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An attack on Rochester teachers union president Adam Urbanski is an attack on teachers, and that distracts us from the enormous challenge ahead of us.

Forcing Urbanski out won’t help city students 

Faced with yet more challenges in the Rochester school district, the public reaction - "get rid of Adam Urbanski" - has been predictable. Urbanski has headed the Rochester teachers union for 34 years, making him an easy target. But that's misguided. And focusing on him diverts attention from the real roots of the district's problems: the severe poverty in which many students live and the community's failure to deal with that poverty and its impact - some of that failure based in racism.

click to enlarge Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski. - FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski.

The school district has been in crisis for a long time, and the school board's decision to not renew Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's contract has added to the tension. But Adam Urbanski is not the reason thousands of Rochester children fail to graduate. And he's not the reason thousands of Rochester children who do graduate lack the knowledge and skills to enter college or get a job.

Rochester's child poverty rate is among the worst in the nation. And this is a highly segregated community, racially and economically. Growing research indicates that living in high-poverty neighborhoods has a debilitating effect on many residents. Poverty and isolation can snuff out hope and breed violence, and all this causes real, documentable trauma, especially in children.

Contributing to that poverty, and exacerbating it, is racism. The South's history of brutal racism and segregation is well documented, but as the current presidential campaign shows, racism knows no geographic boundaries. And that it may sometimes be unconscious makes it no less harmful.

Local activists have charged for years that too many Rochester teachers and administrators treat children of color differently than they treat white children. The district's own data, included in a report by Metro Justice and other activist groups, indicate that in 2012-2013, black students in Rochester were suspended more than twice as often as white students, Latino students 1.45 times as often.

Significantly, 88 percent of the suspensions were for non-violent offenses - usually for disruptive behavior.

Disruptive behavior is disruptive. Teachers can't do their job if students are talking or fighting, and certainly, teachers should be adequately trained to keep students engaged in class.

But some students' behavior is much more than "disruptive." During a protest at the school board meeting last week, Edison teachers told of verbal assaults and threats, students shoving them against the wall as they tried to break up fights, large groups of students skipping class and hanging out in halls smoking pot.

For several years, the district has struggled to find a way to deal with students' behavior problems without suspending students. Too often, seemingly good ideas weren't executed well. Too little staffing.Too little training.Too little communication.Too little funding.Too little oversight.

Earlier this year came more ideas, from a district Task Force on School Climate. Its recommendations included training staff better on how to help students who need support, improving parent engagement, and mandatory anti-racism training.

That is important, and it will take all of that and more. Certainly teachers must be receptive to change. But teachers are not miracle workers. They are not psychologists, and they are not social workers. And public attacks on teachers - and an attack on Urbanski is an attack on teachers, who elected him to lead their union - distracts us from the enormous challenge ahead of us.

Some of Urbanski's critics say that as student achievement has declined, Adam Urbanski has been the one constant. Nope. The big constants have been poverty, its concentration in city neighborhoods, and racism.

Attacking those constants will take enormous effort and leadership, by the entire community - city and suburban, public sector and regional business people, elected officials of all parties, unions, activist groups, and ordinary citizens.

Calling for Adam Urbanski to resign may make us feel good. But can we just stop throwing stones and start addressing the problems of poverty and racism, together?

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