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Ten years later, city schools have made too little progress

On Business
Rochester Business Journal
March 21, 2014

Ten years ago, the Rump Group, an organization of business leaders in our community, issued the report “A Community at Risk,” which put a spotlight on the abysmal graduation results of the Rochester City School District.

Despite many efforts, little or no improvement has occurred. Less than half of RCSD students graduate in four years, and a state report indicates that just 6 percent are ready for college, as measured by exam scores in English and math. What hasn’t changed is our region’s need for qualified workers and the moral imperative to ensure that all children in our community have the chance to make a good living after leaving school.

This is why Rochester Business Alliance contracted with the Center for Governmental Research late last year to issue another report, “A Community Still at Risk.” We tried to focus on some specific goals that could in fact help move the needle and improve the educational results of the Rochester City School District.

The four goals emphasized in the report include:

 Supporting increased academic standards.
 Expanding options for children and families to obtain an education.
 Continued business involvement in the city schools through various partnerships such as mentorships, internships and job opportunities.
 Increasing accountability for the results obtained and easing some of the school district bureaucracy that resists meaningful reform.

Half of Rochester’s children under 18 live in poverty, one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation. Poverty need not be destiny, but it is associated with real obstacles to learning. For example, some children from low-income families are exposed to a more limited vocabulary in their preschool years, making learning to read more difficult. When children don’t learn to read, they can’t read to learn.

Programs to address concentrated poverty must be part of the solution to our educational woes. Investment and job training targeted at distressed neighborhoods, as well as early parenting supports, are some additional steps we need to take. There is ample evidence in our community and others that schools with high concentrations of poverty can beat the odds.

Public criticism of the Common Core effort has grown. Teachers, parents and others have called for rolling back the rigorous tests and the part they play in new teacher evaluations. While the state was perhaps hasty and less deliberate than it should have been in implementing its Common Core program, sticking with the tougher standards is critical. For the sake of employers, families and, most of all, students themselves, we need to insist on higher levels of learning and to support schools and teachers in reaching them.

Students shouldn’t be left to struggle in low-performing schools. If a student isn’t learning in his or her school, our community needs to provide other options. Research on charter schools confirms that some charter management organizations have developed successful models that are replicable. The city of Rochester, which assumes ownership of schools no longer in use, should establish a policy of making unneeded buildings available to charter school operators.

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas is pursuing several strategies that make sense, including improving student attendance, strengthening literacy programs to ensure students can read well by the third grade and recruiting colleges to operate some of the district’s schools. Vargas has called upon the community to support his efforts and pitch in as tutors, mentors and funders of effective programs, such as summer learning. Businesses can support schools by releasing employees to devote an hour or two a week to assist in the schools, and they can donate supplies or funds. Providing internships and summer jobs to city youths is another way to bolster these efforts.

The city of Rochester has a big stake in the management of the school district: $119 million in city money goes to the district, yet the city has virtually no say in what the district does with that money. One mechanism to permit the city to have some input on how the funds are being used is to allow the mayor to appoint at least two members of the school board. Putting mayoral appointees on the board would reflect the reality that the city cannot succeed without better  schools.

The issues facing children and young people in our community demand the attention of not only our leading institutions but all of us. Our community remains at risk, but each one of us has a way of lending our support—our time, money or advocacy—to the collective effort to improve children’s education and give them the chance for a successful future.

Read the full “A Community Still at Risk” report at the Rochester Business Alliance website,

Sandra Parker is president and CEO of Rochester Business Alliance Inc. Contact her at

3/21/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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