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.

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.













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.

Integration is key to sustaining early childhood gains

Improving outcomes for the youngest children in our poorest schools is probably the single most important thing our community can do right now to give city students a chance at success.

I am often told by educators that the research is clear on this point: Children who do not move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” by the third or fourth grade are very unlikely to ever catch up in school or acquire the skills they need to engage in lifelong learning.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Luckily for Rochester children, ROC the Future—which describes itself as a “community-wide alliance to align efforts and resources to improve academic achievement for Rochester’s children”—has been advocating and keeping track of progress on several fronts since 2011.

With release earlier this month of ROC the Future’s annual report card, the headline on the Democrat and Chronicle story read, “Kids report shows progress, problems.”

First the good news.

The report (find it here) notes that ROC the Future’s most significant accomplishments to date include “developmental screenings and quality preschool education for 3-year-olds, along with improving K-3 attendance” and a continued “focus on achieving grade-level reading by 3rd grade.”

In addition:

  • In Rochester in 2013 “72 percent of births were to women who received early prenatal care, up from 63 percent in 2000, though still below the region-wide figure of 78 percent.”
  • “The preschool years are critical to healthy child development. Enrollment in a quality pre-kindergarten program can make a big difference in children’s readiness for school. In 2014, 67 percent of Rochester’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in publicly funded pre-K, the highest level in the region and up from 31 percent in 2001. If we add in 4-year olds attending the federally funded Head Start program, the participation rate exceeds 95 percent…By the end of their pre-K year, 64 percent of pre-K students were considered ready for school in 2015.”
  • “Rochester has put a bright focus on school attendance in recent years, and its efforts are paying off , though chronic absence still remains too high. In 2014-15, 30 percent of students in kindergarten through 3rd grade missed 10 percent or more of the school year (18+ days) and so were considered chronically absent. This was a decline from 37 percent the previous year.”

Now, the not-so-good news.

“Missing school, along with other factors, puts students at high risk of academic failure. The story told by state test results remains disappointing, with 7 percent of Rochester’s 3rd graders meeting state standards on the reading exam, 9 percent of 4th graders passing math, 4 percent of 8th graders passing English and less than 1 percent of 8th graders passing math.”

And then there’s the really bad news.

While about half of city high school students graduate on time, “many are not ready for college academics.” ROC the Future reports that of RCSD graduates who enrolled at Monroe Community College, 27 percent were considered college-ready in math, 45 percent in English, and just 18 percent were proficients in both subjects.”

This the same pattern we’ve seen for 40 years: Modest to encouraging gains at the early levels seem to fade as students enter middle school, and then disappear altogether for too any high school students.

This is precisely why integration across racial and socio-economic lines is so important. As children become more susceptible to peer pressure and simultaneously more independent of parents, children who are surrounded in school by others who expect to fail are far more likely to expect failure themselves—and far less likely to make education a priority. Put those same children in a school where many of their peers have higher expectations—and the adults in the room share those expectations—and those same students do much better.

Richard Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington D.C., and he has written extensively on the racial and socio-economic integration for decades. In a 2014 interview with the PBS documentary series, Frontline, Kahlenberg explained that there two fundamental purposes for public education:

“…to promote social mobility so that a child, no matter her circumstances, can, through a good education, go where her God-given talents would take her.  The second purpose is to strengthen our democracy by creating intelligent and open-minded citizens, and related to that, to build social cohesion.”

Central to the attainment of both purposes is the interaction among students in the classroom. Kahlenberg says not only are “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional, they are non existent. A public school education, he says, must give every student access to the same resources, the same opportunities in the same environment.

Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Integration, it turns out, is not just an amenity. It is central to equality of opportunity and to the success of the very students most likely to drift toward failure after middle school. Integration, it turns out, is the surest way to add staying power to the improvements we’re seeing with early childhood initiatives in Rochester.


Size may matter, but poverty matters much more

With nearly 30,000 students, is the Rochester City School District just too big to deliver the quality education city students deserve and are entitled to by the NYS constitution?

