September 17, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Learning curve 

Part one of a two-part series.

From his office on the 23rd floor of the Chase Square building, Rob Brown can see many of the schools in the Rochester district. They rise out of the landscape at intervals, surrounded by trees, churches, homes, and businesses.

            Up close the picture is not quite as pretty. The recent headlines involving 19 schools that made the state's "schools in need of improvement" list was just the latest in a long list of bad news about the district.

            But Brown, who has served for six years on the board of the Rochester City School District, is not discouraged.

            Brown, 58, doesn't need the job. His law firm, Boylan, Brown, Code, Vigdor & Wilson LLP, specializes in tax law. He has never drawn the $15,000 salary he is entitled for his school board service.

            Put simply, Brown has faith in the city school system. His sons attended city schools. The older one is now an audio engineer with Telarc, a recording company based in Cleveland. His younger son is a senior, studying education at New York University, who wants to teach Special Education and Elementary Education in New York City. His wife, Priscilla Todd Brown, who plays oboe in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and has played with the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestras, teaches band at East High School.

            A Rochester resident since 1970, Brown cares deeply about the quality of life here. In addition to his duties at his law firm and on the Board of Education, Brown serves on the boards of WXXI, the RPO and Wilson Commencement Park, not to mention his stint in the early '90s as chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Party. That's just a small fraction of his community service over the years.

            As a board member, Brown is not without his critics.

            "He's come up with novel ideas and positions and they can be exasperating at times," says Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson. "The school board has to demand a high level of financial and programmatic accountability. They sometimes get sidetracked into mundane personal, idiosyncratic things that divide them."

            In a recent interview, Brown talked about former superintendent Clifford Janey, the school board's relationship with the city, parental involvement, and the impact of environmental factors on students. The following is an edited version of our discussion.

City: What motivates your long years of service on the school board?

            Brown: I've always been interested in education. My children are very successful graduates of the city schools. I believe in the city schools. I believe in public education. I think improving the understanding of urban education is critical to the success of Rochester as a city and critical to the success of the region. Rochester is becoming a branch office town, in my opinion, with an alarming rapidity. Headquarters are either being minimized in value or we're losing them. We have to figure out a way to build up a base of headquarters companies to support the economy as a whole and to support the level of sophistication that this city has always enjoyed. I think that maintaining the quality of the city schools is critical in that respect.

            City: Being on the school board seems like a thankless job, what holds you there?

            Brown: It is very difficult to be met with constant criticism, but you have to have the perspective that that's always going to happen when you're making decisions of any consequence. Reasonable people can differ and that doesn't even account for the unreasonable people. So you're going to end up in a circumstance where you necessarily have opposition and I think it could get to you. It could dim your ability and desire to participate in the public sphere, unless you realize that what you have to do is bring a set of firmly held principles and a set of well-developed skills to problem solving and solve the problems in the best way you think they can be solved. And, if the critics don't like it then they can vote you out of office. And if you're not taking any salary it doesn't matter, except you have more free time.

            City: In the past you have shown how some city schools out-perform suburban schools. Have you figured out how this happens and how it can be duplicated?

            Brown: There are a lot of questions embedded in your single question. One of the things that is just a pervasive belief in the community is that the Rochester city school system is not a good school system. That's not true. Rochester city schools have sent children to Ivy League schools and to other very fine schools. A lot of children do very, very well in the city school district. One of the issues is understanding that because a school is a city school does not mean it will under-perform all suburban schools.

            The second question embedded in what you asked is what are the determinants of a successful school environment? One is the quality of instruction in a school. That depends on the leadership in the school. I believe that the principal is the most important actor in the school district, because that person can put together a team that works.

            The second important determinant is the family's support for education. That varies from family to family and, not surprisingly, you see a direct correlation between the performance of individual children and the extent to which their family is supportive of and respectful of education. And I'm not just talking about the nuclear families; I'm talking about the support structure and the structure of love and basic needs that surrounds the individual child.

            The third determinant is a whole set of environmental determinants. We have children who come to school not fed, children who come to school lead-poisoned, children who come to school without coats. All of those conspire against the child in terms of learning readiness. The variations you see among individual schools are the result of the interplay of a whole lot of complex factors.

            The important message is it is simply not true that the Rochester city school system is not a good school system. That doesn't mean it can't be improved. But if you look on an individual basis you'll discover that many of our schools outperform suburban schools. And it doesn't seem to matter what the racial or economic mix of those schools is.

City: What would you say are the major challenges facing the school district in the years to come?

            Brown: Eliminating the environmental factors that negatively impact instruction. Improving the understanding that families and support networks have of education. And, as with any school district, continuously improving the level of instructional excellence.

            City: What do you see as the district's short-term financial future?

