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The Rochester school district’s growing challenges offer opportunities, but the community will have to take advantage of them.

Looking for positives in city schools’ news 

All the adults in the Rochester school district must feel as if a black cloud is hanging over them - and that it keeps getting darker.

The latest graduation rate, released earlier this month, was only 45.5 percent, the lowest among the state's largest cities.

The contentious relationship between the school board and Superintendent Bolgen Vargas ended with Vargas leaving his position at the end of December, six months before his contract ended. But under his agreement with the board, he's staying on as a consultant, with pay, until June.

Earlier this month Daniel Lowengard, hired to be interim superintendent while the board looks for a new chief, suffered a stroke - four days into the job. He won't be returning.

It would be good to feel that once we get past this, things will settle down. And they will, of course. But I'm finding it increasingly hard to be optimistic about the district's future. The challenges are simply too great.

To repeat the obvious, the district's biggest challenge is one it didn't create and cannot solve: concentrated poverty. It is not a coincidence that the New York school district with the worst performance - Rochester - is also the one with the highest poverty rate.

This community, helped by the State of New York, is investing a lot of time and a bit of money crafting a plan to deal with that poverty. But as the leaders of the Anti-Poverty Initiative themselves have said, that won't happen overnight. Meantime, every year hundreds of new children start school in Rochester, and hundreds more graduate or drop out without the education they'll need to prosper.

The poverty itself gives the district a mind-numbing challenge. Meanwhile, the school board must interview applicants and hire a new superintendent, approve a budget, and support a replacement interim superintendent who has deep experience in education but none of it in Rochester and who was brought here to be chief of staff under Lowengard, not to be in charge.

An additional challenge: the district is losing students. Some families have moved to the suburbs, and often the reason was their lack of faith in city schools. Other children have left to enroll in one of 13 charter schools (and more charters are planned). Another 713 students are attending suburban schools in the Urban-Suburban program, which expanded to 13 districts this past year.

While creaming off the city's brightest, most motivated students isn't the intent of charter schools and Urban-Suburban, that's an unavoidable result. Motivated families are the ones most likely to seek out alternative choices for their children. And the city is left with the responsibility of educating the children with the biggest challenges.

Not all of the district's developments are negative. Many children are doing well. In addition, we have an opportunity to get some important information, despite the current challenges - and in some cases, as a result of them.

A big positive and a big learning opportunity is the district's partnership with the University of Rochester, which is managing East High School. If East's students do better under the UR's administration, we should be able to determine what makes the difference. University officials have said that the lessons from East will be important not just for Rochester but also for urban districts around the country, and they're right. Rochester isn't alone in this crisis.

We should also make sure we're analyzing the results of Urban-Suburban and charter schools. If students there do better than the students in the city's traditional public schools, we should find out why, and we should act on what we learn.

There are opportunities, then, despite the bad news, but the district and the entire community must take advantage of them. It's impossible to overstate the importance of the district and its schools to the future of Rochester's children, and to the future of the city.

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