That’s the questions asked by an Oct. 1 WHEC TV 10 story—“ Should the Rochester City School District be broken into smaller districts?”

The story reacts to a 2013 report by the Center for American Progress, “Size Matters: A look at school district consolidation.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Honestly, the report offers very little useful guidance. It concludes that districts with fewer than 1,000 students generally lack the economies of scale to provide the range of educational services families expect in the 21st Century, while very large districts may experience “diseconomies of scale”—being just too large and too top-heavy to respond to the changing needs of families and students.

Both observations sound about right intuitively. The Center concludes that the optimal size for a school district is 2,000 to 4,000 students and reporter Berkeley Brean suggests that if you divide the RCSD into four smaller districts (using quadrants defined by the river and Main Street) you’d get closer to that optimal number, with maybe 7,000 students in each district.

Channel 10 did not push this “size matters” theory too far. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said tinkering with governance isn’t a solution, while board members Willa Powell and Malik Evans (off camera) both said the big problem is the high concentration of poverty. Brean didn’t disagree.

I don’t want to make too much of the story or the report, except to say (again, I know) that this community has a decades-long history of ignoring the evidence and focusing on solutions that are both impractical and implausible.

I cannot say for certain, but I believe that dividing the school district into smaller districts would run into constitutional problems. New York’s Big 5 cities and their school districts have been locked into the same footprint since the state constitution effectively outlawed annexation in the 1920s.

The cities levy the taxes for municipal and educational purposes, so if there were four smaller districts, none would have taxing authority and the city would have to devise a formula for dividing up the school tax levies (you can only imagine the ultimately pointless fights that would provoke).

Here are a fqwew questions that point to the impracticality of slicing and dicing the school district.

  • What makes anyone think that four quadrants would produce four approximately equal student populations? I’m guessing students are not evenly distributed.
  • Would we need four school boards, four superintendents and four administrations?
  • What if the NW quadrant doesn’t have enough high school space, or if the southeast has too many primary schools?
  • Are students only permitted to attend schools within their quadrants? If so, what do you say to a parent in Charlotte whose extremely gifted musician daughter is no longer eligible to apply to the School of the Arts?
  • On the other hand, if students can travel freely out of their quadrants, what is the point to all of this?

The change to four smaller city districts is just another in a long line of flawed ideas as remedies for terrible academic outcomes. The problem is that every proposal ever enacted in the name of school reform in Rochester has left the poorest kids in the poorest schools in the poorest neighborhoods and blamed failure on parents, teachers, central administration, and of course, the students themselves.

Collectively, our community has spent 40 years running away from the evidence that points in another direction. If we do not deal with the concentration of poverty in city schools, we cannot reverse the outcomes.

That’s what Willa Powell told TV 10, and she is right.

Nearly 50 years ago, James Coleman was charged (as required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act) with reviewing educational outcomes all across the country. In the most comprehensive study ever done to that point, Coleman and his team reviewed outcomes in every region and all types of schools and neighborhoods. They looked at how student performance is impacted by the quality of teaching, the availability of teaching resources, the quality of facilities and more.

Their report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” found that all those factors effect students performance—but not decisively.

Here is what James Coleman concluded in 1966 (italics mine):

Finally, it appears that a pupil’s achievement is strongly related to the educational backgrounds of the other students in the school…Analysis indicates, however, that children from a given family background, when put in schools of different social composition, will achieve at quite different levels. This effect is again less for white pupils than for any minority group other than Orientals. Thus, if a white pupil from a home that is strongly and effectively supportive of education is put in a school where most pupils do not come from such homes, his achievement will be little different than if he were in a school composed of others like himself. But if a minority pupil from a home without much educational strength is put with schoolmates with strong educational backgrounds, his achievement is likely to increase.

Fifty years of further research and actual experience have confirmed those observations, again and again.

What are we waiting for?


Replicating success

Soon the Great Schools for All coalition will propose legislation to enable school districts in Monroe County to collaborate across district lines. What forms might these collaborations take? Of course, we will be seeking projects that promote learning in socio-economically integrated classrooms. But which classroom? Which buildings? Which students? From which districts?

