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RCSD needs major change, forum speakers say 

click to enlarge Minister Clifford Florence: If the district doesn't make "radical change," Rochester will lose more of its children. - JAMES BROWN, WXXI
  • James Brown, WXXI
  • Minister Clifford Florence: If the district doesn't make "radical change," Rochester will lose more of its children.

[ Updated ] At a public forum on the Rochester school district and its problems, state education officials heard pleas for dramatic change.

The forum, held Saturday at the Central Church of Christ, was hosted by the Take It Down Planning Committee, Faith Community Alliance, and the Movement for Anti-Racist Ministry and Action. It gave the public a chance to question state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Regents T. Andrew Brown and Wade Norwood, and Jaime Aquino, the district’s state-appointed Distinguished Educator and author of a report that criticized the district, its operations, and its outcomes.

Among those calling for reform was Gayle Harrison, the interim president of the community group Roc/ACTS. “As a grandparent, as a professional, as a black woman that’s truly concerned,” Harrison said, “I think we’re going to have to go back to some old-time techniques and come out with our signs and our marching, maybe even have some of our own schools, to say: This is what’s needed to be taught.”

The stakes are high, said Minister Clifford Florence, a member of the Take it Down Coalition and a candidate for school board. “If a radical change is not made in the system,” Florence said, “we’re going to lose more of our children, and the issues that affect us with poverty and crime and other things will be before us.”

Many of those who attended the forum talked about racism and about the lack of diversity in the district’s teaching staff. Elia said teacher diversity is a problem for districts nationwide, and one answer is within the schools themselves, encouraging and helping district students to become teachers.

District officials are now developing a revised version of a plan to address the concerns Aquino cited in his report. That plan is supposed to include goals and benchmarks to help district staff make the changes Aquino recommended. One participant in Saturday’s forum asked if Aquino would stay to see the process through.

Aquino, whose contract as Distinguished Educator is up in September, didn’t answer the question directly, but he said the reform process is bigger than him.

“An almost one billion dollar operation like the district’s cannot put systems in place that are people dependent,” Aquino said. “You have to have structures in place to make sure that students have a guaranteed and viable curriculum that challenges to the highest level possible.”

In earlier forums, Elia, Aquino, Brown, and Norwood had been clear about their frustration with the district. And one of the more emotional moments of the forum came during the officials’ opening remarks, when Norwood made an impassioned plea for a return to a neighborhood-school system.

Under Rochester’s school-choice system, many children go to schools well outside of their neighborhood. Interest is growing, however, in “community schools,” which would be predominantly neighborhood schools with additional offerings such as health care and social services for students’ families.

Norwood said he bought his home near Chili Avenue so his children could go to the same school he and his siblings and cousins and neighbors attended. “When children go to school in the neighborhood in which they live, with people with whom they grow up, who are parented by people with whom their parents grew up,” he said, “education becomes a magical experience.”

Even though money has been earmarked for community schools, Norwood said, the community is fighting over how to finance them and how to set up a student placement program.

“I’m crying,” an emotional Norwood said, “because I’m frustrated, and I’m frustrated because I’m tired of rearranging deck chairs on this cruise ship, and we ought to be charting a different course.”

This article has been updated to correct an earlier version, which stated that the board is to send a revised improvement plan to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia by April 19. The board is waiting for Elia's detailed response to its first improvement plan.

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