News & Opinion » Urban Journal

Neighborhood schools, poverty, and the future


Should the Rochester school district go back to having neighborhood schools? Would that keep more middle-income families in this high-poverty district?

This is not a small issue. Increasing the number of middle-income students could help integrate at least some of the city's schools. And numerous studies show that poor children do far better if they attend schools where most students are not poor.

Right now, Rochester has a "school choice" system for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. The district operates several schools that are "citywide draws," specialty schools like World of Inquiry to which families from throughout the city can apply for admission. The rest are grouped into three zones, and if families don't choose or aren't accepted into a citywide-draw school, they can choose from any of the nine or ten schools within their neighborhood zone.

If families live within half a mile of the nearest school - their "neighborhood school" - their children are guaranteed admission to it. But the choice system lets them choose other schools if they want to. And many of them do.

In theory, the system lets parents assess the quality and the programs at several schools and pick the one they think will offer their children the best education.

But the system isn't cheap, because if children go to a school more than 1.5 miles from home, state law says the district has to provide transportation. If they live within 1.5 miles of a school, they have to walk or their parents have to get them there another way.

Transporting students (including those in high school) costs the Rochester school district about $65 million a year, and that's going up next year, thanks to new routes planned for high school students.

Going back to neighborhood schools and reducing the number of students who ride buses, then, would save money - though it's mostly the state's money. The state reimburses districts up to 90 percent of their transportation costs. And that money can't be used for anything else.

Neighborhood schools also help build a sense of community. It's easier for a school to be a real part of the community if most of its families live nearby.

There are plenty of negatives about returning to a neighborhood school system, though. A big one: The numbers simply don't work, because the population in Rochester has changed since most of the schools were built.

For example, when my children were school age, our middle-income neighborhood was full of families with young children - 11 on our block alone, including our three. Now there is one, an infant.

The neighborhood has become popular with young, single adults. A fair number of families with infants and toddlers still live there, but the pattern is that they move - often out of the city - as those children approach school age. Our neighborhood school still serves some neighborhood children, but many of its children are bused there from other parts of the city.

My neighborhood isn't the only one with that experience. If we returned to a neighborhood school system, schools in several areas wouldn't have enough students to justify their existence. They would have to close, and the children in that neighborhood would have to go - by bus - to a school in another neighborhood.

In other neighborhoods, the number of children has increased. If all children returned to their neighborhood elementary school, some schools - as they are built now - would have far too many students.

Another problem: Many parents don't want their children to go to the neighborhood school. Some think other schools offer better quality. But school district officials say that doesn't seem to be the principal reason. It's safety and convenience.

Some parents are worried about neighborhood violence and want their children to ride a bus to school rather than walk. Some young mothers are afraid to walk their children to school.

And walking obviously presents a different kind of problem during bad weather.

"If you have an elementary-school-age child and live less than 1.5 miles from your neighborhood school," says district spokesperson Chip Partner, "your choices are to walk or drive your child every day or choose a school that's farther away and have a yellow bus come right to your door every morning."

"Whether the reason is safety or having multiple kids at home or not wanting to deal with snowy sidewalks in winter, the convenience of the bus is hard to beat," Partner says.

Decades ago, Rochester tried integrating its schools by mixing children from high-poverty schools with those with more middle-income students. I supported that effort then, and I don't think it was a mistake. At that time, though, plenty of middle-income families were sending their children to city schools. Now it's impossible to integrate Rochester's schools drawing solely on city school district children. Thanks to the movement of middle-income families to the suburbs, the district's population as a whole is predominantly poor.

The school-integration program didn't cause that. Things like housing policies, development practices, lending practices, and suburban sprawl did, and we can't undo that damage overnight.

One way to attract middle-income families now, obviously, is to offer the kinds of programs those families could get in suburban or private schools. As part of Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's effort to enrich students' education, the district has been increasing the number of art and music teachers in city schools and partnering with outside agencies and museums for additional services.

But we're a long way from having integrated schools. That is hurting children. And it is hurting efforts to revitalize the city itself. More on all of this - and on high schools - in the future.

And by the way: I'll be interested in seeing whether the Anti-Poverty Initiative has ideas about how we might reduce the poverty concentration in Rochester's schools. I don't see any other way to improve education. And if we don't improve education, we won't eradicate poverty itself, which is the Initiative's goal.