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.













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?


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.



We know what to do, but will we do it?

I am running out of patience. Like most educators I am by nature an optimist. I have thought and written about the issues of poverty and education for a long time and I find myself restating the same points I have made in the past.

Ten years ago I reported in City newspaper (The Schools Problem? Concentrated Poverty,” March 30, 2005) on data from the 2003 International Reading and Literacy study on how our students were doing compared to students in other countries. This study found that U.S. schools with a student poverty rate below 25 per cent finished first in the world in literacy. The same study found the U S schools with student poverty rates between 25 and 50 percent ranked fourth in the world in achievement.

Most of those parents of students in those schools graded those schools highly. However students enrolled in high poverty schools scored well below international standards. I went to point out that 50 years of studies have showed us that despite pockets of success in urban schools due to a cadre of committed people, poor students invariably achieve better if they attend schools in which the poverty rate is under 40 percent. I doubt these data have changed much.

Then in a City article a few years later (“The Testification of Schools in America,” October 11, 2011) I wrote about what the top scoring countries had done to improve their education systems and found that our international competition provided poorer schools more staff development opportunities and support, smaller class sizes, subsidized day care and myriad of social services that helped diminish the effects of poverty. They also provided support for weaker schools from stronger schools by pairing those schools and sharing faculty and resources: think Brighton High School or Pittsford Sutherland sharing faculty, resources and students with Monroe or Edison.

But instead of following the lead of the countries that are out-performing us, when Rochester’s schools are in trouble we compare the apples of suburban schools with the oranges of city schools, set up “Choice” incentives that encourage competition not cooperation, and apply punitive accountability standards that label schools as failures and deny that market forces, politics and discriminatory housing practices have anything to do with low student achievement.

I concluded that article by asking that the education and business communities work together to follow the lead of our international competitors by creating partnerships between the haves and have-nots. This is at the heart of what GS4A is trying to do.

In an article two years later in the Democrat and Chronicle, I asked why advocates of school choice did not include more equitable regional solutions in their school choice plans (which turn out to be about choosing among city schools, not offering interdistrict choices).

After that article a group of like-minded advocates that became GS4A held two community discussions on the issues of regional solutions to poverty and education. And people from business and the suburbs did respond. Many advocates from outside Rochester have allied themselves with us and other groups in the community and are engaged in discussions on changing Monroe County schools. We are thankful and grateful to them.

Still, as I review my notes, articles and files from the last two decades I find myself saying the same thing. And as I talk to my friends in the suburbs I hear the same arguments from them that the problem with the city is that parents do not take personal responsibility for their kids and that their great grandfathers pulled themselves out of poverty and up by their bootstraps and these city folks can too. And when I answer arguments of these people who say it’s the parents’ fault I find myself feeling sorry for the children who are mired and low performing schools…. Even if it is somebody’s fault.

I’m tired of making the argument that we are once again at a tipping point. We have been making this argument for the last 25 years. And through it all, the clock continues to tick on yet another generation of city kids. No I take it back. It’s not a clock: It’s a time bomb.

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





The ‘moral’ response to school inequity

When you start a conversation about the impact of high poverty schools on a child’s academic and social success, data doesn’t matter.

Not because there is no good data (there’s plenty of research to show that when almost every child in a school arrives way behind their middle class peers and lacking the experiences and supports we all need to learn, their chances are not very good), but because most of us look at poverty as a moral problem. And we evaluate that problem either as a social condition, over which we have little personal control, OR as the result of personal failure—and people who see poverty as failure do not believe socioeconomic integration or a surge in new resources will improve failing schools.

Call it what you will—a narrative, a paradigm, a personal philosophy. The way most of us look at poverty depends on something more powerful than data.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

I’ve had more than my share of arguments over the years. I spent 30 years trying to convince people that there’s an important correlation between the percentage of very low-income students in a school and academic outcomes. And after I set out all the facts, someone at the table would invariably say, “I just don’t think poverty is the problem. It all comes down to the family.”

And that’s not an untrue rejoinder. If more families were stable, living on decent incomes, well-connected to educational, business, social and religious institutions, then, yes, the children from those families would be better off. It’s true, but so what? How does knowing that direct us to a solution?

But now that I’m mid-way through my 60s, I  no longer care about winning those arguments. I care about change, and changing hearts. The research can guide us toward a solution to high-poverty schools, but it won’t change minds or hearts.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University, has written extensively on the psychology of morality. He cites several “moral foundations” that are often identified as politically “liberal” or “conservative” values. In fact, these foundations, he says, are better described as personality traits than political philosophies.

