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Facing the crisis



In the midst of preparations for war, with budget crises looming in Albany, in Monroe County, in City Hall, it's easy to overlook one of the biggest crises of all: the waste of minds that is taking place in the Rochester school district.

                  We've heard about that crisis so often that we're bored with it. And few of us feel any connection to it. It's the teachers' fault, or the principals', or the superintendent's; or it's the fault of the School Board That Never Does Anything Right. Or it's the children's parents' fault.

                  Certainly we bear no blame.

                  Only about a quarter of the children who enter Rochester high schools graduate four years later. The unfortunate majority will struggle for the rest of their lives. Odds are poor that they'll ever have above-minimum-wage jobs --- if they have jobs at all. Odds are tragically high that they'll become involved in the criminal-justice system. Odds are high that they will produce children, in marriage or out, who will follow the same path.

                  Those of us more fortunate will support them, one way or another (unless the State of New York amends its constitution and stops providing for their basic needs).

                  But we're sure that we played no role in their inferior education. And improving things is not our responsibility.

                  The parents and attorneys pursuing the lawsuit called GRACE (Greater Rochester Area Coalition for Education) know otherwise. We do bear some of the blame --- and the responsibility for a remedy --- assuming that each of us bears responsibility for what is, and is not, done in our name as citizens of the State of New York.

                  The state has fostered a system of segregated communities and segregated school districts. Most poor children in Monroe County live in the city, in high-poverty neighborhoods. They attend high-poverty schools, in a high-poverty school district. They cannot attend schools in more affluent communities --- because they cannot afford the tuition. They cannot move to a more affluent community, because they cannot afford to.

                  This is a system of apartheid. And numerous studies show that it is poverty concentration --- not bad schools, not bad teachers --- that is robbing urban children of a good education. But no one in government will do anything about it.

                  Thus the GRACE lawsuit, which charges that by fostering segregated school systems, New York is denying Rochester's poor children the basic education that its constitution mandates.

                  Last week, the City of Rochester announced that it wants to appear in court supporting the GRACE argument. The reason, according to the city's legal papers: "An effective public school system is essential to the social and economic vitality of a city and the surrounding region."

                  This is a major development. The mayor and City Council have been harsh critics of the Rochester school district. They aren't likely to mute that criticism, which is aimed primarily at the district's fiscal practices. But City Hall has embraced the GRACE argument: The school district cannot overcome the effects of concentrated poverty.

                  Rochester's students, says the city's legal brief, "are trapped by the resident-based system in the Rochester City School District, a zone of virtual poverty with an atrocious educational performance level."

                  Immigrants came to this country seeking a better life, seeking a chance at education and a job. In New York State, we wall off our poorest residents, passing zoning laws and creating school-district boundaries that segregate urban-area residents by income level --- and, not coincidentally, by race.

                  This has been going on for more than a quarter of a century in Rochester. And despite the efforts and energy of talented superintendents, principals, teachers, and school boards over those years, the situation has gotten worse. There's no mystery there: The school district's poverty concentration has also gotten worse.

                  Still, we do nothing. And incredibly, the Democrat and Chronicle argues against one of the few opportunities inner-city children have for an integrated education: the Urban-Suburban Transfer Program. The answer, the D&C editorialized recently, is notto permit more city children to attend suburban schools. The answer is to just make the city schools better.

                  The D&C ought to be urging the state to break down the poverty barriers. Every suburban official and school superintendent in the region ought to be joining the GRACE suit.

                  The rage keeps rising up in me until it's a wonder that I have any rage left. (And I've got to save some for the coming war.)

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