For decades, we have heard repeatedly that the Rochester City School District is one of the worst-performing districts nationally despite ranking near the top in per-student funding. And with “Groundhog Day” regularity, the response of the school board has been to demand more funding while community leaders introduce ancillary programs hoping for a miraculous fix. Each subsequent year when state test scores are released showing the same disheartening results, the cycle repeats: more money and more programs, but no change in either the educational process or the results.
We as a community have become numb to the bad news and instead of demanding real change, we have been content to nibble at the edges of school reform without ever moving the needle on student achievement. By following this script year after year, we all must take responsibility for perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Instead of an intensive desire to dissect and analyze each and every moment of the school day to understand why our kids are not learning, the community instead has chosen to accept the premise that poverty is the cause of our failure, end of story. And yet examples abound of other poverty-stricken cities with similar demographics that have rescued and revived failing school systems. The school districts of New Orleans, Indianapolis and Detroit have done it; why can’t we?
In fact, Rochester has its own mega success story in Rochester Prep, a charter school system of 2,258 students and plans to grow to 3,400 city students; it has virtually the same demographic look as RCSD and yet scored higher than the third and fourth grades at Brighton and Pittsford in 2018 state test results. How is this possible?
Indeed, there are so many questions to be answered and yet there has been minimal interest or desire to even ask these questions. What is happening or not happening in the city classrooms to earn the title of the worst? What specifically is it about the teaching or administrative processes that have led to this failure? What role do teacher union policies play in our dismal results and why is there so much reluctance to even suggest union accountability? Yes, asking hard questions will lead to conflict, but apparently we have made conflict avoidance our guiding principle. By avoiding conflict, we have allowed generations of urban children to be left behind without the education necessary to escape poverty.
Thankfully, the state has provided us a convenient opportunity to finally find some courage given the public release of Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino’s report on urban education in Rochester. Now that Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa has classified the RCSD as a “crisis” and state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has deemed the district to be in need of a total reset with 34 of 49 individual schools on a watch list, there is more than just the opportunity to act; there is the responsibility to act.
The RCSD on Wednesday submitted its response to the Aquino report. It should be evaluated chiefly by how closely it aligns with the guiding principles in the Indianapolis school reform, namely, that great schools emerge only when they operate autonomously and when teachers and school leaders are fully accountable for student performance. If the primary purpose of the RCSD is to ensure that children are educated, it makes perfect sense to hold teachers and school leaders accountable for student achievement. This change of thinking will necessitate a change in the union’s and district’s philosophy, starting with compensation formulas. Teachers and school leaders who generate great results should be rewarded with higher paychecks while those who deliver subpar test scores should not. Without this accountability, change will be virtually impossible.
Students also must be held accountable for their own behavior whether for school attendance or for classroom decorum. Simply put, disruptive students cannot and should not be allowed to ruin the educational experience of others. The RCSD should strengthen disciplinary policies regardless of public perception relating to suspension statistics. Every school policy should be decided based on one question: Will the policy improve the culture for learning? Anything less will not perpetuate the school reform needed.
Another significant RCSD change should be to promote and enhance alternative school choices for Rochester students including charter schools. A most significant obstacle to the charter school movement is the lack of adequate school buildings. The district can help solve that problem. Although public schools, charter schools by law are required to have school buildings that are independently funded. Given that the RCSD enrolls approximately 8,000 fewer students today than just a few decades ago, there is plenty of taxpayer-funded excess capacity. By consolidating schools to make this excess building space available to charter schools, more school options would be available for Rochester’s children.
To make Rochester city education reform a reality, these initiatives—along with Aquino’s priorities—need to be implemented one by one. It will be hard work and it will require thick skin. But as the state report chronicled, the RCSD for too long has existed to serve the adults ahead of the children—and that is unacceptable. The time for change is now.
Jim Ryan Jr., president of Ryco Management LLC, is a member of the Rochester Prep board of trustees.