On May 13, the Rochester Beacon hosted an education forum on the future of city schools, with a keynote address by former Newark, New Jersey, superintendent Christopher Cerf.
Two panels of local experts followed Cerf’s presentation. The first panel reacted to Cerf’s address; the second offered specific ideas for reforming Rochester schools. On that second panel was Don Pryor, of the Great Schools Strategy Team. His powerpoint presentation is at the top right side of this homepage.
Video of both panels can be found at the link above.
Below is an excerpt from a Democrat and Chronicle editorial that first appeared on May 31. The editorial urges the state legislature to approve a temporary takeover of the Rochester City School District—the first time the paper has made this call.
The full editorial and a video message from Mayor Lovely Warren can be found here.
We call on New York State Assembly Members Harry Bronson, David Gantt and Jamie Romeo; New York State Senators Rich Funke, Joe Robach and Michael Ranzenhofer; all other elected state representatives from our region; and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to recognize their opportunity to create a life-changing legacy.
We call on them to support Mayor Lovely Warren, whom an overwhelming majority of city voters chose to represent them, in her call for state takeover of the Rochester City School District.
At this moment in time, only our elected state legislators have the power to disrupt our education system. Only they hold the legislative authority and moral obligation to begin the reform that is long overdue. Only they can start to change a broken structure that cannot change itself. If they do not act now, they are failing Rochester’s children.They are also failing our entire community, perhaps for generations to come.
They must pass legislation to replace the Rochester City School Board with an appointed board. Those who claim this will rob city residents of their right to select school leaders are not facing reality. Most city residents have voluntarily given up this privilege already. Voter turnout for school board elections hovers around 10 percent, and campaigns are heavily influenced by unions. City residents do not show up for school board elections because they do not believe their votes will change anything, asdecades of experience have taught them. A democracy does not work when there is no positive outcome for those who participate in it.
As part of its ongoing “Time to Educate” series, the Democrat and Chronicleand staff writer Erica Bryant, reported (October 28) on the time-tested benefits of socioeconomically diverse schools: a sharp improvement in academic achievement and graduation rates for low-income students who typically struggle in high-poverty segregated urban schools.
In November, Dr. Jaime Aquino, the “Distinguished Educator” appointed to review the state of the Rochester City School District, released a report describing a district that is so broken—administratively, fiscally, academically and operationally—that it is hard to see a path toward educational success for city students that does not involve the entire Rochester community. The city and school district do not have the wherewithal to right this ship on their own.
If ever there were a time to think in new ways, it is now. Now is the time for the state Education Department and the Regents, along with all school districts in Monroe County to commit to collaborating on schools that will improve the lives of all children in our community.
For five years, Great Schools for All has championed a network of magnet schools that could appeal to families from city and suburban districts. Enrollment at these schools, primary and secondary, would be voluntary, but the schools would offer a theme-based curriculum no one district could afford—from performing arts to culinary arts, foreign language, leadership,
public safety, health careers, science and technology.
We have proposed that each of these schools be jointly administered by two or more school districts and would use existing building space when possible and share staff and other resources.
Each school would be intentionally diverse. The best evidence suggests that schools should have a healthy mix of low-income and middle class students—large enough populations that students do not become isolated or marginalized and large enough that students can benefit from the collective experiences and wisdom of students who are different from themselves. In Raleigh, N.C., and other cities with diverse schools, the goal has been to limit the number of low-income students in each school to between 40 and 50 percent of the student body. But the formula is not magic; larger or smaller percentages can work as well.
The Democratrightly pointed out that two out of three state-funded socioeconomic integration demonstration projects in Rochester failed three years ago to attract suburban students. But the state has launched a more comprehensive effort this year to help districts, including Rochester, to reap the benefits of diverse schools, citing the state Board of Regents’ recent support for racial and socioeconomic integration as critical to improved outcomes. The state Education Department has even suggested interdistrict partnerships as one path forward.
At Great Schools, we are encouraged by these signs. But the very mention of the words “diversity” or “integration” always leads to skeptical questions that cry out for a response.
