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Lovely Warren: Rochester's mother mayor


Technically, Lovely Warren ran against incumbent Tom Richards in last year's mayoral race. But by making education the centerpiece of her campaign, Warren arguably ran against the Rochester City School District, too.

Warren tapped into widespread disgust with years of poor graduation rates and shockingly low student achievement, especially among blacks and Latinos. And she promised that improving education would be one of her highest priorities as mayor.

Less than a year later, Mayor Warren has unveiled an ambitious plan that focuses on early childhood. Her "3 to 3 Initiative" is a mix of programs and outreach efforts focusing on the academic and social development of children from age 3 through third grade.

She says that she's realigning some of the city's resources and facilities, such as recreation centers and after-school library programs, to promote reading and prevent summer learning loss.

And Warren says that she wants to identify developmental delays earlier and increase enrollment in prekindergarten. She says she's also working with County Executive Maggie Brooks to get more funding for child care subsidies to help make quality day care more accessible for parents of 3 year olds.

There have long been questions about how much influence Rochester's mayors can really have over education. And some past mayors have tried to take on the city's education problem only to confront serious and seemingly intractable barriers.

"This is more than a 30-year problem going back to Mayor Tom Ryan's administration," says former mayor Bill Johnson.

Finding funding for education and controlling how it's used has been an ongoing challenge. City officials have long grumbled about the fact that while they're legally required to provide the district with about $119 million annually, they have no say in how that money is spent.

And the city has had to confront tightening finances and yearly multimillion-dollar budget deficits. That means that Warren doesn't have a large pot of money to implement her vision. And without a major legislative shift like mayoral control, which would make Warren responsible for the school district and its $800 million budget, Warren's plans could face some old and familiar hurdles.

But money is only one of them. The city, county, and school district haven't exactly enjoyed a long and lustrous history of blissful collaboration. Getting the area's maze of institutions and agencies to work together to improve education outcomes for city children won't be easy.

Yet despite some pitfalls, Warren may have a secret weapon beyond the mayor's bully pulpit. She's a first-time mother with a 4-year-old daughter. She's wading through the same systems that other city parents with school-age children are trying to navigate.

And even though Warren's a highly educated and successful young woman, she comes from humble beginnings and knows firsthand the challenges that working poor parents often experience. She just might be able to engage those parents in ways that past mayors have not.

Johnson says that he doesn't know all of the details of Warren's 3 to 3 Initiative, but that he has watched her interact with parents.

"I've heard her in all of her public utterances not only speak to education from the position of having a child in the schools, but saying, 'I know what you're grappling with and I want to see a different outcome,'" Johnson says.

That's a message that past mayors haven't been able to communicate as well as Warren, he says.

Warren's 3 to 3 Initiative evolved out of recommendations made by her Early Learning Council — a nearly 20-person panel comprised of education, business, and community leaders assembled earlier this year. The council held several public hearings, conducted focus groups, and elicited input from parents, teachers, day care providers, and policy makers before making its recommendations.

"Where do you see us falling short as a city and where can the mayor really help to ensure that our children have a fighting chance at life?" Warren says. "That's what I really wanted them to come back with."

Among the most critical in the council's "State of Early Learning" report is a concern that toddlers are not receiving the early attention that they need. And much of that is the result of a muddled funding formula that limits access to high quality day care, Warren says.

"I've already spoken with County Executive Maggie Brooks about the child care subsidy formula," Warren says. "And I will join her in an advocacy to change the formula so more families can be served."

Many parents are caught in what Warren calls an obsolete institutional barrier.

"You want me to work, but if I'm working poor I need day care for my child," she says. "If I work, I make too much money and the child care subsidy gets taken away."

Parents shouldn't be in a situation where they have to choose between working and staying home, Warren says, because the best way to break the cycle of poverty is for parents to work and their children to be in a robust educational environment.

The report also lists several concerns about universal prekindergarten enrollment in the city. The report suggests that enrollment could be higher if the process were easier. But more importantly, even though the city school district's universal prekindergarten program is among the district's most highly regarded initiatives, many parents are skeptical of it, according to the ELC report.

Warren says that some parents question the efficacy of the program given that so many third graders are not reading at grade level.

"The problem is they arrive [in prekindergarten and kindergarten] with different levels of preparedness," says Patricia Malgieri, the district's chief of staff. "If the mayor can really get the different agencies to work with children before they get to the district's doorstep, it will help tremendously."

Though Warren hasn't been specific about how much 3 to 3 will cost, she insists that money isn't a problem. And she says that she will not revive a push for mayoral control of the city school district, or try to reduce the $119 million that the city gives the district annually.

"As you look at what I propose, it's not about money," Warren says. "It's really about aligning resources."

She says she's not going to arbitrarily kill existing programs to fund 3 to 3.

"It's now what you take from; it's how you better utilize what you have," she says. "I think what we've become accustomed to is the survival of a program becomes more important than the mission."

Warren has hired a grants writer to help raise funds for 3 to 3, and she's asking local businesses to adopt city recreation centers.

She says that she sees her roles as an education advocate and mayor requiring a lot of direct contact with the community.

For example, she says she plans to reach out to parents from the time their children are born to provide them with basic health, education, and parenting guidance. She co-authored "Help Your Child Succeed Right from the Beginning" — a booklet that will be distributed to new parents — with school board President Van White.

She's planning to revamp the city's website to offer parents more information about all of the city's school options. This will include the academic performance of city, charter, and private schools put into relatable language.

And she says that wants to stress reading, and plans to distribute books to families every few months.

"I believe that all parents want what's best for their children," Warren says. "Many of them don't know how to give it to them; many are repeating a cycle that's been part of their lives. So we have to teach them a different way."

She says that parents have to believe that they have the ability to help their children succeed.

"You just didn't bring life forth and everything else is going to take care of itself," she says. "You have the power working with us, working with me, working with the school board, and your pediatrician. This here is a partnership, and you have to be at the table."

Johnson says that while he wants to be fair and supportive, he's concerned that what Warren's proposing may still not be enough to improve education outcomes in Rochester.

"Here's the thing, the district is still controlling a three-quarter-billion dollar budget a year, and if you can't get it done with that, what will a little bit more do to change that equation?" he says. "I said this to her many months ago, that the fundamental dynamic isn't who is going to help you, it's who's going to control [the money]. And I know that the minute you put the words 'mayor' and 'control' in the same sentence, you unleash a tidal wave of emotions."

Johnsons says that from his experience, self-interest preserves the status quo and blocks the changes that the city school district needs.