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For some city schools: major upgrades sought


Most of Rochester's schools --- like MonroeHigh School, above --- are more than 50 years old. (The school district has not released the list of school improvements it wants.)

The number of children attending Rochester schools is dropping, a trend that appears likely to continue through the decade. Given that fact, the district will need less money to update and improve its school buildings, right?

Not so, says Jana Carlisle, the district's chief planning officer. The district is getting ready to announce plans for the next phase of its Facilities Modernization Project, a massive undertaking that could cost more than $500 million over the next 10 years.

Carlisle has been the point person for Superintendent Manuel Rivera's modernization advisory committee, a group that includes School Board members as well as representatives from the mayor's office and the RUMP Group of business leaders. Even though the district and the city have wrestled over money in the past, Carlisle she says she thinks there'll be support for the modernization project. In part, that's because as much as 95 percent of the funding will come from a state program set up for New York's large-city school districts.

"I don't think people will get overly focused on the cost of the project once they understand what's involved," Carlisle says. "This is about bringing our schools up to an optimum standard. Why should urban students have any less than suburban public school students?"

The district aging infrastructure was designed for a different era in teaching methods, Carlisle says.

"When you hear people say they went to city schools, and their children have too, you start to get a sense of just how old some of these buildings really are," says Carlisle. "More than half of our schools, 52 percent of them, are 71 years old or older. We have some buildings that are almost 100 years old and are actually regulated as historic sites. They're just not the most conducive environments for teaching."

"Most of these schools were built for a time when lots of kids were crammed in a classroom and teachers stood at the front of the room talking through the lessons," she says. "Classrooms today need to be smaller and more flexible."

Shrinking enrollment numbers, says Carlisle, don't give the whole picture.

"When you say enrollment has dropped, that's true," she says. "But remember that we now have Pre-K, special ed with state mandated requirements, student support centers, health clinics, and dedicated music and art rooms. These buildings were not designed for any of this."

With the help of architects, builders, and engineers, district officials and the modernization committee evaluated Rochester's school buildings from the inside out. Now, officials are looking at the district's future instructional needs and are trying to predict how the interior systems --- plumbing, lighting, electrical systems, and heating --- will support those requirements.

Reducing maintenance and energy costs were also important considerations, and some buildings may require updating specifically designed to cut energy costs. But Carlisle says the public will mainly hear a wide range of recommendations, from lower-ticket items like installing new ceiling fans to high-end improvements like adding athletic fields. Because so many of the inner-city schools are landlocked, adding an athletic field or expanding a building could involve acquiring adjacent homes.

The modernization project is also being viewed as an economic engine. For one thing, it will provide construction jobs. But, adds Carlisle, along with the Children's Zone initiative and the new lead-paint legislation, school modernization could help revitalize some of the city's poorest neighborhoods --- home to 85 percent of the district's students.

"What does it say about a community when the most run-down buildings in the city are the places we send our kids to learn?" asks new school-district official Rick Hannon. (Formerly Rochester's deputy mayor, Hannon was a member of the facilities advisory committee representing Mayor Bill Johnson. With the district, he'll be chief of government affairs and special projects.)

Modernizing schools that sit in quadrants of poverty is not the goal, says Hannon. "We don't want to create a little oasis. The idea is to stimulate improvements in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools. We all know that good schools attract families with kids who buy homes and put down roots. And bad schools repel them. We've all seen couples who have their first child, and even though they may like living in the city, they sell and move to the suburbs so they can send the kids to those schools."

"I'm not saying that with these changes we're going to lure families into the city from Fairport or something like that," says Hannon, "but I think we can get to the point where families living here see staying as an option."

New Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy has a lot on his plate as he takes office, but School Board member Domingo Garcia says he doesn't think the modernization project will get hung up in the transition.

"I think the new mayor has a vision for closer co-operation with the School Board and the district," says Garcia. "There's no question in my mind. I know he will see it as a major improvement that benefits the whole city."

The advisory committee has scheduled a meeting with Duffy this week to discuss the plan. The next step is to present the plan to the public, which Carlisle says will be sometime this month.

The committee has until June to submit its plan and details of its proposed renovations to the state to qualify for the aid package. Work isn't expected to begin until June 2007.