Friday, December 7, 2012

The neighborhood school dilemma

Posted By on Fri, Dec 7, 2012 at 9:56 AM

The trouble with neighborhood schools is that there many definitions and ideas of what a neighborhood school should be. That was evident last night at a public hearing on the second phase of schools modernization in the Rochester school district.

Much of the evening was dominated by residents, parents, students, and teachers who either had comments or questions. And a couple of things should have become clear to the board: the people want more justification for the superintendent’s proposal to close five city schools, and they want the district to return to a neighborhood schools placement model.

Many parents seemed unimpressed with the schools selected for upgrades and more concerned with how the plan would impact their neighborhoods. About 25 parents and residents — many of them from the 19th Ward neighborhood in the southwest section of the city — held signs that read “Don’t Close School 30” and “Keep Our Small Neighborhood Schools.”

“Some of those schools are the lifeline to the neighborhood,” one parent said. “In some neighborhoods, drugs aren’t sold because of the proximity to the school. You take schools out of those neighborhoods, and you open it up to all of that.”

Parents also rejected large campuses housing one or more schools — calling them "big-box schools." Smaller schools with smaller classrooms are the only way to improve achievement, some parents said. Others cited research suggesting that consolidation of small schools into a larger building doesn’t achieve significant financial savings.

Vargas supports the concept of neighborhood schools, he said in a recent interview. But parents sometimes say they want neighborhood schools, he said, but then send their children someplace else.

And Mayor Tom Richards said in a recent interview that he envisions more schools that serve as community centers like School 33 and the Ryan Center.

The district currently uses a placement model based on choice, but how well it works depends on who you talk to.

At least some of Vargas’s schools modernization plan is being driven by declining enrollment and excess space; the district’s student population has dipped below 30,000 for the first time in year. Vargas attributes the decline mostly to the increase in the number of charter schools.

“If the trend continues where two new charter schools open every year, realize those students come from the district,” he said.

And though some look like little neighborhood schools, he said, they’re not.

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