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What do city schools have to do with you? 

"Again? She's writing about this again?"

That's the question a reader posed in a letter to me last week, after she read my column, "Yet Another Attempt to Improve City Schools." What had prompted my column was the state's appointment of a "distinguished educator" to help school district leaders figure out what's wrong and correct it. What's wrong, I said for the gazillionth time, is the city's extraordinary high poverty rate.

The reader's comments were respectful. And she wasn't just complaining. She wanted answers. And she said she hoped I'd answer in my column. "I am a bit challenged to understand the full scope of the problems in Rochester's city schools, or how I can help."

The problems, she said, "do not appear, on the surface, to touch me."

This reader is not alone. And she's asking some important questions. Like many, many people, she has a lot to deal with. She's an older adult, has some health problems, has a husband and a home and the demands that all of that entails. Based on letters she's written previously, I think she's a caring, concerned citizen, aware of the challenges her community and her country face.

She wishes I'd write about more climate change, mobility issues, mass transit, and other concerns. "Why," she asked, "so much writing on what happens in schools? From my chair, it mostly impacts families with school-aged kids."

Well, for one thing, I'm only one writer at CITY. My co-worker Jeremy Moule has written extensively about climate change and mass transit and will continue to. My columns touch on them, too, and on a lot of other issues. But I get this reader's point, and I understand her concern.

So here's why I keep writing about schools – and not just "schools," but the impact concentrated poverty is having on the children in Rochester's public schools:
  • First of all, this is a moral issue. Every year, tens of thousands of children are robbed of a healthy, fulfilled, productive life in Rochester because they are not getting a good education. Poverty and the disastrous effects it produces are affecting generations of families. Education isn't the only barrier to a successful future, but it's a central one. And without a good education, Rochester's children face a limited future.
  • There are solutions, and the fact that we don't adopt them is immoral. I don't know how any of us sleep at night. But let's set morality aside. Let's talk about self-interest. I can't think of anything that has as much impact on the Greater Rochester community and its people as Rochester's schools have.
  • A community with a large number of poorly educated people is a community that spends a lot of money on social services, health care, and yes, criminal justice. And that money – tax revenue – comes from all of us: city residents, suburban residents, businesses.
So whichever argument touches you more, ethics or self-interest, you have a stake in this. The city's teachers and administrators are on the front line, but there's plenty the rest of us can do. At the very least, we can set aside a little bit of time to be a good citizen. Read, stay informed, and contact elected officials – county legislators, suburban town board members, suburban school board members. Ask them what they're doing to help reduce poverty, break up its concentration, and improve city children's education.

Rochester's public schools are a community problem. And the community doesn't end at the city limits.

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