It’s time to right-size the Rochester school district

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The Rochester City School District recently announced a plan to reorganize school buildings based on enrollment trends. Most of the work is dedicated to aligning schools’ composition to either elementary, junior high, or high schools, but this plan will simultaneously determine which buildings are so underutilized that they should close.

Miguel A. Melendez

This is a difficult charge for RCSD. Closing schools is never popular and should always be a last resort. But we must heed the call from State Monitor Shelley Jallow and begin to right-size the school district. Enrollment data presented in August illustrated a decline of over 7,000 students since 2010, and demographic trends suggest that this decline is going to continue for many years.

During this lengthy enrollment decline, RCSD has been very reluctant to close schools, largely because of a concern that any vacated district buildings will quickly become charter schools and further reduce enrollment. We are writing to encourage RCSD officials to make data-informed decisions to right-size the district as soon as possible, with a promise that the city of Rochester will prioritize converting vacated school buildings to affordable housing units.

Mitch Gruber

When RCSD surrenders a building, ownership reverts to the city of Rochester. We have an opportunity to transform these buildings into safe, quality and affordable housing. We’ve seen successful transformations of school buildings into housing in the past—good examples include the old School 24 on Meigs Street and Susan B. Anthony apartments on Central Park. Moreover, this is in line with priorities already demonstrated by this Council and administration. Last month, we endorsed applications to support the conversion of various buildings to mixed-use and affordable housing initiatives.

This is an opportunity to work together across different levels of government to make smart decisions that will benefit the larger community. If RCSD right-sizes their footprint, it could mean more and better services at fully occupied school buildings that were recently renovated through the School Modernization Program.

The underutilized buildings can be returned to the city of Rochester, and Council will advocate at the state level to fund the transformation of these buildings into safe, high-quality, affordable housing opportunities for Rochester residents. So often, we operate in inefficient silos—it is time we work together to benefit our scholars, our residents, and our city.

Miguel A. Meléndez Jr. is president and councilmember at-large of Rochester City Council. Mitch Gruber is finance chair and councilmember at-large. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

18 thoughts on “It’s time to right-size the Rochester school district

  1. Bravo to the charter school movement in Rochester based on the Netherlands model!

    What of the other fifty percent of parents who didn’t respond?

    What of families nearly homeless so that kids move between relatives and friends?

    Why not address two issues as spaces open?
    affordable housing to stabilize families, plus charter schools.

  2. The taxpayers spent tens of millions of dollars rehabilitating Charlotte HS, so it is configured as a great school building that students in our city need. Now these members of the city council would propose spending tens of millions more to turn them into housing, simply to deny them to those city children whose parents have chosen a charter school for them. Doesn’t sound like a great idea to me. Do we plan to put uneducated, unemployable citizens in the housing because we denied them the education that would have made them employable? Who pays the rent?
    Polls show that city parents overwhelmingly want school choice. It is comfortable suburbanites whose children attend great suburban schools who are opposing charter schools. The RCSD has been failing for more than 30 years (fewer than 15% of the kids are at grade level) and there is no sign of improvement other than in the charter sector, which now has 26% of all the city’s public school children. Over half of all parents of kindergarteners in the city applied to a charter school this year. These aren’t “parents who are able to advocate” but parents who are desperate for something better than the RCSD. The RCSD has more than $33,000 per child, $1 million per classroom of 30 kids, but can’t teach them to read or do basic math? I always hear about teaching critical thinking, but I sure don’t see much critical thinking among the politicians who are holding onto a failed system.
    “We need to reform” isn’t an actionable suggestion. The politics are so adult focused and negative that citizens can’t reform the system. But citizens can open more charter schools and give more opportunities to children, at a huge savings to the taxpayer (charter schools take only two thirds of the dollars and no local tax dollars) while educating children better.

  3. Council members Melendez and Gruber have a great vision to right-size public school buildings through community collaboration.

    Rochester needs both affordable housing so families can be stable, and viable public education that meets kids’ needs.

    Charter schools are a great alternative for kids who have parents able to advocate for them. Meanwhile, we need to reform public schools for every child.

  4. Thee number one issue in Rochester, that is the foundational problem, a failing school district, period. We need to graduate kids with a relevant education. I don’t care if the entire RCSD is closed and replaced with private schools. If that’s what it takes, do it. That will certainly address the housing issue at the same time. RCSD,… have had decades to educate,…you have failed miserably, period.

  5. While I agree that it makes sense to reduce the use of buildings that are not being fully utilized, I think it is equally important that those structures be used in a way that is consistent with bettering the community. Refurbished school buildings could be used for housing. That would be a wonderful idea as long as it came with a plan to increase generational wealth for the Black and Brown communities that reside there. Schools (any schools) are investments into the future of young people so that they are not relegated to lives of subsistence. To specifically dissuade the use of surrendered school buildings from being used as vehicles of choice for parents who want educational options for their children appears to be counter to what may be in the best interest of the neighborhood. So, maybe the best option is to make the buildings available to whatever endeavor will help the residents, not just now, but generations from now. I am sure that we all want that.

  6. The reason I work with charter schools is because they allow for citizen and parent involvement in opening and running better schools than the RCSD provides. I offered to work for free at RCSD and was turned down; they are impervious to help. To get a better school board is a daunting political task; the school board doesn’t want a change agent as superintendent and is looking for yet another just like the last ten; the union is focused on adult needs, not the children. I don’t see how we change this. So I put my efforts where they can make a difference. The entire nation of the Netherlands has a system very much like charter schools, where parents and citizens can create and run schools subject to rigorous accountability and with all the money following the child rather than being given to a big bureaucracy. It works wonderfully.

