Rochester school district awaits yet another study 

The latest effort to improve the Rochester school district is now under way: Jaime Aquino, who was appointed by the state education commissioner to assess the district, has arrived and has started work.

Aquino, who has the title Distinguished Educator, has had administrative school positions in Los Angeles, Denver, and Hartford, so presumably he knows what to look for. His assignment is to study the district and come up with “goals and objectives for the district and himself for the ensuing year.” And then....

And then we’ll see if yet another assessment makes any difference. We’ve had reports and assessments before. The district’s problems have been identified. And little seems to change.

Meantime, we move the chairs and the desks around, change curriculum, close failing schools and open them with new names and new programs, and the problems remain.

A good bit of the challenge, as I’ve said plenty of times, is the city’s concentrated poverty. The latest report from the US Census Bureau brought yet another reminder of the shameful state we’ve allowed to develop: Rochester has the third worst child-poverty rate in the nation. That has real impact, and schools can't eliminate it. But the district and its staff can do a lot better than they’re doing.

Some district critics have criticized State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia for appointing Aquino. Well, Elia’s job is to provide oversight for the state’s public school districts. When Rochester is doing as badly as it is, she has a responsibility to act. And she did.

So now we wait for Aquino to tell us what he finds. I hope he’ll tell us more than just what’s wrong. I hope he’ll be able to tell us why.

Why can’t we fix even the most basic things like taking attendance properly? Presumably this has to do with proper training and oversight, but we’ve known for years that recording attendance is a problem. Previous studies have said that it is.

Related to that: Everybody knows that children with high absentee rates do poorly. Why do so many Rochester students skip school so often – and what does the district need to do about that?

Clearly there’s a need for more teachers of color. Nationally, we’re told, the supply is limited, but what can the district do to hire more? And how effective are the district’s programs to eliminate racism and change attitudes within its staff?

Teachers and principals have told us repeatedly that change is thrown at them with little training. Why have successive superintendents not been able to get that right?

And how much of all this is due to a lack of resources – not buildings and desks and books, but money to hire more well-trained counselors, social service staff, reading specialists? If it is possible to create high-achieving schools in a city with one of the country’s highest child poverty rates, it won't be done on the cheap.

Rochester’s teachers, administrators, and school board members are often blamed unfairly for not overcoming the impact of Rochester’s concentrated poverty. They have no control over the conditions outside of their schools. But clearly this district has problems that it can control and should be able to fix.

My guess is that Jaime Aquino’s study won’t uncover anything we don’t already know – other than, perhaps, the “why.” We’ve known about problems of training, oversight, racism for years. Why do they persist?

If he can tell us that, the rest will be up to us.

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