Above all, it’s a moral issue


“We had counted the cost and decided our children’s future was worth it.”

I am inspired, but even more so, profoundly challenged by the moral courage of the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. He leads in the tradition and carries on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. on issues of racial and economic injustices.

Lynette Sparks is Co-Convenor of Great Schools for All and Associate Pastor for Outreach and Evangelism at Third Presbyterian Church.

Barber minces no words. He is brutally honest, which is why he’s so challenging. In his book, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, he writes about his experience in 2010 resisting the attempted dismantling of one of the most thoroughly integrated public school systems in the South—that of Wake County, North Carolina— a system where data showed that diversity in schools works, a system that I visited three years ago with 10 other Rochester citizens.

He said the 2010 attempts at resegregation by privatizing schools were framed as a “push for excellence.” However, when he and his coalition “followed the money” of the privatization campaign, they learned these attempts “were continuing a fight that had been going on for half a century to deny a good education to poor people by clustering them in separate, subquality schools.” Barber built a diverse coalition of people – black, white, and brown, rich and poor, religious and secular, and more, to shift the public conversation, and ultimately succeed in resisting resegregation.

Of course, in 2017 Monroe County, resegregation is not the issue, for our school landscape is about as segregated by race and class as it can get. And it’s getting worse. Let me also be clear that I am not suggesting that local private or even charter schools have been set up by their founders to cluster poor people into subquality schools. I trust that those who are dedicating their time and resources to improving education have the best of intent, and we need a range of approaches to tackle the complexity of Rochester’s academic achievement gap.

Nevertheless, we’d be remiss not to pay attention to the experience of others, including our friends in Wake County, including Dr. Barber. One of the strategies of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) is creating “community schools,” which create partnerships with various health, social, and family support services to improve student outcomes. Great Schools for All fully supports RMAPI’s work in this regard. It provides immediate support for the immediate challenges of low-income students.

Recently, a community leader asked me why Great Schools for All continues to advocate for creating a network of socioeconomically diverse schools. Why isn’t creating community schools throughout Rochester enough to help these students in high-poverty schools? I replied, “Because it lets the rest of us (meaning suburban residents and districts) off the hook.” For me, it’s not about blame for what happened in the past and how we got here. It’s about all of us bearing responsibility for the future of public education for every child in our county, no matter their zip code. And Dr. Barber connects sole reliance on community schools and voucher programs with a self-perpetuating cycle of segregation and inequity.

Barber’s motivation is above all moral; he was even willing to be jailed to fight for what is right and just for poor and minority children, even if he didn’t know that they would succeed in stopping the move toward resegregation. “We had counted the cost and decided our children’s future was worth it.”

I ask myself if I would be willing to do the same for Rochester’s children.



Putting the ‘public’ back in ‘public schools’

When we at Great Schools for All sing the virtues of school diversity to groups who have asked to hear what we have to say, we find a lot of heads nodding in agreement. You can almost hear the thoughts:

“Yes, children should be in diverse schools where they can learn to work with and appreciate children who are not like themselves. Yes, every child should have access to a great school. No, the quality of a child’s education should not be defined by the neighborhood his or her parents can afford to live in.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But another line of thought also runs through some more affluent parents’ minds—one they are not always comfortable voicing in public. They wonder if attending a socioeconomically diverse school, despite the advantages they readily acknowledge, could deprive their kids of the undeniable benefits that accrue to them at academically elite schools where students have the highest test scores, graduation rates near 100 percent and which send their graduates on to elite colleges that pretty much guarantee high-paying careers.

I don’t mean to trivialize that concern for a minute. All parents want the best for their kids, and it’s easy to feel that if we fail to provide our kids with every advantage we can, to give them a leg up on the competition, then we’ve failed them. Yes, we know schools should help kids become “culturally competent” and good citizens of the world who understand and value other cultures. But what if diverse magnet schools don’t have the same reputation as elite suburban schools? What if,our choices for them somehow cost our kids a little future earning power?

I don’t think I can or would try to answer that question for another parent. But I encourage you to follow the writing of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine who writes frequently about the disastrous effects of school segregation, especially on the poor. She and her husband live in Brooklyn and decided to send their daughter to a neighborhood public school—a diverse, but still poor school—even though they could have enrolled her in a more affluent city school.

In a February 21 piece, Hannah-Jones says it’s important to put the public back in public schools, to stop working to get the most for our own kids out of a public school—even at the expense of other kids.

