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Another big plan unveiled to fix the city's schools


It's hard to think of anything in the Rochester area that isn't affected by the city school district, one way or another. Economic development, housing, neighborhood stability, wage disparity, tax base: the district, its students, and students' achievement impact all of that.

Over the years, the district and the public have spent an enormous amount of money, time, and energy on Rochester's public schools. And yet the academic achievement of many Rochester students remains one of the worst in the state.
Rochester schools Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams presented her Path Forward master plan for the district last week. - FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester schools Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams presented her Path Forward master plan for the district last week.

Critics find plenty of people to blame, and certainly nobody in the district is perfect. But there's way too much evidence – decades of evidence – that if most of a school district's students live in concentrated-poverty neighborhoods, that district has a nearly impossible job.

The school district has a responsibility to try to succeed, though, so it keeps trying.

And last week, yet another superintendent came up with yet another plan to try. Barbara Deane-Williams presented what she is calling a Path Forward, based on months of discussions with students, parents, teachers, and others in the community.

The district website defines Path Forward as a "10-year Educational and Facilities Master Plan that provides a blueprint for strong schools and a strong Rochester."

It's a wide-ranging plan, reflecting the challenges of a high-poverty urban district. This is a district, for example, in which the number of children attending its schools continues to drop, but the number with disabilities or limited English-language skill is increasing. In which most of the teachers are white, and most of the students are not. It's a district notorious for losing middle-income families as soon as their children approach school age.

To address all that, and the district's poor achievement record, Path Forward includes steps like these:
  • Make sure that bilingual programs, early childhood education, special-education services, and other offerings are available equitably in all three of the district's zones.
  • Hire more teachers of color and make the curriculum more culturally relevant.
  • Redesign high schools so that they better prepare students for careers.
  • Create new schools "that mirror the highly sought schools" in the district: School of the Arts, School Without Walls, World of Inquiry, and the Children's School.
  • Create two magnet schools that would draw students from the suburbs as well as the city.

These are big ideas, and each one raises questions. And even if all of the recommendations are worth doing, the "doing" won't be cheap or easy. Nor is this the first time a superintendent has come up with big ideas – good, big ideas. Implementation – training, staffing, funding, oversight, support, follow-through – has been a persistent problem in this district.

But it's heartening to see the district talking about more specialty schools like World of Inquiry and School of the Arts – and magnets to attract suburban students. These can begin to break down the concentration of poverty that is crippling the district and so many of its students.

That idea isn't universally popular. For years, some black community leaders have argued that poor children don't have to be in classes with wealthier children – who are often white – in order to get a good education. The district, those leaders insist, should be able to educate all children, whatever their circumstance.

That difference of opinion won't be settled anytime soon. But at the least, adding more magnet-type schools would expand educational offerings for all of the city's children. And it would give the district a chance to demonstrate the academic effect of integrated education.

"Path Forward" isn't a traditional plan, with budgets and completion dates for each component. As its name suggests, it's a "path," a roadmap. Its unveiling last week is just the beginning. What comes of it will depend on the school board and, of course, money.

The school board and the school community will be discussing its components in the months ahead. We'll continue to follow that discussion.