Rochester needs socioeconomically diverse, cross-district magnet schools

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Since our organization came together six years ago, Great Schools for All has championed a network of voluntary, socioeconomically diverse magnet schools. These schools provide unique, theme-based educational experiences, collaboratively administered by multiple school districts, as the best hope for improving academic outcomes for city children who have been denied the “sound basic education” that the New York State Court of Appeals determined is required by our state Constitution.

Don Pryor and Mark Hare

We believe integration matters and that segregation has terrible consequences, not just for children trapped in high-poverty, poor-performing schools, but for our entire community.

We have sometimes been called naïve. But we are not peddlers of Kumbaya moments or mystery cures. We go where the evidence takes us.

Great Schools is a citizens advocacy organization. We are clergy, researchers, educators, parents and grandparents (from city and suburbs) who know Rochester can do better by our most vulnerable children. 

In 2013, a number of us read Gerald Grant’s book, “Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.” Grant, a retired Syracuse University professor, compared the high-poverty schools in Syracuse (similar to Rochester’s) to the integrated and highly successful schools in Raleigh, N.C. 

Grant’s book details how concentrated poverty isolates disadvantaged children in Syracuse, depriving them of the opportunities and high expectations every child needs to thrive. In contrast, he describes how religious, civil rights, parent, business and political leaders in Raleigh recognized more than 40 years ago that they could never attract the business investments they would need to build a more prosperous community unless they had urban schools that could both appeal to middle-class families and improve educational opportunities for lower-income students.

The solution they settled on was consolidation of the city and surrounding Wake County school districts, followed by the development of magnet schools that could draw a mix of middle-class and low-income families by offering unique and innovative programming. Over the years, the now-unified Wake County Public School System has opened more than 30 magnet schools (primary and secondary) and developed strategies for building effective school communities that engage and celebrate children from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Despite what we read, we remained skeptical. So, 11 of us made a visit to Raleigh in 2014 to see for ourselves, and met with more than 75 community and school leaders. We became convinced their approach works. The outcomes speak for themselves. More on that below.

What we’re not saying

First, GS4A is not advocating the creation of a single countywide school district. Rather, we support a network of voluntary interdistrict schools. 

GS4A is also not saying that the many initiatives and supports intended to improve city schools are of little value. Far from it. Anything our community can do to create opportunities for kids in need, to surround them with encouragement and challenges—to love them and the promise of who they are—is welcome and important. That’s actually why diverse schools work: they give children an opportunity to escape the isolation that concentrated poverty forces them to live with.

Among the important initiatives now in place or being developed in the Rochester city schools:

  • There is no question that the legions of volunteer tutors who work one-on-one with city primary school students have opened doors for their students.
  • The introduction of restorative justice techniques in city schools, prescribed by the 2018 Code of Conduct, has given students the tools to manage frustration and conflict and cut suspension rates by 40 percent, according to a report by the Children’s Agenda. 
  • The Victorious Minds Academy program has been put into action by specially trained teachers in several city classrooms. Designed to curb the effects of structural racism, build relationships, develop cultural competencies and build students’ self-awareness and self-esteem, VMA has improved attendance rates and lowered suspension rates.
  • Efforts are being made to improve the recruitment of minority teachers. Research has consistently shown that minority students, especially African American boys, are more likely to succeed with exposure to teachers who look like they do. A 2017 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins, UC Davis and American University found that young black children, especially boys, are 29 percent more likely to say they’re thinking about college and up to 39 percent less likely to drop out if they have a black teacher for just one year. 
  • The district is providing extensive training for teachers, administrators and staff to address concerns about structural racism and implicit bias, and build culturally-responsive approaches to issues.
  • Community schools, built to bring a broad range of community services and expertise into city schools, may help to end the isolation from important services and institutions that poverty inflicts on so many city neighborhoods.

And, of course, in addition to supporting those initiatives, GS4A strongly supports those city schools that have shown graduation rates well above the city average (most recently, 54 to 59 percent)—among them, School of the Arts, World of Inquiry and School Without Walls.

