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'Fix' the schools? Maybe we're not up to the job


Every year on the first day of school, I like to walk over to the elementary school a block from our house and watch the children as they arrive. I used to get a little lift – a feeling of freshness and new beginnings as the school year started. All that potential, and all that hope – theirs and mine.

My worry about the Rochester school district has put a damper on things, though. I want to feel hopeful, and I don't. This has just gone on too long. And we need to do so much.

More pre-school programs are essential, but they have to be of the highest quality. We need to fund them fully – and permanently – and the money can't come from the City of Rochester or its school district. They don't have it. And more important, it's not a city problem.

We need adequate funding for quality day care. We need more funding for programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership, which helps low-income, first-time mothers from pregnancy through the baby's first year.

And we need to put muscle behind the commitment to have children reading competently by third grade. Right now, that's true of only 3 percent of Rochester third-graders. It is no surprise, then, that so few of them do well in upper grades. And yet we pass them through the system, whether they're ready or not.

We're expecting magic to happen in those upper grades, when what we need is to identify every single thing that keeps children from doing well in first, second, and third grade – and then remove those obstacles.

We need screening and help to address health and family problems that get in the way of children's education. We need to compensate for the educational deficiency that some parents have. We need nothing less than high-quality teachers in elementary schools. And we need high expectations – of everybody, from everybody.

That will be expensive. And it will be hard.

We also need to recognize that there are likely many paths to success. We need to embrace those paths – to try things like teacher-operated schools, magnet schools, and yes, charter schools, everything – and measure the outcome.

And we need to do two more things.

First: We need to recognize that it really will take the entire community – suburban taxpayers, suburban school districts as well as city residents and their government and school district – to solve this problem. It will take suburban political and community leaders gutsy enough to lead on this issue – gutsy enough, for instance, to explain the threads that run between our community-imposed concentration of poverty, unemployment, poor education, and the culture of violence that is festering in some inner city areas. And gusty enough to insist that we all bear a responsibility for the creation of that concentrated poverty and for dealing with its consequences.

Second: Everybody in the Rochester school district community needs to stop pointing fingers. Teachers, administrators, parents, and activists: everybody should declare a ceasefire, stop blaming everybody else, and pledge to first clean up their own act.

I urged that several months ago, and the only positive response I got was from Rochester Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. From everybody else, there has been more finger pointing.

And of course, from the larger community, from outside the city, there has been silence or, worse, more piling on: "the parents are bad," "the teachers are bad," "the school board members are idiots."

Thus my lack of hope in this school-opening week. Hundreds of little children are starting kindergarten and first grade in Rochester. Far too few of them will end up with a good education and prospects for a good job and a strong future.

It is our responsibility to deal with this. But given our mindset, collective and individual, I worry that the job is just bigger than the Greater Rochester community is willing to tackle.