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Tackling poverty when we don’t like the remedy 

Jobs, poverty, education, housing: There's been a lot of focus on these issues recently, thanks in part to the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

But clearly, one of those issues is the key to success in all of the others. If this community doesn't deal adequately with education, we can forget about everything else. And I worry that what the Initiative recommends on education won't have any more impact than all the other education efforts we've tried over the past 50 years. Because we still don't seem to have the will to tackle the causes of our education crisis.

Numerous studies have documented those causes. Too many children are born into poor families, often headed by very young, poor, single women who have a limited education themselves. Too many children live in neighborhoods where employment is low and violence is high. And at the core of it all: high concentrations of poverty and generations of racial and economic segregation.

Charter schools are trying to prove that teachers can overcome those challenges. A few of those schools seem to be doing pretty well, but as a whole, charters' record isn't better than that of public schools in similar situations. And charters continue to face accusations that they skim off the most highly motivated children and families and that they screen out or ease out children with the most challenges.

Meantime, the evidence mounts that letting children from high-poverty neighborhoods attend low-poverty schools makes a big, positive difference, not only in their achievement in school but also in their achievement over their lifetime.

Other than the Urban-Suburban Inter-District Transfer Program - in which 587 city students attended schools this year in seven suburban districts - the Rochester area has done nothing to attack the concentration of poverty in the city's schools. It is treated as if it were simply a city problem - and a city school district problem.

The result is that generation after generation of poor children enter school unprepared, do poorly while they're there, and leave poorly prepared for a job and for child-raising themselves.

The longer we postpone breaking that cycle, the more lives we destroy. And it's simply a fact that we can't solve the education problem if we don't address the concentration of poverty in our schools and our neighborhoods.

Obviously, that won't happen overnight. Among other things, it will require changes in development practices, low-income housing policies, and zoning laws. That won't be easy, popular, or quick.

There are other things we can do, though. One is to create new magnet elementary schools that draw from both the city and the suburbs. I am absolutely convinced that many suburban families believe in the value - to their own children - of integrated schools. And I think that if several area colleges and universities partnered with the Rochester school district and a few suburban districts, they could put together several highly attractive schools.

The University of Rochester is already partnering with the Rochester school district in a reform effort at East High School, and the UR deserves enormous praise for that leadership. The East turn-around plan is an important and noble experiment, and we'll learn a lot, regardless of the outcome. But the possibility for substantial achievement gain seems limited, because we're starting so late. Too many of East's students are already far behind, and disengaged, when they start freshman year. And the new East will still be a segregated, high-poverty school. A cooperative effort at the elementary-school level, with an integrated student body, has a much better chance of success - for the children, and for the community.

A second avenue is to encourage more city families to stay in the city and send their children to city schools. Two ways to do that, I think, are to recreate neighborhood schools, and to create several test-based, selective-enrollment high schools.

More on those two controversial topics next week.

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