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Memo to the Rumpsters: there’s no quick fix 

Back in the summer, some RochesterSchool District critics tipped us off that the local business leaders known as the Rump Group were preparing a strongly critical report about the district. The report was released last week, and the criticism of the district is milder than I had expected. Actually, the Rumpsters seem to go out of their way to be even-handed.

            It's a strongly worded report, certainly. Titled "A Community at Risk: Why the Failure of Rochester City Schools Is Everybody's Business," it repeats familiar statistics: a tragically low graduation rate, a tragically low achievement level.

            And it does contain some pointed criticism of the district. It says, for example, that the district isn't moving fast enough repairing its buildings, work that could be substantially funded by the state.

            It says the district hasn't proved that the community is getting a good return for the money it's investing in schools: that we need to know how the district spends its money and what we're getting for it. (I hope that a state audit and the study by the district's new blue-ribbon task force will clear up that issue, once and for all.)

            But the Rump report notes that the Rochester district's per-pupil costs are "consistent with comparable urban districts in New York."

            And whether the Rump Group was trying to be diplomatic, or is honest in its wording, the report is more a call for communitywide action than an attack on the school district. It says there has been "too much effort pointing fingers of blame, and not enough work finding solutions." It says that "any discussion of Rochester schools needs to acknowledge the challenges city students bring to the classroom," that while poor children can "achieve at high levels... it is also a fact that poverty is a marker for educational challenges."

            "Poor students are much more likely to come from homes with illiterate or poorly educated parents," says the report. "They are more likely to change schools because of a move, to be victims of lead poisoning, to speak English as a second language, and to face other issues that make educational achievement more difficult."

            "No urban district facing these challenges is succeeding in every measure," says the Rump report.

            The report does charge that Rochester students aren't doing as well as those in similar urban districts. Superintendent Manuel Rivera says some of the statistics in the Rump report are out of date. And he says Rochester has unique challenges: a much higher demand for special-education services, for example.

            We can argue about those statistics till the cows come home, and it won't improve things. Rivera agrees that the district can do better and says it's been making progress. The question is, what does it take to make things much better?

            Everybody wants Rochester students to do better, obviously. And the Rump Group has its own particular interest since, as it notes, students who don't graduate, or who graduate with poor reading and math skills, can't get jobs. They are more likely to end up in jail. They're more likely to need public assistance. As adults, they'll be a drain on taxpayers, including businesses.

The Rump report lists several specific steps it believes the district should take --- "with community support" --- to improve student achievement. Among them:

            • Expand the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, a program for at-risk students that has helped boost graduation rates.

            • Adopt a program called KIPP --- the "Knowledge Is Power Program" --- which has boosted achievement in high-poverty schools in New York City and Houston.

            Rivera agrees that the Hillside program is a good one. But, he points out, it isn't suitable for every student. It won't accept every student who needs help. And although it has helped many of the students it has accepted, it hasn't helped them all.

            The Hillside program is a terrific initiative that provides academic help, job training, even mentoring at students' jobs. And it provides fulltime "youth advocates" who work with students and their families.

            Earlier this year, a Center for Governmental Research report concluded that at-risk students who took part in the Hillside program had graduation rates twice those of similar students who weren't in the program. That's impressive. And unquestionably, the Hillside program has helped many students: boosted their grades, helped them stay in school longer, helped them get jobs or go on to college.

            Clearly, it's a program that should be expanded. But it won't help all of the students who need help. It can not. And the CGR report says that plainly.

            Although the Hillside program is designed for the students most in need of help, a certain amount of screening is done, right from the start. Students are supposed to have a grade-point average of between 2 and 2.9. (That requirement has been relaxed, and about a fifth of students in the program now have lower grades.)

            Significantly, the success rate was better for students who entered the program in 9th or 10th grade than for those who entered it in 7th or 8th grade. The completion rates for the younger students, says the CGR report, "have not been high to date."

            Even more significant: As the program has accepted more low-income students with poor grades, graduation rates have dropped.

            Students in the Hillside program continue to have a better success rate than their peers not in the program, but these declines underscore how hard it is to help Rochester's poorest students, regardless of programs like this one.

