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.