Embrace what's working in Rochester

A good, healthy debate on education is highly valuable and worth the work. The more people discuss and learn about different school models, curricula, instructional methods, and other aspects that can help children succeed, the better off society will be.

For Rochester, the conversation is particularly important. Fixing the school system is paramount to ensuring the city has a bright future and can continue its long record as a cradle of innovation.

No matter what side of the debate anybody stands on, everyone must acknowledge one indisputable yet painful fact: Rochester’s city schools don’t work for enough families. Children, mostly black and Hispanic, are languishing in failing schools year after year.

As universally known as this fact is, far too many people appear willing to accept it, often asserting we cannot fix our educational problems until we find solutions to the problems associated with poverty. Of course fixing poverty requires first addressing other problems. And on it goes, down the rabbit hole.

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If nothing gets done until everything gets done, then nothing will ever get done.

We know education is the gateway to success, mobility, empowerment and a good life. It’s also one thing we can get right immediately, without having to wait for “everything to get fixed.”

That’s one reason we should welcome any and all options that are helping kids learn. For thousands of families and children, the right option has been a charter school. Unfortunately, 16 years in, some are still trying to deny and diminish the success and importance of charter schools in Rochester.

Those who stand in the way of progress for Rochester’s children hurl the same tired misconceptions and outright lies at these public schools of choice that have worked wonders for so many. The great Senator Pat Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

It seems like an outright rejection of the facts is keeping Rochester children from getting a great education and fueling a renaissance in the city.

The numbers on the city school district’s performance are staggering:

  • Single-digit performance on the state’s ELA and Math exams last school year;
  • A graduation rate of 46 percent;
  • Rochester is in the bottom two percent of all districts in New York State in each one of those categories.

These numbers aren’t a new development. This isn’t something that happened overnight. There is an established, entrenched system of failure in Rochester, and rather than sit idly by and watch more children suffer this injustice, the charter school community has sought to help fix this broken system.

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Charter schools, which are public schools open to all, first came to Rochester in 2000 and have been a lifeline to families in need. The most recent local criticism came from Sherry Johnson, Executive Director of the Monroe County School Boards Association. She said that charters “are public only by the fact that they receive public taxpayer dollars.”

They are also public by fact of law.

In 1998 the Charter Schools Act established a new way to deliver a public education to children in our state. They are free, with no tuition. They’re open to all children and cannot pick and choose, despite what Ms. Johnson may think.  They are enrolled through a blind lottery, not through picking the best out of a lineup like playground kickball. Charters don’t have a secret pipeline to the easy-to-teach kids. They don’t bend the rules.

Ms. Johnson sounds like someone trying to come up with excuses instead of acknowledging that charters provide something parents want – quality and hope.

Charters are a response to the dramatic desire parents have for a school that works for their child. In the Rochester City School District, fewer than 10 percent of children are proficient in reading and writing.

Most charters in the city are doing much, much better than that. It’s a hard fact for Ms. Johnson to swallow, but it’s true.

University Prep Charter School for Young Men has a 92 percent graduation rate. At Rochester Academy of Science Charter School, the graduation rate is 86 percent. At city schools the graduation rate is 40 points lower.

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The enormous success of charters with each key high-need demographic holds true as well. On last year’s state ELA and math exams, schools like Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School – the city’s oldest charter – once again blew away the city’s scores. Uncommon Schools continues to do incredible work in their Rochester Prep schools as well.

If those results aren't worth acknowledging and learning from, nothing is. These charters are serving the same children that district schools have left behind for years – so much so that their parents have opted out of the city system and chosen something else.

It’s about time Ms. Johnson and her colleagues recognized that, and dropped the excuse making.

The city’s future depends on it.

Andrea is the New York State Director at the Northeast Charter Schools Network
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Embrace what's working in Rochester
Embrace what's working in Rochester
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