Putting children first

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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.

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Jim Ryan Jr.

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.

10 thoughts on “Putting children first

  1. Regarding Jim Ryan’s article, which recommends that the Rochester City School District follow the examples of New Orleans, Indianapolis and Detroit to improve the education process for RCSD children, I provided a research-based article on the limited success in New Orleans. Please see these articles by Diane Ravitch and Thomas Ultican on the limited success of the Indianapolis and Detroit school districts.

  2. I read Mr. Ryan’s article several months ago & finally decided that the other side of touting the success of charter and privatization efforts in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Detroit needs to be told; especially to those who believe that those cities are succeeding in providing a meaningful education to its students and overcoming the impact of poverty and trauma. This appeared on the blog of one of the world’s most respected educators, authors and researchers, Diane Ravitch: “New Orleans: An Amazing Feat of Spinning Poor Results!”

  3. “…the budget for this is being cut in next year’s budget,” which is what the “press conference” was really all about — as opposed to that which RCSD students and parents really need.

  4. I agree with Mr. Ryan that too many people in the community have chosen to accept the premise that poverty is the cause of our schools failure. There are way too many examples locally & nationally that dispute that premise. We have numerous examples right here in ROC @ RCSD and in Charter Schools.
    I just came from one example of what is working @ RSCD at a press conference at School #17. It highlighted the recently published “Breaking the Prison-to-School Pipeline – How Improving School Climate Supports Academic Learning” by The Rochester City School District, Citizen Action of New York, AQE, The Children’s Agenda and Teen Empowerment.
    All the local TV stations were there – watch your favorite local news.
    One of the factors I found most interesting was the data actually separated the pre & post “Code of Ethical Conduct” Guess what? This has improved dramatically and I’m not going to take the time to tell you why.
    What I will tell you is that at the heart of it is improving “restorative practices” being taught and prThat is until on my way out, I learned that the budget for this is being cut in next years budget. Ironically, Van White is the School #17 RSCD Board liaison and attended the meeting!!!
    REALLY!, REALLY!, REALLY! Draw your own conclusions on what the fate of School Board should be.

    • “…the budget for this is being cut in next year’s budget,” which is what the “press conference” was all about — as opposed to that which RCSD students and families really need.

  5. I can’t agree that privatization necessarily precludes putting children first. In fact, I believe that many systems, methods, and philosophies can advance our children’s education. The challenge lies in matching individual needs with the programs offered.

    • I say bring on all the “systems, methods and philosophies” that we can but with one caveat. Each one needs to be evaluated to know if children are really learning. If not – those need to be tossed in favor of the next idea – in real time. Test results will tell us what is working and what is not. So far in the RCSD, the answer about what works is very obvious.

  6. This is disgusting. We need education not privatization. Putting children first means rejecting privatization and charter schools. The free market is a disaster. It doesn’t even work for economics. Schools are not for sale.

    • The data surely doesn’t support Mr/s Disgusting’s view. Certainly not all privatization works, nor all Charter Schools achieve the high performance referenced by Mr. Ryan. On top of that, there are many “pockets of excellence” within the RSCD. This isn’t an either/or, it is a yes and. Let the excellent pull everyone up, rather than what isn’t working pushing us down. One such example is in another comment I am making.

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