            Brown: We're going to have another brutal year. The State of New York is out of money. We don't have the power to tax. The city has effectively frozen us for the last 10 years. So, by real purchasing dollars, we have less money. In the past few years they've been whittling away at individual items. They cut us by a little over $1 million two years ago and they've maintained that cut. They just cut the support they've given us for certain litigation services, which costs us more money. Our sources of income are decreasing; our expenses are increasing just like everyone else's expenses as a result of inflation.

            City: What is the school district going to look like 10 years from now?

            Brown: I think that it's going to depend largely on the mix of our student population. It's hard to imagine that our population could get poorer. We're already at 80 percent free, reduced lunch in our elementary schools. I'm not sure the difference between 80 percent and 100 percent would matter. If we can attract and maintain people in the city schools who have a higher income level, that will help to mitigate some of the problems. I think we could do a lot to change the environmental factors and to improve instruction. And if we do all of those things and re-stabilize the learning-readiness of our children's population, I think we have a very bright future.

City: I want to read you back some of your words and have you expand on them: "At the elementary level, better instruction can overcome many poverty-related problems."

            Brown: Everybody's got to be on a continuous improvement model. Improved instruction does help with learning just in and of itself. We can develop, and people who are paying attention nationally are developing, models that help to overcome some of the obvious effects of situations in which children grow up where, for example, they're not read to, where they don't have the stimulation a child would get who goes to a cultural event at age two and at age three goes to another. I think we have ways of dealing with that.

            I think instruction in the Rochester city schools is as good or better in almost every case than it is in any school in the area. What you see is a variation in learning-readiness, particularly in the earlier grades. However, I think we can do more with intelligently applied instructional techniques. We've seen that in this "America's Choice" program that we've used.

            City: You've also said, "by the middle-school level, students are being exposed to a 'pathological subculture,' making it harder to reach them."

            Brown: There's been some really interesting work done by a professor at University of California at Berkeley, John Ogbu. He's isolated some factors independent of poverty that may affect the attitudes of certain children and their families toward exploiting the educational opportunities of the public schools. I think what happens when you have children who are surrounded by poverty --- and to this extent I agree with [City Newspaper Editor] Mary Anna Towler about poverty being the key issue --- and growing up in circumstances where they have no stimulation outside the neighborhood, the stimulation in the neighborhood is not necessarily in accord with mainstream thinking for economic and social success. The children are preyed upon by people who would just as soon suck them into other arenas besides learning. Those factors become much more important at the time in a child's life when peer-pressure is a dominating factor.

            City: Your third statement is "In the areas of the most abject poverty, instruction helps but cannot overcome the problems cause by a substandard environment."

            Brown: To put a very physical example to that: lead poisoning is irreversible. If you eat enough lead, or breathe enough, or lick enough lead off a deteriorating piece of wood, you're not going to catch up. In areas where there is no maintenance, in areas where children are exposed to rodent and cockroach droppings that give them asthma, you're going to have a more difficult time overcoming those issues by instruction, no matter how intensive it is.

City: I want to discuss one of your critics. How would you describe your relationship with Mayor Johnson?

            Brown: I would say that Mayor Johnson and I get along insofar as he understands and reacts to problems in the correct way. He's a very bright man. He has not accepted responsibility, in my opinion, for educating the children of Rochester. He's chosen to focus his energy on confronting the school board in a number of circumstances, and I think that's had a deleterious effect on our ability to get the job done. I don't hold him any personal ill will; I rather like him. We disagree strongly about a number of educational issues. I have proposed and --- until [State Assemblyperson] Dave Gantt came up with a better solution --- would still believe the schools ought to be under direct control of the city because then the mayor would have to answer in addition to criticizing, and you would have an accountability that matched both the financial resources and the rhetoric.

            City: So you approve of David Gantt's bill, giving the mayor more of a say in the school district's budget matters?

            Brown: I think it's a very good bill.

            City: What do you think the mayor should be doing?

            Brown: He should be collaborating with us to eliminate the problems that confront us in educating the children of this city. They are not primarily fiscal. He's found that to be an amusing diversion. The problems are with learning-readiness. We have children that have been brought up in circumstances that are simply not conducive to education. Children that are from stable families --- and it doesn't much matter how rich or poor they are --- do very well in our district.

            City: Do we have the correct balance between the board's responsibilities and the superintendent's authority?

            Brown: No, I don't think so. A recent study by Howard Fuller basically holds that the urban superintendent's job is impossible. Among the reasons are the facts that the superintendent does not have sufficient authority vis-à-vis the board, nor does the superintendent have sufficient political power in the community. Those are terribly important issues. We have a system that's based on 19th-century law that hobbles the chief executive. That's fine if you're dealing with some small district where you're dealing with entirely homogenous people, but it doesn't work when you're talking about a half-billion dollar organization with thousands of employees and tens of thousands of students who come from a broad range of circumstances.

