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Rochester's students andour crisis of commitment 

For years, the Rochester school district has been working hard to boost its graduation rate. On Monday, the state Education Department released its latest report, and while overall, the state's rate inched upward, it fell in some districts. One of them was Rochester.

So if you wanted more evidence that what we're doing isn't working, there it is. Rochester's graduation rate in 2011 was 45.5 percent – down from 46.1 percent in 2010. And for boys – most of whom are black or Hispanic – the graduation rate was only 39.7 percent.

I spent a good part of this column space last month focusing on the crisis in Rochester's schools, and that series brought some fascinating and important comments from readers, both agreeing and disagreeing with what I had said. Let me wrap up this series by addressing a few of those concerns, and repeat some of my own.

Some readers, citing their own family history, contested the core of my argument, which is that concentrated poverty is at the root of the crisis. And yes, generations of immigrants have come to the US, overcome poverty, secured a good education for their children, and moved into the middle class or beyond. But much has changed since then: the availability of good-paying jobs for unskilled workers, family structure – even, as a recent Brookings report says, the nature of poverty itself.

There is something inherently different about what we're facing now. Talk to anyone who teaches or volunteers in a Rochester classroom.

Unquestionably, we must expect high-quality teaching. And parents must be involved in their children's educational life, as many are. But there are forces at work in Rochester's concentrated-poverty neighborhoods that are overwhelming teachers' efforts, overwhelming the hopes and efforts of many students' families. Unless we deal with those forces, we'll never see the graduation rates that all of us want – and that the students deserve.

Some readers worried that I was disparaging the efforts of the dedicated volunteers in our schools. I agree that their efforts are important. As one letter writer said last week, we must do everything we can: donate musical instruments to schools and to children who otherwise wouldn't have them; donate books; donate clothing; tutor; mentor....

But I have several concerns. One is that we can't do enough of that to change things appreciably. I know that some of these efforts can indeed make a huge difference to individual children. I've heard the stories. But they are not the solution to the larger problem. If they were, we wouldn't have the graduation rate we have in Rochester; dedicated volunteers have been helping city children for decades.

More seriously, there's the risk that these efforts will divert attention from dealing with the concentrated poverty in this community.

And as important as volunteers are, for me they raise an additional concern: we can not fix this problem on the cheap, and by refusing to provide enough money for high-quality teacher training; by paying many teachers less than they deserve; by not spending enough to provide adequate health care, social services, early-childhood programs and the like, we are saying that we're content to rely on volunteers rather than qualified professionals to help our neediest children.

This is a problem that must be addressed politically and financially, by the Greater Rochester community, city and suburbs. And all of us have to become involved, convincing political and community leaders to do what it takes. So far, I don't see many signs of a commitment to do that.

A quick update on our website, which crashed in late May: A new, robust site is under development now and should be live in a few weeks. Meantime, our temporary site, with many of the old site's basic features – including a reader comment function – is alive and well at the usual address, rochestercitynewspaper.com.

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