A realistic, proven plan to create better schools 

This week, a group of Rochesterians are launching what I think is the only realistic way to reform public education in Rochester: a plan for a countywide network of public magnet schools drawing students from the city and the suburbs.

The group, now called Great Schools for All, began several years ago as a coalition of Presbyterians from several area churches and has grown to include a larger, diverse group of people concerned about Rochester's schools, from the city and the suburbs. (Disclosure: Great Schools' leaders include two of my pastors, Third Presbyterian's John Wilkinson and Lynette Sparks; Third Church member Don Pryor; and journalist Mark Hare, whose career includes stints at the local Gannett dailies and this newspaper).

Deeply concerned about the low achievement of many Rochester students, the Great Schools group has been studying the vast research about the problems of the country's urban schools. It has held meetings and workshops on the topic. Two years ago, 11 Great Schools participants visited Raleigh, North Carolina, whose integrated school system boosted the academic achievement of its children. Their findings reinforced what some of them had long believed: Rochester's high concentration of poverty is preventing thousands of children from getting a good education.

Their solution: magnet schools with a mix of poor and non-poor children, no more than 50 percent poor in any one school.

All across the country, cities are facing the same thing: dramatically low student achievement and high poverty rates in many of their public schools. And most of us keep trying to do the same thing: raise student achievement without dealing with the poverty.

You can find pockets of success, individual schools - traditional public schools, charter schools - with good achievement rates, but they're the exception. What has worked consistently: creating schools with low poverty rates.

"The evidence," says Mark Hare, "is not only compelling but overwhelming that when you integrate schools along socioeconomic lines, you can see dramatic improvement in outcomes for the poorest children."

And in this community, our economic and racial segregation is so extreme that the only way we can create schools with no more than 50 percent poverty is to include students from both the city and the suburbs.

Every city public school has a student poverty rate of at least 60 percent. And in many cases, the poverty rate is 80 to 90 percent. "There's no way that the city school district can fix itself," says Don Pryor, "because of the demographics."

Great Schools' plan is simply a framework, an idea with some firm parameters: primary and secondary magnet schools that would cross existing school district lines, city and suburban, each with a limit on the number of poor children it enrolled. The schools would offer programs that individual districts couldn't offer on their own: technology, the arts, languages.... They could be located in the city or the suburbs. Enrollment would be voluntary.

This is not a plan for a countywide school district. And the Great Schools group doesn't want to create or operate the schools; they could be run by several school districts together, by an area college, or by a new organization.

Great Schools members assume that their idea will become reality slowly, starting with two or three schools, maybe by the fall of 2017. And they know it may be a heavy lift. For one thing, operating an inter-district public school will require some changes in state law. Public school aid will have to be configured so that none of the participating school districts suffer financially.

And somebody will have to be willing to go first - some suburban district, organization, or college will have to be willing to invest the energy and the time to do this and to rally the public behind the idea.

I don't think there'll be a lack of parental support. I'd bet that the first school created would be swamped with applications - from the city and from the suburbs. Great Schools has conducted four focus-group discussions with city parents, and not surprisingly, those parents were hungry for options. I think there's a similar hunger among many suburban families for schools with more diverse student bodies, as long as they're sure that their children will get a high-quality education.

The Great Schools leaders stress that they're not "going to war" against the Rochester school district or charter schools. They're acting on their conviction - and on research findings - that high-poverty schools rarely succeed, and integrated schools do.

They're also acting on their conviction that, as their plan puts it, the city and county "are interdependent," and that "the county cannot be economically and socially healthy without the city, as its core, also being economically and socially healthy." And that the city can't be healthy if its children are failing in school.

They also think the time is right to push for these schools. The community is well aware of the school district's problems, and the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative has the community discussing the poverty that is linked to the schools' poor performance.

Great Schools is going public with its proposal softly, posting its plan on its website - www.gs4a.org - this week. It's in the midst of a telephone survey, gathering information about the public's interest in schools like this. Its members are talking with community and education leaders in the city and suburbs. A consultant is researching the legislative changes their proposal would require. They're planning a social-media campaign. And in June, they'll hold a public meeting to discuss their idea.

"We have no choice but to move forward," says Pryor. For decades, the school district has tried to solve the problem on its own. "It's absolutely clear that all these well-meaning efforts aren't working." Nothing, Pryor says, has helped the district get its graduation rate above 50 percent, and we've created "generation after generation of kids who are consigned to the scrap heap."

That has to stop, and Great Schools doesn't see a better solution than this. Neither do I.

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