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How one city broke the cycle of failure

Let me tell you a story about a major American city school system in dire straits.

After decades of urban poverty, disinvestment and crime, this school district had hit bottom. Despite lofty promises to do better, it had ridden the twin rails of dysfunction and political inertia to become the worst district in the state.

It was the city’s predominantly poor, black and Latino young people who were paying the price for this abominable failure.

Meanwhile, everyone waited and wondered: “What are they doing to fix the schools?”

Believe it or not, I’m not talking about Rochester.

The city is New Orleans. But when I tell you what they did to break the cycle of failure in the Big Easy, you’ll be asking why we aren’t applying those same lessons in Rochester—especially when you consider the Flower City’s history of innovation, creativity and collaborative problem solving.

Tulane University researchers have documented the history of New Orleans’s reforms. Their work provides the strongest evidence yet that the reforms significantly improved student learning.

Here’s what New Orleans did:

First, they went to an “all-choice” system where parents select the school they feel is best for their child. A diverse array of schools helps create a better match for students and keep families in the city.

Second, they took the worst schools and either closed them or converted them to charter schools run by educators who had a proven track record of success.

Third, they gave the educators who ran these new charter schools greater flexibility in managing staff, with the ability to hire whoever they wanted and dismiss teachers who were ineffective or perhaps in the wrong line of work.

Fourth, they invested more money in this new charter-heavy system, instead of throwing it into the broken one. Education spending increased by $1,000 per student during this time.

And it worked! Student proficiency rose on average 15 percentage points, and both high school graduation and college attendance rates went up more dramatically than researchers had seen in any other districts nationwide in such a short amount of time.

If it worked in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it can work in Rochester. With the right mix of state and local policies, we can end ZIP code discrimination and sorting by attendance zones. We can close underperforming schools and replace them with quality charter schools. We can ensure that we maximize staff flexibility. And we can fix the way we fund charter schools so that more of our tax dollars actually make it to children attending charters.

Rochester has long been a cradle of great ideas and international admiration. Innovations hatched here changed the nation and the world.

Now it’s time for Rochester to borrow from another great American city—and do it better. Rochester’s future depends on it.

Kyle Rosenkrans is CEO of the Northeast Charter Schools Network.

11/27/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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