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‘Don’t close my school’


This is an emotional time in Rochester neighborhoods. The school district, facing a continual drop in enrollment and a tight budget, is going to close several elementary schools. They'll come from a list of 16 schools whose buildings qualify because of their enrollment, physical condition, and some other criteria.

            The school our children attended, School 23, is on the hit list. And as parents from that school cited its attributes and begged the board not to close it at a school board hearing last week, it was all I could do to hang onto my journalistic objectivity. Elementary schools are simply too precious; they pull too many emotional strings.

            We take our visiting grandson to play at the School 23 playground, the same playground his mother played on. When we're home on a school day, we can hear the school bell ring in the morning, hear children's laughter. School 23 is our polling place, and when we enter the school each election day, we walk past an enormous tile mosaic, which our middle child helped create in art class.

            I'm not going to plead in this column that the district save School 23. I know full well that parents of the other 15 schools have their own attachments and are making their own arguments.

            The fact is, all of these schools are critically important to their communities. And they're critically important to the city at large.

            The school district's problems are in the news so often that you don't realize the district's strengths --- and the devotion many parents have to city schools. That devotion has been out in full force at the board's hearings, with hundreds of parents praising city schools and teachers.

            More is involved here than simply having a school within walking distance of your home. The schools are a focal point. They're vibrant institutions --- almost living things.

Some parents at the hearings noted that their schools attract people to their neighborhood, that they keep young families in the city. That is unquestionably true. People ask about school quality when they're buying a home, and several of the schools on the hit list are bragging points for the district. They do indeed attract families to their neighborhoods and keep them there. And that is a vitally important role.

            What we're really talking about, of course, is attracting and keeping middle and upper-income families. Rochester has lots of poor families; in some city schools, virtually every student comes from a family receiving public assistance. And even if those families wanted to live outside the city --- and send their children to suburban schools --- they're trapped, given the dearth of subsidized housing in the suburbs.

            This issue presents the school district with a real dilemma. Several of the schools that are likely to attract and keep middle and upper-income parents are located in predominantly white, more affluent neighborhoods. They are often the city's highest-achieving schools --- because the children who attend them come from more affluent, well-educated parents. The schools with the lowest test scores are routinely the schools with the highest concentration of poverty.

            In fact, the lovely little elementary schools in the upper-income neighborhoods might have closed long ago if they depended on students from their neighborhoods alone. Black and Hispanic students have been bused to those schools for years --- out of their own neighborhoods.

            Board members may find it tough to close only schools in the poorest neighborhoods --- whose students are also almost exclusively black and Hispanic. On the other hand, if they close schools in the more affluent neighborhoods, many parents who live in those areas may opt out of the school district --- and the city --- altogether, further exacerbating the district's poverty concentration.

Driving all of this, of course, is declining enrollment. And that's caused not only by a declining birth rate but also by families deciding to send their children someplace other than city schools. According to the most recent district figures, 9732 students live in the city but go to school elsewhere. Seven thousand of them are going to charter schools or suburban schools through the Urban-Suburban Transfer Program, or are home-schooled. (Most of those 7000 are former city-school students now attending charter schools within the city.) Another 2380 are going to parochial schools. And 176 are at private schools.

            How many of those students could the district reclaim? What would it take? Expensive specialty programs? Expensive marketing campaigns?

            Then there are the families who have moved to the suburbs, where taxpayers are having to pay to build or expand schools while the city district is forced to close existing ones. Nobody knows how many children the city has lost to its surrounding suburbs, but the migration pattern has been clear for years.

            What would it take to get those families back into city schools? Is it really prohibitively expensive to create magnet schools so superb that suburban parents would clamor to get their children into them? Could suburban school districts be persuaded to participate --- with money? Would that be cheaper than building and staffing schools in their own towns?

            I don't have the answers to any of this. I do know that the school district is in a tough spot. We can't dispute the enrollment decline: There are simply far fewer children attending city schools than there were 10 years ago. And that decline is projected to continue.

            Superintendent Manuel Rivera and the school board are going to close some schools. It has happened before, and it's going to happen again. I wish with all my heart that it were not so. I wish there had not been the flight to the suburbs. I wish everybody recognized the value of small schools. I wish a lot of things.

            I don't envy Rivera and the board members their task. As they prepare to close schools, though, I hope they'll look at the other side of the issue: the potential for reclaiming the lost students.

            Maybe it's time to dig in our heels, to quit thinking that we can't do anything about the decline. I think we can.

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