There is no greater inhibitor to the future economic success of the Rochester and Finger Lakes region than the outcomes produced by the Rochester City School District. That is why Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce calls upon the New York state legislature to support State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia’s plan to take control of and enact sweeping change in our city’s school system.
We have accepted failure in the Rochester City School District for decades without ever truly putting children first. Dysfunctional bureaucracy and constant fighting over money, turf and politics have led to abysmal graduation rates and unacceptable student outcomes. It is embarrassing that elected officials and leaders at so many levels have looked the other way for years. The system has been created to benefit the adults and not the children. The time and the opportunity have arrived to put our children first.
Ten years ago, the city of Rochester attempted to gain support for a mayoral control model of school district governance. It certainly wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was clear that what existed did not work. The plan sparked a spirited campaign against it by many of our education leaders, activists and elected officials. I believe that campaign confused parents and families, and the plan ultimately died. Here we are a decade later and nothing has been suggested in the interim to create the change we need. Do we want to be having this same conversation 10 years from now?
The state now offers an opportunity to create dramatic change following a report by distinguished educator Dr. Jaime Aquino calling for a total reset of how the Rochester City School District operates. The report is a clarion call for our community to say enough is enough. This includes taking the vitriolic politics and special interest control out of education and focusing on children.
Our poverty rates, education rates, unemployment and job readiness are all connected to the poor outcomes of city schools for the past several decades. I don’t blame individuals for this. This is a total system failure. While we live in an age of business and technology innovation, our school system operates the same way it has for decades. The failure to act is more based on concerns about re-election and politics than it is the future of our children. This community must summon the political will to make dramatic changes. We have seen decades of reports, promises and revolving door leadership with little or no progress.
Anyone who believes that poverty and parenting are at the root of the city school district’s failures is way off base. When I served as mayor, Rochester Prep Charter School had the highest ELA scores in the state. Those students looked just like others across the Rochester City School District who some tell us are unable to learn. We have failed to reach them where they are.
Rochester Chamber appeals to Commissioner Elia and the state legislature to take the boldest action possible, whatever that may be, to turn around the Rochester City School District. It will not change by itself. We need an overhaul of this system and we need it now.
Bob Duffy is president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.