The search for RCSD solutions

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Some 250 people attended the Rochester Beacon forum on May 13.

Nearly 250 people representing a broad segment of the Rochester community gathered this week to consider what might be done to alter the path of the city’s long-troubled public school system. 

It might have been the first time such a disparate group came together to ponder the city schools’ ills since the 1980s when former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, acting then as head of the Rochester Urban League, summoned community leaders, parents and others to the Xerox Auditorium. 

Organized by the Rochester Beacon and billed as a search for solutions to the complex web of problems, including lagging test scores and low graduation rates, elucidated in Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino’s November report, Monday’s three-hour session did not lack for suggestions.

Panelists spoke in favor of charter schools, community schools and magnet schools. Presenters included education-focused advocacy groups such as ROC the Future and Great Schools for All. 

The forum was hosted by the College at Brockport’s Institute for Poverty Studies and Economic Development in downtown Rochester. Bond, Schoeneck & King PLLC was presenting sponsor. Canandaigua National Bank & Trust, Costanza Enterprises Inc., Mengel Metzger Barr & Co. LLP and the Rochester Area Community Foundation were silver sponsors.

Small steps to improvement

Former New Jersey Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf, who drew national attention after resigning from that post to lead a turnaround of the troubled Newark, N.J., school system, led off as keynote speaker.

Cerf said meaningful improvement is built not on any a single overarching grand plan but with a series of small steps.

“There are no silver bullets,” he said. “The key is implementing 100 one percent solutions.”

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Considered in isolation, each small step—ensuring that teachers greet and guide children arriving by school bus or paying close attention to how a school’s day is organized, for example—might not seem to be world shattering. But many such small measures add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts, Cerf proposed.

Similarly, he added, school designs and programs do not have to be applied as templates into which every school building is forced. “I am quality focused and governance indifferent,” he declared. What works in a given situation is what’s best for that situation. 

To school officials and board members, Cerf advised: Do not reject out of hand solutions to a local problem proposed by a non-local. “Abandon the not-invented-here mentality,” he said. “Don’t get hung up on your locality.” 

In what could have been a dart aimed directly at the Rochester City School District Board of Education, Cerf warned that a sine qua non for success is a school board’s “appreciation of the line between management and governance.”  

Repeating a warning he gives job seekers thinking about applying for a superintendent position, Cerf advised: “If you have to ask permission to hire your … senior executive team; if you have to ask permission to hire your principal; if you have to ask permission to make tenure decisions or personnel decisions or pick your reading program; if that is done by a roving board … forget it. You’ll spend your entire life having lunch with board members.”

In his report, Aquino criticized the RCSD board as too meddlesome in district management and noted an anonymous commenter’s contention that “no superintendent could succeed with this board.”

State takeover

A panel discussion followed the keynote. It featured Cerf, parent Walida Monroe-Sims, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski and Jackie Campbell, executive director of ROC the Future. Panelists were asked to comment on Cerf’s roughly one-hour keynote. Most were lengthier variations of Warren’s response, which in its entirety was: “Cerf said what I wanted to say.”

Rochester Beacon opinion editor Kent Gardner, who moderated the panel, asked Warren to comment on what role the state might or should play in the RCSD’s unfolding drama. The mayor said the state should “step up and make the decision on how we are governed.”

“This needs to happen in order to improve the outcomes of the children,” Warren said. “We’ve been doing the same things over and over again. We haven’t gotten a different result. As far back as I can remember to Mayor Johnson, who had a blue ribbon commission, Mayor Duffy, who looked for mayoral control and took a beating for that to even now (when) we’re talking about the same thing and we have not changed how we are governed. We need to take a hard look. We can’t do that by ourselves. The state has to be willing to step up.”  

Campbell said ROC the Future has had discussions on the topic with state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who reportedly has warned school board members that a state takeover could be in the cards. The bottom line? Before the state takes any such action the commissioner would like to have a clearer idea of what the community’s expectations are. 

“The community needs to decide what it wants to do,” Campbell said.

Urbanski elaborated: “It’s a mistake to say to the state: do something. I think it’s a mistake to say to the commissioner: do something. The experts on what needs to be done are right here. The ones who care the most are right here.”

He suggested going to officials with a specific request and analysis.

