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Change is coming to the city school district, one way or another


The main talking points from Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino's strongly-worded report about the Rochester school district were covered again in the second of a series of public forums held yesterday by State Education Commissioner MaryEllen  Elia. 
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino

If those points weren't familiar before the report, they are now: decision-making is driven by the needs of adults rather than children, the school board doesn't understand its role, board members don't work well together, racism in its many forms is pervasive and is hurting children and families, there's a general lack of accountability in the district at every level of the organization — and turnover in leadership has caused inconsistency and confusion.

Elia was accompanied by Regent Wade Norwood, Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown, and Aquino in a moderately attended event that was at times overtaken by some of the same arguments, made by some of the same critics  that frequently dominate forums like this one.  But there were several revealing moments in the evening in which Elia and Aquino discussed the findings in the report. 

For instance, Aquino dug in on the issue of leadership churn in the Rochester school district. Even if the average stay of superintendents in urban districts is three and half years, what's unique to Rochester is that the turnover extends  below the superintendent level in to senior management, he said.

At another point in the meeting, Elia and Aquino both argued that the Rochester school district is adequately funded and that other urban districts with similar high poverty populations have improved by tackling problems that are not directly related to poverty.  But then they were challenged to name an urban school district that is doing as well as nearby wealthier school districts and they couldn't.

Rochester is the third poorest city in the US, according to the US Census Bureau, behind Detroit and Cleveland.  And Rochester is first in the nation in childhood poverty.

But the most compelling moments in yesterday's  meeting had to do with the serious tone of comments made by Regents Brown and Norwood.

The school board has to present a plan to Elia by February 8, and if that plan doesn't adequately address the recommendations in Aquino's report, there will be consequences, Brown said.

"If we don't believe that the plan has what it takes to fix the problems, then we will take a more aggressive role." Brown said.

Tough conversations about what it will take to improve the district are overdue, Norwood said.

"It's going to take legislative changes," Norwood said. "A couple of meetings and a vote isn't going to change things. Don't fool yourself."

WXXI's James Brown contributed to this reporting.