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.

The national trend toward integration is gathering momentum

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.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

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.

 

 

Is There a Market for Interdistrict Magnet Schools?

In meeting after meeting with a wide range of community residents and leaders, Great Schools for All proponents hear variations on these same legitimate questions:

• Will anyone be interested in interdistrict socioeconomically-mixed magnet schools?
• Would any students want to attend?
• Would any parents send their kids outside their home districts to attend a theme-focused magnet school?
• Is it possible to generate the critical mass of urban and suburban students needed to justify investments in these schools, strategically situated in the city and suburbs?

And in response, skeptics say: No. Not likely. Probably not. Interesting idea, but unlikely to happen.

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

Others, however, say: Hold on. Not so fast. Let’s not jump to such negative conclusions when we don’t even know the details of what such schools might look like. Let’s reserve judgment until we have specific proposals to consider.

In that context, I’ve been struck recently by several developments and observations suggesting that there may well be a potential market just waiting for interdistrict magnet schools that would appeal to interests and values now beginning to surface throughout our community.

For example, earlier this month, several hundred high school students from the city and 12 suburban school districts spent a day discussing racism and ways to come together across historic but ultimately artificial geographic boundaries to address issues of diversity, breaking down stereotypes, expansion of interdistrict opportunities, ways to address change. As one suburban student noted, “Change and diversity are coming—it’s not going to always be the way it’s been. So the community will have to get used to it.”

A suburban student recently wrote a thoughtful letter to the editor of the Democrat and Chronicle expressing concern about the “harsh disparities that continue to exist between Rochester schools and suburban schools….A student’s opportunities in public education shouldn’t be this different between schools that are only twenty minutes apart.” The letter went on to say, “It doesn’t feel right, that some people just get lucky—this needs to change.”

A small group of students representing city and suburban schools have been meeting occasionally under the guidance of teachers to discuss breaking down barriers between city and suburban schools. A group of city students regularly discusses ways to change the educational system, including crossing existing district boundaries. A class of students at a local private school has been discussing ways to advocate for changes that would have the potential to bring more students together across racial, socioeconomic and geographic lines.

Talk is cheap, and none of this proves a willingness to actually cross district lines to attend magnet schools, but it does suggest that many young people share the values and value the outcomes that this GS4A initiative is designed to address, and may be amenable to having the conversation, when more concrete options are proposed.

And what about the adults? Over the past couple of months, GS4A has conducted several focus groups of parents and guardians of students about evenly split between city and suburbs. Asked about pulling their kids out of existing schools to cross district lines to attend more economically diverse schools, initial reactions were to stay put. But when specific examples of potential diverse magnet schools were raised for consideration—types of schools their children would not now have available to them—the conversations typically changed, and levels of interest perked up.

Asked if they would be willing to consider having their children cross district lines to access such schools, many said yes, they would be open to the possibility. Asked how much of a barrier transportation might be to such decisions, most said that their kids were already spending considerable time on buses in both city and suburbs, so that by itself would not constitute a knockout factor in their decisions.

And, of course, some city parents have already opted to send their kids outside district lines to access schools in the Urban-Suburban program. So again, at this point this is all just talk, but it certainly does not suggest the automatic “No way” response we have received from some stakeholders.

Even district superintendents with whom we’ve met have acknowledged that they have students who may well be interested in attending such schools if they provide academic opportunities unavailable in their own districts.

And beyond local speculation about what might happen here, there are examples in communities across the country where significant numbers of students have made conscious choices to cross urban and suburban lines to attend socioeconomically-diverse magnet schools that offer academic options not otherwise available to them in their neighborhoods or home districts: including more than 20,000 in Raleigh/Wake County, NC, and many others in places like Omaha, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Hartford, Montgomery County, MD and other communities where students and their families have made such choices.

So let’s not be so quick to assume that there would be insufficient interest in supporting a network of diverse magnet schools as a way of reducing the effects of poverty, and better preparing both urban and suburban students for their future and the future well-being of our community.

To further test this proposition, we’ll be conducting a professional survey of several hundred urban and suburban parents later this winter to more formally gauge the level of support for particular types of interdistrict magnet schools.

Not one, but many strategies for lifting kids out of poverty

 

I attended all three of the recent GS4A town hall meetings in city and suburban locations, and was struck by the strong support for increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity in our schools, and the practical and societal impacts that can result from such initiatives.  I was also struck by the need to clarify our message and broaden our constituency.

