A sad misconception pervades our city: that Rochester’s urban students cannot be educated until we have solved the problem of poverty. This is a convenient narrative because it lets everyone off the hook for poor educational results. All blame can be put on poverty. Unfortunately, for some this means blaming the children and their parents.
Any enterprise—or city—is in trouble when the dialogue revolves around the question “who’s at fault?” instead of “what’s the problem and how do we solve it?” Let’s get out of the blame game in which good teachers stuck in a bad system feel vilified, politicians duck for cover and people argue about the wrong things. Believing that poor children can’t learn merely leads to paralysis.
The root cause of poverty is lack of education. If you can’t read or do basic math, if you can’t show up for work and apply yourself, you will not have a job. You will be poor. Other actions may dent poverty, but the War on Poverty is 50 years old and the gains are few.
The clear path forward is to realize that the premise that poor children can’t be taught is wrong and to give our city’s children a good academic, social, behavioral and physical education right now. The human potential currently going to waste could be turned into the economic engine—one that would make our region the envy of the nation and demonstrate a better route to prosperity than building stadiums and other physical investments.
Fortunately, we citizens can take direct action. Good teaching is hard work; teaching children mired in poverty is even harder. To address the needs of these children requires a completely different structure or business model. Putting bandages on the current broken system is not working.
E3 Rochester Inc. is a non-profit whose mission is to identify charter schools across the nation that have proven they can take large numbers of children in poor neighborhoods to success and to recruit their leaders to Rochester. PUC Schools, which we recruited to open a school here, has 5,000 students in the poorest parts of Los Angeles and sends 75 percent of them to four-year colleges. Vertus Charter School, run by proven leaders, takes in high school boys who were dismissed as hopeless and has already advanced them a full grade level in four months. Uncommon Schools has five Rochester Prep schools. More high-performing organizations exist. We will bring them here.
A charter school is a public school, taxpayer funded, open to all children free of charge. Charter schools are relieved of most of the regulations, bureaucracy and encumbrances that hold back district schools. In exchange, they are held accountable for performance and closed if they fail to get results. When has a district school been closed for poor performance?
The Rochester City School District spends almost twice the national average per student but is the lowest performing urban school district in America. More money is not the answer. The obvious answer is to open good schools designed specifically to help this demographic. To maintain quality, E3 Rochester seeks proven charter leaders with replicable school models. Charter schools get only two-thirds the funding of district schools. If those schools were run by proven charter leaders with replicable school models, parents and students would be able to choose among excellent schools offering a variety of educational approaches. Teachers could choose an employer that helps them develop their full potential as educators.
Our approach is practical. Almost all schools in New Orleans are now charters, and their citywide graduation rate has climbed from 45 percent to 80 percent. Within 20 years we could transform our city by graduating the next generation of students ready to be productive citizens. Employers would flock to our city because of the well-prepared workforce. Neighborhoods would revive.
Would those who say it can’t be done please stop impeding the people who are doing it? And would those of you sitting on the sidelines to please step forward to support and improve our effort?
Bryan Hickman is vice-chairman and co-founder of E3 Rochester Inc.
3/13/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].