News & Opinion » Urban Journal

The more things change: 48 years with the RCSD


We have tried almost everything.

As the poverty rate in the Rochester City School District has soared, middle-income families have fled, and racial and economic segregation have increased, Rochester has tried almost everything to give its children the education they need.

We tried a school integration plan, and then threw it out, along with the school board majority that had approved it. We created magnet schools – the World of Inquiry, School Without Walls, School of the Arts. We created a Young Mothers Program for teenagers with children. We created pre-kindergarten programs and after-school programs.

We have instituted school choice, dropped it, and instituted it again, spending millions of dollars to bus children out of their neighborhood to a school they preferred. We turned junior-senior high schools into separate middle schools and high schools and then changed some of them back. We have modernized schools, closed schools, built new schools. We created new schools within old schools.

We approved a teacher’s contract that made national news. We tried having a non-partisan school board. We have brought in new superintendents, to great fanfare, and then, disappointed with them, bought them out before their contract expired. Repeatedly.

We have sued the state.

High-powered groups of business and other community leaders have published reports and pledged their help, multiple times. Long before the current mayor, Rochester mayors pushed for change in the school district, for more control over the district’s budget, for a voice in its operations, for dismantling of the school board, for full control of the district.

Activist Jesse Jackson came to Rochester in September 1980 to boost efforts to save Madison High School, where the overall student grade average was a D. - PHOTO BY AUDREY NEWCOMB
  • Activist Jesse Jackson came to Rochester in September 1980 to boost efforts to save Madison High School, where the overall student grade average was a D.
We brought in Jesse Jackson.

And things have just gotten worse.

As CITY prepares to move its offices to WXXI’s State Street building and I prepare to hand my editorial duties over to David Andreatta, I’m cleaning out 48 years worth of material. And it’s been painful to reread our reports on this community’s attempts to provide a good education for Rochester’s children.

When this publication was founded, the evidence of white flight – and its impact on the school district – was becoming clear. Concern over the state of education in Rochester, in fact, was a primary reason for founding CITY in 1971. Despite successive efforts by devoted, concerned school board members and superintendents, year after year, the challenges of the Rochester school district continued to be major news.

And now our current mayor wants the state to take over the district and get rid of the school board for at least a few years – to give Rochesterians time, she says, to decide how to restructure the district. And she wants voters to back her up by approving a non-binding referendum on a state take-over in November. (The school district has sued to prevent the referendum.)

I think the odds are heavily against her. But if the referendum passes, and then, if the state legislature does the unexpected and lets the State Education Department take over the district while Rochesterians come up with a new system, what, I wonder, will we try that we haven’t tried before? What will our mayor want to try?

Headline from a 1978 CITY editorial: “Do We Need an Appointed School Board? Perhaps.” At the time, City Council was considering holding public hearings on the question. “In theory,” I wrote, “having a board appointed would make it farther removed from the public. And yet it becomes more and more evident that our current system simply isn’t serving the public well.”

Headline from 1980: ”Chaos or Control: the 1980 School Board.” What was the chaos? Among other things, squabbles among the members of the newly non-partisan school board.

September 1980: Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson brought his PUSH-Excel school reform program to Madison High School, a predominantly black high school where student test scores were abysmal and the absentee rate was 30 percent. And yet, our reporter wrote: “Madison also has students who are fiercely proud of their school. It has a dedicated and charismatic principal, John Wilson. And it has a core of parents who have worked tirelessly to turn Madison’s image around.” 
Madison High School's last graduating class, at commencement exercises in June, as the district prepared to close the school. - PHOTO BY NANCY LEGGE
  • Madison High School's last graduating class, at commencement exercises in June, as the district prepared to close the school.

Jackson’s program was a kind of tough-love, pull-yourself up effort, requiring students to sign pledges committing to two hours of homework a day and parents to promise to monitor their children’s studies and build a relationship with teachers.

Jackson’s emotional evening appearance drew a crowd of 2000 students and parents. Hundreds of students and parents signed the required pledge. There was no reason, Jackson said, that Madison couldn’t be the city’s top high school, academically.

At the end of the school year, little had changed, and Madison closed. And after the city failed to attract developers to give the building a new use, Madison was torn down.

1987: The Rochester school board and the teachers union signed a contract that provided substantial pay increases, eliminated some seniority rights, created a mentoring program for new teachers and teachers who needed help, and created individual school councils of administrators and teachers who were to set policies in their school.

The idea was to boost the teaching profession in Rochester, attract strong teachers, and train existing ones. Three years later, it was obvious that the results weren’t there: less qualified teachers hadn’t improved or moved on, teacher evaluations were considered a joke, and “intervention” with teachers needing help hadn’t been as effective as promised. Nonetheless, the school board was ready to sign a contract with additional large raises with few specifics about expected results – and no guarantee that the district could afford the raises. Teachers themselves scuttled the contract because of their own concerns about it.
Former RCSD Superintendent Peter McWalters helped craft the contract a 1987 landmark contract with the Rochester Teachers Association that was to boost both teaching quality and teaching as a profession. - PHOTO BY ROGER SMITH
  • Former RCSD Superintendent Peter McWalters helped craft the contract a 1987 landmark contract with the Rochester Teachers Association that was to boost both teaching quality and teaching as a profession.

1992: A task force of business and other community leaders issued a report whose recommendations included having clear definitions of the role of the school board and the superintendent. Like several similar reports in other years, they criticized the district’s budget practices.

1994: Mayor Bill Johnson and County Executive Bob King created a task force to develop a plan to improve Rochester’s schools. In early December, it issued a report titled “For All Our Children... No More Excuses!” with the subtitle “A Framework for Transforming Rochester’s Public Education System.” Among the recommendations:

“Ensure that student success – not constituency self-interest – remains the focal point of all decisions and actions”; hire a strong leader as superintendent; connect teachers’ pay to performance; and improve collaboration, coordination, and accountability within the health and human-service delivery systems.

