Interdistrict public magnet schools could be an effective strategy for rolling back segregation and improving educational outcomes for all children in Monroe County, a new report has found.
Schools that are socioeconomically and racially diverse and that offer educational opportunities not otherwise available to students in the county’s school districts “should be considered a realistic, feasible and viable option likely to improve educational outcomes and long-term success among all students, and particularly those in geographical areas with high concentrations of poverty,” states the report by Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a global law firm with headquarters in San Francisco.
Orrick was engaged by Great Schools for All, an advocacy coalition that for a number of years has sought to build a network of socioeconomically diverse magnet schools open to students from across Monroe County.
While highlighting the promise of the proposed “breakthrough schools,” the report also outlines the hurdles—including legislative and financial hurdles—that must be cleared.
The 184-page report documents the stark disparities in terms of race and economic status between Rochester and nearby suburbs. School districts surrounding the city collectively are 83 percent white, 7 percent Black and 5 percent Hispanic; in the city, the breakdown is 53 percent Black, 33 percent Hispanic and 10 percent white.
Median household income in Rochester is $35,590—with 31 percent of the population, and roughly half of children, living in poverty. In Monroe County, median household income is $60,075, with 13 percent of the population living in poverty.
“Socio-economically diverse schools cannot be achieved in the City of Rochester if the Rochester City School District acts by itself, since 84% of its students are economically disadvantaged,” the report states.
Orrick found that “decades of research … show unequivocally that socioeconomic and racial integration of schools can dramatically improve academic progress, graduation rates and readiness for college or work.” The report adds that while integration helps to narrow the graduation-rate gap between white and Black and Latinx students, “research is also clear that all students in such diverse schools are likely to benefit from improved problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, ability to work collaboratively with those from different backgrounds, and preparation for the 21st-century workforce.”
Great Schools for All does not propose consolidation of county school districts; rather, it calls for a mechanism that would permit districts to work together to voluntarily develop magnet schools that would center curriculum around themes—such as health careers, language immersion, environmental science and social justice—to offer programs not otherwise available in the county’s public schools. Enrollment in the schools would be voluntary, but each would be integrated by design, with a racially and socioeconomically diverse mix of city and suburban students. The report says research shows the aim should be a roughly 50-50 mix of low- and middle-to-upper income students.
Orrick examined three current educational platforms that could help to launch the interdistrict magnet schools—BOCES, the Urban-Suburban Program and charter schools—and concluded that BOCES is “the most promising model.”
Interdistrict magnet schools in Monroe County would require legislative action in Albany because no New York law currently permits separate school districts to jointly create and co-manage diverse public schools with students from each of the participating districts. The report notes that state law does provide statutory models for innovation and interdistrict enrollment, but “legislative adaptations to the BOCES statute would be required. It points to two programs—Tech Valley High School near Albany, and the Syracuse Comprehensive Education and Workforce Training Center—that “provide useful models for how new enabling legislation may be coupled with the BOCES framework.”
The report also outlines other challenges the proposed interdistrict magnet schools would face. Among them: the poor reputation of a number of RCSD schools, which would “continue to discourage many suburban families from sending their children to schools in the city,” and the Rochester school district’s dire financial straits which, combined with New York’s budget woes, could limit the ability to fund new innovative schools.
Orrick’s advice to Great Schools for All and interested school districts: Start small. Identify several potential pilot schools that could be prototypes to demonstrate the model’s feasibility.
According to Great Schools for All, BOCES 1 District Superintendent Daniel White says a group of district superintendents in the county “has agreed to meet to discuss the Orrick report and its implications for moving forward in our community.”
The Orrick report was completed in May. It has just been released publicly, but Great Schools for All over the last six months shared the report with school district officials throughout the county as well as members of the local delegation of Assembly and Senate members and others including Rochester Mayor-elect Malik Evans.
“I applaud Great Schools for All for commissioning the Orrick report,” Evans says. “My hope is that this report will spur further discussions and more importantly collective action on how we create more equitable and quality schools in our community.”
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.