Posts Tagged ‘School district’

Lately, there’s been a lot of chatter about charter schools. Rochester, with some of the lowest-performing schools in the country, is a market ripe for an explosion of charters, according to some local educators.

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has on multiple occasions talked about the decline in student population, which is largely attributable to charter schools. The district has lost about 3,200 students to charters, and a continued decline would have a serious impact on almost every aspect of city schools, he says.

Fewer teachers and non-teaching employees would be needed. Fewer schools would be needed, which raises questions about the massive $1.2 billion schools modernization project under way.

The big question: How many students could the district potentially lose? The answer could be thousands.

Most of the charter schools that have opened here are small schools developed by local educators, some of them expatriates of the city school district. But what if Rochester attracted more attention from the larger charter management organizations like Kipp, for example?

These are companies managing a portfolio of schools with resources, methodology, and a track record — something attractive to business leaders and investors.

Joe Klein, chair of Klein Steel and former treasurer of True North Rochester Preparatory Charter School, has created E3 Rochester, a company that could radically change the education landscape in the city. E3 recruits successful charter management organizations. Klein has so far attracted the interest of at least two organizations, and each has applied to open a school in Rochester in 2014.

Klein says E3 will be driven by quality, and not growth for growth’s sake.

At a meeting last night, Vargas said he knows of seven more charter schools that will open in the district over the next two years. Rochester’s hospitals aren’t reporting a boom in the city’s birthrate, so you can see where this is going.

Let’s assume Vargas is right, and let’s also assume that none of the existing charters close; the drop in the district’s student population could be substantial over the next decade.

It’s too early to say whether that’s bad or good.

rcsdAnd while part of this stems from nostalgia, there’s also a fiscal argument. The Rochester school district spends a lot of money busing children to schools outside of their neighborhood. The reason: the district’s “school choice” system, which lets parents choose a school other than the one closest to them if they believe that’s better for their children.

And many, many parents choose a different school. The result is an attendance pattern that looks like a tangled cobweb, with children from each neighborhood being transported literally all over the city.

Only 14% of the city’s elementary-age children attend their neighborhood school. Some of the others go to a charter school or a private or parochial school. Most choose another school-district school – usually one in their same “zone”: within the same 1/3 of the city and others go to a district school somewhere else in the city.

The reasons are many for choosing other district schools. Some parents like the special programs offered in a few schools – bilingual classes, for instance, or the World of Inquiry’s expeditionary learning. Some choose a school outside their neighborhood because their children can ride a bus there, and they’re worried about safety in their neighborhood.

Undoubtedly, the availability of choice has kept some parents from sending their children to non-public schools – or from moving out of the city. But the dispersion could also have a serious negative effect. It can undermine schools’ important role as a community focal point. A strong school can keep families in specific neighborhoods and attract new ones.

More and more young adults are finding cities attractive places to live, and Rochester is no exception. But we struggle to keep them once they have children, and it’s no secret that the school district is a big reason.

Combine that flight with the choice-created dispersion and here’s the result: While Rochester has individual neighborhoods with predominantly middle and upper-income residents, not a single one of the district’s elementary schools has a student poverty rate of below 50%.

This is not a small matter. Low test scores and low graduation rates are solidly linked to concentrated poverty – in school districts and in individual schools. Plenty of documentation shows that integrating schools economically helps all the children. It is, in fact, one of the most effective ways of improving poor children’s education.

We could reduce the concentrated poverty in Rochester schools by merging them with suburban schools, of course, but that’ll never be politically feasible. So we need to find ways to attract more middle- and upper-income families to city schools.

One place to start is with the families we have: city families who don’t send their children to their neighborhood school.

You can get an idea of how many students we’re talking about from two pages in the school district’s Facilities Modernization Plan (available on the district’s website, or linked from this article on our website). Scroll down to Pages 12 and 13, and you’ll find a chart and a map that dissect the population of elementary-age school children in the neighborhood surrounding each of the district’s elementary schools.

(The statistics are September’s preliminary enrollment numbers for this school year, so they may have changed slightly by the time things settled in. But the overall picture is reliable.)

You’ll see how many elementary-age children live in each city neighborhood, how many are going to their neighborhood school, and, if they’re not going there, whether they’re choosing another school-district school or a non-district school: charter, private, or parochial.

Let me point to one school as a particularly interesting example: School 1.

This is a beautiful, small school serving a popular area: Cobbs Hill and the eastern segments of Park and East Avenues. Traditionally, this has been a terrific place to buy a house, raise a family, and send children to school. School 1 has 307 students. Want to know how many of them live in that neighborhood?


The rest come from other neighborhoods – from throughout the city.

It’s not that there are no children in the School 1 neighborhood. Although the number has declined over the years, 99 elementary-school-age children do still live there. They just go to school somewhere else. Thirty-six of them go to other city schools. And 61 go to private, parochial, or charter schools.

The school my children attended, School 23 in the Park Avenue neighborhood, has similar statistics. Of the 310 elementary-school-age children who live in the neighborhood, only 69 go to School 23; 155 go to other school-district schools, and 86 go to non-district schools.