“Whatever it is that the people approaching the state think the problem is, they should state it; they should state their analysis and they should tell the state: here is what we need and here is what we want,” Urbanski said. “We may differ on that, but not so much that we can’t come to common ground.”

Other solutions

The program’s second panel consisted of East High School superintendent Shaun Nelms, Farash Foundation senior program officer Kirsten Barclay, Don Pryor of Great Schools for All and Northeast Charter Schools Network CEO Anna Hall. Beacon publisher Alex Zapesochny introduced panel, promising that each member’s presentation would amount to a practical, real- world illustration of Cerf’s 100 one percent solutions formulation.  

Here are the slide presentations for keynote speaker Christopher Cerf and the members of the panel on school-level reforms:
Keynote speech – Christopher Cerf, former superintendent of schools, Newark, N.J.;
Charter schools – Anna Hall of the Northeast Charter School Network;
Community schools – Kirsten Barclay of the Farash Foundation;
Magnet schools – Don Pryor of Great Schools for All; and
New York State receivership – Shaun Nelms, superintendent of East High School

Hall, whose organization advocates for charters in this state, made a case for charter schools as agents uniquely suited to implement Cerf’s nostrum. Charters are generally smaller and report to a private, individual board rather than a districtwide board and can be more manageable, she noted. 

And while critics see charters as eating into traditional public schools’ resources, Hall cast them as easing districts’ burdens by taking responsibility for a portion of the student population that would otherwise tax a district’s resources. The 12 Rochester charter schools now in operation will reduce the RCSD’s student population by 6,000, a boon to the incoming superintendent, she maintained. 

Barclay spoke for community schools, highlighting the benefits that schools featuring extended hours that offer benefits like connections to social services, medical and dental clinics can do not only to boost student performance but to increase parent involvement and provide neighborhood cohesion. The turnaround of the formerly struggling School 17 on Rochester’s west side, a community school championed by Warren, more than amply proves the point, she said.

Pryor spoke of Great Schools for All’s quest to establish a network of local cross-district magnet schools that would pull students from suburban and city districts. Research has well demonstrated that such schools benefit not only their urban students but suburban ones as well, he said. Talks are underway among several local districts that are likely to see such schools established in Monroe County, he predicted.

Noting his position as the last speaker in a long evening, Nelms gave a foreshortened account of East High School’s still-unfolding journey with substantial University of Rochester assistance from last place among the RCSD’s schools to the one of the district’s most improved.

Interest in the topic was high enough that registration closed 10 days before the event and, despite its three-hour span, a majority of the audience stayed for the entire program. Not all attendees were satisfied with what they heard, however.

Though he has enjoyed and mostly approved of the Beacon’s education reporting and commentary and had eagerly anticipated the event, education blogger Calvin Eaton wrote in a May 14 post, he had to force himself “to sit through a languishing and lengthy presentation by Chris Cerf, the forum’s keynote speaker.” 

Eaton found Cerf’s presentation on point. Nevertheless, he wrote: “Everything he shared I’d already heard before. In fact, I have no doubt that every single person in the room already knew everything he was presenting.”

Eaton also wrote that though the second roster of local panelists was made up of individuals he admires, mostly agrees with and would have preferred to hear from earlier in the program, he “didn’t learn much really. This forum like so many before it reinforced much about what I already know about Rochester and the Rochester City School District.”

Might Eaton have missed something, however? While he complained that the event was largely a rehash of previous forums, it is a long time since such players came together in Johnson’s “come to Jesus meeting.”

“A lot of people advised me to not send my own daughter to city schools. That bothered me,” Johnson recalled last year in an interview some three decades later.  

In 1986, the Urban League in conjunction with the Center for Education Development published “A Call to Action,” a report that among other things stated: “We are failing our young people, failing to adequately prepare them to assume their roles, failing to prepare them to cope in the society we have created.”  

Despite a reform effort that began a year after the report’s publication and numerous other plans and initiatives that followed under a revolving parade of RCSD administrations, the one clear consensus among those who gathered this week was that the city’s public schools are still largely failing their students. 