            City: But that presupposes a high-quality chief executive.

            Brown: We have one.

            City: What about the former superintendent?

            Brown: Clifford Janey? He was also a high-quality chief executive. Under Clifford Janey the test scores improved every year from the time the tests started in the State of New York. That's awfully important. He introduced a lot of innovation into the system. He divided Franklin into the four academies that are being implemented. He brought the Montessori to Franklin. He implemented "America's Choice" in many of our schools. If you go back and look at this, you discover that superintendent's tenures are inversely related to their activism. I think that one of the reasons that Dr. Janey ran into difficulties was that he made a lot of changes in a system that was resistant to change. I think Dr. Janey did an awful lot of good things and he should be remembered for that. I think Dr. Rivera is the perfect person for now, and that these things change over time.

            City: What about Clifford Janey's fiscal management?

            Brown: I think his fiscal management was, by and large, good. We ran into a problem in the fall of 2000 where we had a screw up in which we failed to accurately anticipate about $30 million of expense. That is about six percent of the budget and is a major issue. However, by the time of the next budget, those items had been dealt with in such a way that there were no layoffs of teachers, no layoffs of the people on the front in terms of learning. I thought the recovery was particularly good.

            City: But how does a $30 million mistake happen? Six percent is pretty significant.

            Brown: It happened because the accounting department was not sufficiently tuned in to catch it early on.

            City: Should Janey have had more oversight of the accounting department?

            Brown: Should he have been checking the receipts? It's a lot of money. But in the scheme of a half-billion dollar budget, while it is a significant error, to my way of thinking it does not rise to the dignity of catastrophic. It clearly rises to the dignity of where the television personalities can make something of it.

            City: Why was Janey treated so well when he was let go --- in terms of compensation and a letter of recommendation --- after such a poor performance?

            Brown: Because he did a good job.

            City: And you feel that people blew it out of proportion and the money problem was something that was dealt with.

            Brown: Yes, I do.

            City: Was the selection process for a new superintendent a thorough and extensive one? Did you seriously consider other qualified candidates, or did the board just go with a safe choice in appointing Manuel Rivera?

            Brown: We did a serious national search with the most prestigious national search organization in the country for superintendents. We used Hazard, Young, Attea and they came with a series of individuals who were very well qualified. In fact, the choice was difficult, and Dr. Rivera came out on top. He is a candidate that is uniquely suited to where we are now. He has experience with Rochester, he has a commitment to Rochester, he has the educational qualifications and he has business experience. He is as close as you can get to having an alternative superintendent and still have a real educator.

            City: How do you feel about the media's coverage of all the things we've been discussing.

            Brown: I think it's largely uninformed, with some notable exceptions. The education reporters at the Democrat & Chronicle have by and large been very good. However, they also tend to be inexperienced and not particularly knowledgeable about Rochester, and that's difficult. But I think the press at large has treated educational issues in this community in a trivial manner, and I don't think it's been helpful.

            City: Are school board frictions and factions exaggerated?

            Brown: I don't know if they've been exaggerated, but I think their importance in the scheme of things has been blown out of proportion.

City: How important are parents in the equation?

            Brown: Parents are absolutely critical. If parents don't participate in education, education does not occur. The child is in the hands of teachers six or seven hours a day; they're in the hands of their parents the rest of the time. Parents tease children into learning all the time. To the extent that a child is not teased into learning from the earliest possible age, and to the extent that that pressure is not kept on all the way through school, you're going to have a child who is less receptive to education. The principle demand of a middle-class family is to be educated.

            To be educated and to behave are the two things that we work with our children on. To the extent that children are not worked with on that basis, they'll fall short of the ability to integrate successfully into a productive society.

            City: What can be done to make parents more involved, responsible?

            Brown: Getting parents more involved is a bad term because it sounds like there is some sort of defalcation on the part of institutions that didn't get the parents involved. First of all, I am a total believer in individual responsibility. I've been on the boards of a lot of social service organizations in town. One of the ones that is most successful is Wilson Commencement Park, which is built on the dual premises that we will give you a hand if you will accept the responsibility. As a result, they have a fantastic record of releasing people from the cycle of welfare dependency and reducing welfare recidivism. We have to apply that kind of standard to our educational system.

            There are two parts; one is the individual responsibility and the other is holding out a helping hand. Almost all of our parents care deeply about their children. Not all of them understand how to deal with the institutions of the community, with the schools that their children are in. And I think we have a responsibility to help educate parents about how to be good parents. That's very different than simply listening to their complaints about where they are, because when they're effective we will automatically listen to their complaints.