Why would parents send their children from academically successful suburban schools to low-performing city schools?
They wouldn’t. But no one is asking them to do so. The schools we’ve proposed would be new schools, located across the county, and carefully designed.
A 2016 survey of city and suburban parents commissioned by Great Schools found that 83 percent of city and suburban parents want diverse schools for their children because they better reflect the real world. Eighty-three percent of city parents and 70 percent of suburban parents say they would consider sending their children out of district to a diverse school.
Aren’t you really saying that poor children, or African-American or Hispanic children, just can’t learn?
Not at all. We’re talking about improving odds of success for the children most likely to fail—those in high poverty schools. You don’t need to look to North Carolina for evidence. Two years ago, Great Schools pulled some state data on graduation rates for low-income students in Monroe County. In the city, 91 percent of students were low-income and 48 percent of those young people graduated after four years. In East Irondequoit, 56 percent of students were economically disadvantaged and yet 84 graduated on time; in Rush-Henrietta, the numbers were 39 percent and 86 percent.
When you lower the concentrationof poverty in a school, the outcomes improve. Dramatically.
It can’t be that simple.
It’s not. Making diverse schools successful is hard work. The program must be carefully planned and evidence-based. Schools must build real communities that give every student and every family a voice, and productive interaction must be a part of the daily routine. Minority teachers must be recruited and each school must value understanding and appreciation for the differences that make us so strong together. Great Schools can identify experts from integrated school systems who could help plan new schools for Monroe County.
This is pie in the sky. Can’t we just better fund the poorest schools?
As New York Times Magazinereporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, an expert on school integration, puts it: Yes, funding is important, but the history of public education in America is that the money flows disproportionately to the whitest and most affluent communities. The only way to be sure low-income children have access to well-funded schools is to make public schools truly public—that is accessible to children without regard to family income or Zip Code.
Moreover, Hannah-Jones says, “there are intangible things that you lose when you’re in a segregated entirely poor school. And one of those things is that by being isolated from the language and the culture of those who run your country, who will run the businesses that you may want to work for, you can’t make up for that isolation by throwing more dollars and getting better textbooks.”
The biggest obstacle to diverse schools in New York is our system of school districts that isolate economically disadvantaged and minority children from those who are more affluent.
Great Schools has never proposed a countywide school district, which would seem to require a change in the state constitution and a change in the political will of most New Yorkers.
The most direct way to achieve school diversity in Monroe County is for city and suburban districts to collaborate, to open new schools together. As a community we have an unambiguous moral obligation to do so, but no superintendent or school board has a legal obligation to make it happen.
The city school district, in one of the poorest cities in the country, cannot diversify itself. A great school for every child requires a communityeffort. That means the mayor, the county executive, and every school superintendent and school board in the county must step outside their roles, and insist that Albany give us the tools we need work across boundary lines to guarantee that every child has the education he or she deserves—and on which our future depends.
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to MSNBC host Chris Hayes’ podcast interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, MacArthur Genius, New York Times reporter, author, expert on school integration and a Great Schools speaker last October.
It’s a long interview (roughly an hour), but NHJ makes some well known points very clear and accessible. I think in this conversation she explains the importances of integration in very simple and powerful terms.
Here are some key excerpts:
NHJ grew up in Iowa and her parents took advantage of a desegregation plan to send her to one of the whitest and richest schools in the community.
NHJ: If you want to make sure that your kid is going to have the best public school resources that can be offered, then you best go to school with a lot of white kids and a wealthy school. So that’s what parents did. All the black kids would get dropped off at the various open enrollment schools, and at the end of the day when all of the white kids who lived in the neighborhood would be playing outside and walking home, we’d be shuttled onto a bus and sent back to our side of town.
…when I talk to a lot of black folks who have gotten into whatever mainstream careers…it’s often people who went through desegregated schools. They learned to adapt to white norms, they learned to speak the “professional white language,” they learned to be comfortable in those situations, so I think for us, clearly, it was a means of being able to study what you were going to need to succeed in a white-dominated country. But it wouldn’t be easy. I think we shouldn’t expect that taking people who have been forcibly and legally separated and putting them in schools together is going to (be) magic, it’s gonna be difficult. But I think it’s worth the difficulty. We’re a multiracial democracy.
