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Office of the President

Presidential Symposium: Revitalizing K-12 Education in Rochester

Remarks by Joel Seligman
February 4, 2014

Nearly a decade ago, in August 2005, The Blue Ribbon Task Force to Assess the Rochester City School District’s Financial Practices and Their Relationship to Educational Outcomes, chaired by RIT President Al Simone, delivered a Report called “Call to Arms.”  The Report bemoaned the low rate of high school graduation in Rochester – then at 50 percent, criticized deficiencies in educational leadership in our School District, called for 10,000 community volunteers over a ten year period to be mentors and advocates, and stressed that the keys to significant education performance lie in:

  • Effecting a cultural change.
  • Creating expectations for student success.
  • Leadership, particularly at the school principal level.
  • Efficient fiscal management.
  • Community involvement.

In the ensuing years, too little has changed.  Student graduation rates have declined.  College preparedness remains inadequate.  We have created a culture of finger pointing, where educational leaders criticize each other and too many of our K-12 students experience an education that leaves them ill-prepared for the challenges of a 21st century economy.  We owe our children a better future. 

Today, I want to stress a different approach.  We have organized this conference to focus on what works.  There are many efforts today underway in public and charter schools in Rochester.  They are working.  I want to particularly compliment the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection for achieving more than double the graduation rates of the Rochester City School District for its students.

Let me also commend the determination of leaders such as Mayor Warren, who join us today, for not accepting the status quo.

Let me particularly praise the unsung heroes of the Rochester City School District – the teachers who work so hard to overcome a system that is often dysfunctional; the parents devoted to their children’s futures; so many students determined to improve their lives.  Each of them deserves our support and our praise.

K-12 education is one of the great social challenges of the 21st century.  When many universities have scaled back their support of schools of education, the University of Rochester is determined to invest in K-12 education as part of our commitment to the greater Rochester community and, most of all, its children.

Over the past 15 years, our Warner School of Education has been awarded nearly $20 million in grants that have supported education reform in more than 20 school districts in western New York, including focusing on ways to improve educational outcomes in urban education.  These grants supported programs in mathematics, science, literacy, and early childhood education, as well as the education of students with significant disabilities and English language learners, and the professional development of more than 2,000 educators. 

Since 2007, the University of Rochester’s Upward Bound programs have supported nearly 300 low-income area high school students in an effort to increase the number of Rochester City School District students who apply and gain admission to college.  The program has a 96 percent high school graduation rate, with 90 percent of students continuing on to pursue a higher degree. 

The University provides nearly $1.7 million in scholarships every year for Rochester City School District students through the Rochester Promise program.

A partnership between the University’s David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity, East High School, and the JPMorgan Chase Foundation works to empower students to realize their academic and career potential through preparation for successful college enrollment. 

The University is a proud partner in the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, a youth development agency reaching out to hundreds of middle- and high-school students in the Rochester City School District.  We intend in the next few years to increase our University’s participation in this program from the current 120 students to 275 students.  Quite simply, Hillside works.  Rochester employers have hired hundreds of students, 100 percent of whom have graduated from high school and enrolled in post-secondary education, including 96 percent attending college with full tuition and housing scholarships, including several at the University.

Our city schools face enormous challenges.  The Rochester City School District continues to experience some of the worst graduation rates in the country with only 43 percent of high-school students graduating on time.  The state Department of Education recently indicated that less than 10 percent of Rochester high school graduates are prepared for college or careers.  These rates rank among the lowest in the state.

These data should be viewed in context.  Rochester was recently ranked, in a December 2013 report by the Rochester Area Community Foundation, as the fifth poorest city in the country among the 75 largest metro areas, and the poorest large urban school district in New York State.  In the city of Rochester, nearly half the children (46 percent) are poor.

The way forward for the more than 30,000 students served by the Rochester City School District is education.  It is far more difficult for those without a high school diploma to find jobs and impossible for most to attend college.  Without success in K-12, we are essentially freezing out of the American Dream about half of Rochester’s high school students.  This is a crisis of fundamental consequence. 

Today we will explore approaches to addressing the challenges of urban education, highlighting illustrations of success.  Our panel will feature examples of innovations such as reform, charter schools, extended learning, and surround care. 

Let me thank Dean Raffaella Borasi and her staff, particularly Laura Brophy and Chris Ghinazzi, for assembling an excellent panel of speakers and facilitating this dialogue.  Let me also thank Sara Miller from University Communications and Jen Faler, Sasha Tulgan, Lamar Murphy, Paul Burgett, Kate Murphy, and Kim Truebger from my own staff for everything they’ve done to coordinate this event.