As part of its ongoing “Time to Educate” series, the Democrat and Chronicleand staff writer Erica Bryant, reported (October 28) on the time-tested benefits of socioeconomically diverse schools: a sharp improvement in academic achievement and graduation rates for low-income students who typically struggle in high-poverty segregated urban schools.
In November, Dr. Jaime Aquino, the “Distinguished Educator” appointed to review the state of the Rochester City School District, released a report describing a district that is so broken—administratively, fiscally, academically and operationally—that it is hard to see a path toward educational success for city students that does not involve the entire Rochester community. The city and school district do not have the wherewithal to right this ship on their own.
If ever there were a time to think in new ways, it is now. Now is the time for the state Education Department and the Regents, along with all school districts in Monroe County to commit to collaborating on schools that will improve the lives of all children in our community.
For five years, Great Schools for All has championed a network of magnet schools that could appeal to families from city and suburban districts. Enrollment at these schools, primary and secondary, would be voluntary, but the schools would offer a theme-based curriculum no one district could afford—from performing arts to culinary arts, foreign language, leadership,
public safety, health careers, science and technology.
We have proposed that each of these schools be jointly administered by two or more school districts and would use existing building space when possible and share staff and other resources.
Each school would be intentionally diverse. The best evidence suggests that schools should have a healthy mix of low-income and middle class students—large enough populations that students do not become isolated or marginalized and large enough that students can benefit from the collective experiences and wisdom of students who are different from themselves. In Raleigh, N.C., and other cities with diverse schools, the goal has been to limit the number of low-income students in each school to between 40 and 50 percent of the student body. But the formula is not magic; larger or smaller percentages can work as well.
The Democratrightly pointed out that two out of three state-funded socioeconomic integration demonstration projects in Rochester failed three years ago to attract suburban students. But the state has launched a more comprehensive effort this year to help districts, including Rochester, to reap the benefits of diverse schools, citing the state Board of Regents’ recent support for racial and socioeconomic integration as critical to improved outcomes. The state Education Department has even suggested interdistrict partnerships as one path forward.
At Great Schools, we are encouraged by these signs. But the very mention of the words “diversity” or “integration” always leads to skeptical questions that cry out for a response.
Why would parents send their children from academically successful suburban schools to low-performing city schools?
They wouldn’t. But no one is asking them to do so. The schools we’ve proposed would be new schools, located across the county, and carefully designed.
A 2016 survey of city and suburban parents commissioned by Great Schools found that 83 percent of city and suburban parents want diverse schools for their children because they better reflect the real world. Eighty-three percent of city parents and 70 percent of suburban parents say they would consider sending their children out of district to a diverse school.
Aren’t you really saying that poor children, or African-American or Hispanic children, just can’t learn?
Not at all. We’re talking about improving odds of success for the children most likely to fail—those in high poverty schools. You don’t need to look to North Carolina for evidence. Two years ago, Great Schools pulled some state data on graduation rates for low-income students in Monroe County. In the city, 91 percent of students were low-income and 48 percent of those young people graduated after four years. In East Irondequoit, 56 percent of students were economically disadvantaged and yet 84 graduated on time; in Rush-Henrietta, the numbers were 39 percent and 86 percent.
When you lower the concentrationof poverty in a school, the outcomes improve. Dramatically.
It can’t be that simple.
It’s not. Making diverse schools successful is hard work. The program must be carefully planned and evidence-based. Schools must build real communities that give every student and every family a voice, and productive interaction must be a part of the daily routine. Minority teachers must be recruited and each school must value understanding and appreciation for the differences that make us so strong together. Great Schools can identify experts from integrated school systems who could help plan new schools for Monroe County.
This is pie in the sky. Can’t we just better fund the poorest schools?
As New York Times Magazinereporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, an expert on school integration, puts it: Yes, funding is important, but the history of public education in America is that the money flows disproportionately to the whitest and most affluent communities. The only way to be sure low-income children have access to well-funded schools is to make public schools truly public—that is accessible to children without regard to family income or Zip Code.
Moreover, Hannah-Jones says, “there are intangible things that you lose when you’re in a segregated entirely poor school. And one of those things is that by being isolated from the language and the culture of those who run your country, who will run the businesses that you may want to work for, you can’t make up for that isolation by throwing more dollars and getting better textbooks.”
The biggest obstacle to diverse schools in New York is our system of school districts that isolate economically disadvantaged and minority children from those who are more affluent.
Great Schools has never proposed a countywide school district, which would seem to require a change in the state constitution and a change in the political will of most New Yorkers.
The most direct way to achieve school diversity in Monroe County is for city and suburban districts to collaborate, to open new schools together. As a community we have an unambiguous moral obligation to do so, but no superintendent or school board has a legal obligation to make it happen.
The city school district, in one of the poorest cities in the country, cannot diversify itself. A great school for every child requires a communityeffort. That means the mayor, the county executive, and every school superintendent and school board in the county must step outside their roles, and insist that Albany give us the tools we need work across boundary lines to guarantee that every child has the education he or she deserves—and on which our future depends.