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.

Bridging the great Section V sports divide

Should private schools be allowed to compete in Section V and New York State Public High School Athletic Association post-season tournaments? This question is as old as high school tournaments, but  private schools in New York have competed everywhere, except Buffalo’s Section VI region, since forever.

But 18 Monroe County school superintendents (read more here) have asked NYSPHAA to review the matter. And their Oct. 2 letter makes it pretty clear that they don’t believe private schools should be allowed to participate.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

I think the major objection  is to the decade-long football dominance of The Aquinas Institute, but the letter notes that Aquinas, McQuaid, Bishop Kearney, Our Lady of Mercy, Nazareth Academy (which no lager exists and won’t be winning any more girls titles),  Notre Dame of Batavia and Northstar Christian, despite their small enrollments, have won 85 Section V and six state titles in football, boys and girls basketball and soccer.

“Is it fair, is it equal for non-public schools to participate in sectionals and states?” Pittsford school district superintendent Michael Pero asked.

I can see how it looks unfair. Some of the county’s best athletes go to private schools and compete against students from their home districts for sports laurels. The private schools, the old argument goes, recruit athletes (even though the rules forbid such) and can assemble powerhouse teams as a result.

That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another.

(Disclaimer: I support Catholic schools, as well as public schools. My two sons are Aquinas graduates and former athletes. My younger son played on the Aquinas 2009 state baseball championship team.)

If there are actual recruiting violations, someone should bring a specific charge. Of course, as Democrat and Chronicle sports columnist Jeff DiVeronica commented last week, private schools beat the bushes for students and use their academic programs, arts and sports facilities as drawing cards. If they don’t do that they will go dark. What they are not allowed to do is to target individual students because they are gifted athletes.

In any event, there’s no way to be sure that  7th- or 8th-grade students, no matter their grade-school prowess on the court or field, will be standout high school athletes. As DiVeronica wrote: “Show me a private school or public school that dominates and I’ll show you a dedicated, hard-working coaching staff that motivates and develops his or her players to be the best.”

The Catholic schools offer tuition assistance to many students—some of whom are athletes, most of whom are not. Some gifted athletes come from suburban school districts, but many come from the city. The Catholic schools offer those kids, among the poorest in our county, a far better shot at graduation, college and a job than they would have in a city high school. Deny those kids a chance to compete at a high level in sports and—kids being kids—many will not take advantage of that opportunity.

There are, in every Catholic high school, families that pay full tuition ($10,000 or more) but financial aid allows those schools to build reasonably diverse—racially, ethnically and socioeconomically—student populations. That’s a big reason we sent our sons to Aquinas. Sports helped make that mix of students possible.

That’s a good thing. That’s a very good thing.

At the end of the day, the success of a school’s sports teams isn’t that big a deal. Brighton, for example,  is not sports juggernaut, but it is widely regarded as one of the finest school districts in the country.

What bothers me most about this public-private debate, however, is—despite the catastrophic failure of high poverty city schools, and despite the compelling evidence that integration can reverse the fortunes of the poorest kids—so many people in this community remain less concerned about the lives of those children than they are about the bling on display in their high school trophy cases.

What matters is that every child has access to a great school regardless of how much  money their parents have. Yes, it’s true that Catholic and other private schools are not the best vehicles for socioeconomic integration. But the dwindling number of Catholic schools in our county have done far more to give some of the poorest kids in our area a real chance to graduate from high school than the suburban districts that would like to prevent those schools from winning more football championships.













What segregated schools look like today

This video was posted this week on The speaker is reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes for The New York Times Magazine and she has written on school segregation for ProPublica and This American Life.

Agree or disagree, this piece deserves our attention. Stick with it through the end.



We have to be in it for the long haul

At a rally after the Newtown shootings, I listened to Marian Wright Edelman exhort concerned citizens to be like fleas on the back of the NRA. She emphasized that, while each of us individually yields little power, our combined steady barrage of letters, emails, phone calls, and Facebook posts over the long haul would be effective. Like a dog perpetually trying to get at its flea-bitten back, the NRA having to deal with a million annoyances would disrupt its operations and weaken the force of its lobbying efforts.
I suggest we need a metaphor even more unsightly than fleas for effective community action to improve educational outcomes for the children of Monroe County—bedbugs. We need to model the bedbug’s unrelenting single-minded pursuit of its goal. When combined with its similarly tenacious fellow bedbugs, the infestation is difficult to eradicate and easily disrupts its victim’s game plan.
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 recent denial of the proposal to extend the Keystone XL pipeline is evidence of the bedbug strategy used by For many years, its members organized to bring light to the disadvantages of an enhanced cross-continental pipeline. members strategized about when, where, and how to protest for maximum annoyance to the government officials reviewing the Keystone XL application. Perhaps it was the 1200 arrested at the White House in 2011, or the 100,000 citizens who pledged to risk arrest in 2014 should the State Department approve the pipeline extension, or the many petitions, phone calls and emails sent by its members. The daily barrage of actions aimed at making the issue visible to decision makers was the key.

