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Country’s oldest voluntary school desegregation program grows in Rochester, New York

January 10, 2016 at 6:59 PM EDT
The Urban-Suburban program in Rochester, New York, has given minority children the opportunity to attend schools in the suburbs that have a far larger population of white students. The program is growing, but questions still remain remain about whether the exchange has actually increased integration in the region's schools, which remain as segregated as ever. NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the suburbs of Rochester, New York, parents and students pack the gym for a varsity high school basketball game.

Senior Ty’reek Sizer — number 3 – is a starting guard and an honor roll student at Irondequoit High. He’s attended schools in West Irondequoit since second grade and says he feels at home, but he doesn’t live in the school district. Since he was seven years old, Sizer has traveled from his family’s home in Rochester, a 45 minute bus ride each way to school. He’s part of Urban-Suburban, the oldest voluntary school desegregation program in the country.

TY’REEK SIZER: At first, I didn’t realize that I was coming into this opportunity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s become an opportunity for 700 minority students from Rochester to attend schools in the primarily white suburbs, where the schools are consistently rated higher-performing.

TY’REEK SIZER: I feel like I would have been good staying in the City School District, but I don’t feel like it would have been as beneficial as coming here. We have basically the best of the best here, so you have a lot of resources.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And Ty’Reek has thrived: taking advanced placement classes, winning national awards with the school’s business club, and applying to college for next year.  

THERESA WOODSON: I think the impact is immeasurable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Theresa Woodson is the administrator of Rochester’s Urban-Suburban program. It started 51 years ago — in 1965 — to increase racial integration in the region. West Irondequoit was the first district to sign up — accepting 24 minority students from the inner city that first year. This year, the district has 137 students from the city.

Overall, in West Irondequoit, the students are 74 percent white, and 27 percent are economically disadvantaged, qualifying for assistance such as free or reduced price lunch.

By contrast, in the city of Rochester, 10 percent of the students are white, and 91 percent are economically disadvantaged.   

It isn’t easy for a city kid to get into a district like West Irondequoit. Only about 10 to 15 percent of kids who apply through Urban-Suburban are accepted.

THERESA WOODSON: The program is not based on quotas or lottery or first-come first-served. There has to be space available.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Besides a student’s academic ability, parental engagement is a key factor for admission.

THERESA WOODSON: Their level of commitment, their level of participation is really the glue that holds all this together once their child is selected.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Victoria Sizer is Ty’Reek’s mother. She wanted something better for Ty’Reek after her oldest daughter attended city schools.

VICTORIA SIZER: The communication wasn’t really there. When my daughter was going to twelfth grade, the counselor didn’t, I didn’t hear anything about colleges or how the process starts about her going to colleges. And it was so frustrating. I’m like, there needs to be a change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She heard about Urban-Suburban from another parent and applied. It took her two years to get Ty’Reek in, and sending her young child to a school far away was nerve wracking.

VICTORIA SIZER: It was just a scary process going, because we’re African American, is he going to be okay? Is he going to transition okay? Are they going to treat him right? All that was going through my mind. But that was a chance I was going to take.  But when he got to the school, and I felt like he was safe, and it was a welcoming community, it was like so relieving.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She found immediate acceptance when another mother called her early in Ty’Reek’s first year.

VICTORIA SIZER: It was like, we want to invite Ty’Reek over for a playdate. Which I’m like, ‘A play date? What is a play date?’ She was like, ‘Oh, he could come over and spend some time with her son.’

HARI SREENIVASAN: For Victoria, Urban-Suburban provided an opportunity she couldn’t — while raising five children and working as a nurse’s aide.

Administrator Theresa Woodson says one of secrets to the program’s success is that it was not imposed on Rochester by politicians or judges. The suburbs chose this approach.

THERESA WOODSON: That’s the key for us, that, you know, that it’s voluntary. No court mandates. That the suburban districts that are participating are doing so because they see the benefit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The benefit of increasing their own diversity at no additional cost: state funding follows the student to the suburbs and picks up the tab for busing.

Still, for most of the past 50 years, the program has been modest in scope with only 6 of the 17 suburban districts surrounding Rochester taking part.

West Irondequoit School District Superintendent Jeff Crane says there’s always been a small, but vocal opposition to Urban-Suburban.”

JEFF CRANE: I will get a call at least one or two calls that are against this program each year, and sometimes that’s hard to hear.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Around the 50th anniversary last year, officials pushed to expand the program. In the town of Spencerport, west of Rochester, public hearings were divisive. A common complaint was that only children of color were eligible.

