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Standing up for city schools


Michael Lopez dashed around the soccer field at East High School. At one point, he stood on an overturned trash can in the goal area to show about a dozen teens where to aim their kick so that the ball clears the goalkeeper without sailing over the net.

Lopez's two sons, who attend World of Inquiry School 58, were on the field, too, and a track team practiced at the opposite end. A large group of parents and siblings were gathered at the bleachers, and East's security guards turned on the field's flood lights so that the students could continue practicing into dusk.

Lopez, a volunteer coach, says that sports are huge for Rochester City School District students. The Griffins, School 58's boys' varsity soccer team, for instance, won the Section V title last year. The team's success was cause for celebration, and one of many examples, Lopez says, of excellent activities and programs at city schools.

He says that he wouldn't dream of moving out of the city and enrolling his children in a suburban school district, even though suburban districts perform better academically.

"Having gone through a rural, mostly white district where I was called names like Spic and taco and other stuff, I did not want my kids to go through an environment like that," he says.

Lopez's sons spent their elementary years at School 12, and he says that both are doing well at School 58.

"To me, it's less about grades, not to say that grades aren't important," he says. "It's more about the work ethic and learning to respect other people."

Lopez is by no means alone in his allegiance. Despite a fairly common parable about young couples who live in the city: couple has their first child, school anxiety sets in, and up goes the For Sale sign, Lopez is part of a battalion of devoted city school district parents.

Many are two-parent professional households that could easily afford a comfortable, middle-income lifestyle in the suburbs. Some could even afford to send their children to a pricey private school. But they see themselves as urban dwellers and they want their children to have the same experience, and that includes the city's public schools.

While they're not blind to the harsh realities of the city school district, they don't speak about them in what they say are too-often catastrophic terms. And they say that the Rochester school system should be seen as the city's most important asset rather than its worst detriment.

Lopez works in the county public defender's office as a special assistant public defender, and says that young people from both the city and the suburbs get into trouble. But people tend to think that only city schools and city families have problems, he says.

"Things aren't always so great in all of those suburban schools," he says. "Money often brings more access to things like narcotics, and I'm not just talking about herb. Suburban schools and families, they have their problems, too."

Lopez frequently assists parents who have language barriers in completing applications for city schools. Many parents, especially those with language issues, don't know what questions to ask or who to turn to for information about the schools, he says.

Harriet Fisher is mother to two children in the city school district and says that the district has long suffered from a communications problem. Her daughter attends School of the Arts and likes the school.

But Fisher had second thoughts about the district when it came to enrolling her son. Fisher and her husband were considering moving out of the city, she says, though it wasn't something she looked forward to.

"All my very best friends have already left," Fisher says. Their concerns weighed heavily on her and she says that she doubted her decision to enroll her son in a city school. But then, at the advice of her sister, who is an administrator in the city school district, she visited Montessori Academy School 53.

"People to this day think it's a charter school," Fisher says. "They don't believe the district offers parents something like this."

Montessori Academy has an active parent group, she says.

"Parents played a big role in hiring the principal," she says. "We're very involved."

Stories like Lopez's and Fisher's are exactly why Rob Unckless and his wife, Heather Fiore, helped form Roc City Parents about two years ago. The network of city school district parents is committed to promoting city schools. The couple's son attends School 10, and the family says that they're extremely happy with the teacher and the school.

There are several active community groups composed of residents, parents, and education advocates who address issues involving city schools. The Southwest Common Council Education Committee, for instance, successfully lobbied Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas in 2013 to reverse his decision to close School 16.

But Roc City Parents is a little different. The group of a few-dozen parents focuses mainly on recruiting and retaining city school parents and their children. Their message to city families whose children are, or will soon be, school age: you don't have to move out of the city. You can enjoy city living and still send your children to a good public school.

One is not exclusive of the other, Unckless says.

He admits that his attitude toward city schools has evolved. He and his wife bought their home near Highland Park several years ago. They decided that they would move if they had a reason to. But they haven't had one, they say, and don't expect to.

"I think you have to start with the understanding that we have a huge school district with many schools and it's an incredibly poor school district," Unckless says. "When you put those two things together, it makes it harder. There are more challenges. But that doesn't mean city schools are bad."

He says that of course he and his wife hear about some of the behavior problems in city schools.

"But every school district has students with behavior problems," he says. "This is a large district with a lot more students."

Unckless says that Roc City Parents doesn't condone the district's low test scores or poor graduation rates. But they're a byproduct of concentrated poverty, he says, and the solution isn't for middle-class families to leave the district. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that choice has only made the challenges for city schools worse, he says.

Lopez isn't a member of Roc City Parents, but he shares Unckless's view.

"The biggest impediment to success in city schools isn't teachers or lack of programs or the unions," he says. "It's the flight of the educated, middle-class parents. By that I mean the flight to suburban, private, and charter schools."