Last summer, Haidt was interviewed on National Public Radio’s On Being program by host Krista Tippett. Their conversation makes the research understandable and accessible.

In simplest terms, Haidt says, liberals and conservatives both value compassion and fairness.  But while these two are the centerpieces of a liberal moral  philosophy (care for the poor and others in need, and equality of opportunity in schooling, housing, jobs, etc.), they are often lower on the conservative values hierarchy. The more important moral values for the conservative personality, he says, are loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Very few of us are pure archetypes. We live along a continuum of these moral values. While some liberals, for example, might liken authority to authoritarianism, loyalty to “drinking the Kool-Aid,” and sanctity to religious fanaticism, most of us are somewhere in between. We can appreciate that authority is essential to social order, that loyalty can mean commitment to family or community, and that sanctity can mean working hard to improve one’s behavior as part of an lifelong quest to be a better, more responsible, human being.

The point is that much of what we commonly perceive as political debate is actually a clash of moral priorities that have little to do with policy matters and everything to do with how we see ourselves as human beings.

What this research says to me is that in advocating for socio-economically diverse schools, we must understand that while systemic change is necessary to promote real equality of opportunity, many, many parents will be far more attracted to schools that challenge their children to excel and take responsibility for their own educations. I think we can offer both, and I think we must.


Solutions to high-poverty schools must be Both…And

Research and success stories from across the country make it clear that de-concentrating poverty and increasing socioeconomic diversity in schools significantly improve academic outcomes for poor students, without adversely impacting the performance of those who are more affluent. And while poverty is most concentrated in Rochester schools, many suburban districts also face growing rates of poverty in their classrooms.

So we must engage both city and suburbs in finding a variety of ways for the good of our entire community to get to what Beth Laidlaw referred to last week as the Yes Zone.

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

Various potential systemic changes that would help reduce concentration of poverty have surfaced through the broad GS4A process, incorporating research and ongoing community conversations. These include, for example:

  • voluntary magnet schools open to students from anywhere in the county,
  • shared learning partnerships between combinations of districts or schools, and
  • broadening the Urban-Suburban program to expand movement of students from suburban to city schools in addition to the current city-to-suburban transfers.

But as we think about systemic change to foster diversity for as many students as possible, we must also be aware of those not included in magnets, or charter school options, or the Urban-Suburban program. We must be very careful not to inadvertently drain more students and resources from the city, leaving those students whose families did not voluntarily choose an alternative program concentrated in schools that are even poorer and more racially isolated than city schools are today.

Frankly, this has been a problem in the past with the one-way Urban-Suburban program, and it’s a problem with many of our charter schools, which are often just as segregated as other city public schools. While these programs have offered attractive options for many city families, they have often attracted many of the brightest and most motivated kids and families, leaving greater concentrations of behavioral problems and economic and racial isolation behind. So in our work to create expanded options and more socio-economically integrated schools, we have to be mindful not to inadvertently make things even worse for those not included.

So, what might all this mean and look like in the future? First, it means not just transferring city students to suburban schools. As leaders of the Urban-Suburban program recognize, it needs to be a suburban-to-urban program as well, to create greater economic and racial balance. And for that to happen, there must be strong magnet schools in the city that offer options that suburban kids will want to be part of.

Such programs exist, and with replication or expansion of available slots, we have received strong indications that numbers of suburban students would be interested in attending city schools such as P-Tech at Edison, School of the Arts, School Without Walls, Montessori, World of Inquiry expeditionary learning, and the International Baccalaureate program at Wilson Magnet School. Expanding opportunities for new suburban students while maintaining existing slots currently filled by city students would increase diversity in the schools and reduce the concentration of poverty. GS4A wants to work with the City School District to help strengthen and promote these programs so they are better options for both city and suburban students.

City magnet schools could be supplemented by others developed on campuses or in other school districts. These magnets would draw students from any district because they would provide special-focus opportunities that could not cost-effectively be offered by individual districts. Raleigh, Omaha, Minneapolis and other regions have proven the value of such schools in attracting diverse student bodies and strengthening academic opportunities and outcomes across city and suburban boundaries.

