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The neighborhood schools tightrope

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City school officials are grappling with a long-simmering problem: satisfying many parents' desire for neighborhood schools, while not locking students into schools that are performing poorly.

The Rochester school district currently operates under a school choice model in which schools are divided into three zones: northeast, northwest, and south. Parents select from the schools in their zone, which is based on where they live.

But many residents and families want the district to return to the neighborhood schools system. They want assurance that if they purchase a house in a city neighborhood, their children can attend the neighborhood school.

Bolgen Vargas is just the latest superintendent trying to make school choice and neighborhood schools — systems that are nearly polar opposites — somehow work together.

"We hear that people want neighborhood schools," he says. "We understand that, and we want that, too."

Vargas recently announced what he calls the "home school guarantee." Children entering kindergarten who live within a half-mile of their neighborhood elementary school can attend that school, Vargas says. But the announcement is less a guarantee and more of a commitment to honor one component of the existing Parent Preference-Managed Choice policy.

Vargas is trying to market the existing policy to families with children, but the public has grown skeptical because the policy comes with caveats. For example, the home school guarantee doesn't cover older children transferring from another elementary school. And it doesn't apply to high-demand schools with citywide enrollment like School 58.

Still, Vargas says the existing policy, if it is better enforced, can accommodate demand for neighborhood schools without preventing families who favor choice from getting their top-pick schools. And he has the support of Mayor Tom Richards.

Richards says he supports the neighborhood school guarantee, even though it's not perfect. He says he wants parents and children to be able to say, "I'm moving into this neighborhood and I'm able to go to this school."

"I really think it's important that people have a possessory interest toward their school and a possessory interest toward their neighborhood," Richards says.

But finding a way to balance both interests won't be easy. And a lot hangs in the balance — stopping population loss, encouraging homebuyers to purchase in city neighborhoods, and boosting the city's tax revenue.

For many prospective homebuyers, the idea of purchasing a house near a school they can't be certain their children can attend is reason enough to purchase in the suburbs. And probably no one hears this more often than Richards.

While some residents and parents may find the placement process in city schools frustrating, Rochester didn't adopt the school choice model by happenstance.

The movement can be traced to economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman. His mid 1950's essay "The Role of Government in Education" advocated giving families vouchers, allowing them to act as informed consumers. Competition would expose low-performing schools and showcase winners, Friedman wrote.

No Child Left Behind, former President George W. Bush's signature education legislation, was in many respects a tribute to Friedman's essay. Under NCLB and its cousin, the Obama administration's Race to the Top, Rochester can't return exclusively to a neighborhood school model.

With 27 out of its 60 schools designated by the State Education Department as failing, and all but four at risk of becoming failing schools, the Rochester school district must offer parents choice. Failure to do so can result in a loss of funding.

But years into school choice — one of the pillars of education reform — part of the result of increased competition has been inconsistency and controversy. And critics say the policy has unintentionally lowered home values and tax assessments, and increased neighborhood transiency.

And many parents, particularly those who are poor, find it hard to be engaged in their child's school when it's not near their home. And choice can create hardships for students who want to stay after school to participate in sports or other activities.

Rochester school officials are wrestling with additional problems, including high transportation costs from busing so many students. The district will budget $55 million for busing next year, says school board President Malik Evans — an expense that could be greatly reduced if more students walked to their neighborhood school.

School board member Willa Powell, who was an architect of the district's school choice policy, says choice and neighborhood schools don't have to be mutually exclusive. She says Vargas's commitment to neighborhood schools is a step in the right direction.

There should be seats available in almost all city schools for parents who register their children on time and meet the half-mile requirement, she says, since only a handful of schools have waiting lists. School 23 in the Park Avenue neighborhood and School 12 across from Highland Hospital are among the few elementary schools that are hotly pursued by neighborhood parents, she says.

And with better planning, more seats can be made available for neighborhood students, Powell says.

But there are kinks that have to be fixed, Powell says. For example, the district is trying to make it easier for parents to enroll their children in their neighborhood pre-K program and stay with that school for kindergarten instead of having to re-register them, often in a different school.

Difficulties will still arise, however, when parents move to the city or to a different neighborhood during the summer or in the middle of a school year. Or if they move into a neighborhood with a school nearby, but the school is beyond the half-mile limit.

"I live in the Park Avenue neighborhood, but I'm 100 yards outside of School 23's half-mile radius," Powell says.

And there are some neighborhoods, like Charlotte, where there may not be a neighborhood school within that radius.

"The board needs to seriously expand the radius to at least three-quarters of a mile," Powell says. "That would really help our parents a lot."

But neither Powell nor Vargas believes school choice versus neighborhood schools is a Coke or Pepsi debate.

"It's about quality," Vargas says. "High-quality schools attract people to neighborhoods. And that's [what] we're working on."

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