Cross-District Approaches to Urban Education

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

Donald PryorA previous CGR Policy Wonk blog, Transforming Urban Education: From Despair to Hope? discussed Raleigh, North Carolina’s countywide solution to addressing urban education issues.  The Raleigh experience offers a model for breaking down barriers of poverty and uneven resources and opportunities that help create widely-divergent outcomes across city, suburban and rural boundaries in our community.

The Raleigh model, while promising with its documented levels of success, would also be practically and politically difficult to implement locally—not least because of the multitude of school districts in most counties across New York (18 in Monroe County).  Merging two school districts in Raleigh/Wake County, while not easily accomplished, seems like a walk in the park compared with changing the current educational landscape in Monroe County.  As several responses to the original article suggested, we need the type of strong cross-sector leadership around this issue that surfaced in Raleigh.  Is that realistic locally, given our entrenched multi-school-district profile?

I believe the answer can be Yes.  It will take leadership and vision, courage, patience and a renewed political leadership cutting across party, city/suburban and school district lines.  It would take a broad coalition of interests spanning the business, religious, political, race/ethnic, school district, parent and teacher communities—all with a common goal of ensuring the future success of our young people, wherever they live, and thus the economic future viability of our community that will sink or swim, in large part depending on whether this and future generations of our children, urban and suburban, become community assets or liabilities.  It is in all our interests, from both a moral and economic perspective, to make sure that this community recognizes what Raleigh’s leaders understood and acted on:  that the concentration of poverty and unequal educational opportunities along racial and economic lines ultimately undermine the economic viability of our community and region.  Bold leadership and actions are needed to counter these historic directions in our schools.

Relatively easy concrete steps could be taken to start a process and learn more.  Why not send a delegation of interested local leaders to Raleigh to explore in more detail what made change possible there, and what has sustained it over the years—and what has been needed to counter resistance along the way?  And why not bring key Raleigh leaders here to share their experiences and offer their advice and insights as to how we might learn from them, and adapt some of what worked there to our current situation?

And why not begin to bring educational leaders from the City School District and from the immediately adjacent suburban districts together to begin to discuss ways of potentially transforming a number of our community schools near both sides of the city/suburban borders into county/regional magnet schools that are so good that they would attract students from both city and suburban areas across racial and economic lines?  That’s essentially what Raleigh did with almost a third of the county’s schools as a critical element of their transformation of educational opportunities across the county.  Are we any less capable of showing such leadership and creativity than our southern friends?  Let’s start talking to them and finding out what we can learn from them and use to strengthen our own community.

We may also be able to learn from discussions in Wayne and Ontario counties about the issues involved in the possible creation of regional high schools, and from proponents of The Regional Academy proposal in conjunction with Nazareth College.

We don’t have to abolish current school districts or create a countywide school district to make progress—though that might not be such a bad idea!  Monroe County’s school districts currently share many services and resources across district lines.  Let’s build on this spirit of collaboration.  Without undermining the current educational infrastructure, why wouldn’t it be possible to create a mechanism that would bring districts together, along with broader leadership from other sectors of the community, to address issues that cut across district lines, such as creating regional magnet schools, and beginning to undertake the kinds of bold structural reforms that Raleigh, in the heart of the conservative South, has embraced, to the benefit of its region?

Embracing a long-range vision for the good of the entire community may be dismissed by many as idealistic and unachievable.  But tinkering at the margins of our urban schools will not create the educational opportunities our kids and our community need to survive and thrive in the challenging future.  Systemic change across district lines is required.

Raleigh may not be the only answer, but it’s a place to start.  Anyone willing to challenge the status quo and take on this issue?