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.

Here is something to consider: Join the call for a change in the state’s charter school legislation to permit (if not require) charters to have socio-economically diverse student bodies, with students drawn from several school districts. Presently, charters must give preference to students from the district in which they are chartered, which generally means that city-based charter schools are high-poverty schools with all the usual problems.

Such an amendment might also require that failing charters be replaced with schools far more likely to help students succeed.

We already have an example. The Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS) is a stand out on the local charter landscape with its students consistently performing as well as students in many suburban districts. Contrast this with the performance of students at the Urban Choice Charter School where less than ten percent of third graders met or exceeded state learning outcomes on Math and ELA tests. While I am not a fan of standardized tests and especially not a fan of using test scores to justify closing schools, a compelling case can be made here. Because the charter system was established as an alternative to failing schools, I believe we should have a very low tolerance for failing charters.

GCCS’s history of solid performance and unique curriculum will attract suburban families. Twenty six percent of GCCS’s students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch (FRPL) which accords with the established claim that in schools with a cap on FRPL students, all students thrive and students living in poverty have a markedly higher performance. The school’s curriculum is based on the model of expeditionary learning which focuses on active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that teaches compassion and good citizenship. At GCCS, Students learn hands on about local and global history with all grades studying the same period at the same time. A change in the charter law would make it much easier to replicate success stories like GCCS.

Where would you suggest we begin to build inter-district relationships? We welcome your innovative ideas about cross-district pollination. And we encourage you to ask your legislator to support legislation to would bring down barriers to collaboration.

There is no ‘New Orleans miracle’

No doubt you’ve heard or read somewhere that the post-Katrina New Orleans school system, one of the most under-performing in the country when the storm hit 10 years ago, has become a model for urban high-poverty school districts.

Nearly every school in the city is a charter these days and supporters say the graduation rate has soared to more than 70 percent, from 56 percent a decade ago.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

So has New Orleans emerged from catastrophe with the answer to high-poverty urban schools? Does New Orleans have an answer for Rochester? Is a network of charter schools the elusive cure for the cancer of failure that has hurt so many urban students and transformed whole neighborhoods into the cemeteries where dreams go to die?

Well, as the old saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

There have been some marginal improvements in test scores and graduation rates, but it’s fair to say there is no miracle.

Andrea Gabor, a professor of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York, has reported extensively on New Orleans schools, first in a long takeout piece in Newsweek in 2013, and more recently in a New York Times op-ed piece in August.

First, she notes, the pre-Katrina New Orleans school population was about 65,000 students; today its 45,000—with many of the city’s poorest families having disappeared after the hurricane. So while the Recovery School District is still predominantly poor, there are many fewer students.

Indeed, she writes in her Times piece, “a new report by Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, using Census Bureau survey data from 2013, found that over 26,000 people in the metropolitan area between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted as ‘disconnected,’ because they are neither working nor in school.”  The city schools have certainly failed those young people.

Last year, Gabor says, 63 percent of New Orleans school children were proficient on state tests, up from 37 percent in 2005. But Louisiana standards are among the lowest in the country (set the bar low enough and more people can hop it). Furthermore, Gabor reports, the Education Research Alliance found evidence of widespread “creaming” by charter principals, who counsel out the poorest performing students—and many of those students simply leave school altogether. The charters have no obligation to track them and no way to do so.

An August report by the Network for Public Education, found that, even with modest improvements, the New Orleans graduation rate (actually 61 percent, according to NPE) is the lowest in the state. And while many charter schools “tout themselves as college prep in the media and public discourse, only 5.5 percent of their students who take Advanced Placement courses…score high enough on the AP tests to get credit.”

Most telling of all, even in a charterized New Orleans, NPE reports, the average ACT score for a New Orleans graduating senior in 2013 was 16.3; and 15.6 in 2014. The national average score for the college entry exams is between 20 and 21, with a 23 often being good enough for admission to multiple colleges. A large majority of  New Orleans graduates did not have scores high enough to meet the minimum requirements of Louisianan public colleges.