When I interviewed Johnson last year as part of an article on Urbanski, I got the distinct impression that the ex-mayor believes the communitywide effort he hoped to spark with “A Call to Action” was co-opted by a school reform that Urbanski and then RCSD superintendent Peter McWalters kicked off in 1987. It drew national acclaim, but ultimately sputtered and fizzled out.  

Only a smattering of parents attended Monday’s event and no students were heard from. And as Eaton noted, neither of the two state Board of Regents members living in Rochester, Andrew Brown and Wade Norwood, appeared to have attended.  

Still, the event drew many interested community members including the city’s current mayor and her immediate predecessor, advocates of various programs and school designs, school board members, the current RCSD superintendent and his top deputy, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association, teachers and school administrators. Three college presidents, Heidi Macpherson, president of the College at Brockport, David Munson, president of Rochester Institute of Technology, and Daan Braveman, president of Nazareth College, were also present. If the conversation can be continued, could it be a step toward reviving the conversation Johnson wanted to start three decades past? 

A disappointment for him, wrote Eaton, was that despite the promise of the forum’s title, “Rochester Schools: The Elephant in the Room,” he was left with no clear picture of exactly what that elephant might be.

Comments RCSD parent Monroe-Simsmade might provide a clue, shining a light for an audience largely made up of concerned but non-minority professionals on how the system looks to many RCSD parents and students. 

“Racism on all levels—structural, institutional—it’s not going anywhere, Monroe-Sims said. 

“From a parent perspective, we’re talking about governance in the schools as the children see it on a day-to-day basis; that’s the concern I have for my children and the children throughout the district, how adults are able to maneuver and our children have to endure it on a daily basis. This is the concern. 

“We talk about culturally based curriculum. … I think it’s important to keep in mind that (there are) systems in place that are not in support of our children, but are in support of adults who are in support of the racism every day. That’s my concern as a parent. 

“When you have teachers—and I’m not saying all teachers—but when you have some teachers who are exhibiting (racist) behavior, how is the building in itself governing that behavior? Is that teacher removed one or two days and then they can come back based on tenure? How are the children affected by the behaviors of the adults in the building who are exhibiting racist behavior? As a parent, that’s what I would be concerned about.”   

In her most impassioned remarks of the event, Warren elaborated: “(Racism) has to be acknowledged and we have to something about it. There’s an old African proverb: When elephants fight, the grass dies. Right now, across this community, half of our children are dying.”

She questioned the absence of parent engagement in the search for a superintendent.

“The question is: Why? Why didn’t our parents show up? Do they believe they’ll be heard? Do they believe that we care enough about them and their children to make the decisions necessary, the hard and tough decisions?”

Warren pressed on, highlighting the fact most of the impoverished in Rochester are people of color while decision makers are not.

“For me, it’s a matter of looking at the system and where we can diversify the system … with teachers and with administrators, but not just that but holding each other accountable and not allowing our children to be subjected to the things they’re subjected to,” she said. “You don’t walk through a suburban school district and have to walk through metal detectors. You treat them like animals and they will become animals. That is the problem.”

Acknowledging students’ struggles is an essential part of the solution, she said.

“We argue about who’s in charge, who’s not in charge or what the state should do or what the state should not do or what we as a community are prepared to do or not prepared to do,” Warren said. “The reason why this has been an issue for so long is because it’s always been a discussion about other people’s children, people’s children who cannot move to a better district, people’s children who don’t have a choice in the matter.”

The community, especially parents, don’t feel like they’re being heard, she continued. 

“They are the experts; they can tell us what they need,” Warren said. “Are we willing to do what is necessary to make the sacrifice, to get out of the way and do what is best for our kids. … I can tell you that we are not, because if we were, we wouldn’t need a forum like this. We would do it.”  

2 thoughts on “The search for RCSD solutions

  1. Pingback: Readers respond to the Beacon’s education forum - Rochester BeaconRochester Beacon

  2. A community that is wallowing in poverty cannot express its educational needs — its focus is on food, effective housing, safe streets, and (hopefully) a job with a future. To expect that community to meaningfully participate in the education discussion is foolhardy.
    And why are we not studying the micro-communities that arrived in Rochester poor as church mice yet who are succeeding — with jobs, houses in suburban communities, educated children — the Sudanese, the Bosnians, the Croatians. How did they overcome the same poverty and education issues in one generation?

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