Likewise, Rivera agrees that KIPP is good. But a KIPP school is not an ordinary school. KIPP schools operate from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday --- and for four hours on Saturday. There's only a one-month break in the summer. KIPP schools have strong "enrichment" programs: art, music, and the like. Principals undergo a year's KIPP training.

            And, says the KIPP website, "before KIPP children ever take a seat they and their parents must sign a contract stipulating that they will adhere to the expectations of the school." Parents must stay intensely involved with their children. Students must do their homework and behave themselves. They must be polite. There's a dress code.

            KIPP students, in other words, are not just any students. They want to be in the KIPP school. They want to abide by its rules. And they know they can't stay unless they, and their parents, abide by those rules.

            The Rochester district has investigated the KIPP program and met with KIPP officials. And Rivera says he has no objection to having a KIPP school. But as with the Hillside program, it's not as easy as snapping your fingers.

The Rochester school district can establish KIPP schools, but:

            • It'll cost a lot of money. Teachers and principals won't be willing to work those extra days and hours for free, nor should we expect them to.

            • The KIPP schools will be, in effect, tuition-free private schools --- able to turn down or kick out students who don't abide by the strict terms of the KIPP contract, able to exclude students whose parents don't or can't abide by the terms of the KIPP contract. The Rochester school district will be expected to educate those students.

            And... the district can expand the Hillside Work-Scholarship program, but:

            • It'll cost a lot of money. And the district can't afford that expense --- not without cutting other valuable programs that help its neediest students. (If you were Rivera, where would you find the money? Cut pre-school? Raise class sizes?)

            2) If businesses and non-profits come up with the money for Hillside, that'll be great. But there'll still be all those students whose grades are too low to participate, all those students who don't stick with the program.

            And Rivera cautions that as important as the Hillside program is, it's "just one of the many investments we need to make." Helping high-school students who are way behind is important, he says. "But if we had more students reading and doing math at grade level when they reach high school," he adds, we wouldn't need programs like Hillside.

In the end, the Rump Report validates an argument some of us have been making for years: Rochester's concentrated poverty is the problem.

            Flaky liberals like me will continue to believe that the most effective and inexpensive way to help inner-city students is to break up the concentration of poverty in the city's schools. With a handful of brave exceptions, community leaders disagree, because to break up that concentration, you'd have to merge at least some city and suburban schools. And MonroeCounty residents would rebel swiftly if anybody proposed that.

            So what are we left with?

            The problems that the Rump Group and numerous others have identified. And a school district that can not, and must not be expected to, deal with those problems by itself.

            And thousands of Rochester children who could make enormous contributions --- to local businesses and to their community --- if they got a good education.

            "A failing school district," says the Rump report, "can create a domino effect --- more middle-class flight, which lowers property values, which threaten the viability of our community's center city, which reduces the overall attractiveness and competitiveness of our region."

            Yes, indeed.

            Rivera, like the Rump Group, was diplomatic when he talked about the report late last week. He said he looks forward to working with members of the Rump Group to meet the district's challenges. But he added: "I just hope the report is not paying lip service to the importance of other people in the community to become involved."

            Me, too. I hope Rump Group members will take the time to get to know Rochester schools, their faculty, and their children. And then, I hope, the Rumpsters will become true community leaders, marshalling the forces of this suburb-dominated community --- and the district's city-based critics --- to meet the metropolitan area's biggest challenge: the education of its poorest children.

            The need is to change hearts and minds. And we've got a long way to go. This is a county, remember, that punished city residents and the Rochester school district last spring by abolishing funding for nurses in city schools. Not our problem, said the suburban legislators. A city problem.

            In fact, the Rump report recommends that county government "reinstate at least partial funding" for city-school nurses. But Rivera says that would be just a small start. There should be health clinics in every high school, he says, and nurses in every school, and much, much more.

            "There are many needs that could be addressed in sophisticated ways," says Rivera. And the community shouldn't kid itself, he says, about the amount of investment that is needed.

            The Rump Group has presented its report. Now we'll watch for action.

            And I'll suggest a first, small step: A member of the Rump Group should show up at every CountyLegislature meeting and make a plea for the county's involvement in meeting the challenge of urban education.

            The crisis in Rochester's schools, as the Rump Group says, is indeed everybody's business.

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