So why was this an important experience in your life?
NHJ: It allows you to relate to the experiences of others in a way that clearly you would never be able to relate. I’ve heard, since I’ve been focusing so much on school segregation, from so many white adults who …went through schools where they were not the majority and that it was transformative for them. That it just helped them to see things that they couldn’t have seen before. It made them better people they think. They also say it wasn’t easy…I think we should stop pretending that it would be, but again, we don’t say that for anything else in life. When you want to be successful, you know it’s gonna be hard. But for this, we want it to be easy because we really don’t want to do it.
Because we don’t want to actually integrate, she says, we look for other solutions to legitimize “separate but equal.”
NHJ: And this is one of the arguments that I make…(to the) common and perennial answer to segregation… “Well, we just need to fund high-poverty schools.” Well, we do, but there are intangible things that you lose when you’re in a segregated entirely poor school. And one of those things is that by being isolated from the language and the culture of those who run your country, who will run the businesses that you may want to work for, you can’t make up for that isolation by throwing more dollars and getting better textbooks.
Hayes says how important social capital is and asks NHJ if she thinks white affluent schools are better than segregated schools.
NHJ: Yes but what we fail to acknowledge (is that) what makes that school good is not the kids but the resources those kids are ensured. This was the whole reason behind school desegregation beginning when the NAACP starts to challenge school segregation in the ’40s. It was not saying there’s something remarkable about white kids that makes black kids smart. It was saying that we have been promising since Plessy v. Ferguson to make separate equal and there’s never been a single moment in time where black kids, isolated from white kids, got even close to the same resources. It literally is about needing to have proximity to get the same things. There’s just been no other way to do that.
On the issue of whether the cause of segregation is structural or the result of individual parental choice.
NHJ: I think either way. When we say, “Oh, it’s just the structure,” then we also justify individual choices, because you’re like, “I can’t solve all of school inequality in the city, so it’s okay if I put my kid in this all white, rich school, ’cause I can’t fix it all.” But at the same time, every time a white parent makes that choice collectively …you have reinforced that.
…Don’t brag to me about how proud you are to be a public school parent when your public school is 10 percent poverty and 80 percent white… We now feel like we should be able to shop for schools. Schools should have to vie for us. Our kids are no longer people who (we) are teaching to be citizens, but people who (we) are teaching to make a lot of money one day.
Hayes then says that many people agree that morally we should integrate, but since it’s not possible, we should focus on making black schools excellent.
NHJ: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t argue with that. Except that, they have no bit of history on their side either, right? We also have never done that ever, on scale anywhere. There’s a reason why every time you bring these issues up, people point to the same five schools, right? Or the same five charter school chains. There’s a reason for that, because it’s not scalable.
You can look at something like, Success Academy… But you look at the purge rates at that school, you look at the amount of additional fundraising they have to do, the philanthropy dollars that are coming in.
You can’t scale that across an entire city. You can’t scale that across an entire country. So, I don’t think that there is something inherently bad about an all black learning environment. You can go to all black countries right now and there are excellent schools, but we’re not in that context.
We are in a context built on white supremacy. We are in a context where having all black environments means those schools and environments will be starved of resources, as they have been in every community in our country…I still don’t think you can ever make the schools equal for the reasons that I already pointed out, but…show me the example of where we scaled it and I’ll shut up.
In case you missed this piece in this week’s City newspaper (July 24, 2018), have a look. Editor Mary Anna Towler again underscores the need to address the high concentration of poverty in Rochester city schools—and urges readers to join with us.
We’ve been a little quiet here for a few months, but GS4A has not gone dark. To the contrary, we’ve been working quietly behind the scenes to support the RCSD’s call for two interdistirct schools as proposed in the Path Forward report, which outlines an ambitious agenda for improvement. More soon.
Not surprisingly, the state’s education commissioner is sending someone else to try to help the Rochester school district turn things around.