Some seem to believe that Great Schools for All’s central message is simply to strengthen the Urban-Suburban program.  Some suggest that we are primarily about deconcentrating poverty and dispersing it, rather than focusing on reducing it.  Others imply that we are not supportive of efforts to strengthen city neighborhood schools.  And others think there is little in our proposals that applies directly to suburban students.  To all of the above, we say, Not True.  Or only partially true.

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

From the beginning, the volunteer-driven GS4A initiative has attempted to make it clear that no one solution or approach will solve the issue of underperforming urban schools.  We believe multiple approaches will be needed, and that all segments of the community will need to be engaged, offering a variety of solutions.

GS4A has focused our efforts on promoting systemic changes that would involve creation of targeted-focus magnet schools that would draw students on a voluntary basis from across urban and suburban school district lines, as well as a variety of other shared learning partnerships between combinations of schools.  Such cross-district collaborative partnership schools, as has been demonstrated in communities throughout the country, offer urban and suburban students alike specialized opportunities to learn in unique schools that are responsive to diverse student needs and interests that even the most affluent districts could not afford to offer on their own.

But we recognize that not all students will be interested in crossing district lines.  Most suburban students will choose to remain in their home districts.  And many urban students will choose to remain in city public schools.  But we believe that there will be a critical mass of interested students from both city and suburbs who will choose to seek out magnet opportunities, once these options are fleshed out and they realize how beneficial such programs can be, both for the individuals involved and for the long-term economic benefit of a better-educated, diverse future workforce.

And in the meantime, what happens to those students who will choose to remain in neighborhood-based city schools?  We embrace and strongly support efforts to strengthen those schools, including efforts to promote the Beacon schools concept of strengthening both school resources and academic offerings, and the development of strong family support services linked to the schools and their surrounding neighborhoods.

We also support the efforts to create new and strengthened academic models in the City School District’s state-designated poor-performing “receivership schools.”  Efforts to reimagine and strengthen these schools can, we believe, improve academic performance, rejuvenate surrounding neighborhoods, and potentially create magnet models that not only strengthen the core neighborhood schools, but also draw a socioeconomically-diverse array of students to help mitigate the impacts of the concentration of poverty in some of those schools, as has happened in cities like Raleigh, Hartford, Omaha and other communities.

Strengthening neighborhood schools in the city is viewed, appropriately, by many city leaders and parents as a critical strategy in reducing poverty and its impact in the city.  We agree.  This must happen.  But we are also mindful of the overwhelming evidence from research over the past 50 years that makes it clear that—no matter how much we do to strengthen neighborhood schools—if they remain schools where the majority of students live in poverty, not all, but most students in those schools will continue to fail to meet academic standards and the demands of the work force of the future.  So yes, we must tackle poverty by creating stronger neighborhood schools and the support services around them.  But we should simultaneously craft long-term systemic solutions, such as evidence-based magnet schools and cross-district collaborative programs that help lift students out of poverty by improving their educational outcomes.

The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative provides an opportunity to address the critical role education can play in reducing poverty in our community. The Initiative’s initial report has lifted up the importance of increased socioeconomic diversity in strengthening the academic performance of high-poverty students, without any negative impacts on the performance of more affluent students.  The development of specific anti-poverty strategies in the coming months provides an opportunity to come together as a community of concerned city and suburban leaders and parents to develop both place-based/neighborhood-focused and systemic community-wide solutions to strengthen education outcomes that will benefit the entire Rochester and Monroe County community.

GS4A believes that we basically all want, and care deeply about creating, better opportunities and futures for our kids.  We may have different thoughts about how we get to this goal, but if we’re starting with the same hoped-for destination, we should be able to find the common ground that enables us to move forward together, using multiple approaches to help us get there:  various strategies and approaches that complement and build on each other.

GS4A would love to help facilitate bringing together city and suburban adults and students interested in having an honest discussion about where we differ, but where we can also find the commonalities in efforts to strengthen our schools, so that we can be allies and mutually supportive where possible, modify or clarify approaches as needed, and find ways to mobilize resources toward common purposes. Let us know if you’re interested.

Let’s work at finding our ‘Yes Zone’

I write this from Jamison Square in the heart of the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. This urban beach is Portland’s biggest kid magnet. An ingenious design fills the shallow basin every 15 minutes with water spilling from layers of mini waterfalls emerging from the sandstone benches. The continuous drainage eliminates stagnant water and greatly reduces the risk of accidental drowning. Even the youngest Portlanders frolic here safely.