    • I was born and raised in The Netherlands. Absolutely correct. I have been offering my assistance for 13 years. They can fix it,….don’t want to. Decades of mismanagement at the cost of lives. I went to Edison tech at the same time the union president did. I’m 76, when are you going to set this failure out to pasture. Clean house for the sake of our youth.

    • Bryan, save you finger tips, they will not listen, act nor admit that there is a problem. They get up every morning doing the same thing over and over and over……….expecting different results. That is the definition of insanity. I’m sure they read their results, but they do not appear to care. That is something I can’t leave as is. Our kids, ALL of our kids, deserve a solid education. I attended Edison Technical and Industrial High School in the sixties. That school was thee CROWN JEWEL of education. The county students actually paid to attend this phenomenal school. They systematically destroyed that school. I guess, to say that they don’t do anything, might be wrong. To say they do very little to nothing right, absolutely. Its really strange, if you live in the city you have failing schools,….step over the line and whalaa, success. I believe we live in the same country. Teach the way kids learn, Show then careers and professions and have them connect those items. Connect the boring academics to those careers and professions. Show them!! Don’t just tell them!!

  7. I disagree slightly with Ms Caldwell when she suggests that Charter Schools are not the solution. BUT certainly Charter Schools are part of the solution. Not every empty RCSD School building can be occupied by a Charter School, but maybe some could.Not every empty RCSD building can be converted to Affordable Housing, but maybe some could.
    With respect to the broader question of the Rochester Education system, Charter Schools are part of the solution as they provide Parents and students with a choice, but Public Education is not going away and so there are other solutions beyond Charters that have to be put in place to improve it..

  8. Charter Schools are not the answer. What’s needed is committed teachers and staff across the board. A RCSD board of education that is not paid to do nothing and better yet not paid to destroy a district to the point that it exploits students and families. There needs to be a superintendent and board who is committed to the RCSD students by actually listening and working with the community. There also needs to be a Union president who cares about students and families.
    The students of this district are uneducated and undereducated.
    This needs to stop!! The Rochester community must stop working in silos and come together so that our scholars can thrive!!

    • Considering that the Charter and parochial schools are the ONLY success story within the community, I wouldn’t say, “Charter schools are not the answer.” I would say they are INDEED thee answer. You would prefer to see them closed when they are the only educational journey worth taking? ALL kids have innate skills and or gifts. Those items need to be discovered and expanded on in their K-12 journey. The RCSD has had decades to get this done. The failed the kids, the kids didn’t fail. Time to send Adam Urbanski out to pasture. He has become a millionaire on the backs and expense of our youth, Period. He talks the talk but has never walked the walk. The proof is right there for all to see. Right now, Velverly, the only education in town with ANY success are those Charter schools.

    • One question Velverly: How does one REORGANIZE a school that is not organized in the first place. They got it all, money, buildings good salaries, etc. They brag about East High School as it is thee House of Education. If that is such a good program, why has it not been replicated throughout the RCSD? That appears to me as an ‘inequity’. It appears that some are chosen to be successful while others are doomed to failure. I hear this equity cry all the time. But I hear nothing about spending $37,000.00 on the East High and the rest can just attend some other school and just deal with the failing. Lets not even discus the fact that the University of Rochester is helping the East High kids, but limiting their concern to East High? When are you and the rest of city gonna get this? You’re defending this lack of equality?

  9. If the priority is education and our children then why is turning some schools over to Charter Schools a bad thing? Affordable Housing is a great idea as well but RCSD has to do something other than what they’ve been doing which is hoping the population and Demographics will suddenly head in a different direction!

  10. Let’s do it already. We have children in the education system that need to graduate and become productive citizens of our Community. For decades, my opinion, the School Board and Teachers Union President have held up producing acceptable graduation rates. Let’s end paying School Board members as well. And it would so beneficial if the School Board allowed ‘advisors’ from Monroe County to assist them in making Student Focused decisions! Why not? We have a tremendous amount of talent that is closed out of advocating for City Students! Maybe a controversial idea but look at the damage that has been done to City Students with 30-40% graduation rates for decades. Downsize now! Bring in fresh advocates for the City Students!
    Personally, as Vice Chair of Hillside Work Scholarship Connection and Board member for over 20 years, I have seen what can be done to bring graduation rates to 80+%. And as a founding Board member of YWCP, I have seen first hand the City Student achievements that will benefit our Community. And touring Charter Schools, many are having the same results! Let’s get it done!

  11. Yes, the district should be right-sized. But to deny good school facilities to charter schools that are achieving proficiency rates for their students 3 or 4 times higher than the RCSD is one more step in the attempt to maintain a failed status quo that dooms our city to another cycle of generational poverty. Do the union dollars that cause you to suggest this action really mean more to you than the success of our city’s children and the contributions they could make to revitalizing our city if they were better educated? The way for the RCSD to keep their students and attract more people into the city is to replace a school culture of low expectations and bureaucratic imperatives that focus on adult needs with a culture of high expectations for teachers and students alike, a culture that respects the children and their families instead of blaming them for the poor performance of the system, a culture of “do what ever it takes”. Instead of trying to take away the autonomy, flexibility and accountability the charter schools have, why not empower principals with the same approach? Charter schools are given only two thirds of the money that the district schools get to do the same job and are forced to use some of their educational dollars to pay for facilities that district schools get for free. Let’s give more support to charter schools so they can better show the way to serve all of our city’s children.

    • Agree! Maybe Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce Board can have a redesign session with RCSD and School Board to brainstorm how to dramatically improve graduation rates and dramatically improve the education of our Rochester Community students. It’s our Monroe County Community that is being jeopardized —-not just the City of Rochester residents. And thank you, Bryan and your E3 team for doing great work to educate 7,000 students!

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