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Schools, neighborhoods,and the future of the city 

Every once in a while, the topic of neighborhood schools comes up in Rochester. And while part of this stems from nostalgia, there's also a fiscal argument. The Rochester school district spends a lot of money busing children to schools outside of their neighborhood. The reason: the district's "school choice" system, which lets parents choose a school other than the one closest to them if they believe that's better for their children.

And many, many parents choose a different school. The result is an attendance pattern that looks like a tangled cobweb, with children from each neighborhood being transported literally all over the city.

Only 14 percent of the city's elementary-age children attend their neighborhood school. Some of the others go to a charter school or a private or parochial school. But most choose another school-district school – usually one in their same "zone": within the same 1/3 of the city. Others go to a district school somewhere else in the city.

The reasons are many for choosing other district schools. Some parents like the special programs offered in a few schools – bilingual classes, for instance, or the World of Inquiry's expeditionary learning. Some choose a school outside their neighborhood because their children can ride a bus there, and they're worried about safety in their neighborhood.

Undoubtedly, the availability of choice has kept some parents from sending their children to non-public schools – or from moving out of the city. But the dispersion could also have a serious negative effect. It can undermine schools' important role as a community focal point. A strong school can keep families in specific neighborhoods and attract new ones.

More and more young adults are finding cities attractive places to live, and Rochester is no exception. But we struggle to keep them once they have children, and it's no secret that the school district is a big reason.

Combine that flight with the choice-created dispersion and here's the result: While Rochester has individual neighborhoods with predominantly middle and upper-income residents, not a single one of the district's elementary schools has a student poverty rate of below 50 percent.

This is not a small matter. Low test scores and low graduation rates are solidly linked to concentrated poverty – in school districts and in individual schools. Plenty of documentation shows that integrating schools economically helps all the children. It is, in fact, one of the most effective ways of improving poor children's education.

We could reduce the concentrated poverty in Rochester schools by merging them with suburban schools, of course, but that'll never be politically feasible. So we need to find ways to attract more middle- and upper-income families to city schools.

One place to start is with the families we have: city families who don't send their children to their neighborhood school.

You can get an idea of how many students we're talking about from two pages in the school district's Facilities Modernization Plan (available on the district's website, or linked from this article on our website). Scroll down to Pages 12 and 13, and you'll find a chart and a map that dissect the population of elementary-age school children in the neighborhood surrounding each of the district's elementary schools.

(The statistics are September's preliminary enrollment numbers for this school year, so they may have changed slightly by the time things settled in. But the overall picture is reliable.)

You'll see how many elementary-age children live in each city neighborhood, how many are going to their neighborhood school, and, if they're not going there, whether they're choosing another school-district school or a non-district school: charter, private, or parochial.

Let me point to one school as a particularly interesting example: School 1.

This is a beautiful, small school serving a popular area: Cobbs Hill and the eastern segments of Park and East Avenues. Traditionally, this has been a terrific place to buy a house, raise a family, and send children to school. School 1 has 307 students. Want to know how many of them live in that neighborhood?

Two.

The rest come from other neighborhoods – from throughout the city.

It's not that there are no children in the School 1 neighborhood. Although the number has declined over the years, 99 elementary-school-age children do still live there. They just go to school somewhere else. Thirty-six of them go to other city schools. And 61 go to private, parochial, or charter schools.

The school my children attended, School 23 in the Park Avenue neighborhood, has similar statistics. Of the 310 elementary-school-age children who live in the neighborhood, only 69 go to School 23; 155 go to other school-district schools, and 86 go to non-district schools.

I wouldn't argue for a return for a strictly neighborhood school system. For one thing, neither School 1 nor School 23 would have enough students to operate efficiently. The district would almost certainly close them both. Busing is their lifeblood. And if all of the bused-in children returned to their home school, some of those schools might be seriously overcrowded, and the district would have to expand them.

More important, that would make the school district even more racially and economically segregated than it is now.

The Rochester school district has a commendable history of trying hard to offer choices – and to do it in a way that doesn't create elitist schools that favor wealthier students over poor ones.

But as the poverty rate has risen, and student achievement has fallen, it has become increasingly hard to overcome the effects of that poverty. The district still offers excellent programs. There are pockets of success. And if the district can strengthen those pockets, and build on them, it will be able to do two things: help its poorest children, and convince some families that they don't have to move or turn to charter school, private schools, or parochial schools.

The district could start by attracting enough middle-income families to lower the poverty rate to below 50 percent in several schools. It wouldn't be easy. Parents choosing a non-neighborhood school to get special programs like World of Inquiry's wouldn't change their decision.

But the school district's reputation leads some parents to choose a charter school or a private or parochial school without ever considering their neighborhood school. In addition, some families say they haven't been able to get their children admitted to their neighborhood school. The district's policy is to "guarantee" families first choice in their neighborhood school. But we continue to hear reports – from parents and from school staff – that that doesn't always happen.

Attracting more middle-income students to their home school would require a careful study of the schools-choice program. It would require making sure that the children who wanted to attend their neighborhood school could do so.

It would require a top-quality, intensive marketing and recruitment program, identifying families who have pre-school-age children and selling them on public schools: visiting them personally, holding neighborhood picnics, hosting school tours, reaching out to real-estate agents, running ads – doing everything possible to attract middle-income families back into city schools.

And it would take participation not only by school district officials, school board members, individual school staffs, and the parents in those schools but also by city officials and neighborhood leaders.

This wouldn't solve our concentrated poverty problem district-wide. It would integrate only a handful of schools. Others would be solidly poor – but they already are.

It wouldn't turn any school into a school serving only the middle-income children who live nearby. Many children would still be bused from one neighborhood to another.

And it would be a start. It would help many of the city's children. It would attract and keep families in the city.

Rochester neighborhoods are ideal for families. They offer tree-lined streets with sidewalks and easy-to-maintain yards. Key services – YMCA branches, libraries, museums, restaurants, stores, parks, concerts, movies – are within walking or easy-driving distance. But for many families, concern about schools has overwhelmed the city's attractions.

We ought to be able to turn that around. And I think we can.

Somebody will have to lead, though. And we need to start now, before we lose more families.

"We struggle to keep young adults in the city once they have children, and the school district is a big reason."

"As the district's poverty rate has risen, and student achievement has fallen, it has become increasingly hard to overcome the effects of that poverty."

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