Great Schools 4 All Seeks Economic and Social Diversity in City Schools

Dec 27, 2015

Great Schools 4 All leaders Lynette Sparks and John Wilkinson started Great Schools 4 All due to their work in urban schools done through Third Presbyterian Church.
Credit James Bailey / WXXI/St. John Fisher College

“All students can learn.”  That is the motto of the recently formed Rochester activist group Great Schools 4 All. However, a study completed by ROC the Future clearly demonstrates that, while these children in the city of Rochester may be able to learn, they are clearly  not learning.

The study notes that “7 percent of Rochester’s third graders [are] meeting state standards on the reading exam, 9 percent of fourth graders passing math, 4 percent of eighth graders passing English and less than 1 percent of eighth graders passing math.”   

Great Schools 4 All believes that these academic issues are directly related to who is sitting in the classroom, namely other children in poverty.

According to Great Schools 4 All, ideally no more than 40 percent of students in a school should be in poverty, as indicated by the number of students on free and reduced-price lunches. In the city of Rochester, every school has more  than 60 percent of its students in poverty, with some schools reaching as high as 90 percent.

Great Schools 4 All aims to alter these proportions, be it through magnet schools or an expanded urban-suburban program. They hope much of this will be addressed in new legislation the organization hopes to propose by the end of the year.

The leaders of Great Schools 4 All are John Wilkinson and Lynette Sparks, both pastors at Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester. They became aware of this economic disparity through the church’s work in Rochester schools.

The pair cite the school system in Raleigh, North Carolina as model to which Rochester can aspire as a diverse school system helping bring a better education to all.

Raleigh’s goal was similar to the goals of Great Schools 4 All: to give students a chance to go to a diverse school that gives them an opportunity at the best education. Raleigh has done this primarily through magnet schools, something Great Schools 4 All would like for Rochester but would have to jump through some obstacles to get.

In Raleigh, the entire county is in a single consolidated school district. Sparks points out that current New York state legislation does not allow for that to happen in Rochester.  This is due to a law put into place in the 1920s. As Mark Hare, head of the legislation board for Great Schools 4 All, describes it, the state moved then to restrict cities from annexing surrounding territories. This was to keep the large cities in the state from completely engulfing the surrounding territories.In the long run, this has caused some educational issues by essentially making it impossible to consolidate other county school districts with the city, something that would help alleviate the high poverty proportions in city schools.

Mark Hare addresses legislation at a Great Schools 4 All town-hall style meeting on November 14, 2015.
Credit James Bailey / WXXI/St. John Fisher College

“It’s probably, in my opinion, the single worst decision ever made by the state government,” said Hare.“The school districts in cities, unlike rural and suburban school districts, are not independent,” Hare added. “They don’t raise their own taxes; they are dependent on the municipal government. In fact, they are effectively a branch of municipal government.”

The legislation Great Schools 4 All seeks to propose would give school districts more flexibility to experiment and consolidate.

A common example used by the organization is the School of the Arts (SOTA) on Prince Street. SOTA offers a curriculum that is not offered anywhere else in the county. “What if we created a SOTA for grade school, or open another SOTA that could be open to three other districts,” said Wilkinson. “Right now, we need legislative approval to do that.”

Another proposal the group is working on is expanding the current urban-suburban program. The program is designed to create an exchange, with students in the city getting a chance to attend suburban schools in the county and in turn, bring suburban students back into the city. Thirteen of Monroe County’s 17 suburban school districts participate in the program, with six of them joining it in just the past several months.

Currently, this exchange has leaned  one-way right now, as the low performance of city schools is keeping suburban parents from wanting to send their children to the city. Great Schools 4 All is looking at how to make city schools more attractive for suburban students, in order to bring in more diversity.

The organization has made progress toward its goals since forming in April 2014 and is looking to take the next step. After the legislation is proposed, the group must remain persistent, or, as Great Schools 4 All leader Beth Laidlaw puts it, be like bedbugs -- which are known for their tenacity. “If we’re going to rise above all the noise that has to do with activism in education, we really have to be of a singular mind and in constant motion,” said Laidlaw, a Monroe Community College professor.

What can be expected down the line? In the immediate future, not much. Even in Raleigh, a system that has been in effect for over a decade, things are still not perfect. However, the group does have a vision for where it wants to be in the future.

Beth Laidlaw speaks about summer learning at a Great Schools 4 All town-hall style meeting on November 14, 2015
Credit James Bailey / WXXI/St. John Fisher College

“In 10 years, what we want to see is countywide graduation rates going up, but with a focus on graduation rates in the city going up,” said Wilkinson. Sparks added, “I would hope to see similar economic impacts in the region to what we saw in Raleigh.” In Raleigh, neighborhoods that had once been decimated sprung back up after the educational reforms.

The leadership of Great Schools 4 All has said that it is not a long-term organization. Its goal is to propose and help pass the educational legislature needed and see its mission through. Once a more solid educational basis is formed, Great Schools 4 All will have completed its mission and will have no reason to exist any longer. Another unspoken goal for the organization would be to see its goals come to fruition and to have the ability to disband.

“We’re not professional educators,” said Wilkinson. “We’re not curriculum people and we don’t want to run any of these schools. We want to get the framework set up so it can happen, and then get out of the way and let it happen by the experts.”  


This story by James Bailey is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, readers.