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It's not East High's fault 

OK: the crisis in the Rochester school district has finally reached the level of absurdity. The academic problems plaguing the district's largest school, East High, have continued for so long that the State Education Department has ordered the district to... well, DO SOMETHING.

Turn the school into a charter school, close it and send its students to other district schools, turn it over to SUNY, bring an outside agency in to run it, close it and create some other kind of school inside the building: the district must do one of the above.

Why? Because the state had told the district previously that it had to DO SOMETHING. And things haven't gotten better. The graduation rate is low. The absenteeism rate is high. (The poverty rate is high, too. BUT THAT'S NO EXCUSE! says the state.) So now, huffing like an out-of-patience parent, State Ed has told the school district that it has to do something with East. MAKE A BIG CHANGE!

Raise your hand if you think East High School is the problem.

Any takers?

Of course not.

Because it isn't.

As ordered, though, the Rochester School District will do something to East High School. Because the State Ed Department says it has to. But the students who aren't doing well at East haven't been doing well for a long time.

This is not rocket science. The students have been passed up through the system, one grade at a time, whether they are able to do grade-level work or not. And the further up they're passed, the further behind they get.

We shouldn't be surprised that they skip school, fail tests, drop out. And let's be serious. Do we really think that extending the school day, adding art and music, and offering sports activities will make up for those years of falling behind? If students reach seventh and ninth grade and can't do third-grade work, do we really think that tutoring them in geometry and Shakespeare will get them up to speed? Get them interested in school? Restore their self-esteem?

Do we think that in-school suspensions and home visits by teachers will work miracles?

Years ago, we went through this kind of discussion about the old Madison High School, where grades and graduation rates were abysmally low. The Madison community put together reform plans. Jesse Jackson visited and got students, parents, and teachers all fired up.

Nothing changed. And the district finally closed the school. And tore it down. And sent the students to other schools elsewhere in the city. Franklin High School has a similar story, sans the teardown.

Many of us recognize that it's not just what happens inside a school that determines a student's success. Poverty, health, role models, a parent's education level: all are a factor, and the district can't do much about them. (Although, commendably, it tries, serving meals, bringing in tutors, pressing for school health facilities and social workers.)

Still, schools and teachers and principals are extremely important. There are things the district can do. It can train its staff, insist on excellence, hold people accountable.

And for heaven's sake, it can stop passing children up through the system. It could, for instance, determine whether every child in the early years of elementary school has enough basic skills to progress to higher grades. And for those who don't, it could bring in leaders of the larger community and insist that they provide enough resources to get them up to speed.

Not all of Rochester's education news is bad. We've at last begun to focus on the need for more pre-school programs, to help children get the language and social skills they need. But these are early days. Success will require money, effort, and long-term commitment.

Meantime, the State Ed Department needs to cut out the threats and get serious about what needs to be done in the early grades. Otherwise, we'll keep wasting money on futile efforts.

East High School is not the problem.

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