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Genesee in unchartered territory


The Genesee Community Charter School faces a serious challenge to its charter renewal because its enrollment, as almost anyone familiar with the school knows, doesn't reflect the city's student population.

Genesee Community Charter School - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Genesee Community Charter School

The latter population is almost 90 percent African American and Latino, and mostly from low-income households. But only about 30 percent of GCCS students qualify for free and reduced meals, says Lisa Wing, Genesee's school leader.

The State Education Department, in a last minute challenge to GCCS's renewal, says that it wants that figure to be higher. But Wing says that would run counter to the school's approach to education.

"Our charter that was renewed in 2010 was designed to mirror the demographics of the county, not the city," Wing says. "It has been part of our founding model."

But a change in the charter law, according to the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute, says that enrollment "must be comparable to the population of students attending public schools in the district where the charter school is located."

GCCS has appealed to the SED to let it keep operating according to its charter. Though Wing says that she believes that Genesee will get a full five-year renewal, she says that a short-term renewal -- another possibility -- could be destabilizing to the school.

GCCS officials expect to learn the status of the renewal later this month.

GCCS is located on East Avenue in the Rochester Museum and Science Center. Its academic performance has been on par with some suburban districts.

But GCCS's academic success and its enrollment policy have also been subject to sharp criticism. The school is often accused of cherry-picking students -- a tactic used by some charter school operators to inflate academic performance.

Wing has firmly maintained over the years that GCCS doesn't cherry-pick students, and she doesn't equivocate about the school's enrollment policy.

In a recent letter to parents, she said, "We stress that everyone is welcome to enter their child in our open annual lottery which assures that everyone has an equal shot at acceptance.

"Our charter says GCCS will reflect the demographics of the entire county because we believe in the benefits of structuring schools with a blend of socioeconomic groups -- and certainly our outstanding results prove without question that we are on the right track."

GCCS has about 215 students in grades K-6 who are chosen by random lottery, Wing says. Though Genesee's student population doesn't reflect the city's, some research shows that a school's academic success goes down when enrollment of poor students exceeds 35 percent or 40 percent -- the case in most city schools.

Economically disadvantaged students benefit greatly, the same research suggests, when they attend schools where the majority of students are either middle income or higher. Wing says that the economically disadvantaged students in her school have performed dramatically better on English language arts and math tests than their peers in the city school district.

And that, she says, raises a question: Why is the SED intent on breaking something that works?

The State Education Department, in a last-minute challenge to Genesee Community's charter renewal, says that it wants the school to more accurately reflect the population of the City of Rochester.