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Leaving Lofton

For the first time in more than 20 years, the city school district closes one of its schools

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For some students, Josh Lofton Academy provided what other schools did not: a profound sense of belonging and an opportunity to change the course of their lives. Teachers and other faculty members say the Rochester City School District's second smallest secondary school was a safety net for students who struggled in a more traditional environment.

            For that very reason, Principal Dr. Calvin Strickland Jr. says the school's namesake would be proud of the institution that bears his name. The late Josh Lofton, a beloved district teacher, administrator, and counselor, was well known and respected for his nurturing personality.

"He was a really caring individual who looked out for the underdog," Strickland says. "He made everyone feel special."

            Despite that legacy, Lofton suffers from low attendance, poor academic performance, and a dropout rate of 35 percent. The school also had to contend with a 90-percent poverty rate in 2003-2004, but was striving to combat these factors and foster an atmosphere of academic excellence.

            However, Lofton has been on the New York State Department of Education's School Under Registration Review list since 1998, and according to a feasibility study issued by Rochester City School Superintendent Dr. Manuel Rivera, the school is in the second year of a required redesign and is not meeting its targets or drawing students.

            As of the April 14 report, only 15 students asked to be enrolled in Lofton in 2004-2005.

            That's not to say the students and staff inside the old brick building on West Main Street are not saddened by the news of Lofton's demise.

            Strickland faces a management task that no leader envies --- guiding his flock through an emotional and physical change.

"The middle period is difficult," Strickland says. "I'm still trying to maintain morale. It's like having somebody die. The respirator has been turned off and now you have to deal with the death."

            Strickland's staff cares passionately about its 228 students, many of whom respond in kind with love and loyalty for their mentors. Lofton is a place where --- in the past --- kids landed after chronic truancy and behavioral problems prevented them from succeeding in other schools.

            For the past two years, the state prohibited the district from placing students at Lofton due to disciplinary issues, but traditionally "if you were long-term suspended, you ended up at Lofton," Rivera says.

            For some of these teens, attending school in a building where everybody knows your name makes all the difference in the world.

            "Let's say a student went to East High, and they had very low attendance so they were sent to Lofton," says careers teacher Patricia Rahill. "Here at Lofton, we are able to connect with those students directly."

            Due to its small size, the cost-per-pupil at Lofton is higher than the district average, Rahill says, making the school an attractive target for closing.

            Indeed, Rochester City School Board Vice President Willa Powell says the two driving factors in closing Lofton were cost and performance.

            "Lofton... has a set of costs associated with it that can be eliminated," Powell says. "And the bottom line is that students assigned to Lofton are not graduating at an acceptable rate."

            The feasibility study evaluated the building's age, ownership, condition, construction type, configuration, and site limitations. Lofton's capital renovations and long-term maintenance costs are listed at $1.8 million. The building --- juxtaposed between the Open Door Mission and the thriving and upscale Cascade District --- lacks amenities such as a gymnasium.

            Powell points out that the first year during which students could rank Lofton among their first, second, and third choices for a high school, only 14 children picked the academy as their top choice when entering ninth grade.

            "We were looking to see a jump in enrollment, but they were not able to overcome the perception that it is a place where students are assigned," Powell says. "They were not able to overcome that stigma."

            Paraprofessional Melvina Dean agrees with Powell.

            "I feel very strongly that we were up against a reputation," she says. "Around 1987, it came to be that Lofton was a place where kids with truancy problems were sent."

Talking to graduating senior Randy Pringle, that stigma seems far from accurate. Pringle came to Lofton from California as a ninth-grader and his love for the school is palpable. When he enrolled he was failing every course, but will graduate this month with a grade-point average of 3.37.

            "The teachers are always there to help the students, even on Saturdays and after school," Pringle says. "Dr. Strickland makes it like it's a family. It's just very sad."

            Pringle plans to attend Monroe Community College this summer to study automotive repair.

            Ninth-grader Deja Burnette, 15, is equally upset over the closing. She says she is saddened to know she will no longer see the teachers she also described as part of her family.

            She doesn't know which high school she will attend next year, but her first choice is Benjamin Franklin Educational Campus, which is divided into four "houses" to provide the benefits of a small school inside a larger building.

            Burnette is proud of her 3.0 grade-point average and credits Lofton with helping her chose a career goal.

            "We had a career day here that made me think a lot about what I want to do when I get older," she explains. "I want to be a heart surgeon because I like to help people."

            For students like Pringle and Burnette, Lofton means the difference between success and failure. Calling the school a "wonderful asset," Pringle remarks that many of his peers made a similar transformation.

            "There are lots of students here who made a 360-degree rotation in their lives," he says, leaning forward in his chair. "They are able to focus and achieve. This is a school for students who need that special attention."

            Pringle spoke at a pubic hearing regarding the closing and says even the body language of school board members made it clear a decision was made before the vote took place.

            "Board members left the room in the middle of the function," he says, shaking his head.

            Rahill personally worked on alternatives to closing the school, including a new budget plan and a phased approach to make the closing less disruptive for students.

            "I agree with Randy that their minds were made up," she says of the School Board, her eyes tearing up. "It's true that we are on the SURR List, but I think it could have been approached differently. This is all about the money."

Powell is not impervious to the pain Rahill and her colleagues are experiencing. She sympathizes with Lofton's staff but maintains that the decision to close Lofton is fiscally responsible.

            The district faces increasing budgetary pressures and more school closings are on the horizon. Enrollment in the RCSD is declining, and by 2010, the total number of students is estimated at 26,000, a decline of 30 percent over today's figure of 33,812. Fewer students mean fewer schools.

            Rivera's feasibility study also recommended closing School 36 and relocating School 54 (currently housed in a leased facility) to a district-owned location. These institutions got a reprieve for 2004-2005, but Powell says teachers, administrators, and the community should brace themselves for more difficult discussions.

            "There is more to come," she says. "Enrollment is dropping at an astounding rate... and next year there will be a much louder hue and cry. When it comes to closing schools there are no winners."

            While Lofton will definitely cease to exist in its current form, there is the potential for the remaining students to stay together housed in an alternative location, Rivera says. Those plans are not firm, but the district is investigating several options that could allow an arrangement of that sort.

            In the meantime, Strickland's staff and students face the very human task of disbanding their family. There are mundane chores to complete, like boxing unused supplies for use in other buildings and deciding what items need to be put away in storage.

            And there are academic matters to attend to as well, with exams to administer and awards ceremonies to plan. This year every student gets an award, Strickland says, to honor his or her place in the school community.

            "Instead of the last stop, [Lofton] was becoming the first stop," Strickland says. "This has been an opportunity for learning and growth. I've told our students that they can live up to what people think they are, or they can be who they really are, and help each other stay the course."

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