but they do not connect effectively with every student.
And yet—and this is the important part—we all got through high school, went to college, had productive lives. Great teachers change lives. But ordinary teachers do not doom their students to failure. In a great school, there are plenty of supports—so students “make it” anyway.
But that’s not the way it is in most of Rochester’s high-poverty schools today. Most students do not make it.
At GS4A, we are often asked how the magnet schools we propose differ from charter schools. The simple answer is that many charter school operators believe that low-performing schools are the result of poor management, bloated budgets and weak teachers whose bullying unions care more about protecting teachers than helping kids.
Charter operators typically believe that the private sector can turn around poor performing public schools using private sector management practices and (generally) non-union teachers who can be deployed more effectively.
At GS4A, we believe that public schools can work just fine—and most do. No one says the public schools in Brighton and Pittsford are no good, even though they, too, have their share of teachers who could not be called rock stars and who are represented by powerful unions.
Because current state law requires charter operators to give preference to students from the district in which they are sited, city charters schools, like RCSD schools, have large majorities of poor students.
Unlike most local charter supporters, GS4A believes that who you sit next to in school matters a lot—and the evidence supports that view. Teaching is not unimportant, but classroom demography is a much better predictor of outcomes.
Charter schools in Rochester are trying to prove that we can keep poor children in high-poverty schools and still dramatically improve the outcomes.
At GS4A, we accept that charters are part of the education landscape, and we understand why parents, frustrated with what they find in city schools, would be attracted them. In some cases, test results for charters are marginally better than those for RCSD schools, but not enough to suggest that privatizing public education is the way forward.
The magnet schools GS4A proposes are very different from the charter model. These schools would build theme-based programs (with curriculum rooted in the arts, science, foreign language, nature studies, leadership skills, or technology, for example), but they would draw students from school districts across Monroe County and cap the number of poor students (at roughly 50 percent of the student body).
If you’re like me, when you think back on all the c*** you learned in high school, you’ll remember that you made it because you were surrounded by other kids who could help you with things you didn’t understand, because your peers—even when they said they hated school—generally understood that it was important to get decent grades and graduate. The parents and teachers (including the not-so-inspirational teachers) understood that, too. And it turns out, that support can make all the difference.
We understand that some students will find a home at one Rochester’s charter schools and succeed because of it. We do not live in a black and white world, where we think we have all the answers. We support socioeconomic integration not because we don’t believe some children will succeed in high-poverty schools, but because we know that integration will improve the odds for the greater number of students.
The difference between GS4A and charter schools is the difference between anecdotal success and systemic change. Some children will thrive in charter schools. But public education can’t settle for occasional successes. In New York State, every child is guaranteed a “sound basic education” —and that requires a school system that works for all. We believe that cross-district, collaborative, socioeconomically integrated schools represent the systemic changes necessary to make that constitutional guarantee a reality.
The truth is, who you sit in class with matters. In fact, a “diverse charter school” movement is now going around the country, as awareness of the importance of socioeconomic integration spreads. At GS4A we welcome the support of charter proponents or operators who share our commitment to ending the segregation imposed by high poverty schools.
The truth is that while every school benefits from the skills of extraordinary teachers, truly effective schools work because they give students the chance to learn, if I may paraphrase the words from another popular song, “with a little help from their friends.”
Who are we? Better yet, who do we want to be as a community?
Seriously, are we ready and willing to take the steps needed to solve the problems of poverty and decline that have beset us now for more than a generation? Or, will we once again, take comfort in stereotypes and settle for investing more money in the same old approaches that have failed in the past?
Progressive values are in our bones. Rochester’s proximity to Lake Ontario, which afforded quick passage to Canada, gave rise to a thriving abolitionist community here in the mid-19th Century, and later to an active suffragist community fighting for women’s right to vote. Austin Steward, born to slavery in Virginia, became Rochester’s first black store owner and a leader in anti-slavery causes. Reverend Thomas James, an emancipated slave from New York, settled here and took up the cause, along with anti-slavery activists William Bloss, Isaac and Amy Post and the great Susan B. Anthony.
Sometimes called “America’s First Boomtown,” Rochester was the gateway to the west with the opening of Erie Canal. In the 150 years after the canal opened, Rochester innovators and entrepreneurs made and sold everything from perfume and candy, from shoe polish and beer to eye glasses and precision optics. We built ships, manufactured soap and buttons, elevators and steam engines. Photocopying—xerography—was invented here, and was consumer photography.
The rich and powerful of Rochester built theaters and art museums, endowed colleges and hospitals, donated land for expansive public parks, and, with others, invented the idea off lifelong employment with strong, growing and far-reaching companies. Rochesterians designed and implemented effective local governmental institutions, and later built the best organized neighborhoods in the United States (so said the Brookings Institution back in the 1970s).
Led by Marion Folsom (a Kodak executive who virtually invented the nation’s first retirement system and later served as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1955 to 1958), Rochester organized what might have ben the finest health care system in the county, build on collaboration among hospitals, rather than competition.
Yes, Rochester came to be known as Smugtown for a reason—an Old Boys’ Club that ran government, business and civic matters with unseemly hubris at times. And I have no interest in romanticizing the “Good Old Days;” this was not a perfect community. It was, however, a much more effective community, a place with leaders who—while they certainly had blind spots when it came to missing the racial divide of the early 1960s—were genuinely interested in solving problems.
But that Can-Do city has become the No-Can-Do city over the last 30 years, our leaders unwilling or unable to even imagine the structural changes that could reverse the decline that has emptied city neighborhoods and impoverished its schools. They have redefined success from problem solving to capping taxes.
We’re a mystery in some ways. We no longer have the corporate giants that once dominated the landscape, but we are blessed with hundreds of innovators who are building smaller, more nimble 21st century companies. We are still an incredibly generous community, with more volunteers per capita than just about any place in America, and with newer philanthropists (Dennis and Lawrence Kessler, B. Thomas Golisanso and Max and Marian Farash among them) still endowing a range of civic and humanitarian causes.
And yet, collectively, we have learned to accept some of the worst poverty and most segregated schools you can find anywhere in America. For all kinds of reasons, children who populate our racially isolated, high-poverty city schools have to beat incredible odds to graduate high school, let alone to ready themselves for work or college. Most will never reach their full potential.
Are we not embarrassed; are we not ashamed to send so many children to schools as segregated and deprived as the worst schools in the deep south before the Civil Rights era?
We have resignation, not outrage; we tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do, that if the parents of poor children would work harder, they could move to Brighton or Pittsford and get their kids into a better school.
For 30 years we have been collectively silent as this crisis has deepened. Not one school board, nor village or city council, or town board has even called for a discussion of alternatives to high poverty schools. The business community hasn’t offered a whimper of resistance. Neither political party has made an issue of it. Our religious leaders have said nothing at all.
But today we have an opportunity to repair the damage, to do right by the children who most need a community behind them.
Suddenly, poverty is an issue. People are talking. The Rochester-Monroe Anti Poverty Initiative has been promised $500 million in state support for programs that will cut poverty here by 50 percent over 15 years. GS4A believes that evidence based solutions—notably socioeconomic integration of our schools— must be a part of that discussion.
We hope you will join us in supporting bold new efforts at collaboration among school districts—the kind of problem-solving initiative that Rochester once was known for.