Rochester's schools are one of the region's most critical challenges. This city cannot reinvent itself until its students are graduating with the education they need and deserve.
Improvements can't come solely from the schools themselves; the city's extraordinarily high poverty concentration has affected children and their families in ways that the entire community must address. But unquestionably, there are serious shortcomings in the school district itself.
There are signs that the district is trying to tackle some of its worst problems. The graduation rate is still abysmally low, but it has begun to inch upward. The district is trying new approaches to develop a safe and healthy culture in schools. It's about to undergo a nearly $30 million technology upgrade.
It's preparing to enter the third year of its unique partnership with the University of Rochester to operate East High School, and in May, the school board approved a partnership with SUNY Geneseo for School 19.
The district's new superintendent, Barbara Deane-Williams, has been on the job for about a year. And by most accounts, Deane-Williams and the board are working well together.
But progress has been painfully slow, and it can be tempting to call for a revolution, to throw out everyone – teachers, principals, school board members – and start over with new people. But that isn't likely to improve student achievement in city schools. The district's low performance developed over a period of decades, and it will take time to repair it and restore the public's trust.
While new blood and new energy are important in any elected body, one current member began her service last year, and another has served just over one term. It takes months, even years, for new board members to grasp all of the state and federal rules and regulation affecting public schools, much less the problems with each individual school.
A current board member, Jose Cruz, is not seeking re-election, and the board could also lose former board president Malik Evans, who is running for City Council. So the board will have its share of new blood, regardless of who is elected.
In addition, given Rochester's turnover in school superintendents, stability on the board is an attribute.
This year, voters will elect three of the seven members of the school board, and in the September 12 Democratic Primary, six candidates are vying for those seats. On the ballot will be incumbents Van White and Cynthia Elliott and newcomers Beatriz LeBron, Natalie Sheppard, Cecilia Griffin Golden, and Sabrina LaMar.
We're endorsing Cynthia Elliott, Beatriz LeBron, and Van White.
The endorsed candidates
- PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
- Cynthia Elliott
Cynthia Elliott – whom we're endorsing for the first time – has at times been a harsh critic of the district, its teachers, and its leadership. And her blunt, direct style of communicating with others has often gotten in the way of valid ideas that she's tried to present.
A three-term board member and current board vice president, Elliott is assistant to the director of Baden Street Settlement and has spent much of her adult life working with Rochester's poorest residents. In the past, we've felt that her bluntness prevented her from providing the public service that she clearly wants to provide. But she seems to have softened that approach, without in the least weakening her commitment to Rochester's children. And she is a powerful, eloquent advocate, willing to speak truths that the larger community needs to hear.
In a recent interview, Elliott talked at length about her concerns with the district's largely white, female teaching staff. Though many are hard-working and caring, she said, some are afraid of their students and can't build relationships with them. And many of the district's teachers simply don't understand the culture of the students they're working with or the life experiences they bring into the classroom, she said.
We disagree with Elliott slightly (and less than she might think) on the importance of poverty as a barrier to student achievement. And we agree with her that the district needs to have the resources and provide the training to help teachers help students achieve despite the impact that poverty has on them. We also agree that student poverty is sometimes used as an excuse, leading to lowered expectations of black and Latino children, she said.
While there are certainly pockets of success throughout the district, Elliott says, the district has had trouble expanding that success to all of its schools due to a breakdown in management, systems, and efficiencies.
We're endorsing Elliott partly because she has evolved into a much more effective team player. But most important, in her work as assistant to the executive director at Baden Street Settlement, she sees and serves some of the same families that the district serves. Her unique perspective lets her speak out on behalf of parents in the community who too often feel they are not being heard.
- PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
- Beatriz LeBron
Beatriz LeBron is a community care coordinator with Rochester Regional Health, where she connects her patients with the kinds of medical services they need. Her children have attended city schools, and she has been a substitute teacher in the city school district.
LeBron knows first-hand what it's like to be a single, working mother, who also put herself through college. She says she understands from personal experience what many city children face in their homes and in their neighborhoods, as well as the struggles their parents have trying to care for them.
LeBron also knows how many of those challenges find their way into the classroom. If she is elected, she says, she would push for more classroom support for teachers. But she also believes that teachers, principals, and school administrators need to spend more time in their students' homes and neighborhoods. Expecting to build relationships and engage families from a school building isn't realistic, she says.
The district has many students with learning problems and social-emotional needs, and LeBron says she worries that the many high performing students aren't getting the attention they need.
"Higher performing children are just lumped in and not given that extra stimulation and challenge they should be receiving," LeBron says.
LeBron is sharp and engaging, and she would bring fresh, new ideas to the board. In addition, with Jose Cruz retiring, LeBron would be the sole Latinx member on the board. In this diverse city, that representation is crucial.
- PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
- Van White
Van White, who is currently school board president, is completing his third term on the board. He is also a civil rights attorney and a long-time Democrat, and for many years, he was a regular guest on a popular talk show on WDKX radio, fielding callers' questions about current concerns.
White has had some challenges on the board, and he certainly has his critics. A tense relationship with former Superintendent Bolgen Vargas became quite public, and White's critics have accused him of wanting to micromanage the superintendent.
But White has shown that he's an independent thinker and a strong leader. He has worked hard and persistently on a wide range of issues, particularly on improving graduation rates. One of his most important strengths is a rare ability to relate to a wide range of people in various situations.
He's also innovative. He proposed creating a School of the Arts on the west side of the city, as well as a military-style school. And although neither came to fruition, he was instrumental in forging the partnership between the University of Rochester and the district to manage East High School. And he pushed for the new partnership with SUNY Geneseo for School 19. White's goal, he says, is to give students and parents better choices in schools and entice them to stay in the district.
The other candidates
Cecilia Griffin Golden has 20 years of educational experience, much of it with the Rochester school district as a reading teacher, vice principal, and a senior level administrator. She is currently the director of education with Hillside Family of Agencies, where she works with school leaders and community-based organizations. She is deeply familiar with the district and its challenges.
Natalie Sheppard also works at Hillside, as a foster-care coordinator. She speaks with sensitivity and compassion about her work at building positive relationships between foster parents and children, and she thinks there is a shortage of social workers in city schools. But she also says that management in city schools, as it relates to social work, is inconsistent compared to the suburban schools that she visits.
Golden and Sheppard both have impressive experience, and we wouldn't be concerned if they were elected to the board. But we believe that White, Elliott, and LeBron are stronger candidates.
Sabrina LaMar, the sixth candidate, did not respond to our requests to meet with her and did not provide information about her candidacy.