“The schools cannot do it alone,” the report said. “The entire community must accept the responsibility of getting young children ready for kindergarten.”

“Band-Aid Solutions will not work,” the report said. We must identify and address root causes.”

But teachers, parents, school board members, and others directly related to the school district weren’t involved in creating the report. In late December, the school board said it wouldn’t take part in creating the plan that was to come out of the report.

1994: City Council and Mayor Bill Johnson discussed getting rid of the school board.

Headline on my May 11, 1995, column: “The Next School Board: Just More of the Same?” Somebody, I wrote, needs to find out “why the board can’t seem to hold the administration accountable, and why the reform ideas aren’t being translated into action.”

1997: Mayor Bill Johnson pushed a state bill to give Rochester superintendents the authority to appoint their top administrators. School board members fought it, saying it usurped their authority.

1998: The Greater Rochester Area Coalition for Education, a local activists group, sued the state. Unlike other suits related to urban school districts, the GRACE suit didn’t seek more funding for the Rochester district. Money wasn’t the problem, GRACE lawyers said. Concentrated poverty was. What Rochester needed, they said, was a way to let its students attend schools that weren’t segregated, high-poverty schools.

Filing an affidavit supporting the suit was Gary Orfield, a nationally known specialist on school segregation (and at the time, a Harvard professor). The concentration of poverty in Rochester, he said, “is having a profound negative effect on all measures of student outcome.”

“There is no district in the country,” he said, “that could endure such a high concentration of poverty without experiencing extreme academic difficulties.”

GRACE lost. State Supreme Court Justice John Ark said GRACE hadn’t proved that students were being denied their right to a “sound basic education.” In addition, he said, state law permits suburban districts to charge tuition to non-residents. The solution, Ark said, lies with the state legislature.

Also in 1998: The New York Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Rochester school district because Rochester high schools didn’t have enough textbooks. A global studies class had only 15 books for 100 students. A class on government had only one book for more than 60 students. Among the problems: State funding didn’t keep up with the rising cost of books. And students repeatedly lost books.

2001: Bolgen Vargas, who was then school board president, suggested changing state law to let city students attend suburban schools. Forget about that, said a Gannett editorial: “A better use of time and energy for the foreseeable future is to improve city public schools – to hire good teachers, to energize parents to fix up crumbling buildings, to get computers and books and other resources into the inner city.”

“It’s not written in stone,” said the D&C, “that cities must be economic wastelands, that city schools must represent poverty more than, say, achievement.”

2003: State Assemblymember David Gantt unsuccessfully proposed a bill to weaken the school board’s powers. It would require the board to get the mayor's approval of the district's budget format. And removal of the superintendent would require approval by five of the seven board members, as opposed to the four votes currently required.

2004: A group of business leaders known as the RUMP Group issued a report titled “A Community at Risk: Why the Failure of Rochester City Schools Is Everybody’s Business.”

The report included an extensive list of recommendations. The business community was to “recognize the importance of education” and “provide expertise and resources to help.” “All area residents” were to “recognize that failing schools are a community-wide concern, support efforts to help schools and improve student performance, and vote to hold elected officials accountable, with special emphasis on school board elections.” Much of the meaningful action, however, was to come from the school district.

2005: A committee headed by RIT President Al Simone issued a report titled “Call to Arms,” suggesting that while the school district needed some increased funding, “the keys to significant educational performance” were to be found in “effecting a culture change; creating expectations for student success; leadership, particularly at the school principal level; efficient fiscal management; [and] community involvement.”

The report cited a variety of problems facing the district including poverty, parent illiteracy, lack of parent involvement, children’s health issues, student mobility, over-reliance on special education placement, and overuse of suspensions, particularly for “Defiance of Authority.”

Among the report's recommendations: more effective implementation of the district’s policy for removing teachers and counselors. The report also included a recommendation that was widely praised and widely mocked; that the community come up with 10,000 mentors to work with city children.

The recommendations from “Call to Arms,” like those of previous reports, died a quiet death.

2005: Superintendent Manny Rivera proposed a Children’s Zone for Rochester, a program for the northeast quadrant of the city, with city and county resources providing social services, adult education, health care, neighborhood development, housing, and other services for residents of the area. It got off the ground with a good bit of hope and support – including a $715,000 state grant – but ran into a variety of problems, including squabbling between its board and its director, and a few years later, it closed down.

2010: Mayor Bob Duffy proposed mayoral control of Rochester's school district. “Too many adults are benefiting from a school system that is failing our children,” he said in his May 2010 State of the City Address. “We need to act now.”

If he could be in charge of the school district, Duffy said, he would create schools that would become “bridges to neighborhood-based services.” He would create partnerships with area colleges. The district’s finances would be managed better.

“Our city is coming alive with more investment, bigger festivals, more sporting events, and plenty of fun things to do, day or night,” Duffy said. "But too many of Rochester’s children are not sharing in this success. Too few of them are graduating schools with the skills to find a job or go to college.”

“We must put children first. In actions – and not just rhetoric,” Duffy said. “Our economy, our public safety, and our city’s future depend on improving educational outcomes for our children. We must summon the courage to see that the system has failed. We need to make a change. It needs to happen now, and we need to do it together.”

But while it had support from local members of the state Assembly, Duffy’s idea went nowhere in the Senate. The next year, Duffy had gone to Albany, Tom Richards was mayor, and the pragmatic Richards didn’t pursue mayoral control. In an interview with the D&C, he cited the district’s “precarious position” – “an interim superintendent, a big budget deficit, the facilities modernization project kind of a divided board.”

Next week: Will anything work?