There has been widespread community concern about the Rochester school district for years. That concern seems to have grown, though, in the wake of the tough assessment by the district's state-appointed Distinguished Educator, Jaime Aquino.
And based on several community forums, Mayor Lovely Warren says she believes the community wants city government – and her personally – to become more involved in the district.
Warren has released a report, "Putting Our Children First," summarizing comments made by parents, community leaders, and students during input sessions and a telephone town hall in December. During the input sessions, which Warren says she held in response to the Aquino report, participants were asked to discuss Aquino's findings and "help identify areas for future community partnerships that will promote our children's success and learning," Warren's report says.
The report summarizes the comments from those sessions. Among the findings:
More than 78 percent of participants want the district to be led by "a variation" of an elected board, a superintendent, and a partnership with the board, teachers, parents, and City Hall. They preferred that rather than leadership principally by an elected board or a "stronger and more independent superintendent."
Nearly 91 percent said they would like to see Warren enter into a "formal partnership" with the district.
Warren is weighing several options and has not made a decision about what she can or wants to do, according to Chief of Staff Alex Yudelson. Warren is not seeking full mayoral control, which would put governance of the district completely under her supervision, Yudelson said. But, he said, "Nothing is off the table."
Mayoral control is a "loaded term," Yudelson said. And it's highly controversial. City Council member Malik Evans was school board president in 2009 when then-Mayor Bob Duffy proposed it, and he fought aggressively against it. So did the Rochester Teachers Union and many others in the community.
There are different forms of mayoral control, though. In some, the elected school board is abolished, and the mayor hires the superintendent and appoints a school board. In others, the public elects some school board members and the mayor appoints some.
Regardless of the form, another proposal for mayoral control in Rochester is likely to be met with strong opposition. That alone could discourage Warren from taking it on when she's already dealing with the hugely controversial issue of Police Oversight Board.
But there is a "need for some kind of increased partnership," Yudelson says.
The city and the school district already collaborate in some ways. Many students go to city-operated recreation centers for after-school activities such as mentoring, sports, and art. Many city police officers serve as school security officers. And Mayor Warren is a frequent visitor in city schools, where she's often greeted like a pop star. Young children especially flock to her.
But in most respects, the district and city government are entirely separate entities. And regardless of what Warren is considering, state law limits how much direct involvement the mayor and City Council can have in Rochester's schools.
For instance, City Council votes on the final approval of the district's annual budget. But Council can vote only to approve or reject the district's budget, which is now approaching $1 billion. Council does not have the legal authority to approve individual items in the budget or require changes before approving it in its entirety. Council's vote is all or nothing, and rejecting the budget could threaten the district's stability, which Council members would be reluctant to do. But over the years, many Council members have complained about the size of the district's budget and the low academic achievement.
The nearly $1 billion budget includes $119 million that the state requires the city to provide each year under something called the Maintenance of Effort. The MOE has long been a contentious issue with city officials because neither the mayor nor City Council have any control over how the district spends that money.
Giving the mayor or Council some type of control over the budget would require a change in state legislation, however. And reducing the amount of money the district receives from the city could result in larger class sizes and fewer teachers.
Still, Warren clearly feels she needs to do something. And she agrees with Distinguished Educator Aquino's analysis of the district's myriad problems, especially the high rate of superintendent and and other leadership turnover. The instability that creates is felt not only by parents and students, but at City Hall, too, says Yudelson.
The Warren report also shows strong support for "community schools," in which schools "serve as neighborhood centers that offer wrap-around services" for families – health care, for instance. More than 90 percent of the people participating in the telephone town hall said they support a community schools model.
Community schools have become popular in districts across the country, and they've shown that they can increase parental and neighborhood involvement. Teachers, administrators, and parents work together not only to design curriculum and staffing that meet the needs of students but also to design the services for families.
The district now operates 11 community schools, and all but four are showing significant improvement. They all have longer instruction time and some types of wrap around services. Some even have laundry rooms for students.
But while parents and community leaders at Warren's forums said they want more social workers and more wrap-around services for students and families in all city schools, funding has been a challenge and can require a lot of coordinated support from non-profits and government agencies. More than a decade ago, school and community leaders attempted to create a Rochester Children's Zone modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone founded by Geoffrey Canada. That school was known for pioneering a community school with wrap-around services. But support for Rochester's version dropped off within two years.
Although the mayor has not indicated what kind of partnership she'll be seeking, Chief of Staff Yudleson says city officials spent two days in Albany having preliminary discussions with state and education officials there. Warren is waiting to see how the school board responds to the recommendations Aquino made in his report, Yudelson said. The school board and district administration are developing a plan that is supposed to detail how they will implement those recommendations. It's due to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on February 8.
At a recent public meeting held by Elia, Regents Wade Norwood and T. Andrew Brown indicated that they would pursue new legislation if the district's plan isn't a solid one. Norwood said it may be needed anyway.
And in a recent telephone interview, Assemblymember Harry Bronson said he agrees with much of Aquino's report. And he's been encouraging people across the spectrum to work together.
People have to put their interests aside and make educating children their number one mission," Bronson said. He's not interested in "blowing up the system right now," he said. But it's time for a regrouping, and the Aquino report is helping the community do that, Bronson said.
"We've got a shot," Bronson said. "Let's take it."
and parents said
The mayor's community input sessions in December highlighted some concerns students have about city schools. For example, many elementary students said they liked school and their teachers, but as students reached the upper grades, their attitudes about school became more negative.
Some said their teachers and counselors don't see their potential or encourage them to pursue higher goals. Others said that their teachers aren't culturally competent. Many students said that going through the metal detection system when entering school makes them feel like they're going to prison.
A big concern of parents showed up in both the Aquino report and the mayor's: parent engagement. Both reports said that parents often don't feel welcome in city schools.