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Left behind: The story of the Rochester City School District


It’s common knowledge to those who live in Monroe County that if you want your kid to have a quality education, you move to the suburbs. It’s the suburban schools that continuously have the highest ranked test scores and graduation rates, plus an abundance of resources for every student.

Yet just down the road, the Rochester City School District tells a completely different story. It’s a story of economic and racial segregation, a 47.5% graduation rate and a 24% dropout rate as of 2016.

Unlike their suburban counterparts, students in the RCSD begin their educational career at a disadvantage. Their options are limited and a bright future can be difficult for many to envision.

In 2016, the Democrat and Chronicle reported that a Pittsford Sutherland senior had been accepted into seven Ivy League schools. For many students in the RCSD, higher education of any form will never be an option.

Armon Rose attended School Without Walls, one of the 65 schools in the city school district.

“If you were to walk into my house we were probably holding the walls up with our hands,” Armon said. “My father was deported, he was a drug dealer from Jamaica, my mother did drugs from time to time. We moved from house to house. I probably moved 14 times from second grade to fifth grade and after that I probably moved another 14 times.”

According to enrollment data collected by the NYSED in 2016, 91% of students within the district are considered economically disadvantaged.

Thanks to a good counselor, involvement in many school activities and a determination to create a better life for himself, Armon graduated in 2012 and was accepted into Alfred State University.

Unfortunately, most students in the RCSD don’t see that same success.

For decades now, there have been cyclical attempts to repair the district, yet nothing seems to have worked and no one has been able to pinpoint the moment the city school district went wrong.

So how has a city that was once filled with technological innovation and the promise of a better life produce a school district plagued by racial and economic disparities?

How did Rochester’s children get so far left behind?

Data from the NYSED

Founding of America's First Boomtown

Filled with opportunity and the promise of a better life, Rochester was one of America’s first boomtowns.

“Before it was the Flower City with a ‘W,’ or the Flour City with a ‘U,’ Rochester was known as the Young Lion of the West,” said Michael Brown, history professor at Rochester Institute of Technology.

According to Brown, Rochester has had a history of rapid waves of newcomers. However, the city has always functioned on a different timeline than the other major cities in the north.

Brown said that while places like Chicago saw an internal migration of African-Americans from the south around World War I, Rochester saw a threefold increase in the African-American population between 1945 and 1960. During this time, African-Americans were traveling north from places like Tunica, Mississippi and Belle Glade, Florida.

“They [came] to Rochester for a variety of reasons,” said Brown, “Rochester [was] an educational center, a health care center. It [was] known for its industrial economy and industrial prosperity. There [was] also an agricultural hinterland around Rochester that for some time attracted migrant workers to bring in the harvest. So, for a variety of reasons, Rochester [was] a magnet for people in this period after the Second World War.”

Though Rochester appeared to be a promise land for those who came, the city was not without its flaws.

Father of Rochester: George Eastman

George Eastman was known to many as the father of Rochester, presiding over the city’s largest employer, Kodak, and funding places like the University of Rochester, the Eastman Dental Center, the Eastman Theatre, and the Eastman School of Music.

“His handprint [was] deeply embedded in the city and Eastman’s approach to labor [was] what we might call paternalist,” said Brown.

Eastman built a sort of “Kodak Family,” as the father of the city, attempting to create the illusion that Rochester’s workers were happy and cared for.

“One of the things claimed in this time-period is that Rochester workers do not live in tenements like they do in other cities. They live in their own houses and they may own these houses and that this home ownership makes them averse to strikes,” said Brown. “So, there’s this sense of, we know how to provide for workers, we know how to care for workers and we know how to provide workers with alternatives to unionization, organizing and advocating for themselves.”

While there was a fondness among workers for things like Kodak baseball leagues, it wasn’t enough to keep them from creating labor organizations that called for better jobs and improved wages.

It’s this discrepancy between the perfect illusion city leaders created and the true feelings of 

unhappy workers that lead Rochester to acquire the nickname “Smugtown USA.” The name came from a book written by local journalist Curt Gerling, about the Rochester newspaper industry, but ended up as a label for Rochester.

Essentially the label came to represent the farce that, Rochester, given its prosperity, philanthropy and unique history, didn’t have the same tensions involving labor, ethnicity and race that other northern cities had.

“One effect of Smugtown culture is that it blinds people to the problems that do in fact exist,” said Brown. “There’s no better example than after the second wave of the great migration that brings a tripling of Rochester’s African-American population in the decade and a half that follows World War II.”

Migration of African-Americans to Rochester

As thousands of African-American migrants reached Rochester, they were not greeted with the warm welcome they had expected. Residential segregation pressures confined the newcomers to the northeast side of the city, into what is known as the Seventh Ward.

Not only were they forced into a segregated neighborhood, they were also arriving to housing stock that was old, deteriorating and not built to withstand the population density being pinned into the area.

“Tensions [were] mounting, there’s manifest de facto segregation in Rochester and the visions of prosperity that have always brought people to Rochester aren’t being realized for many of these new arrivals who find that they’re unable to find employment at Kodak, except in custodial positions,” said Brown. “Positions that don’t offer high salaries.”

During the same time-period that the African-American population was increasing by 300% in Rochester, the white population began moving out to area suburbs. An action that would impact the city's racial demographics to this day.