 We can point to the local “Let’s Make Lead History” and “Opting Out” efforts as successful bedbug strategies. In each effort, large numbers of citizens in Monroe County synchronized efforts to move forward toward a single goal. At Great Schools for All, we are in the midst of a very long effort to make schools on Monroe County much  more socioeconomically integrated.  After five years of researching, collaborating, and having many sometimes difficult conversations, both here and in Raleigh, NC, we have a plan to move forward. Moving forward requires the sustained organized effort that Marian Wright Edelman advocates.
 If you are reading this, you have an interest in improving the educational outcomes for our children. Whether you are a parent of a suburban student whose classroom would benefit from diversity, the parent of an urban student whose classroom would benefit from peers aiming for Ivy League schools, or a citizen of Monroe County who would benefit from the taxes contributed by better educated and employed neighbors, socioeconomic integration is an idea whose time has come.
 GS4A’s first goal? Pushing forward legislation that would allow for much more inter-district cooperation. Classrooms in Monroe County are constrained by the fences of 18 school district borders. The GS4A legislation will enable such collaborations as the opening of a second School of The Arts, perhaps at the Eastman School, and allowing suburban students to enroll.
 If you believe that every child can learn and each child deserves a chance, you need to join us.  Attend the town hall meeting at Saturday, Nov. 14, 10-11:30 a.m. at Trinity Emmanuel Presbyterian Church9 Shelter St, Rochester, NY 14611. Saturday morning you will be able to give your input on proposed legislation and suggest specific models for cross-district pollination.

‘Who you know’ really does matter

My wife ran into an acquaintance the other morning and asked about the woman’s daughter who had attended the Harley school. The proud mom told my wife that her daughter, a 2013 college graduate, got a great job working for, as she noted “one of the 1 percent.” She lives now in Brooklyn but is wealthy enough to have recently given her parents a Paris vacation trip.

The young woman concentrated in French and film at Sarah Lawrence College. She works now for a hedge fund manager, and one of her duties is to make sure his art collection, which he loans to museums, is properly packaged and sent.

Mom said she had gotten the job because she became friends with someone at college and had formed some relationships with people there who knew she spoke French. These connections led to meetings and a job offer from her eventual employer. It sounds like a really cool job and I am happy for the young woman. But it got me thinking.

There are deep truths to many old adages. The one that I kept thinking of was “It is not what you know, it’s who you know.” And we all know that making the right connections and building relationships opens doors in education, jobs and careers for our children and ourselves.

Those of us in the middle class may not know the 1-percenters, but we often know someone who will open a door for our kids who may need a break, an interview, or a favor. But students who live with and go to school with only other poor children never have the opportunity to meet the people who can open those doors for them.

Relationships make the world go ‘round. They lead to opportunity, advancement, and upward mobility. Yet Americans enjoy less upward mobility than almost any citizens in the world.
Poverty is destiny for manyAmericans.

• 42 percent of men raised in families from the bottom one-fifth of incomes stay there as adults

• 62 percent of those raised in the top fifth stay there as adults

More on income inequality can be found here:

• Few investments yielded as high a return as a college degree
• College is far more expensive and out of reach for low income students
• High income families dominate enrollment in select colleges (like Sarah Lawrence)
• College graduation rates have increased sharply for wealthy students but stagnated for low income students.

So, no college means—no connections, no relationships built, no doors opened. And without these relationships many urban kids face almost insurmountable odds. Even when urban kids do go off to college, few make it. They are smart enough, but they often feel alone and have no context through any family member or friends to negotiate the middle class world and the rules of college. They have no relationships to build on.

Some critics point to their parents and grandparents who “pulled themselves up by their boot straps and so can these city kids.” They forget the context of the situation. Students in earlier generations did not face the barriers that today’s kids face. Fifty years ago a generation of immigrant and working class families lived together. Their kids went to the same school where the student body comprised a wide swath of social classes. Through those schools people formed relationships.

Later generations moved to the suburbs, denying both city and suburban families exposure to people outside their social class. Then about 30 years ago we reached the tipping point and all that was left in most of Rochester’s schools were poor families. Gone were the opportunities to form relationships with diverse social classes and ethnic groups. Instead of forming relationships with people less fortunate than themselves, many of the families who moved away became critics, blaming the poor for being poor. But that suburban flight contributed to the problems we now see in city schools—because relationships matter and families with kids who attend diverse schools may learn, through their children’s friends, not to stereotype or generalize.

GS4A advocates for the creation of magnet schools and regional academies because we recognize that schools are not just about academic achievement but also about making connections and building relationships.

There’s no doubt the kid from Sarah Lawrence worked hard to learn French and make the most of her major, but there was no way she would have the job she landed without the relationships she formed first through her parents and later her college.

No matter how many dollars we invest in urban schools, they will never truly be equal to suburban schools—until students have the relationships that make success much more likely.

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