I wouldn’t argue for a return for a strictly neighborhood school system. For one thing, neither School 1 nor School 23 would have enough students to operate efficiently. The district would almost certainly close them both. Busing is their lifeblood. And if all of the bused-in children returned to their home school, some of those schools might be seriously overcrowded, and the district would have to expand them.

More important, that would make the school district even more racially and economically segregated than it is now.

The Rochester school district has a commendable history of trying hard to offer choices – and to do it in a way that doesn’t create elitist schools that favor wealthier students over poor ones.

But as the poverty rate has risen, and student achievement has fallen, it has become increasingly hard to overcome the effects of that poverty. The district still offers excellent programs. There are pockets of success. And if the district can strengthen those pockets, and build on them, it will be able to do two things: help its poorest children, and convince some families that they don’t have to move or turn to charter school, private schools, or parochial schools.

The district could start by attracting enough middle-income families to lower the poverty rate to below 50 percent in several schools. It wouldn’t be easy. Parents choosing a non-neighborhood school to get special programs like World of Inquiry’s wouldn’t change their decision.

But the school district’s reputation leads some parents to choose a charter school or a private or parochial school without ever considering their neighborhood school. In addition, some families say they haven’t been able to get their children admitted to their neighborhood school. The district’s policy is to “guarantee” families first choice in their neighborhood school. But we continue to hear reports – from parents and from school staff – that that doesn’t always happen.

Attracting more middle-income students to their home school would require a careful study of the schools-choice program. It would require making sure that the children who wanted to attend their neighborhood school could do so.

It would require a top-quality, intensive marketing and recruitment program, identifying families who have pre-school-age children and selling them on public schools: visiting them personally, holding neighborhood picnics, hosting school tours, reaching out to real-estate agents, running ads – doing everything possible to attract middle-income families back into city schools.

And it would take participation not only by school district officials, school board members, individual school staffs, and the parents in those schools but also by city officials and neighborhood leaders.

This wouldn’t solve our concentrated poverty problem district-wide. It would integrate only a handful of schools. Others would be solidly poor – but they already are.

It wouldn’t turn any school into a school serving only the middle-income children who live nearby. Many children would still be bused from one neighborhood to another.

And it would be a start. It would help many of the city’s children. It would attract and keep families in the city.

Rochester neighborhoods are ideal for families. They offer tree-lined streets with sidewalks and easy-to-maintain yards. Key services – YMCA branches, libraries, museums, restaurants, stores, parks, concerts, movies – are within walking or easy-driving distance. But for many families, concern about schools has overwhelmed the city’s attractions.

We ought to be able to turn that around. And I think we can.

Somebody will have to lead, though. And we need to start now, before we lose more families.

“We struggle to keep young adults in the city once they have children, and the school district is a big reason.”

“As the district’s poverty rate has risen, and student achievement has fallen, it has become increasingly hard to overcome the effects of that poverty.”

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It was supposed to be model for changing public education.

Instead, far less than half the $50 million in a state grant program was awarded, leaving some unsuccessful applicants wondering about New York’s commitment to reform.


But a review of the first year of the program shows that less than half the funds — $17 million — were awarded. Out of about 700 school districts in the state, only 38 applied for management efficiency grants, and 16 received a total of $7.1 million in grants. The school performance grant drew 74 applicants, but only $10.2 million was handed out to 23 districts.

That doesn’t sit well with East Greenbush schools Superintendent Angela Nagle, who spent 30 hours with a team of administrators putting together a management efficiency grant application. They consolidated staff positions and saved money on benefits and salary. They failed to win a grant, and now face another steep round of job cuts.

“Something is wrong, that is the message being sent,” she said. “It’s a system that is broken. The whole concept of competitive grants is broken. There is no equity in it.”

State officials clearly don’t see it that way and claim the competitive grant program “changed the paradigm in school funding to incentivize performance” in this year’s state budget presentation. The full amount was not awarded because districts were supposed to meet minimum requirements and those that did not were ineligible to win money, Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said. It was up to the Cuomo administration to determine what would happen to the grant money not awarded, he added. It is unclear what happened to the funds.

Local districts awarded performance grants included: Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk, $400,000; Schodack, $200,000; Rotterdam-Mohonasen, $600,000; and Queensbury, $600,000. Those awarded efficiency grants included: Queensbury, $187,000; Schalmont, $83,000; and Schodack, $100,000.

The state program is clearly modeled on the federal Race to the Top program, which used relatively small amounts of money to bring about significant change in the nation’s public schools. In this year’s budget, Cuomo has proposed setting aside $25 million to spur a competition to implement full-day prekindergarten programs for high-needs students as well as $20 million to extend learning time.

Race to Top pitted states against each other to make sweeping changes to law by dangling federal money in front of them. In New York, the competition helped spur a new teacher evaluation system and alignment with tougher curriculum standards, known as the Common Core. It came with a $700 million grant. Opponents say it creates an unfair system of winners and losers, and that kids pay the price.

The state money that was not dispersed should have been put back into school aid, where it could go directly to classrooms and make a difference to children, said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which advocates for more equitable school spending. The undistributed $33 million could have saved hundreds of jobs for teachers, who work directly with children, he said.

“Instead of going to getting kids to college, it went back to the bean counters,” he said. • 518-454-5080 • @518Schools

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