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A former school district employee called a few days ago, chiding me about my column in last week's paper. He's one of a number of district staff, past and present, who insist that despite the district's extreme poverty rate, most Rochester students can do well in school.

As if to reinforce his phone call, out came the latest test scores from the State Education Department. About 73 percent of the city's fourth-graders passed the state math test. At five schools, more than 90 percent passed. And at School 58, every child did.

One year of good scores don't tell us everything we need to know, but for the past few years the trend has been upward. Only 38 percent of Rochester's fourth-graders passed the math exam in 2000, for instance; in 2004, the rate was 64 percent. Now we're nearing three-quarters. Certainly that's worth celebrating.

The day after the test scores were released, I asked Superintendent Manuel Rivera what seemed to be working. He ticked off a well-organized list:

• The district has ramped up its teacher training.

• It has put math specialists in every elementary school, experts who not only know their subject but also know how to train and coach teachers.

• The district had been trying out several different math programs; it has now adopted a single program, called Investigations, which Rivera describes as "a very much hands-on, fun program."

• There's more focus on the skills and needs of individual students.

But now comes a bigger challenge. The achievement levels in the upper grades remain dreadfully low: only 19 percent of Rochester students passed the state's most recent eighth-grade math test.

The reversal starts in fifth and sixth grade, and by eighth grade, the improvement of the early years is gone. Peer pressure, hormones, the change in school structure from elementary to secondary school, a more rigorous curriculum: all of those play a role. And Rivera insists that those problems were compounded by the district's change, in the 1980s, from combined junior-senior high schools to separate middle schools and high schools.

Few teachers had wanted to teach the highly volatile early adolescents, he said, and the "more expert teachers" gravitated to the high schools. In addition, Rochester's secondary schools are housed in big buildings. Putting more than a thousand 12 and 13-year-olds in a single building created a difficult school environment. "We were losing 40 percent of our middle-school teachers," Rivera said.

But whether they're in a middle school or a junior-senior high school, those 12 and 13-year-olds still need to be taught. In fact, it was the unique needs of those children that led Rochester to create middle schools in the first place --- so that there could be specialized curriculum, specialized sports, a caring atmosphere... so that the district could seek out and hire teachers who wanted to work with those students.

Did the district not follow through? Was the plan not realistic? Whatever the reason, the change didn't improve the achievement of its early adolescents.

Rivera has taken the district back to the old structure. Now, he said, "what we're looking at doing is building in the same kind of rigor in seventh and eighth grade" that the district has put in place in the elementary-school level.

Rivera also wants more structure for students in seventh and eighth grade, with opportunities "to be members of a team or a club, so they don't get distracted, and they concentrate more on instruction."

This past summer, the district operated a summer program designed for seventh and eighth-graders who hadn't met math standards. About half of the children who needed the program attended, Rivera said.

Will all of this enableRochester teachers and principals to overcome the obstacles they face? Will they be able to counter the effects of peer pressure, the lack of educational background of many city parents, the hopelessness that often accompanies poverty, so that most of the city's eighth-graders pass the state tests?

And at what point will most of our students move from "passing" to excelling?

In his column in the New York Times on Sunday, David Brooks worried about the growing gap between rich and poor in America, a gap that increasingly mirrors the populations of college graduates and non-graduates.

Everybody recognizes the value of a good education, and today, "good education" means "college degree," not high-school diploma. Despite the high cost of college, said Brooks, for America's poorest young people, money isn't the biggest barrier, it's preparation: "being academically prepared, psychologically prepared, and culturally prepared for college."

In Rochester, far too many young people don't even make it through high school. College is not an option.

The city school district, in my humble opinion, is doing about as good a job as we can expect, given the limits of its finances and the pressures of poverty. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, several journalists --- including the conservative Brooks --- have begun warning that reconstruction efforts must not recreate the past: that we avoid settling the poorest refugees in predominantly poor neighborhoods.

These journalists have cited the success of the Gautreaux project in Chicago, which demonstrated that children of families who moved from poor neighborhoods into integrated neighborhoods excelled: had better grades, had higher graduation rates, and were more likely to go to college and get a good job.

Rochester could have its own Gautreaux project, if the suburbs were willing. It could let its poorest students attend non-poverty schools, if the larger community were willing. It could, as I suggested last week, create campus schools, if the universities were willing. Doing such things, as I've said numerous times, is the most realistic way to give Rochester's children the education they deserve.

Meantime, we'll have to make do with the little steps. Unfortunately, that's not nearly enough.

Speaking of Rochester School District, Gautreaux Project

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