He even objects to the much lauded Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program, which he says exports some of the brightest and best city school district students to the suburbs.

"Kids learn from other kids," Lopez says. "And their parents, just like me, advocate for someone else's kids, not just their own. That's what makes Pittsford a great school system."

Roc City Parent member Meghan Reddington has three children in city schools. She can walk through her southeast Rochester neighborhood and point to home after home with children in city schools. Not all of them are RCSD students, she says, but most are.

She says that she's actively courted parents to stay in the city and to send their children to city schools. Some have and some haven't, she says. But the real reasons why some families decide to leave are often based on fear, she says, and not facts.

The media has created a frightening and distorted image of city schools, Reddington says.

"The negative press is sweeping," she says. "It just feeds on itself. We're not martyrs. There are amazing things going on in every one of these schools that no one hears about. They [students] are not the monsters they're painted out to be."

There's a self-fulfilling prophecy with the media and the Rochester school district, she says. Media reports are at times salacious and unbalanced, she says, which prompt more families to pack up and leave.

"It's as if they don't want to hear anything positive about city schools," Reddington says. "You never hear about the great things happening in these schools. All you hear about is all the stuff that goes on in central office."

And she stresses that when families leave, they're not just leaving the city school district. They're leaving the city behind, too.

Reddington's neighbors, Roger Janezic and his wife, Lori Brice, have three children attending three different city schools.

"We were going to move [out of the city] and we put an offer on a house a year ago," Janezic says. "Right afterward I wanted to call and say we made a mistake. But the deal didn't work out and we were glad it didn't."

He says that the public's perception of the city school district is that the schools are dangerous and that teachers aren't teaching.

"We find just the opposite is true," he says. "I think these teachers are the most committed. I feel for them every time I hear [Governor] Cuomo speak."

The fearmongering only makes learning and teaching more difficult for students and teachers, Reddington says.

"Imagine what it feels like to be a student in a city school or a teacher and hear this all the time," she says.

The district's school choice policy — families are asked to list their top five school choices — also plays a role in why many middle-income families leave the district, Reddington says. The policy is too complicated for many families, she says, and there's too much uncertainty in whether a family will get its preferred schools.

"The unknown is causing anxiety," she says. "You rank five schools, but the truth is you really don't even want the fifth school at all, so up goes the For Sale sign."

Some schools, like School 58, are so over-chosen that there are waiting lists, Rochester school board member Willa Powell says. She helped create the district's school choice policy and says that implementing the program is a balancing act. But she says that she is planning to have the policy reviewed to see how it can be improved, and that she wants parents like Reddington to be involved.

Daniel Delehanty and his wife, Laura, are teachers at East High School and have two children in district schools. They're also Roc City Parents.

He says that he's not troubled by the district's school choice policy.

"What suburb in this area gives parents five schools to choose from?" he says. And there are multiple offerings within some secondary schools, such as the popular culinary and Teaching and Learning Institute programs at East, which help prepare students for careers.

"The three big issues parents want are safety, to know their children are cared for, and quality academics," Delehanty says. "But many parents write city schools off solely on the safety issue."

There are three points where families leave, he says: when children enter kindergarten or before they enter junior high or high school.

Delehanty says that behind the concern about safety for some parents is a concern about race, since about 90 percent of city school district students are black or Latino.

He says that the only way city schools will become more integrated is if parents take the initiative.

"It's difficult for people to speak to this," he says. "But if you're not open to speaking about race, you're nullifying someone else's culture. I'm a social studies teacher. I believe students in segregated communities lose out."

Considering that the city school district's student population has been in a slow, but steady decline, have parents who support the district been effective?

Many of the schools attended by the children of Roc City Parents' members, for example, are the usual southeast favorites: School of the Arts, School 23, School 12, and School 58. Some district critics say that those aren't true city schools — ones that might benefit from the economic and racial integration advocated by Roc City Parents.

But group members say that they have definitely made progress. They've met with most school board members and Superintendent Vargas. They know many of the teachers and principals in the schools and, most important, they've been able to provide many city parents with information about their options when it comes to schools, including the area's charter and private schools. The group has information meetings and a website:

And Vargas says that some of the most significant improvements in the district have been driven by parents.

"Just like Wegmans has to listen to its customers, we've had to listen to ours," he says. "We have had to become a listening and learning organization."

He credits parents with recommendations such as moving the Office of Student Placement from 690 St. Paul Street to the district's central office.

"They told me the building was so large, like a city block, some of it with broken windows and you couldn't even find the entrance," Vargas says. "I thought they were kidding me at first. They said, 'Is that the first impression you want new parents to have of city schools?'"

Vargas says that parents also recommended that he hold public meetings for parents and teachers to approach him in a casual, free-form setting. He holds his Coffee and Conversations meetings twice monthly.

"They didn't bring special-interest concerns to me," he says. "They brought children's issues to me."