            You don't have a problem in Brighton. One of my partners was on the school board of a wealthy town. One day he came to me and said, "The parents are driving us crazy, can we trade with you?" There are two sides to this story. I've often said they talk about the first three years of a child's life being critical, but Brighton parents push their kids all through medical school. They don't stop at age three.

            You get on the phone when your child is away at college and you say, "Have you checked with your advisor? Are you sure your professor thinks that's all right? Did you get all your papers in? Have you bought your books? Have you done your reading assignments?" You're talking to some kid who's removed by 300 miles, away at college, living alone, who expects you to do it. That's the kind of relationship you have to have as a family with education.

            City: How do you train parents? Is this another program?

            Brown: We do have programs. We have Title I programs. When the regents came out with new testing standards for seventh grade, we picked up parents from school with their children and their siblings, took them to the Title I center, fed everybody dinner, had child-care for the children, had sessions for the adults, and then we took everyone home in school busses. That's stunningly expensive, and you wouldn't have to do that in your wealthy suburb.

            So what people have to understand when they start whining about the kind of money Rochester needs to spend --- and we're not the highest spending district [per child] in the county, Rush-Henrietta is --- they have to understand that every one of the measures that you implement to deal in loco parentis is extraordinarily expensive. The most efficient entity we have in the United States of America is the functioning family. It provides so many social nutritional and educational services that can't possibly be provided by government, that when there's a default the expense is astounding.

            City: What about class size? Can anything be done about that?

            Brown: Class size is very important and the more money you have, the more teachers you can have and then you can reduce class size. To the extent that an instructor can spend a larger portion of instructional time with a child, the child is more inclined to be able to learn. That's common sense. And the only way you can reduce class size is to increase the number of teachers. The only way to increase the number of teachers is to hire more teachers, and that costs money. That one's not hard.

            City: It's not hard, but does our society really want effective education enough to do that?

            Brown: No, of course not; especially in the urban schools. There is no constituency for effective education in urban schools. The drive for effective education in urban schools is currently coming from professionals and boards who are very concerned. But until you have a family unit that steps up and makes demands of the system in an articulate way, you're not going to improve the efficiency. You're not going to be able to get the resources to do it. And to the extent you're dealing with a population that's abjectly poor, you can't tax them. And when they don't vote you can't get the state government to pay any attention to them.

            City: Are decaying school buildings and facilities a problem?

            Brown: We don't really have any of those. Our schools are in pretty good shape. They're not new; we have some issues of energy efficiency and modernization of air-handling systems that we do on a continuing basis. We're talking about some buildings that are 100 years old, but they're in good shape. Rochester is not like the stories you hear of Buffalo or New York City, where the roof is collapsing and the water's flowing into the classroom.

            City: Is there a problem with violence, schools that need metal detectors?

            Brown: Yes, many of our schools have metal detectors. We do that to prevent violence. You have to understand, you're talking to somebody whose children went to the city schools within the last five years. If I thought that violence was a problem, you can be sure my own children would not have been there.

            It's very convenient, particularly in a society like Rochester that is starkly divided by race and by class, to talk about Them vs. Us. In fact, almost all of our children are delightful, law-abiding children who wish to do the right thing just like everybody else. Now, whether they have the fundamental tools to do that, because of environment and training, is another issue. I would say that we've got the violence issue firmly in our sights, and we are not going to let up in such a way that violence ever becomes a significant problem.

            City: Do you have ideas on what can be done about the dropout rate in Rochester schools?

            Brown: The dropout issue is very serious, and I think it's caused by the fact that we cannot compete with adverse social pressures in the middle years. If you look at the demographics of dropouts in our schools, the problem occurs in the ninth grade. The ninth grade class in East High School might be 800 or 900 kids; 240 or 230 graduate. What happens is young people park there until they turn 16 and can drop out of school. We lose them when the adverse influences in their surroundings overtake their desire to learn.

            City: At that point the problem is bigger than the schools.

            Brown: The problem is substantially bigger than the schools. One of the things that [School Board Member] Bolgen Vargas has proposed to the mayor is to put it in the form of a "guarantee." You make sure that the child is in school for 95 or 100 percent of the time and if they do not graduate, we will refund the money that you paid us to educate them. The point is there is a direct correlation between success in school and attendance, and we can show it.

            Kids don't show up and we round them up. Sometimes they don't show up because they were working late. Sometimes it's because their parent has insisted that they stay home with a younger child to facilitate the parent's ability to work. There are all kinds of problems, but those root causes of truancy are way beyond the ability of the school district to deal with individually.

            In next week's installment, Brown discusses the impact of tax-cutting politicians, the students' right to a "sound, basic education," the Regents exams, and school district personnel decisions.

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