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Hannah-Jones says,” called traditional public schools a ‘dead end’” and “bankrolled efforts to pass reforms in Michigan, her home state, that would funnel public funds in the form of vouchers into religious and privately operated schools and encouraged the proliferation of for-profit charter schools. “

In truth, Hannah-Jones writes, “We began moving away from the ‘public’ in public education a long time ago. In fact, treating public schools like a business these days is largely a matter of fact in many places. Parents have pushed for school-choice policies that encourage shopping for public schools that they hope will give their children an advantage and for the expansion of charter schools that are run by private organizations with public funds. Large numbers of public schools have selective admissions policies that keep most kids out. And parents pay top dollar to buy into neighborhoods zoned to ‘good’ public schools that can be as exclusive as private ones. The glaring reality is, whether we are talking about schools or other institutions, it seems as if we have forgotten what ‘public’ really means.”

There’s more to public schools than public money, she says. “Public schools became widespread in the 1800s, not to provide an advantage for particular individuals but with the understanding that shuffling the wealthy and working class together (though not black Americans and other racial minorities) would create a common sense of citizenship and national identity, that it would tie together the fates of the haves and the have-nots and that doing so benefited the nation. A sense of the public good was a unifying force because it meant that the rich and the poor, the powerful and the meek, shared the spoils — as well as the burdens — of this messy democracy.”

This is tough stuff, but worth contemplating. It is a fairly recent idea that test scores and high-paying job opportunities are the only real purposes to public schools. Of course, academic achievement matters, but kids should (will) continue to learn throughout their lives.

What students learn from and about each other as young children will determine not what they learn later, but how well they will put their knowledge to the service of country and community and democratic values.

That’s why diversity matters.


Critical thinking can bridge differences


I’m offering a symposium at a conference in a few weeks on the use of on-line learning communities to transform critical thinking and biases. I’ll be using some of the many anonymous comments that I have collected from my students the past four years. They include comments like these:

“Hearing from 16 other people allowed me to work indepently yet come together on-line for meaningful discussions.” 

“It made sure I heard all voices.” 

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Hearing all voices is key to critical thinking. This is a challenge in today’s fractured political environment. Critical thinkers strive to understand the influence that context, assumptions, and stereotypes have on their own thinking.

Critical thinkers consider the evidence and sources of information instead of depending on hearsay and opinion. They recognize that sources like the non-partisan Rochester Area Community Foundation’s Poverty and Self –Suficiency report (2016) consist of raw data that we must analyze before drawing conclusions.

Critical thinkers understand the role perspective plays in their thinking. They work to consider other points of views in order to find “win-win” scenarios, and not settle for the “win-lose” results that many city schoolchildren face. And critical thinkers reach conclusions based on evidence and informed evaluation of an issue. They recognize that politics, stereotypes and generalizations play a role in their own thinking, but they are reflective enough to acknowledge this. Critical thinking is hard because we must look at our own biases throughout the process.

Critical thinking may be the toughest cognitive work that we do. Throughout the process of composing questions for my classes and writing these blogs I have been forced to look the biases that I have about suburbanites who don’t care for the idea of more socioeconomically diverse schools and not be so judgmental. I am striving to understand those who view this issue differently than I do.

And I think I get some of it. Everyone wants what is best for his or her kid. Some suburban parents fear that children from the city will bring “urban problems” with them. Perhaps they think that the poor are poor because they are lazy or that they do not value education as much as more affluent families do. Or they think that poor parents are ineffective parents. But how do they know any of this is true without reading and thinking critically about the issue? And I’ve concluded that we will get nowhere saying that people are stereotyping. I prefer to he phrase that they are “making a generalization” because they know so few people unlike themselves in either race or social class.

I am trying to understand their perspectives so that those of us who advocate for more integrated schools can look for those “win-wins.” It is difficult to acknowledge the generalizations I have about the suburbs and suburban parents—because they expose my own assumptions, biases and blind spots. And they are there.

No matter how difficult it is, however, we must continue to struggle and model critical thinking for the people who think they own the truth. I don’t know any other way to do it.

We don’t have nearly enough critical thinkers as role models. We are (temporarily) in an era in which some of leaders model behaviors that are thin-skinned, narcissistic and vengeful. But our capacity for critical thinking grows as we become attuned to others and we cannot descend to that level of thinking. We need both humility and character. And to do this we must try to put aside grudges that only serve to weigh us down and cloud our judgment.










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!



Great schools for all, not for some

With the election of Donald Trump, the public school reform debate is about start over again, pushing the narrative back to where it was eight years ago—with a Republican administration  insisting that “choice” is the path to dramatically improving outcomes.