My point here is not to beat up on New Orleans.  There certainly are students who are better off today in charter schools than they were in pre-Katrina schools.

But there is no miracle. The New Orleans numbers may look good—but only when you change the way you count, or don’t count, the facts on the ground.  New Orleans charter advocates are the latest in a long line of education reformers who claim they can dramatically improve outcomes while continuing to isolate the poorest kids in America in the poorest schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

But isolation is the problem.

Great Schools for All isn’t selling quick fixes or miracle cures. We’re saying that if Rochester is serious about improving the educational outcomes for our community’s poorest children, we should go where the evidence leads. If we find ways to integrate city and suburban schools along socioeconomic lines, improvements will follow—with enough time, innovation and compassion.

We can do right by our poorest children, but only if we are willing to work hard and stop wishing for quick fixes and miracle cures.






A Tale of Two Classrooms

Capacity: The maximum amount that something can sustain.

Raleigh N.C., real estate developer Bill Fletcher shared with us that the decision to integrate schools socioeconomically in Raleigh was a decision about capacity. Not building capacity or funding capacity or cafeteria capacity, but a teacher’s capacity to teach (and a student’s capacity to learn). Fletcher saw clearly that teachers in urban Raleigh classrooms did not have the capacity to meet all the needs of students in front of them.

It is a tale of two classrooms. One of my daughters was educated k-12 in the Webster Central Schools; the other began kindergarten in the city and is now a senior at the School of The Arts. Their respective third grade classrooms tell the tale. The Webster student began third grade fully meeting state standards, having arrived in kindergarten already able to read. Her classmates, by and large, were similarly prepared and encouraged to learn as teams working on class projects.

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.

My special needs student arrived at her third grade “inclusion” city classroom to a chaotic mess. District policy required 6 special ed children in her class of 22. My child is deaf and her special need was for a quiet learning environment in order to learn how to access sound via a Cochlear implant. The other 5 special ed students in her class had a range of behavioral needs that resulted in a classroom of continual emotional explosions. No student, not even the best general education student, could learn in this traumatic environment. As one student bit another, a third would scream obscenities or tear up learning materials. The teacher would spend hours and hours after school filling out the necessary forms to get the biters and screamers to a more appropriate learning setting. These were hours taken away from time she would have spent grading, planning lessons, communicating with parents, and attending staff meetings and professional development events. As a teacher, the toll of not being able to reach (let alone teach) your students is defeating. In this classroom, a student’s capacity to learn is subverted by the brain’s need to convert to protection mode. Learning doesn’t happen here.

Yes, there are buildings within the City School District in which classrooms are not chaotic and learning does happen consistently (Let’s replicate these!). And there are exceptionally gifted teachers in the district who take as part of their call the hours and hours of time outside the work day meeting their students’ extraordinary needs. Bless them. The reality, though, is that most students do not graduate on time, if ever.

In Raleigh, folks realized that urban teachers were being over utilized and suburban teachers were underutilized, given the needs of each population of students. Here in Rochester, our children’s capacity to learn is limited by the chaotic environment in which we’ve placed them. Our teachers’ capacity to teach is overwhelmed by the needs in the classroom. The Great Schools for All coalition’s research shows that classrooms in which fewer than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch (FRPL) are classrooms in which all students learn to their full capacity because their teachers are able to spend precious energy on helping students learn.

Here are comparative graduation rates for the 2013-2014 year:[i] [ii]

School District Grad Rate for General population Grad Rate for African-American Students % Free or Reduced Priced Lunch Students
Webster Central Schools           93            96              12
Wake County Public Schools           83            74              33
Rochester City Schools           43            42


A case can be made that teachers in suburban classrooms with a few FRPL students are underutilized and that urban teachers with classrooms filled with FRPL students are drowning. Why are we at the Great Schools for All coalition so passionate about socioeconomic integration of classrooms?

Because we strongly believe that every child can learn and each child deserves a chance.


[i]2013 | NY STATE – Report Card | New York State Education Department Data Site. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.

[ii] ACCOUNTABILITY AND TESTING RESULTS. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.