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Neighborhood schools: popular but impossible? 

For nearly two decades, the Rochester City School District has had what it calls a “managed choice” system, letting families choose a city school other than the one closest to them. As a result, many of the district’s elementary school students attend schools in other neighborhoods, often across town.

Some families do that because they believe that their neighborhood school isn’t good enough or that another school offers programs better suited for their children. Some worry about neighborhood safety and don’t want their children to walk to school; children who attend schools more than a mile and a half from home get bus transportation.

One result is that the district spends millions of dollars a year on transportation. Another: it can be hard for schools to build strong bonds with their surrounding neighborhood – and with the families they serve – if most of their students don’t live nearby.

For many people, a return to neighborhood schools wouldn’t be a hard sell. And the draft of the city’s new comprehensive plan, now nearing completion, recommends that the school district re-examine its managed-choice system. A return to neighborhood schools, “even if done incrementally, could have a positive impact on both schools and their surroundings,” says the draft plan. But as with many things related to the Rochester school district, that’s easier said than done.

Many of the families whose children now attend schools outside their neighborhood have made that decision for good reasons. It would be hard to convince them to send their children to a school they don’t like.

Also a problem: The school district’s population has changed. Some schools aren’t large enough to serve the number of children in their neighborhood. Other schools are now too big. A good example of the latter: the school in my neighborhood, School 23. The surrounding neighborhood, which once had many families, now has far fewer – and numerous single young adults.

If the Rochester school district adopted a neighborhood school system, the district would probably have to consider closing School 23. And yet that would meet with resistance from the families who do live in the neighborhood and send their children there. In addition, the comprehensive plan suggests that the city should try to compete with the suburbs “for a fairer share of middle and higher-income households.” Neighborhood schools in middle-income neighborhoods like School 23’s could help.

And yet that would mean rejecting the children from other neighborhoods: predominantly low-income children of color, whose families believe their children will get a better education outside of their neighborhood.

In an ideal world, children could get a superior education no matter which Rochester school they attended. But the hyper-high-poverty Rochester school district is not an ideal world. Poverty matters. It’s no coincidence that the elementary school with the highest test scores – School 23 – is the school with the lowest student poverty rate.

Given the poverty rate of the district itself, it’s impossible to create more than one or two other Rochester schools with that balance – not without adding children from some of the more affluent suburbs. And nobody’s willing to do that.

I think neighborhood schools are a good idea. But I don’t see a way to get them – unless, of course, we’re willing to spend what it would take – on extra services, on lower class sizes – to overcome the effects of the city’s concentrated poverty. And nobody’s willing to do that, either.

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