Rochester needs a school system that works for all: What the research tells us

All of those efforts, and others, are essential to improving not just outcomes, but daily interaction in the most distressed city schools. But GS4A has deliberately focused our efforts on the need for a school system that works for all students—that is to say, a system that graduates the vast majority of students on time and ready for the next step in their lives, be that college, work, job training or military service.

The Rochester City School District is a nearly $1 billion-a-year enterprise. As the city has grown poorer, the percentage of that budget paid for by local taxes has fallen sharply. City support for the schools has been frozen for years at $119 million annually. Article XI, Section 1 of the state Constitution establishes that: “the legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.” Accordingly, the state pays the largest share of the cost of Rochester schools yet falls short of what it needed to achieve the “sound, basic education” language of the 1982 Levittown v. Nyquist Court of Appeals decision.

RCSD four-year graduation rates have been near or below 50 percent for many of those years. Even with recent improvements—the 2018 rate rose to 59 percent, partially reflecting a lower graduation standard—the school system we have is failing tragically. 

Our niche at GS4A has been to insist on a public school system that does its job to sharply improve the odds of success for all children—and in particular for those most at risk of failure. The fact that some students beat the odds is wonderful, but it does not mean the school system is doing all it can, or even that it is on the right track.

Socioeconomically diverse schools can significantly improve the odds. New York law makes it nearly impossible to replicate the Raleigh experience of consolidating the city and Wake County districts, but GS4A believes the state can and must provide incentives to encourage suburban districts to collaborate voluntarily with the city on the development of unique, intentionally diverse schools (roughly a 50/50 mix of economically disadvantaged students and middle-class or more affluent students) that would lead to much higher graduation rates and better preparation for the diverse work force of the future.

Below are the Wake County Public School System four-year high school graduation rates for the 2017-2018 school year.

All Students12,20589.1
American Indian3781.1
Two or More Races42289.1
Economically Disadvantaged3,16878.0
English Learner82165.9
Students With Disabilities1,66471.2
Academically Gifted2,992>95

The Wake County school system has more than 160,000 students in 187 schools, with just over 51,000 students classified as economically disadvantaged—that is, eligible for free or reduced-price federal lunches. While the graduation rates for most groupings of students lag the WCPSS aggregate goal of 95 percent, it is clear that the lower concentration of very poor students spread across schools and classrooms correlates with significantly higher graduation rates than what we see in the high-poverty Rochester city schools. 

The children from the most advantaged homes always have a better shot at success than those from the least advantaged. But diverse schools can and do narrow the gap. And not for nothing, the overall success of WCPSS schools means that families know they can locate anywhere in Wake County and be confident that their children will have access to a great school. If only that were true in Monroe County.

Other communities—such as Hartford, Conn.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Dallas—have also seen student improvements fueled by socioeconomically diverse schools. Louisville, Ky., is also illustrative. Integration efforts were launched in the Louisville-Jefferson County schools in 1975, and despite successes, have faced multiple setbacks and lawsuits.

Still, the five-year overall graduation rate stands at 83.1 percent (share of 2013 entering cohort graduating by 2017).

And a 2011 report to the Jefferson County Public Schools, by researchers Gary Orfield and Ericka Frankenberg, found huge support among students and parents, of all races, for continued diverse schools.

Although the link between student achievement and poverty is complex, figures from suburban Monroe County school districts strongly suggest that lower concentration of poverty in a school correlates to higher graduation rates. For example, in 2017, in Greece, 45 percent of students were socioeconomically disadvantaged, yet those same students had an 83 percent graduation rate; in East Irondequoit, the numbers were 56 percent disadvantaged, with an 85 percent graduation rate.

Despite resistance among some to integration as a strategy for academic improvement, researchers have long known its power. In the wake of the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare commissioned sociologist James Coleman and a team of academicians to assess “The Equality of Educational Opportunity.” See, too, Education Week’s summary and discussion of the Coleman Report 50 years later.

Many factors play a role in achievement gaps between minority and white students, Coleman found. But the composition of a school’s student body is the strongest indicator of likely success of the most disadvantaged students: “…if a white pupil from a home that is strongly and effectively supportive of education is put in a school where most pupils do not come from such homes, his achievement will be little different than if he were in a school composed of others like himself. But if a minority pupil from a home without much educational strength is put with schoolmates with strong educational backgrounds, his achievement is likely to increase. … A child’s learning is a function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher.”