But let me just repeat the Great Obvious Fact:
…Through all these studies, through all the new school superintendents and new school board members and new ideas, two things have been constant: Rochester’s poverty rate has increased. And the performance of the school district’s children has dropped.
From time to time we’ll use this blog space to answer questions that have come to us. This one was submitted at last October’s Nikole Hannah-Jones lecture, but was not answered that night.
Often the people working on education justice issues are white, or at least they have the most clout and loudest voices, these are liberal white groups. What are your thoughts on uplifting the voices of black parents and black residents?
Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team
Great Schools for All is keenly (painfully, even embarrassingly) aware that we are older and whiter than we would like to be as an organization. We are nowhere nearly as diverse as the schools we propose.
This is a key question we’re focused on this year in a number of new ways. Please, let us know your suggestions for people we should talk to or organizations we should partner with. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some of our plans for 2018:
Our new Community Engagement team is planning listening sessions in a variety of places with very different audiences.
We’ll be meeting soon with several “community stakeholders” who attended the Nikole Hannah-Jones event and expressed willingness to help us refine our message and strategy.
Similarly, we’ll meet with African-American leaders who will help us connect to parents and residents whose voices we need to hear.
We’re also hoping to encourage interested groups to begin offering magnet school design ideas that would make our goals a little more tangible.
There are many reasons (not excuses) why we are not as diverse as we’d like. In part, I think, we’ve experienced the effects of the segregation that is so real in our community, not just in our schools. We live in our own bubbles with too little interaction with people not like ourselves. We don’t fully understand each other because our paths rarely cross and because we struggle to make the connections and have the conversations we need.
Again, that’s not an excuse, just an observation.
As the questioner suggests, it is critical that we hear and empower the “voices of black parents and black residents.”
At GS4A we often hear from African-Americans (and others) that our proposal is naïve and elitist. America, and Rochester, these folks say, is not interested in ending segregation. We never even discuss it; instead, we’ve all made our peace with segregation. Shameful, but true.
Better, these critics say, that we advocate changes that can improve education for the poorest kids right now—not sometime in the distant future. That means more money for the poorest schools. It could mean longer school days, outreach to parents, a more culturally responsive curriculum, recruiting more minority teachers and bringing a whole range of community services into our schools—medical and dental care, for example, that can improve the health of the entire neighborhood.
Of course, we support all of those things. We support anything that improves the educational experience of poor kids. We know that education is far more relational that many people think. A gifted teacher or principal—who also cares deeply and personally for students—can transform a child’s life.
We know, not just from common sense, but from the accumulated evidence amassed by scholars, that minority teachers can radically alter the educational path of poor black students. It just makes sense to provide incentives to draw more young men and women of color into teaching and to hire them ASAP.
We know, too, that calls for integration can be heard as a belief that poor and minority students can’t learn unless they sit next to white affluent children. That’s not at all what we believe, but the offensive and mistaken notion—that black children will only learn when they are in white classrooms—did not come from nowhere. It is baked into the language used to discuss integration, and is rooted in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that there is no such thing as “separate but equal” education.
The court went well beyond granting the plaintiffs’ demands. Oliver and Leola Brown joined the NAACP lawsuit against the Topeka, Kansas, board of education when they were denied (because of their race) the opportunity to transfer their daughter Linda from an all-black school that was several blocks from their home to a predominantly white school one block away. They felt the black school was too far for Linda to walk when it was cold, snowing or raining. They were not unhappy with her school.
In his podcast, Revisionist History(Season 2 episode, “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment”), author Malcolm Gladwell included clips from an archival interview with Leola Brown. “We were getting a quality education at Monroe (the black school)…We had fantastic teachers,” she says. “It was more like an extended family. They took an interest in you.”
But the court did more than agree with the Browns, Gladwell says. The decision said, “segregation with the sanction of law has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children.” That sounds to Gladwell (and many others) like the court concluded that black children are inevitably scarred for life in black schools and that only by moving to white schools can they avoid psychological damage.
Segregation is wrong, but not because black children cannot learn without white children next to them. It would have been better and more accurate, Gladwell says, if the court had said instead: “Schools are the places where people make the connections that allow them to get ahead in the world. You cannot lock black people out of the place where social power and opportunity reside.”
