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URBAN JOURNAL: Still seeking solutions to city school problems 

The Rochester school district will be getting a lot of new attention in the early part of this year.

Mayor Lovely Warren made education a key issue in her campaign, and I assume it won't be long before she starts acting on the initiatives she laid out.

The University of Rochester is hosting a Presidential Symposium on Revitalizing K-12 Education in February.

And Van White, the Rochester school board's new president, has appointed four committees whose job will be, in his words, to "identify solutions to the district's most pressing problems."

All that focus is good, and I'd like to be more hopeful than I am. But we've been through all this before. The cast of characters in the school district changes, but the outcome hasn't improved.

The committees appointed by Van White are supposed to come up with solutions to four key challenges facing the school district: concentrated poverty, student achievement, parental involvement, and school and community safety.

White wants the committees to identify solutions and budget priorities in time for them to be included in the district's 2014-15 budget, which the school board will vote on in May.

He's also asking for public input. I don't have any fresh ideas in terms of solutions - nothing that people haven't raised before, anyway. But I do have some thoughts about what we need to do to before we embark on any solutions - if we want to be successful.

So here are those thoughts:

Since my husband and I moved here in 1965, the poverty of the city has increased pretty steadily. So has the racial segregation of the Rochester school district. And the district's student achievement and graduation rates have plummeted.

A succession of superintendents (eight, plus two interims, since 1965) and a succession of school board members and presidents have had big plans, high hopes, great expectations, great confidence, great enthusiasm. None of them have been able to reverse the slide down.

We've had a succession of reforms and blue-ribbon committees and position papers and community-involvement plans, and things have just kept getting worse.

We've closed schools and opened new ones. We've created magnet schools. We've carved big schools into clusters of small schools. We've tried reorganizing schools into junior-senior highs, into middle schools and high schools, into K-6, K-8. We've introduced new curriculum. We've launched turn-around plans. We've pushed volunteerism, business partnerships, mentoring, extended days.

And things have gotten worse.

Concentrated poverty is obviously a major factor. It's not our only problem, but there's no denying that it has a terrible impact on many of the district's students and their families. We can't get rid of the poverty concentration overnight, however. And, in fact, we can't deal with it successfully without vastly improving our children's educational achievement.

Nor can we throw up our hands and say those children are doomed to failure: doomed to get out of school without the knowledge and skills to get a decent job, contribute to society, and live a fulfilling life.

What kind of educational system will it take to give Rochester's children the knowledge and skills they need? And what's keeping us from providing it?

To single out only concentrated poverty as an obstacle and to single out only money as a solution is a cop-out. Both are important. But focusing only on them keeps us from asking the hard questions. It keeps us from being honest about the other changes we need to make. It lets us keep pointing fingers and wasting time, and wasting the future of tens of thousands of Rochester's children in the process.

So let me ask some questions.

What kinds of teachers and principals does the school district need if we are going to overcome the impact of poverty concentration? What's the quality of the current staff? What improvements do we need? What has to change to get them?

What kind of education support services - the services that the district's administrative staff provide - are needed? What's the quality of the current staff? What improvements are needed? What has to change to get them?

What community support services do students' families need? What's the quality of the services we offer now? What improvements are needed? What collaboration? What new services are needed?

What do parents need to do better? What are they not doing that they should be doing? Are some of them not well educated enough themselves to set expectations and to support their children educationally? Do all parents take responsibility for their children's behavior and achievement? And what can parent activists do about that?

And what about the students themselves? Do they bear any responsibility for doing better? Do they know what changes they need to make themselves?

We do have answers to some of those questions - partial answers, anyway. Teachers and administrators have complained for years about lack of adequate training, frequent changes in curriculum and programs, widespread student discipline problems, and lack of parent involvement. District audits and other investigations have found absurd lapses in simple school management: failure to take attendance, for instance, and a records-keeping system that marks students present if no attendance is taken.

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, who has asked area colleges and universities to take over the management of some of Rochester's schools, says the district's bureaucracy is "overwhelming" and that the district is too badly broken to fix by itself.

We also know that many Rochester children start school without the language skills and other basics that they need; they're behind from Day 1, and they don't catch up. We know that the community doesn't provide enough help to make up for those deficits.

We know that many Rochester children start school with serious physical and mental health problems. And we know that they aren't getting enough help.

I believe that the vast majority of parents want their children to succeed in school. I believe that the vast majority of teachers and administrators and other school staff want to do a good job. That's the raw material. What do we need to do to turn that raw material into a successful school district?

The answer can't come from outside observers. We've tried that before. The answer needs to come from self-analysis. Everybody in the district community - teachers, parents, students, administrators, service providers, city residents - needs to start with a frank assessment of themselves and their peers.

There are problems in every area, and for too many years we've tried to fix them by finding fault and imposing solutions from the outside. That hasn't worked. Self-analysis won't work, either, if the goal is self-protection. Teachers and administrators have to admit that some of their peers are not good at their job and shouldn't be there. Parents and community activists have to admit that some parents are doing a bad job raising their children - that some children's language and behavior is out of bounds, and that teachers deserve respect, from their children and from parents.

You get the picture. Everybody in the community needs to take a good, hard look at themselves and their peers. They need to talk about the hard subjects. No more mincing words. No alibies and justifications.

And no more asking for money. Not now. What we need right now is for each peer group to come up with solutions for the problems in their own backyard.

The public has lost confidence in the Rochester school district: in its teachers, its administrators, its school board. All of the blame-deflecting just looks like an excuse. And the charter school movement - making big inroads in Rochester - is one result of that.

Superintendent Vargas has said that the district doesn't have much time left. He's right. If we don't fix things, the state will start taking over some of our schools. And charter schools will keep opening and siphoning off students. And families who can afford to will keep moving out of the city. And the back-to-the-city momentum that seems to be flickering right now will burn out.

And 10 years from now, Rochester's problems - the concentration of poverty, the unemployment, the violence, the fiscal problems - will be much, much worse.

We've let that go on for decades. We owe it to the current generation of children to stop it.

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