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School integration is more than enrichment 

I am betting that most parents in the Spencerport school district would welcome participation in the Urban-Suburban program, despite the few voices of opposition.

For 50 years, the program has opened the door for minority children from Rochester to attend school in one of seven participating suburban districts. (Spencerport would be the 8th if the school board approvals the proposal.)

And what's not to like? It costs suburban districts nothing. And as supporters often explain, the city children who participate are selected because they have parents who are highly engaged; their children are ready to learn, not in need of substantial remediation.

Urban-Suburban is a wonderful opportunity for the 500-plus city children who participate; it gets them out of city schools where the risk of failure is high. And thousands of suburban kids get to know classmates whose lives are very different from their own. Urban-Suburban is a low-maintenance integration plan. No fuss. No muss.

But I suspect that many people think of Urban-Suburban as an enrichment program — good for everyone, but not critical to anyone's education. And that is the problem. Fifty years of national research and our own experience have made it absolutely clear: socioeconomic integration of our schools is essential, though not sufficient to reverse the catastrophic outcomes in the city schools.

Rochester's schools are among the most segregated in the country. Students and their families live in poor neighborhoods, isolated from the rich network of contacts that middle-class families take for granted — everything from entry-level jobs for teens, cultural and travel opportunities, and high-quality schools that are so important to building successful lives.

School is not just a place where information gets poured into your head; it is a community where children and parents learn from each other and learn to appreciate each other.

Separate is never equal. Chris Widmaier is a science teacher and the swim coach at the city's World of Inquiry School. The city's varsity swim programs have dwindled to two this year, and Widmaier says he knows why.

City kids use Depression-era facilities and are much slower than the suburban kids who have access to private pools and year-round training. It's discouraging, Widmaier says; his students don't have the wherewithal to compete. "At sectionals, the differences are glaringly obvious," he says. "The swimmers on the other teams don't even make eye contact with my swimmers. The fact is many of them have no idea how to talk to people who are different from them."

It's tempting to believe that it doesn't matter where you go to school, or who you sit next to. But it does.

The benchmark 1966 Coleman report on equality of educational opportunity nailed the truth almost half a century ago: "...the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student's own social background, than is any school factor." In other words: in the classroom, demography is destiny.

If we are going to give the poorest children in our community a chance to succeed in school, we need not just Urban-Suburban, but a family of urban-suburban prodigies to bridge the gap.

The critics of integration are right about one thing: Sitting in a classroom next to a middle-class student does not make a poor child smarter. But it does create opportunity.

Socioeconomic integration is not magic; it works only when a school community embraces all of its children, including those who have fallen behind, and comes to value those children as assets.

School boards must recognize that you can't measure a school by its test scores alone — that good schools teach students how to care for each other, and about our obligation to work for the common good. If we truly believe in equal opportunity, we must break up the segregated schools that have preserved inequality for decades.

Former D&C and City writer Mark Hare is filling in while Mary Anna Towler is on vacation.

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