We agree with Gladwell. That’s the point. And we’ve made integration (socioeconomic diversity) our prime directive, not because none of the other strategies we’ve mentioned is of value, but because the evidence shows that economic and racial diversity can dramatically change the equation—and represents the most effective and least costly way to improve the odds for the kids most at risk of not graduating.
We formed Great Schools to be sure that diverse schools—and all the advantages they portend for us—are on the table. We believe that, even though integrated schools sometimes feels like an impossible goal, that the goal is within reach. Our role is to keep it front and center.
The Rochester City School District’s recently-released Path Forward plan contains a number of clear references to directions GS4A strongly advocates. Among these:
Expand and replicate several popular and effective existing District schools, including School Without Walls, World of Inquiry and its expeditionary learning approach, School of the Arts, The Children’s School.
Under “Future Concept Schools,” the plan advocates the creation of two magnet schools (one high school and one elementary school), each designed to draw students from both the city and suburbs. At least one suburban district and college, and other possible partners, have already been identified as potential collaborators in the development of the school concepts outlined in the plan. Many critical details would need to be worked out before these and related ideas can be implemented, but the fact that these concepts are part of the Path Forward plan is encouraging. GS4A looks forward to working with the district and other potential partners in the development of these initiatives.
Efforts to expand the numbers of teachers of color and to make the curriculum at all levels more culturally sensitive and relevant to students.
Great Schools for All looks forward to working with city and suburban school officials and all sectors of the community to help develop these ideas and support for their implementation.
It’s very trendy to say that New Year’s resolutions are passé. Perhaps. Many now write about New Year’s “intentions.” That’s fine. Either way, Great Schools for All sees this new year as a crucial one not only for our work, but for the students in our communities.
John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church and co-convener of Great Schools for All
So whether resolutions or intentions, here is a short list. As you read it, we invite you to get involved, either with us, by reaching out at email@example.com, or by connecting yourself to some other group working on education.
1. Raise our own sense of urgency and deepen our sense of commitment. Poverty’s impact worsens on our neighbors and we can’t let inertia or entrenchment impede us. Let’s embrace the thinking of Adam Morgan and Mark Barden (The Beautiful Constraint) who propose a change of perspective, from saying “we can’t…because” to “we can…if.”
2. Get our proposal (and the thinking behind it) in front of more people. We will reach out to grass roots and grass tops leaders, city and suburban, groups and individuals, educators, business people, regular old citizens. Help us!
3. Diversify our leadership. Simply put, we are too white. That’s our problem, and a fair critique, which we aim to address.
4. Find other groups and individuals committed to education and collaborate with them. The more the merrier!
5. Work with RCSD when our energies align, support where appropriate and push where needed.
6. Keep asking the question that Nikole Hannah-Jones asked us in November: Whose child (or children) are we willing to sacrifice? Her focus on integration and justice compels our work.
Join us and push us as we re-commit ourselves to a vison of great schools for all.
Great Schools for All communications team member Marta Driscoll interviewed Clay Osborne recently. Osborne, a member of the Strategy Team, is currently President of True Insights Consulting, which offers executive and performance coaching for businesses and other organizations. Clay also worked as the Vice President for Human Resources at Bausch + Lomb, the Deputy County Executive for Operations for Monroe County and an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology,
MD: What’s been your involvement with Great Schools for All?
CO: I went on the North Carolina trip in 2012. During that trip, I became convinced that desegregating schools is one of the many challenges in our community that needs to be addressed, among many others, to solve the plight of young people of color in the public-school system in Rochester. To me it’s important to emphasize that this is just one part of the solution.
We also need more teachers of color in the district. We need to have more engaged parents and students — the district is losing engaged parents to charter and parochial schools. Charter schools to be successful, what works is small classes, engaged parents, and engaged students. If you get those three, education works. I believe that that’s what will work for the public schools in Rochester.