Never mind that that most of  America’s public schools are doing just fine, and never mind that the parents and students in the worst schools—high poverty urban schools—are not likely to get any real choices from the choice crowd.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

The Obama administration hasn’t always been great on public education, but in the last year or so, Education Secretary John King has started to push incentives to promote socioeconomic diversity—finally putting a little federal muscle behind what the research has been saying for decades. Poor kids in middle class schools have a much better chance at success, and middle class kids in those schools are better off for the experience of diversity.

But with Trump’s nomination of Detroit billionaire Betsy DeVos to head the education department, you can forget about a push for diversity. DeVos is a longtime champion of “parental choice” in the form of vouchers and charter schools.

She has her supporters, for sure, and a large array of detractors. In a Nov. 25 story in her hometown Detroit Free Press, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said her “appointment will mean great things for Michigan and for children around the nation as she takes her no-nonsense commitment to empowering parents to the highest levels.” In the same story, David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said, “I can’t imagine a worse pick…she wants to dismantle public education.”

We’ve heard this all before.

The question isn’t whether some students will succeed in charter schools, or would be better off using a voucher to attend a private school.

The question is whether our country believes in public school systems that deliver the opportunity for an excellent education to every student—no matter, as we say at GS4A, what their Zip Code.

Neither charters nor vouchers can deliver the promise of a great school for all kids.

Trump promised in the campaign to shift $20 billion from other education programs to vouchers. DeVos is a huge supporter of vouchers. But this approach presents problems.

How big would the voucher checks be? $5,000 or $6,000 would be larger than almost anything ever proposed before—but that’s not enough money to help a truly poor family buy tuition in a top private school. It might be enough to help the few remaining city middle class families to flee—leaving the city even poorer than it is.

Second, there isn’t enough private school capacity in most places, including Rochester, to take large numbers of poor city kids.

A November piece in Slate reported that a Louisiana voucher program has failed to deliver many promising results. The best—and most expensive—private schools have been unwilling to except larger numbers of poor kids (for a $5,500 voucher). The private schools that have accepted poor students have done so in the face of declining enrollment, suggesting lack of “customer satisfaction.” Students have seen their math scores decline in these privates.

Despite that, it’s surely possible that some children have used vouchers to secure a better education. The same can be said of students enrolled in charter schools—some are surely doing better than they were doing in the worst-performing public schools.

But Trump’s nomination of Besty DeVos signals a return to the mistaken—and tragic—view that private alternatives can replace public education.

Even with generous vouchers, private schools will refuse to accept the students most in need of a better school—because those students require the resources that even the best private schools cannot afford. Likewise, charter schools will continue to find ways to persuade parents of the most challenging students to return to their public schools before their test scores can be recorded.

While choice schools may be beneficial for individual students, they continue to drain away the  most promising students, leaving behind a pool of students even less likely to succeed—undermining the mission of public education.

To enshrine “choice” as the future of public education is to disregard the structural changes (diverse schools) that can improve lives and outcomes and settle instead for a system that delivers great schools for some.

That approach deprives millions of poor kids of the education they deserve, and deprives our country of the educated adults needed to “make America great again.”

The right answer is “Great Schools for All.”




More ways the system works against poor kids

I have worked in area schools for almost 30 years, and I have come to know many dedicated and hard-working suburban, rural and urban teachers and administrators.

My experience has convinced me that teaching in any school is challenging work especially over the past 15 years as we have adapted to requirements and accountability responsibilities associated with the legislation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), then Race to the Top (RTTT), and now Every Student Succeeds (ESSA) which gives state lawmakers considerably more power over the schools. And now those of us in the field are awaiting the new edicts from a new administration in Washington. The expression, “All politics are local” has a corollary—“All education policy is political.”

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

And there is no clearer example of the way politics shapes education policy in our region than the way we have segregated our schools by both socio-economics and race. Critics of the Rochester City School District are quick to blame parents, teachers and administrators for low performing schools. But Rochester, like many urban districts, has a unique set of physical and demographic characteristics—not seen in suburban and rural districts. Much has been written about the challenges of urban education but for the sake of discussion I’d like to focus on three areas having to do with teachers and teacher belief systems.

  1. Inexperienced teaching staff and teacher turnover

 Suburban districts in Monroe county have many teachers who “cut their teeth” in the Rochester City School District. And this is not good news for city school district schoolchildren. Study after study has found the turnover rate in urban districts is many times that or suburban districts. In her article, “The Missing Link in School Reform,”  author Carrie Leona cites her studies on human and social capital in schools and the findings that student achievement blossoms in schools with high social capital—that is, the relationship of novice teachers learning from and leaning on experienced teachers for help. Indeed there is work that goes back generations showing that even struggling teachers get better when they have strong ties and help from their experienced peers. This is something that private and suburban schools recognize and promote but that many urban schools can never accomplish because the teachers leave.

