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What's your solution?


In a large urban school district, things are seldom as simple as they seem. That's the case, in Rochester, with the school drop-out rate. As Tim Macaluso's article on page 12 relates, the true drop-out rate isn't nearly as high as many of us have assumed.

But that's not the full story. Each year, hundreds of students leave school but pursue a General Equivalency Degree. These are students who are trying. They have not rejected education. But for many, a GED won't be the path to a good job. And, School Board member Shirley Thompson says, many students who start the GED program don't complete it.

In addition, many of the students who stay in school are held back, sometimes more than once, because their grades prevent them from moving up. Again, these are students who are trying. But their chance of success isn't good.

This is tragic, for the young people and for the community.

Local business leaders and political leaders agree that we have a serious problem, and that it has to be fixed. But for the most part, responsibility for the fix is laid at the doors of the school district. Teachers must do a better job. Principals and the superintendent must see to it that teachers do a better job.

OK: there are surely teachers who need to improve --- or leave the system. It would be a rare organization indeed, public sector or private, that was composed solely of exceptional employees.

But to place the blame entirely on the school district, and to insist that the solution lies entirely within the school district, is to ignore solid evidence that the problem is much, much bigger.

The problem is that the vast majority of children in Rochester's public schools come from very poor families, whose parents are not well educated and often have serious personal problems, and who live in very poor neighborhoods. For the children, that combination results in health problems, behavioral problems, peer-pressure problems, low aspiration.

Reread the discussion with retired Community Development Commissioner Tom Argust in last week's City article, "Emptied Out." Many of the region's better educated, better employed residents have moved out of the city, leaving behind the neediest: the poorest, the most poorly educated, the people least able to get a job paying a living wage.

Those who fled did so because they were seeking something they believed they couldn't get in the city. But that flight has had real consequences.

"The reality is that we have done this to ourselves," said Argust. "We have made conscious decisions to move out, to vacate or abandon not only our homes but our neighborhoods, and thus create instability in our community, add more costs to our daily living and, in so doing, reduce the quality of life in the overall community."

"We have done this," says Argust. "We have done this."

To ignore the result, and our complicity in it, is more than stupid. It is an act of criminal neglect.

But we keep right on ignoring it. And worse.

We fight the school district's request for more funds, insisting that the district doesn't do a good job with what it gets. The State of New York flatly ignores a court order to provide more money for urban school districts.

And we shrug off Superintendent Manny Rivera's plea for a "Children's Zone" in Rochester. Rivera wants the community to focus its social service, employment, health-care, and other services on one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, to literally surround families there with care, to address the non-educational problems that so seriously affect the education of many Rochester children.

A Children's Zone will cost money. It will take time and energy and cooperation by a broad variety of organizations and people: the business community, social service agencies, health-care providers.

Rivera has been talking about the need for a Children's Zone for a year. The silence from most of the community has been appalling.

The community has walled off our poorest families, trapping them together in the inner city. Poor families can not afford to live in most of the suburbs. Most of the suburbs have refused to permit subsidized housing within their boundaries. And suggestions that the city's poorest children should be able to attend suburban schools bring on absolute hysteria.

So you tell me: How're we going to fix this problem?

If not the Children's Zone, what?

I'm waiting for business leaders, church leaders, labor leaders, non-profit leaders, health-care providers, government officials --- from the city and the suburbs --- to step forward. Go ahead, folks. You don't want the Children's Zone? Offer your own solution. How are you going to help overcome the effects of poverty concentration?

Our failure to act is preventing thousands of Rochester children --- predominantly African American and Hispanic --- from getting a good education. That will prevent them from getting a decent job as adults. Which, of course, will continue the cycle.

Until we address poverty concentration and its effects, nothing will change.

I got a letter from a reader the other day saying that everybody knows what the problem is: it's African American "culture." He's dead wrong, of course. But a lot of this community acts as if we think he's right. The blame, according to that philosophy, lies with the school district and the parents of city students. The community can't fix either.

And if we can't fix either, we can limit our response to griping and finger pointing.

I don't know how we sleep at night.