A more recent survey of research by Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation added more detail.

  • In 2006, what may be the largest study ever to analyze the relationship between school integration and achievement used math exams required by the No Child Left Behind Act to examine data from 22,000 schools with 18 million students. The data showed that minority students have greater gains in racially integrated schools and concluded that a large portion of the “racial composition” effect is actually due to poverty and peer achievement.
  • A 2010 reanalysis of Coleman’s data, using more sophisticated statistical techniques, found that the overall socioeconomic status of the school matters more for academic outcomes of the most disadvantaged students than the socioeconomic status of those students’ own families. 

What we’re proposing

At Great Schools, we know that data alone rarely changes public opinion, even though on the matter of socioeconomically diverse schools, the data is overwhelming. 

But time and circumstances do change hearts and minds—even in Monroe County, where the longstanding narrative has it that suburban parents would never tolerate integrated schools that brought urban and suburban children together in the classrooms, and that many parents in high-poverty neighborhoods want stronger neighborhood schools and would not consider sending their children to an integrated school outside the neighborhood.

Instead, a new generation of parents fully recognizes and supports the advantages of truly diverse schools—for all the reasons you might expect. Many know their kids are more likely to have greater success in an increasingly diverse world if they attend diverse schools that help them collaborate with and appreciate students who come from different backgrounds with different perspectives.

In 2016, GS4A, with support from the Farash Foundation, commissioned a poll that queried 600 city and suburban parents. While generally satisfied with their children’s education, 88 percent of city parents and 81 percent of suburban parents said they believe it is somewhat or very important that their children attend schools that are ethnically, racially and socioeconomically diverse. Large majorities of all racial, ethnic, economic and geographic subgroups also said they would be willing to send their children outside their home districts for a diverse magnet school they find appealing.

So, yes, times have changed.

In response to this greater openness to diverse educational options, GS4A has been developing a detailed plan for achieving diverse schools, called Breakthrough Schools. The 2016 iteration of that plan can be found here. There are several issues—financial incentives, reimbursement formulas and the logistics of sharing staff, resources and facilities—that will have to be worked out among participating districts, legislators and state education officials. 

Our plan recommends several requirements for these schools, based on the success of diverse schools elsewhere. For example, we suggest that to receive designation as a Breakthrough School the applicant must:

  • Offer a plan to recruit from multiple school districts a student body that is roughly 50 percent low-income and 50 percent middle class.
  • Develop an academic program that is distinct from what school districts or BOCES currently offer—or that represents an expansion of a unique program for which there is insufficient capacity. Examples might include language immersion schools, public safety or health careers schools, a leadership academy, environmental sciences schools or a culinary arts school.
  • Create cross-cultural opportunities that help students prepare for the increasingly diverse workforce of the future.  
  • Offer a plan to build a diverse teaching and administrative staff.
  • Offer a plan to develop a school community that actively seeks ways to engage students and their parents in social, recreational or educational interaction.
  • Identify at least one community partnering organization (business, arts, medical, human services, etc.) that will have a role in enhancing academic opportunities at the school.

These rigorous standards will not be easy to meet, but they are essential to the successful outcomes we have described. 

It is clear that the strategies of the last 30 years have failed RCSD students and weakened the entire Rochester community. It is also clear that many of today’s parents do not want school district boundaries to deprive their children of the diverse educational experiences they need and deserve.

We recognize that the system failures—organizational, operational, financial and academic—reported by Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino must be addressed now for the RCSD to regain its credibility and capacity to serve city children. 

At the same time, we urge the Board of Regents and commissioner of education to publicly acknowledge that the city, steadily drained of resources, cannot fix its schools alone. The entire Rochester community, especially willing suburban school districts, must be a part of the solution.

We have reached a crisis of failure in Rochester schools. But that crisis is also an opportunity. Great Schools urges the community to make the most of this difficult moment to ensure at long last that the most disadvantaged children in our community have access to the education they deserve.

