Allure for neighborhood schools

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Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas wheeled out some charts, at a meeting this morning, to help explain his proposal for modernizing city schools. His plan for the next phase of the more than $1 billion remake of the district’s buildings recommends closing five schools.

In a relatively short period of time, Vargas has become deft at explaining an extremely complex plan. But the discussion invariably gets stuck on one topic: neighborhood schools.

It’s been difficult for Vargas to get everyone on the same page. That’s partly because while many parents and community leaders frequently say they want neighborhood schools, they don't send their children to those schools.

“We’re going to have to study this phenomenon,” Vargas said this morning.

Another problem: multiple definitions have evolved for neighborhood schools. For instance, at this morning’s meeting, Vargas talked about his recommendation to close School 16, 37, and 44, and build a new school that combines the programs of all three. The new school would also draw students from the 19th Ward neighborhood.

But some parents were not on board with the idea. They argued that too many of the closures were in the 19th Ward neighborhood. And they said, a new school housing nearly a thousand students would be too big.

Transportation is another huge concern for many parents. Even though some parents may like the idea of a neighborhood school, they are concerned about safety. And they choose schools far enough away from their homes to make busing a requirement, which drives up costs for the district.

Vargas knows there is no easy answer to the neighborhood schools issue, but he’s got to find one before spending $625 million on the next phase of remodeling city schools. Otherwise, he risks moving forward on a costly project that many parents, residents, and community leaders won’t value. And worse, it won’t stop the decline in enrollment.

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