Transforming Urban Education: From Despair to Hope?

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Donald PryorI’ve been reading Hope and Despair in the American City:  Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.  And, like many others, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our urban schools in Rochester and elsewhere and how we “fix” them.

In areas around New York and nationally, there seems to be precious little hope for resurrecting our urban schools and kids —and far too much despair.  Dedicated people, much smarter and more creative than I, have been writing about and wrestling with this dilemma for years.  Despite years of reform, study and advocacy, the problems remain, as most of the available solutions are constrained by limited resources available only within city boundaries—when community-wide solutions and resources are called for.

Hope and Despair in the American City offers a practically and politically difficult, but ultimately hopeful solution, should we have the political courage and will to act.  It outlines the implications of creating a countywide school district, intentionally designed to counter the effects of concentrations of poverty by achieving socio-economic balance within all schools.

The book contrasts neighborhoods, schools, school districts and academic performance in nearby Syracuse/Onondaga County with those in Raleigh/Wake County, North Carolina.  It compares Syracuse’s failing schools, and the “tale of despair that afflicted much of urban America,” with the more hopeful transformation of Raleigh, where citizens “voluntarily tore down the invisible wall that kept inner-city children out of Raleigh’s affluent suburban schools.”

In the North Carolina model, a coalition of black and white business, civic, political, teacher and parent leaders recognized that concentration of poverty and segregation of the population along racial and income lines had undermined the work force and the regional economy they were attempting to foster.  Their solution? Merge two separate school districts (city and suburban) into one countywide district, linked with a plan that placed a ceiling on the proportion of low-income students who would attend any given school throughout the county.  A panacea without problems?  No, but a continuing community resolve and resiliency has kept the core reforms on track over the years.

Results? In the 35 years since the merger occurred, there have been significant improvements in test scores, reduced dropout rates and increased graduation rates—compared with pre-merger outcomes and compared with comparable status quo performance in places like Syracuse and other urban areas that remained segregated with high poverty and racial concentrations.  These have been accompanied by significant reductions in disparities between racial and income subsets of the student population.  Other intangible benefits have also enhanced the quality of life in the progressive Raleigh/Wake County region.

How did the Raleigh community overcome barriers to change, historic patterns of school attendance and housing patterns, and preferences for neighborhood schools?  A topic for another discussion, but two points worth noting here:  (1) broad, principled leadership from community leaders of all stripes, who put aside parochial interests and city vs. suburban silo mentalities for the greater community good, and (2) transforming a critical mass of schools—almost a third of all schools in the county—into magnet schools of choice, often near borders between city and suburbs, creating attractive options for both white and black, city and suburban students willing to be bused relatively short distances to obtain the educational benefits offered by the distinctive educational options.

State laws in New York, and the multitudes of suburban districts in each county, make any Raleigh-type merger much more difficult locally.  But not impossible, says author Gerald Grant, with “extraordinary courage and political leadership” from the local business, faith, political, union, parent and teacher communities to create such a community-wide mandate for change.  The question is whether the Rochester community—and other upstate urban areas—have the political will to set the bar high and create a better future for new generations of young people, and ultimately for the economic well-being of our interdependent communities.  Creating a countywide school district featuring countywide magnet schools could be a viable option, particularly as New York explores options for regional high schools.

Many view regional approaches to economic development and cost efficiency as common sense.  Is it time to consider whether a countywide school district could also create benefits by reducing multiple-district administrative costs, while also helping address the economic and moral imperatives to drastically improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all our children in the future, regardless of where they live?

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