SPENCERPORT RESIDENT: I’m also not happy that we can’t seem to come up with some sort of equitable solution to being able to help people in this program without excluding other people. I’m talking about excluding Caucasians from this program. There’s no reason that you should exclude those people from the city school district as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Crane says the debate forced school officials to update their admission criteria to focus on poverty, not only race, and starting next school year Urban-Suburban will be open to any student in Rochester, regardless of ethnicity.

JEFF CRANE: We changed our mission statement, not only to decrease voluntarily racial isolation, but also to help deconcentrate poverty.  By doing that, we took away some of the pointed arguments that the program was racist in setting about a racial isolation problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Five new districts did opt to join Urban-Suburban last year, including Spencerport, where the school board unanimously approved joining despite the controversy.

Sixth grader Zavannah Alvarez is one of 17 new students there.

Her parents, Ramon and Itza Alvarez, say the divisiveness over the program in Spencerport has not affected how their daughter has been treated.

ITZA ALVAREZ: When I talk to the counselor, she doesn’t see her just like this kid that came from the city. She’s part of her, you know, one of her kids. And she talks to her like one of her kids. If you are treating my daughter like that, I’m all for it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the first few months, the Alvarez’s say Zavannah’s getting more rigorous instruction.

RAMON ALVAREZ: She takes math twice, I believe, in a day. Before it was just once. So now she’s getting that extra…

ITZA ALVAREZ: That extra help she needs.

RAMON ALVAREZ: And she’s doing well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For Zavannah and her older brother Christian, who attends an Urban-Suburban program in another district, there’s been a big adjustment to a grueling schedule.

ITZA ALVAREZ: The kids wake up at 4:30 in the morning to get ready, to be out on the bus by 6. It’s a long bus ride. But you know what, I like it, because it teaches them responsibility. And when they get older and they get a job, their careers, they’re going to have to wake up early anyway.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even in its 51st year, Rochester’s Urban-Suburban program serves only 700 kids in a district of nearly 30,000.

It’s the smallest of the eight interdistrict transfer programs across the country and about 40,000 students participate. The largest is Hartford, Connecticut with 19,000 kids.

University of Rochester Education Professor Kara Finnigan says while research on these programs is limited, it has shown positive academic and social benefits.

KARA FINNIGAN: It’s really one of the only policy tools we have right now. This kind of program that allows kids to cross district boundaries whether it’s through Urban-Suburban kind of program or through interdistrict magnets. These are the only opportunities we have to really address some of the inequities around opportunity and outcomes because of the boundaries.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Rochester area remains racially isolated. The percent of schools that are intensely-segregated – more than 90 percent minority – grew more than fivefold over the last 20 years.

KARA FINNIGAN: I think that there probably are ways that the program could grow, but it’s never going to solve the problems in Rochester. Really you need investment in places to make them thrive. And you need opportunities within the city that kids from the suburbs will want to go to just as much, because they’re wonderful opportunities in whatever programs they offer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rochester teachers’ union President Adam Urbanski supports the idea behind Urban-Suburban but says the program cherry picks the highest achieving city kids and has not led to broader changes.

ADAM URBANSKI: Unwittingly, this is contributing to the delay of the real solution. And therefore to the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots. I want us to do things that can be scaled up and not have programs that end up as a boutique exception to the sad norm.

JEFF CRANE: None of us involved in this program have ever said to anyone this is the answer. This is just one of the ways in which we start to deal, as a society, with the issues we’re all faced with.

HARI SREENIVASAN: With the addition of new districts, Rochester Urban-Suburban is expecting to increase its enrollments in the coming years. This coming fall the program will go both ways, and send kids from the suburbs to select city schools.

THERESA WOODSON: I just think as a county as a whole, that we’re all interconnected, And I think when we’re working in unison, and we’re rowing in the same direction, to benefit all kids, regardless of where their address is, I think that’s the key.

HARI SREENIVASAN: At 17, Ty’Reek Sizer no longer takes the bus to school, instead driving a family car the six-and-a-half miles from home with his younger brother and friends. After a decade going to school in West Irondequoit, Ty’Reek believes being in a more diverse environment will pay off.

TY’REEK SIZER: It does get a little challenging knowing that you’re probably like the only African-American in your class, but at the end of the day, I feel like this prepares me better for college.

HARI SREENIVASAN: His first choice is Syracuse University, where African Americans make up about eight percent of the student body.