Great Schools for All was years in the making

Great Schools for All, a grassroots coalition of churches, community groups, businesses and nonprofit organizations, didn’t spring up overnight.

The idea for the coalition dates back to 2009. That’s when several Monroe County Presbyterian churches formed the pastoral group Urban-Presbyterians Together, deciding to expand their focus on education and create the Great Schools for All (GS4A) initiative, said member John Thomas.

Rochester’s Third Presbyterian Church in particular has a long history of tutoring students from the Rochester City School District, noted the Rev. Lynette Sparks, interim pastor. So taking on the GS4A initiative was a natural progression of the church’s desire to help those students by addressing the concentration of poverty in their schools, she said.

When ACT Rochester’s 2013 report on poverty revealed the depth of poverty in Rochester and its schools, the GS4A group realized the urgency of its work, she added.

In their efforts to improve academic outcomes for all kids and to reduce the concentration of poverty in area schools, GS4A members educated themselves on the issues by meeting with area experts and reading Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh by Syracuse University professor Gerard Grant. Even though that book compared conditions in Syracuse and Raleigh, N.C., Thomas said Rochester and Syracuse are similar enough to make it worth studying Grant’s findings about what Raleigh did to improve its schools and how Syracuse — and by extension, Rochester — could model solutions on Raleigh’s approach.

GS4A member Don Pryor of the Center for Governmental Research in Rochester then contacted Kevin Hill from North Carolina State College, who set up meetings between representatives of GS4A and teachers, administrators, students and parents in Raleigh.

Eleven members of GS4A visited Raleigh a year ago as part of an exchange funded by an $8,000 grant from the Rochester Area Community Foundation. To remain as neutral as possible, the group that visited Raleigh included people of different faiths but did not include elected officials or those who work in the Rochester City School District, Sparks said.

"We wanted to go and learn as much as we could as concerned citizens, activists and people interested in going beyond talk in getting something done," she added.

The group’s members met with more than 75 people over three days, added Thomas, a retired Rochester urban planner who was among the local delegation to Raleigh. The group conducted interviews with school and community leaders and parents from morning to night, Sparks noted. They also toured schools at every grade level.

"It was like trying to drink from a fire hose," observed the Rev. Michael Ford, a senior minister at Rochester’s Lake Avenue Baptist Church, regarding the volume of information coming at the group’s members.

Raleigh’s experiences provided many lessons for Rochester to learn from, coalition members agreed.

Not only schools but entire neighborhoods have been transformed by improving education for the poorest families in Raleigh, noted Sparks and Mark Hare from Rochester’s Cathedral Community, who also is a GS4A member. Economic development is returning to some areas, and "McMansions" are even being built, Hare joked.

"But what impressed me through talking with parent groups, and teacher conversations and community groups (is that) they see low-income children not as a problem that has to be worked on … but rather as assets," he remarked. "These are children who bring a lot to the table. And we can’t understand them unless we live with them a little bit."

Rochester City School District Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has met with GS4A and said that he welcomes its efforts.

"Everyone should be concerned about the challenges our district is facing and the plight of our students," he said. "I’m thankful to them (GS4A) and any other group interested in education."

The district cannot solve one of its biggest challenges — the extreme concentration of poverty, with more than 90 percent of students in nearly all RCSD schools receiving free or reduced-cost lunches — without community support, Vargas and coalition members concurred.

A GS4A subgroup has suggested boosting suburban participation in the current Urban-Suburban program and expanding the program to include all of Monroe County’s 19 school districts. The Urban-Suburban program promotes racial and socioeconomic integration by enabling city students to attend suburban schools and, to a lesser degree, enabling suburban students to enroll in city schools. Creating countywide magnet schools was another idea that was discussed during a May 5 GS4A conference — attended by more than 200 people — at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Rochester. A magnet school focuses on one specific concept, such as language or leadership.

Next steps for GS4A members include lobbying state officials for a proposal to allow the Rochester City School District to work with Monroe County’s two Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) to help develop magnet schools, explained Pryor.

"If we want the city to thrive and strive, something has to be done, everybody recognizes that," he said. "We know none of the things we’re talking about is a magic bullet. But it’s an important part of reducing the impact, the corrosive impact of the concentration of poverty in the city schools, and

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