2. Cultural Competency

More of the teachers in urban settings than in suburban settings struggle with teaching children who are not like them. To be sure teachers everywhere must work on this skill, but teachers who take jobs in the city often have beliefs about the children (Black, Hispanic, disabled, low-socioeconomics) that are difficult to overcome without significant interventions to have them reflect on their biases. They may perceive race and class as limiting factors in learning or see a different learning style as an intellectual deficiency. These stereotypes are hard to overcome and can poison the educative process. For example, last year a student in my Educational Leadership Program, who taught in the city, came to me for advice on how to deal with a principal in a charter school (but it could have just as easily been any school in the city) who announced to her staff that while the school was not one that she would send her own child to, it was good enough for the kids who were attending. That thinking would be unacceptable in almost any other school district in our area.

3. Belief that kids who learn differently are not smart

So you have a class full of poor black kids in front of you, drive into the city from an outlying area where a lot of people you know, and maybe you as well, voted for Trump, a candidate who mocked the handicapped, embraced racist rhetoric, and called the “inner city” the equivalent of a war zone. How intellectually strong do you have to be to put these thoughts aside and not feel that many of these kids are not as smart as yours? Kids often act out when teacher expectations are low. Recent studies indicated that teacher expectations and student self-worth play significant roles in achievement (“How to Nudge Students to Succeed,” NY Times,  Oct. 30, 2016). Students who look around and see 23 kids a lot like them and an inexperienced teacher in front of them are doomed before they get started. And make no mistake that is what they see. Because in Rochester, one of the three poorest and most segregated cities in the country, the chances are that 95 percent of the kids are poor, black or brown.

I have little faith that we will see this change in my lifetime and my less optimistic side says that we will nibble away at the edges and celebrate suburban districts that agree to take 5 or 10 kids into their schools in a marginally expanded Urban-Suburban program. And we will add a few more charters while bemoaning the belief that the city cannot get it right and the parents don’t care.

But the optimist in me thinks that over the next few years we can start three or four magnet schools, expand the urban suburban program into the thousands and change the boundaries of our many districts to allow a freer flow of school choice

Because I hear from people who do not live in the city that they are not prejudiced and that the old attitude—“you want good schools, make more money and move to the suburbs”—may have run its course. But in 2016 I know that politics has left 27,000 of the children in our county in sub-par schools with less experienced teachers. And the choices we have made as a city and county feel unethical and racist. And it is hard for many of us to see it in any other way.








Sometimes ‘fake news’ is truer than ‘real news’

It’s easy to make fun of young adults who get their current events from so-called “fake news” on TV, notably Jon Stewart’s (and now Trevor Noah’s) Daily Show.

But sometimes, the fake news is truer, or at least more revealing than the “real news.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

An Oct. 21 New York Times op-ed by University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone asks whether Detroit’s highly segregated high-poverty schools effectively deny thousands of poor students the education they need to have a fighting chance to build good lives for themselves. Michigan state law guarantees them just that.

Fair question , obviously.

“At one Detroit school,” Stone writes, “just 4 percent of third graders scored proficient on Michigan’s English assessment test. At another, 9.5 percent did. Those students are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last month that asserts that children have a federal constitutional right to the opportunity to learn to read and write.”

Again, a fair issue to ask a court to review.

Stone goes on to say that, “in Connecticut, a state judge last month ordered sweeping changes to reshape the state’s public schools after concluding that ‘Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty’ to provide all students with an adequate education. The judge concluded that the state’s funding system had ‘left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.'”

Clearly, this discrepancy between rich and poor is evident in urban areas, including ours, all across the United States. We have one set of schools for the poor (schools that fail nearly all the children who attend them) and another set of schools for the rich (who generally succeed even when they are near the bottom of their classes).

These discrepancies are totally unacceptable. Stone notes that in 1982, the Supreme Court pointed out that “illiteracy is an enduring disability” that will “handicap” children “each and every day” of their lives and take “an inestimable toll” on their “social, economic, intellectual and psychological well-being” for the rest of their lives.

But the Detroit case, like so many others before it, essentially asks the court to require that the state equalize the resources available to rich and poor students.

Of course, resources are important, but as we’ve been saying at Great Schools, it’s not just about the money.

On Sunday night, “fake news” anchor John Oliver, host of the HBO’s Last Week Tonight did an 18-minute segment on school segregation, noting, among other things, that New York has the most segregated schools in the country.