This park started out as a vacant lot on which a memorial was to be built. Community members disagreed about the memorial’s design. Opposing sides, over time and in consultation with experts, came together around the current design, with the water feature added after further thought. Jamison Square is a micro model for bringing about systemic change to a divided community.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

The Great Schools for All Coalition seeks to create that productive safe space where the community, over time and in consultation with experts, comes together around proven strategies for helping all students succeed. The experts we’ve consulted believe that children in school buildings steeped in poverty have significantly more hurdles to jump over to be successful. Not that poor kids can’t learn, but that any child who comes to school hungry, wearing the same clothes as yesterday and the day before, without having slept well or completed homework, is not prepared to soak up knowledge.

We understand that buildings with 40 percent or fewer students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch are buildings where teachers are not overwhelmed by the needs of students and every child is able to fulfill her promise.  We’ve read about successful strategies in Hartford and Omaha and Minneapolis and we’ve visited schools in Raleigh, NC, using socioeconomic integration and have seen the evidence of success first hand. What we seek now is to create the productive safe space for conversation and community engagement to experiment with these ideas locally. Having 18 schools districts with many different constituents in Monroe County make this a potentially difficult and very robust conversation, but not an impossible conversation.

The kind of productive safe space GS4A wants to cultivate is referred to as the “Yes Zone” by Neal Ewald, Senior Vice President of Green Diamond Resource Company. Ewald’s logging company tussled with activists for decades over cutting old growth forests. Ewald and the activists eventually engaged in conversations that identified a common thread of interests. Following this thread, the activists and loggers found their Yes Zone, the place to experiment with different designs around a core idea.

The Legislative Work Group of GS4A aims to introduce legislation that would turn Monroe County into a type of  “Yes Zone,” where school districts could work together to socioeconomically integrate learning. Such a place is not currently available due to legal obstacles. Successful ideas coming out of the GS4A Yes Zone may include magnet schools open to students from anywhere in the county, shared learning partnerships between two or three districts, or shared sports and arts facilities along the lines of the BOCES model. And, of course, the Yes Zone will allow us to consider your proposals.

What is our Yes Zone’s coalescing idea — our common thread?

That all children can learn and each child deserves a chance.

Join the conversation at gs4a.org

 

More Diverse Schools can Create WIN-WIN for All

If Great Schools for All had a mantra, it would be WIN-WIN. We don’t have to accept as inevitable huge gaps between winners and losers, where students’ success or failure is pegged to their zip codes and family income.

In a WIN-WIN environment, our community would rally around educational reforms and systemic changes that would reduce these disparities. That’s what GS4A is all about.

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

All children are capable of learning and succeeding academically, regardless of where they live, and we’re all aware of examples of bright, motivated kids who have risen up from impoverished backgrounds to succeed, despite the odds. But we also know, from decades of research, that the deck is stacked against students in high-poverty schools. When the poverty population of a school tips past 50 percent, the odds of success are statistically much lower.

And every school in Rochester far exceeds the tipping point, with predictable academic consequences in most. So why is our community willing to accept this situation?

The city has many successful students, and a number of successful, popular schools. But what if we could find ways to strengthen those schools, retaining current students, but expanding the socio-economic diversity in each? What if we could open more slots in these schools and offer them to more affluent students, to create a more diverse student body? Or replicate the most successful schools based on the initial models? We could create a WIN-WIN situation by offering, on a voluntary basis, well-regarded city programs such as School of the Arts, School Without Walls, Montessori, World of Inquiry expeditionary learning, and the International Baccalaureate program at Wilson Magnet School to students who have few or no such options even in well-off suburban districts .

And what if we were to create additional voluntary magnet schools across the county, based on models that have proven successful in other urban communities, offering opportunities that would not be available within most individual school districts, and that would be so exciting and unique that both urban and suburban students would want to attend?

The research makes clear that poor children perform much better in schools that are economically mixed than they do in high-poverty schools. And their success does not come at the expense of the middle class students in those schools. As one example, in Raleigh/Wake County, N.C., where 35 economically-diverse magnet schools have been created, subject to policies capping proportions of low-income students at roughly 45 percent per school, graduation rates for low-income and racial-minority students have steadily increased in recent years to more than 70 percent — some 30 percentage points higher than for comparable students in the more economically segregated Rochester schools. Meanwhile, the more affluent Raleigh suburban student graduation rates have increased slightly during those same years to more than 90 percent—rates comparable to Monroe County suburban rates. Disparities in rates have not been eliminated, but have been significantly reduced in Raleigh.

What is not to like about such a situation, and how would that not represent a WIN-WIN for all in Monroe County if we could move in such a direction?