In October, Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke to a large crowd about how Rochester came to have some of the most segregated schools in the nation and encouraged us to call on educational leaders for change. We’ve heard a wide range of reactions to that message, from “it was spot on in describing the problems here” to “it was way off base.” What was your reaction?
I would say I’m in the middle. I believe integration helps. It helps in the way that Hannah-Jones describes it. When you look across the country, the places with resources are either white school systems or integrated systems. The challenge comes in when you have segregation of people of color. The research shows that all students benefit from attending integrated schools — African Americans, Latino, and white students. Public schools should be a microcosm of the world students will eventually work in, and that world is increasingly diverse.
Others say that integration is folly, especially black people from older generations, many of whom attended segregated schools in the south and are very successful. There is a perspective that says the problem is the integration of schools. That’s how we lost black teachers.
At a recent speech by renowned researcher and author Dr. Joy Degruy, she explained that black communities tend to be more relationship centric than object centric1. When black children attend school, they expect to have a relationship with their teacher in order to learn.
One of the things kids learned when they attended black schools in the south was that the teacher loved them. Today, when they attend schools where they pick up that the teachers don’t love them, it makes it difficult to learn. Instead, they sometimes learn the teachers are afraid of them. Then there is a standoff. Teachers have a hard time teaching because you can’t teach students you fear. And the students don’t get the nurturing relationship they expect. The lesson is that no matter the new technology and other resources, if there’s a standoff between teacher and student, we’re not going to see the student make much progress.
So that’s another perspective and I can see both perspectives. Integration is the answer, because with integration comes resources. But you have to find ways, that in an integrated school, we can also increase the diversity of teachers and help some overcome fear of their students. So much about success in life stems from confidence and high self-esteem. This is especially important for people of color and people in any minority status. That’s why it’s critical black students have positive and empowering relationships with their teachers.
How do diverse education experiences impact adults as professionals? Can you talk a little about how you came to care about that?
At one time, individual contributors dominated companies. Today, people who are successful can collaborate, be part of teams, and lead teams. At Bausch and Lomb, I noticed that the people who came from communities where they engaged with many kinds of diverse people, performed better in teams and they grew more quickly into leaders.
If we think outside the corporate environment, to the community level, author Richard Florida found that communities which have seen sustained economic growth for 15 years were those that were most inclusive of diverse groups of people2. They embrace immigrants who start businesses and stabilize housing. They also have a high tolerance for gays and lesbians, which is a good proxy for overall tolerance in a community. These communities leverage diversity, rather than suffering from conflict stemming from it.
Why do you think our leadership seems reluctant to move forward on a school?
I think change requires a certain level of discomfort and I think people in this region are relatively comfortable. For those who aren’t poor, this is an easy place to live. Things are good. Meanwhile, there is increasing dysfunction in poorer parts of our community. I think that people are daydreaming if they think that their comfortable life is not at risk if we don’t address the challenges and dysfunctions right outside our window.
How do we get a more proactive and visionary mindset among our leaders? How do we get a community mindset that if my brother is in pain, then I’m in pain too?
Is there anything that makes you hopeful for Great Schools for All, and that some of these other efforts you’ve discussed will succeed?
I think there are good people trying to address a lot of the challenges we just talked about. What’s needed is growing the amount of diversity in our leadership. We need to create opportunities for cross-race engagement and interactions. Our region’s leadership is relatively homogenous. We need younger, more diverse, broader leadership. We need to identify, develop, and listen more to emerging leaders of color in our community.
Their perspectives may be jarring to the older generation of leaders. What tends to happen in town, is if your perspective is too jarring, you don’t get invited back to the table. We need to open up our leadership core to people whose different experiences allow them to bring different perspectives and solutions to this challenge.
That’s definitely a long game.
It’s a long game, but we have to start. The mission of Great Schools for All is a long game too. We have to find ways to stay motivated and keep the pressure up.
Relationship Approach, Epigenetics and Multigenerational Trauma, speech by Dr. Joy DeGruy, 11/30/17
Rise of the Creative Class, book by Richard Florida, 2004
I’m still reflecting on the powerful words Nikole Hannah-Jones left with us at her Oct. 26 lecture:
“Whose children should be sacrificed?”
Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team
Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist for The New York Time Magazine, writes often on civil rights issues, notably on the changing shape of school segregation in America. She’s working on a book dealing with the history of school segregation.
Great Schools invited her to Rochester, not to tell us what a swell job we’re doing, but to challenge our community to do the right thing for all our children.
Hannah-Jones does not sugarcoat her message. She sees school integration as a longshot at best. “We as a country have never shown any interest in making things better when it comes to race,” she told Democrat and Chronicle reporter Justin Murphy. “It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try, but that’s just my pragmatic view of the matter.”
Several people I spoke with thought she was too pessimistic. I disagree. She was just reporting the ugly facts of our history. She never said nothing can change. When she took to the pulpit at Third Presbyterian that night, she took a photo of the 500-plus people who filled the sanctuary and tweeted out with the words, “This many people can change a city, if y’all choose.”
But will we as a community make that choice? Surely we can. I hope we will. But we never have.
In Rochester, as in many other cities, we have accepted segregation as necessary, or at least as inevitable. We do this with a system of school districts that lets the more affluent choose their own “public” schools—schools that are not “public” for the poor, for African American or Hispanic children who live on the other side of the boundary lines. This is what segregation looks like in the North in the 21st Century. And our schools in New York are the most segregated in the country.
Every single year our community sacrifices thousands of city children—children who drift out of schools that have never been good places for them, or who “graduate” unprepared for either work or college.
As our own GS4A survey data shows, most parents in Monroe County strongly support diverse schools, and see them as the best way to prepare their children for life in a diverse world. But the system hasn’t moved one inch toward that goal.
We know there are suburban superintendents who likewise believe diverse schools best serve all children—rich and poor. But without public pressure for change, it’s very easy to settle for what is, rather than insist on what could be.
What we need now in our community is pressure to do the right thing. To treat all children as our children, not somebody’s else’s. We do not have to sacrifice some children so that others may succeed.
There are always reasons to do nothing. On Nov. 5, the Democrat and Chronicle ran a collection of stories about the New York State School Quality Index, developed by the USA Today Network, of which the Democrat is a member. Rather than rate schools strictly on test scores and graduation rates, the new index looked also at intangibles—”teachers and administrators who care about their students; children and parents who take pride in the community; high-quality instruction and an array of extracurricular activities.”
Using that measure, four city elementary schools (two of them charter schools) and one high school are among the top schools in Monroe County. Good news? Absolutely. Never underestimate the way gifted teachers and principals can transform student lives, or the ways committed parents can lift their children up, or the way some children rise above the obstacles they face.
Education is about more than numbers; it takes place in the quiet interactions among students and between students and the adults who guide them. But these successes are not widespread; broad change requires new policies and new approaches.
“And, it is heartening to see that some schools in the Rochester City School District lead the way on these measures… But, the quality index and (Superintendent Barbara) Deane Williams’ attention to the good work that is nearly always overshadowed by the bad allows us, for just a moment, to be a little more optimistic. We can feel hope, instead of hopelessness. And, we can applaud those city educators and students who are succeeding against the odds. By tweaking the usual narrative, just a touch, fixing our city schools seems ever so slightly more attainable.”
Nothing wrong with feeling hope. But never does the local daily newspaper in this city—despite decades of supportive evidence—editorialize on the power of integration to turn lives and schools around. Never do the editors write that the best and most effective way to improve the odds of success for the poorest kids among us is to work together as a community, sharing educational resources so that every child can attend a great school and have great opportunities. Never do the editors say that segregated schools are unacceptable and represent the failure of our community to truly care for the children we are so quick to define as “our future.”
Despite my rant, I am hopeful that we are close to choosing a new course, a path toward integration that will mean every child in our community gets to attend a great school. We have a new generation of parents who support change. The New York State Regents are calling socioeconomic diversity the key to improved outcomes. The city school board has committed to working with others to develop interdistirct magnet schools.
That is all good news. But we need to remind ourselves every day that we have a long history of sacrificing some children to avoid the hard choices we need to make. And that still gives me pause.