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Parental Empowerment and Rochester City School District

Op-ed by Deborah Hanmer

Deborah Hanmer

Silence is violence. I heard that phrase so many times this summer in protests around our nation that were apparently opening the eyes of people to systems and policies that are unjust and inequitable. But here we are are again in Rochester looking at our largest public system—the school system and the silence is deafening.

The brick and mortar buildings of RCSD have just slowly begun to open under Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small’s reopening plan that was approved by our elected Board of Education. Our neighbors in the suburbs have been in school in some form since September (and a number of RCSD teachers have children who have been attending those schools), as well as, most private and charter schools. There have been cases of COVID 19 in schools in those communities and the schools and districts have been learning and addressing the situations along with the County Health Department—but those schools have remained open. Students are getting to connect with one another for much needed peer interaction, teachers are getting to see their students and connect with their energy and learning is happening.

So, the conversation is not about whether it is safe to open, but how decisions are made that impact poor, black and brown children in Rochester. This is not the RTA’s choice—it is each parent’s choice. There is an attempt, to yet again, push parent voice to the side-parents spoke in the public process that led to the current decision to open. A problem now arises because the RTA has decided it is their decision to make for our children. It is the right of every parent in this city to decide if their child should be in a school building or not. For their right to be exercised, RCSD has to continue with its reopening plan.

Dr. Myers Small laid out the plan in consultation with the Monroe County Health Commissioner based on science and data and informed by the numerous districts in New York state that have been opened. Around the same time in late December, Governor Cuomo shared where new COVID cases were coming from and schools were found to be among the safest (Elementary School Student – 0.49%, Middle School Student – 0.19%, High School Student – 0.46%). No plan is perfect and no plan can guarantee 100% safety—that is why parents have a choice to make for their family. This is also why the RTA should work with the Superintendent and not in opposition to her—no matter what the rationale that is being pushed forward by the union for this latest attempt to undermine the Superintendant—it is plain and clear.

This conversation is about parents demanding that RCSD work for and serve children first. There are many well documented internal failures within RCSD that have denied families their rights for decades – pre-pandemic – but there is a historical external failure in our community to support the Superintendent and let RTA do its work in closed room meetings without public scrutiny of their tactics. Now is the time to do something different.
Parents are working across this district every day to create the strongest schools for Rochester, but it is exhausting doing it in small pockets and against inside politics that are hidden from the public that have left RCSD further behind each year. It is enough—our silence is violence against this district that serves 90% black and brown children and 90% economically disadvantaged.

There is no clearer example of how power and privilege interact to oppress than letting this RTA resolution block children from equitable access to education or letting this non-elected group with no public accountability to dictate policy for children in this city.

Deborah Hanmer is Initiative Director of the Greater Rochester Parent Leadership Training Institute. www.greaterrochesterplti.org