Oliver explained that high poverty schools, which are also typically racially segregated, are the product of decades of discriminatory housing and zoning laws that have kept the poor isolated. Indeed, Oliver explains—in ways you almost never hear on the “real news” shows—that the 1964 Civil Rights outlawed the officially segregated schools in the South, but not the segregated schools in the North resulting from discriminatory housing patterns.

Oliver showed some footage of diverse schools in Charlotte, N.C., where a former student says that as soon as poor schools started seeing middle class students, suddenly, there were new gyms and swimming pools and upgraded cafeterias. Of course, Oliver says, “funding tends to follow white people around.”

Yes. And as his “fake news” show also reports—correctly—when poor kids attend racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, they have much higher graduation rates and much lower rates of incarceration. By the way, in diverse schools, white kids show much less racial bias, according to Last Week Tonight.

Of course, modern facilities, state-of-the-art computers, comprehensive libraries, new athletic facilities and exposure to the arts are important.

But this week, only the “fake news” guy  seems to ask, “What if the most important resource we can give to poor and affluent children is the gift of each other?”

To all our suburban friends: We need your help

The Urban-Suburban program is nice. Over the years many Rochester schoolchildren who would otherwise be consigned to a high poverty and underperforming school have been given the opportunity to attend a suburban school and learn alongside a middle class population.

But there is another side to this successful program. It allows some to think that serving about 2 percent of the city’s schoolchildren contributes to solving the problem of economically segregated schools—and this could not be further from the truth.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Our current school district system in Monroe County, like those in many other urban areas, has kept all but those 700 kids in the Urban-Suburban program from gaining any access to suburban schools. This is the result of generations of back room dealings and goofy school district borders that look like the scribbles of a kindergartner.

A new report but ED Build  features an interactive map of school district borders across the United States. The maps of Monroe County school districts should make us ashamed. The City School District is surrounded by school districts drawn in odd shapes that sit next to Rochester with one of the highest student poverty rates in the country. West Irondequoit and its poverty rate of 10 percent borders Rochester. So, too, the oddly shaped districts of Brighton and Penfield and, just blocks away, Pittsford—with poverty rates in the 6 percent range. The Wheatland-Chili district has a finger-shaped section thrusting to the city district, while Gates and Greece make up the western borders.

Across the county, district lines drawn years ago fence off the affluent and middle class suburbs, effectively isolating and excluding poor minority populations in the city. As a result, property values have risen in the suburbs and fallen in the city, which affects the funding of the schools.

Then these districts and villages worked to keep low-income housing out of their communities. Some have even blocked apartments and condos that were intended for working class and middle income people. These housing policies have incentivized wealthy communities to wall themselves off against the City School District and schoolchildren, which has lead to poorer and poorer city schools.

We in the city know that our friends in the suburbs care because they march to protest racist flyers left at their homes and pride themselves on including phrases on their district material and mission statements extolling diversity as strength. But the actions of these districts and villages do not always align with their stated philosophies on diversity.

Our Great Schools For All (GS4A) group wants what is best for all children: equity realized through socially integrated magnet schools. To be sure, many in our group, myself included, would favor a countywide school system that would allow students to attend any Monroe County school. After all, as we know, it takes less than ½ hour to get just about anywhere in the county. But a countywide system is neither politically nor legally viable, so the weirdly drawn boundaries must stay. Instead critics of our plan tell us to embrace school choice and other options. But that is a false choice because our kids cannot choose Brighton, Penfield, or Webster. They can only choose another school where more than 80 percent of their peers are poor.

So we challenge our suburban neighbors to embrace plans for truly diverse schools all across our county. The Urban-Suburban program is just not enough to overcome a half-century of political machinations that have isolated the city. The children of Rochester have been sacrificed to keep property values up.

Historically, when parents have moved to the suburbs for the schools, they’ve said they are just taking care of their family and that it is not their intent to segregate poor kids in the city. I’m sure that’s true—but the end result for the children of Rochester is the same.

But here is the toughest part. We desperately need our suburban allies to help rectify these educational inequities. We cannot do it without you because you have the power both financially and politically to move us forward. And we know from our spring 2016 countywide parent survey that 87 percent of parents, city and suburban, now support diverse schools for their kids. If the suburbs advocate for change it can happen. By supporting the work of GS4A and pushing to open socioeconomically diverse schools for all children in Monroe County, you help save a generation of kids and, in the process, help your own children by modeling compassion and morality for them.

Thanks for thinking about this.








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.




What can Dallas teach Rochester about voluntary socioeconomically diverse schools?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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