Mark Hare and Don Pryor are part of the leadership group at the Great Schools for All, a panel participant at the upcoming Rochester Beacon Forum on Rochester’s city schools on May 13.

10 thoughts on “Rochester needs socioeconomically diverse, cross-district magnet schools

  1. “…are these outcomes intended or not?” You’re kidding — right??? How in the world could we seriously contemplate the idea that the EXACT SAME URBAN VS. SUBURBAN PATTERNS AND OVERALL CONDITIONS that we see across this thoroughly racist nation-state (in every direction — North, East, South, and West) is even possibly just one, great big coincident???

    “…a better understanding of why our urban schools and suburban schools are structured, funded, and governed so differently…” Again, you have got to be kidding. That’s the way your fore mothers and fathers wanted it. And they organized, lobbied, worked to ensure it, and are continuing to do so — period.

    “…a better chance of unravelling the tangled web of legal restrictions and limitations on restructuring a system that is failing both the urban and suburban communities [— WHAT —] failing suburban communities???” WHAT???

  2. Pingback: Breaking the cycle of failure in Rochester’s schools - Rochester BeaconRochester Beacon

  3. “First, GS4A is not advocating the creation of a single countywide school district. Rather, we support a network of voluntary interdistrict schools.”
    Why is rejecting the idea of a countywide school district the FIRST principle here? If Raleigh and Wake County, NC could do it, why not Rochester and Monroe County, home of Frederick Douglass, Susan B Anthony, and Isaac and Amy Post?

    • Why not a countywide district? As best we can determine with our research, the state constitution would not permit the Big 5 districts to merge with other districts. In NYS, the Big 5 (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and NYC) districts are tied to city government. They share a tax and debt limit with city government and have contiguous boundaries. Consolidation would require fiscally independent city districts (like suburban, rural and small cities have). That change would likely require a constitutional amendment (passed by two Legislatures and a statewide voter referendum) to separate the Big 5 districts from their cities. Where there is a will, there’s way, I suppose, but that is an enormous change and we at GS4A think a lot of the benefits of diverse schools can be accomplished with voluntary urban-suburban collaboration.

      • I’ve long been curious about the backstory of the State’s constitutional linkage (bondage?) of the Big 5 districts to their city governments. When was this codified? Why? What problem was it supposed to solve? We see the disastrous consequences, but are these outcomes intended or not? It seems to me that if we have a better understanding of why our urban schools and suburban schools are structured, funded, and governed so differently, then we have a better chance of unravelling the tangled web of legal restrictions and limitations on restructuring a system that is failing both the urban and suburban communities.

      • Thank you for this explanation, Mark. I still believe it is worth fighting for, but now have a much better understanding of why it is seen as an extraordinary lift.

  4. As a pediatrician serving both Rochester and suburban district students for over 35 years, I regard the inequities in education in our region as destructive and intolerable. They have perpetrated the ingrained poverty in our city as well as have done little to reduce structural racism. If we are to make any headway in improving the lot of our students, both city and suburban, Great Schools for All seems like a validated, evidence-based solution. At this polarized point in our society, we will need both the public and political will to carry this off. We must realize that, if we are to move forward, we have little choice but to adopt innovation and creativity.

    • For those who believe that “Great Schools for All seems like a validated, evidence-based solution” — the remote possibility of racial integration representing part of the solution relative to the crisis in urban, public education, is an issue and question that is largely dependent upon the commitment of its advocates, especially white persons. For those who are serious about their belief in the morality and value of racial integration, and truly committed to bringing it into existence, huge numbers of white people in particular, must necessarily be willing to confront the deep-seated, irrational, racism harbored in the hearts and minds of their mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors and colleagues. It is important to consider that, historically speaking, (in the main) people of color have not been guilty of establishment and maintenance of pervasive, organized, resistance to racial integration within the U.S. . On the contrary, there is probably no example in the history of the world in which people have surpassed the efforts of African Americans and other people of color to integrate into a society that has repeatedly rejected them as equals. It would not be morally or ethically right, nor would it be logical to now blame African Americans and/or other people of color for being sick and tired of chasing that which certainly appears to be a pipe dream.

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