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RCSD Board President: Poverty is the Glass Ceiling for Grad Rates

Patti Singer

This graph from the Board of Education shows projected graduation rates for June and August completions. Provided by RCSD Board of Education

Graduation rates in the Rochester City School District are on a bit of a winning streak – up for the fifth straight year and six of the past seven.

Board of Education President Van White predicted the run could last a couple more years – putting the district over the 70% mark with August completions – and then he expected a reckoning.

“At a certain point, we will maximize what we can do with our resources,” White said. “I don’t know what that breaking point is. Most urban districts are 75%. At a certain point, we will need additional resources to take us to the next level.”

The projected June graduation rate for the Class of 2020 was 66.3% and the projected August rate brought it to 68.2%. The results have yet to be confirmed by the state Education Department.

The August rate is 5 percentage points higher than in 2019 and 20 percentage points higher than in 2013.

The four-year graduation rate at East High School is projected at 77.5%, about 8 percentage points higher than the previous year. East Superintendent Shaun Nelms declined to comment, saying he’d wait for the state to certify the figures.

To get the entire district to that level is going to take an investment that White seemed to challenge the community to make. Because the city school district does not levy its own taxes, it depends on government sources. For years, the city has given the district the same amount.

White said that once the district has wrung all it can from the financial and academic plan being developed by the state monitor, it will need the state, city and federal governments to do their share, and he said a lot of that will be to help the district overcome the city’s poverty rate.

“At a certain point, poverty is going to be the glass ceiling,” White said. “It can be shattered. But we’re going to need the tools of our partners in government.”

Board of Education President Van White. Provided photo

White said the increased graduation rate is a credit to everyone in the district who has daily contact with students — from teachers and paraprofessionals to the cafeteria staff and the custodians.

But many have been laid off, victims of the district’s budget woes and the response to COVID-19. And students aren’t even in their buildings to get support outside the classroom. There’s no way to know what effect that distance – from the smartboard and from the general school environment – will have on graduation.

But the coronavirus has been a drain on finances, and with White talking about resources, that may have a role.

The state gave the district an advance on its aid but said it could take back money it has given to districts because of pandemic-related money problems.

The district and money have been part of the same sentence countless times since September 2019, when then-Superintendent Terry Dade began a string of monthly announcements about the budget deficit that has grown to approximately $85 million.

White said he was not firing the proverbial warning shot across the bow.

“What I’m attempting to do on behalf of the board is articulate the concern that we can and must do better in terms of allocation of our resources. But I’m projecting in a year or two we would have maximized that. … At a certain point, people have to say do we really want to go to that next level. Do we want ELA scores to improve? Do we want math scores to improve?”

White said he’s not asking for a blank check. But he said at some point, when graduation rates are between 72% and 75%, there will be a call to action to keep them moving higher.

“If people really like what is happening at East, at Monroe, at School of the Arts, at School Without Walls, at a certain point they’re going to have to pay to replicate that.”