In addition to enhancing academic performance, creation of more voluntary diverse learning environments would also expand cross-cultural understanding among all groups of students, and better prepare them—urban and suburban, black, Hispanic and white, well-off and poor—for the far more demographically diverse workforce that awaits them in the future. Students would have more academic choices than could now be provided by most individual school districts, and the economic vitality of our community would be enhanced by a larger pool of better-educated workers to populate our future work force.

Under more diverse voluntary-choice school scenarios, there is an immense upside potential for our community, with no obvious losers. Clearly the details of how this happens will be critical, but why would we not embark on this journey to explore a variety of possible solutions to reduce our odds of failure and significantly increase the odds of WIN-WIN outcomes for our community?

All of this is a work in progress. GS4A intends to talk with school district officials and survey parents and community leaders across the county concerning these issues over the coming weeks before any proposals are finalized. Anyone interested in joining the process, please email at contact@gs4a.org.

From children ‘at risk’ to ‘Children of Promise’

I am a racist; most likely you are, too. My racism took root in the ’60s in my hometown, Detroit. I was 7 when Detroit burned.  If you are a Baby Boomer, chances are your racist tendencies were reinforced by watching Detroit burn on the evening news in 1967. That summer my Dad told me over and over that it was the fault of the black people— the idea of “righteous rebellion”  had not reached mainstream America.

Fortunately, Mom tempered this racist indoctrination, constantly insisting that there is good in everybody. I arrived in Rochester in the ’80s with this duality: believing strongly that there is good in everyone and trying to squelch my internal racist legacy. I believe it is this same duality that leads us to label Rochester’s youngest as “children at risk.” This label is not serving our children very well.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

We’ve been struggling with the cycle of poverty/poor education/violence for decades—usually approaching a solution by addressing the needs of “children at risk”… at risk of witnessing murder, at risk of going to bed hungry, at risk of not finishing school, at risk of getting into mischief after school. So we tried to break the cycle by mitigating risk: keeping children indoors, providing food, shelter, and clothing, rerouting buses, mandating after school camps (often poorly supervised quasi-detention centers).

The risks are real and our solutions have been draconian.  What are the results? A child who walks through his day of rerouted buses, marginal but free breakfast and lunch, and imprisoned after school care. A child who understands quite clearly that society sees him as other, as less than, as dangerous. All this energy spent on minimizing risk leaves precious little time and resources for a child to learn and thrive and believe in himself.

One day in July of 1994, I had an experience that helped me stop seeing our children as being at risk and begin to see our youngest as children of promise. I had been cleaning streets for weeks in the Northwest quadrant of the city. Each day, children who lived on those streets came out to help the volunteers. One morning a neighborhood kid I’ll call Gina cut herself picking up debris. Gina was 6, just getting over chickenpox and we had become buddies. As we walked hand in hand into McDonalds to clean her cut, Gina says,

“Are you black?”

“Nope,” I replied.

“Are you Puerto Rican?”

“Nope”

“Well, you can’t be white because my brother says all white people are evil.”

As stunned as I was by her words, my teaching instincts kicked in. “Well, Gina, I’m white. Do you think your brother is right?”

“Nope, he’s not right.”

In that small moment I saw Gina’s promise in her ability to use reason to transcend falsehood—the same way I’ve used reason to transcend the racist influences on me.

If we can think of Rochester’s youngest as our children of promise, rather than as “children at risk,” we will see many different solutions to breaking the poverty cycle.  The Great Schools for All coalition believes that expanding the Urban-Suburban program, integrating summer learning programs with a mix of middle class and low-income students, creating magnet elementary, middle and high schools, and a regional educational planning structure each are part of the solution. We saw these solutions at work in the Raleigh school system where all children are considered children of promise.

After two years of study, the FR=EE Race and Education Action and Change Work Group invites our community to acknowledge our racism and partner to build Anchor Communities around our children of promise in city schools. Anchor communities provide support for schools as communities by providing books and other learning supplies, afterschool  art instruction—all while building relationships with the families and teachers of our children. These are great efforts, but we are just getting started.

If you are a member of a suburban church, I encourage you to partner with a city church to share children’s programming. If you are a member of a suburban YMCA, encourage your staff to share programming with children of promise at the YMCAs in the city. If you are part of any organization that serves children, consider partnering with one similar organization in the city to share one experience this year. Of course, the Great Schools  for All coalition (contact Reverend Lynette Sparks at lsparks@thirdpresbyterian.org ) and FR=EE’s Education Group (contact Reverend Judy Davis-Crossroads at raceandEd@gmail.com and Fred Tanksley at ftankse@rochester.rr.com ) welcome you to help us work to fulfill the promise we know lives in each child.