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.

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.


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.



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.



A consolidated county school district is not in the cards

For as long as I can remember, the idea of a consolidated school district has been a favorite Monroe County whack-a-mole—a pest to be hammered back into its hole whenever it rears its head.

So it’s not surprising, I suppose, that when people first hear about the Great Schools for All goal of countywide or interdistrict schools to integrate middle class and poor children across district lines, they think we’re calling for merging all 18 school districts in the county.

We’re not. And here’s why.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

People in Rochester are very attached to their school districts and see them as essential to local control of their schools and their children’s education. There’s no reason to upend all of that — or to have an argument that gets in the way of our fundamental purpose: guaranteeing that every child has access to a truly great public school.

It’s true that we often cite the consolidated Raleigh/Wake County, NC, school district as a model for our proposals. But the Raleigh situation is quite different from ours. In the mid-1970s, Raleigh and Wake County did consolidate school districts, but there were just two — a city of Raleigh district and a Wake County district that governed all schools outside the city. While it was controversial, that merger required a simple vote by the state Legislature — not the convoluted process such a merger would require in Monroe County.

Moreover, while consolidating city and suburban districts under one governing authority  might be an efficient way to manage steps toward integrating middle class and poor children, consolidation is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. In fact, you could easily imagine a consolidation that focused simply on improving economies of scale as a way to hold down taxes — while leaving segregated schools in place. There’s nothing about consolidation that guarantees access to a great school for every child.

So our interest in Raleigh is not in the merger process, but in what we can learn about the types of magnet schools that attract a wide range of families, about the ways the school system develops transportation plans for moving children across the county, about the many ways each school looks to build a community that embraces and works for poor and affluent children alike, and about the procedures that help create and maintain a socio-economic balance of students in each school.

And what we’ve seen is that Raleigh, like Hartford, Omaha and Minneapolis, can help us figure out the problem and develop a Rochester-centric approach to eliminating high poverty schools. That’s what GS4A is all about.

Many of us in the Great Schools organization have no philosophical opposition to school district consolidation, but we believe that we can achieve our goals without consolidation  and that a long, drawn out struggle over consolidation would likely last many years and end in failure — as another generation of children struggle in high poverty city schools.

Just in case you were wondering about that long convoluted process I mentioned above, the New York constitution does not specifically permit the Big 5 school districts (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City) to merge with other school systems. State law does permit, and even encourage, suburban, rural and small city districts (with populations below 125,000) to consolidate to achieve savings and/or a wider array of programs. But outside the Big 5, school districts are autonomous, governed by elected school boards with their own taxing authority. Their budgets are subject to voter approval, but their finances are not tethered to the municipalities in which they operate.

Neither state law nor the constitution offers any guidance regarding mergers with large city school districts. The issue is legally murky and mysterious.

The Big 5 districts are essentially departments of their city governments. Their boundaries are co-terminus with the cities. They have elected school  boards, but those boards have no taxing authority. The local revenue the Big 5 receive comes from the municipal tax levy; city and school funding are part of the same budget pot and are jointly subject to a constitutional tax limit.

This fiscal dependence on the city makes a merger with other districts problematic.

Logically, it seems that a constitutional amendment is needed to permit Big 5 districts to consolidate with others. An amendment could be adopted only after two consecutive legislatures approve a revision making city school districts independent of city government (there is no legislative constituency for such an amendment), followed by a statewide referendum (there is no statewide voter coalition in support of this change). An amendment is about a likely as a Lake Ontario going dry in the next 10 years. Even if an amendment were to be approved, it would only make consolidation possible, not mandatory. Voters here would have to embrace the change.  Consolidation may be a means to an end, but it is not the only means, nor is it available to Rochester.

We can either wage a quixotic campaign for consolidation, or we can try to solve the problem. GS4A has opted for the latter.

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.