White flight to Suburbia

The 1950s in the United States marks the decade of the car culture becoming a major feature in American life, which transforms U.S. cities.

Rochesterians who worked at places like Kodak or Xerox no longer needed to live within the confines of the city. As Brown explained, with the creation of I-490 and the Inner Loop, many white people chose to move their families out into the suburban towns.

The African-American population, however, was unable to do the same.

“If you think about what enables you to access suburban housing, the ability to get a loan, both for your residence and for a vehicle to transport you in and out of a work place, and the job that’s going to enable you to provide documentation to get those loans, means that residents with means are those most able to access this mobility to the new suburbs,” said Brown.

“Meaning that the city is a place increasingly for residents who either do not have the means to access those opportunities or are facing racial discrimination to prevent them from accessing the jobs and the loans and the neighborhoods," said Brown. "So, you’re setting up a neighborhood of heightening inequality.”

This is where one can really begin to see how the RCSD has been shaped into its current form. During this time, white, wealthy people are moving out into the suburbs, where they’re creating school districts that have the economic support they need to provide students with the best possible resources.

Meanwhile, African-American populations were being concentrated into certain areas of the city, a by-product of which is segregated schools. Additionally, these schools were populated by students who came from low income families that often had no way of providing students with the support they needed.

Year of Change; 2003?

Between the 1950s and the 2000s, the racial and economic segregation issues were not ignored or dismissed.

“In city education, there are periodic attempts to reform the schools in a way that achieves the goal of desegregation,” said Brown. “There are attempts made to create busing and other measures to integrate the schools but ultimately what we have today is largely white suburban educational districts with students of color being disproportionately represented, in the Rochester City School District.”

A key moment in the attempts to reform the city school district comes in 2003, when former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson ran against anchorwoman Maggie Brooks for County Executive.

During Johnson’s time as mayor, he had discussed how a regional district could help to fix some of the school districts issues. Knowing that there was resistance to this, the Brooks campaign created a TV advertisement depicting Johnson as a Pacman character devouring suburban schools. The ad would sink Johnson’s chances at becoming county executive. Brooks won 65-35.

“The irony is, if they move from Monroe County, to any state in the south, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, every single one of those states have county wide schools,” said Johnson. “Every last one of them.”

Johnson wasn’t alone in believing that a county wide district is key. Former Fairport Superintendent and interim Rochester City School District Superintendent Bill Cala made his own attempt at proposing a shift to a regional district.

Cala found that parents, teachers and students all had positive thoughts about the idea. But after seeing the greater public’s reaction to Johnson’s attempts, it was the decision-makers who were resistant to enacting the change.

“Push back comes from Politicians, RCSD and suburban superintendents,” Cala said. “The politicians are afraid of complaints from suburban superintendents and boards who complain that if a regional school existed money would be siphoned from them.”

It’s one of the most controversial and resisted ideas to create a regional or county wide school district. Yet it may also be the only solution to fixing this broken system. And even if city residents completely supported the idea, they decision wouldn’t be entirely up to them.

A County Divided

“One interpretation of this 2003 county executive race is that the voters who elected Maggie Brooks to be county executive were not interested in addressing urban poverty or urban education in a way that would implicate suburban residents,” said Brown.

You’ll find few people who disagree that diversity and desegregation is a bad thing. Yet when it comes to the lives of their children, voters don’t want to do anything that may jeopardize their futures.

The results of the 2003 county executive race and the resistance to a regional district that has followed, shows that Monroe County is a conflicted political landscape.

“I supposed this shows that all the residents of the region are not stakeholders in the shared interest of high quality, accessible education for all the children of the region,” said Brown.

Where are we now?

Johnson believes that the reason a regional district hasn’t been accepted is because residents haven’t seen proof of a high performing school within the Rochester City School District.

“There are no schools in the city, with the possible exception of School of the Arts, that any suburban parent would want to take the risk to send their child to,” Johnson said.

Neither Cala or Johnson see these issues of racial and economic disparities changing anytime soon.

“Unfortunately, I do not see any improvements on the horizon as the School Board continues to make the same policy and hiring mistakes,” said Cala.

“All across this country, schools are more racially segregated now than they were back during Brown versus Board,” said Johnson. “And a lot of it can be explained by pure geography. Because not only are schools not integrated, neighborhoods aren’t integrated either. So, it’s a very, very complicated problem.”

Left Behind

Having graduated five years ago, Armon Rose is one of the lucky few who has been able to break free of Rochester’s limits and experience life outside of the city.

Armon has nieces and nephews still in the district and he said every day he sees the results of a school district that is failing them.

“My nephew doesn’t know simple math,” said Armon. “He’s in third grade and doesn’t even know cursive yet. He doesn’t know how to sign his own name.”

But Armon doesn’t place all the blame on the district.

“You walk inside somebody’s house inside the city school district, you don’t know if someone is missing a dad or if their cousin just got shot last week,” Armon said. “You don’t know what’s going on with these kids.”

Despite a flawed system, when Armon looked back on his education he said he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He said it taught him to work for what he wanted and to make the most of what he had.

Still, he acknowledged that there are so many who get left behind along the way.

“I wish everybody had the chance to experience what I had to experience. I don’t take it for granted. I don’t think it’s fair that I had such a great experience and there’s kids every day going through high school, having such a bad experience.”