An array of magnet schools offers great potential but also the likelihood that many neighborhood schools will remain segregated, at least initially. We must make better use in the meantime of resources to strengthen promising but struggling neighborhood schools. Highlighting the urgency, some 15 of those schools are currently on the state list of “receivership schools” targeted for special attention over the next couple years. GS4A has consistently said multiple solutions will be needed to counter the effects of concentrated poverty. So while we continue to focus on systemic changes, we also support those working to strengthen neighborhood schools, through the receivership process and in other ways, so that better schools will be available for those who choose to remain in schools where they are.

We hope these schools will evolve as strong neighborhood schools, perhaps developing strengths that could over time make some of them magnets for city and suburban middle class students, to help further strengthen both diversity and neighborhood-based schools.

There is no one single approach to addressing poverty concentrations in our schools, as we must look for both broad community-wide systems change and stronger in-place neighborhood schools, rather than seeing one or the other as THE solution. Together, we must find varied pathways that can contribute to reducing the effects of concentration of poverty as part of this community’s array of anti-poverty solutions.



Yes, it matters who sits next to you in school, and life

Great Schools for All is singularly focused on ending the concentration of poverty in city schools. We are committed to scocioeconomic integration of schools across the county — aiming to cap the number of low-income students in any one school at 40 to 50 percent of the student body.

But many people wonder why integration matters at all. If schools have adequate resources, shouldn’t that be enough? Does it really matter where you go to school, or who you sit next to, or how many poor students are in your building? Yes, it does matter, and there is plenty of research to back that up.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But sometimes you have to look beyond the school to understand why. Two years ago, I wrote a report on a pilot program for RocCity SCHOLARS—an organization that sought to identify exceptionally academically gifted freshmen at East High, kids who might be able to succeed at one of the country’s elite colleges if they had the right supports.

The scholars selected for the program were surrounded not just with tutoring help, but with a full range of cultural bridges to prepare them for the world that awaited them: behind-the scenes visits to the RPO, Rochester City Ballet, the Memorial Art Gallery, GEVA Theater; book discussions with professors and students at area campuses; major sporting events; college visits; meals at elegant restaurants; shopping trips to update their wardrobes. The idea was to be sure that they were prepared, not just academically, but socially and culturally, for campus life at a school where most of the other students come from very affluent or wealthy families.

There was almost no chance that these gifted students would find their way out of extremely poor neighborhoods or into an elite college without the relationships they found with RocCity SCHOLARS — a network of successful adult mentors (called “scholar guides”) who could connect them to the world beyond their schools and their neighborhoods.

One of the report’s most telling comments came from the East High School police resource officer, who said, “They (the students) are never engaged in anything beyond their neighborhoods; their world is the school, their home and the corner store.” Poverty for these kids means isolation and isolation means they can live their whole lives without seeing a path forward.

We all need constant contact with people who know how to succeed, who can encourage us, point us in the right direction and help us build the networks of connections that are essential to success.

Kids in high poverty schools rarely have those relationships. That’s why it matters where you go to school, or who you sit next to, or how many poor students are in your building.

And in Rochester the isolation that is poverty is even more pronounced than it is in most places.

Zeroing in on Place and Race is that latest in the Measure of America series by the Social Science Research Council. The paper compares the rates of “youth disconnection” among 98 U.S. cities.

“Disconnected youth are teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school,” the report says. It further states, “The costs of disconnection are high, both for individuals and for society. Disconnected youth are cut off from the people, institutions, and experiences that would otherwise help them develop the knowledge, skills, maturity, and sense of purpose required to live rewarding lives as adults.

“Our research shows that …  residential segregation by race disproportionately harms black teenagers and young adults.”

So where does Rochester stand on this indicator? We rank 47th out of 98 metro areas for the average rate of disconnection. Our 13.4 percent rate is slightly better than the national average of 13.8 percent.

The Rochester rate of disconnection among white youth is 9.8 percent — well below the national average of 11.3 percent. But the disconnection among African American youth is a distressing 30.8 percent, well above the 21.6 percent national average. Only Baton Rouge, LA, and Las Vegas, NV, have slightly higher rates of disconnection among African American youth.

Most telling is the gap between white and black disconnect rates: 21 percent in Rochester— the highest gap among all the cities surveyed.

Race and place matter, the authors of the Measure of America series conclude, and together they can pack a devastating blow to a community.

School integration alone won’t solve the crisis of inequality in our community, but it is an essential part of any solution. The truth is, where you live, who you interact with, and who sits next to you in school dramatically shape your chances of success.