Celebrating the Future. Putting Children First.
2010 State of the City Address
City of Rochester, New York
Delivered by Mayor Robert J. Duffy
May 3, 2010
Memorial Art Gallery
Thank you, President Seligman, for that kind introduction and for hosting us tonight. This gallery is a wonderful place to celebrate the past, present and future of our city. It is at the heart of our Neighborhood of the Arts, representing this community’s cultural strength. Historically, it reflects a heritage of educational leadership that dates back 160 years, when the University of Rochester began near this very spot.
As we think about the future I must acknowledge the two young people who opened tonight’s event so movingly. Kamren BuFearon Jr., who led the pledge of allegiance, is a fifth grader at Nathaniel Rochester School #3 on Adams Street. Kamren won a Do the Right Thing award last year for finding a missing wallet on the bus and turning it in to his school principal. Emma XuXu Marshall, who sang America the Beautiful, is a sophomore at the School of the Arts next door. Emma also attends classes at the Eastman School of Music as part of the Eastman Pathways scholarship program. Kamren and Emma, you are both shining examples of why Rochester’s best days are yet to come.
If you have attended a State of the City address before, you know that I like to begin by thanking some of the individuals who support me in this job. Tonight I must start by thanking one large group – the citizens of Rochester, who elected me to a second term. It is my honor and privilege to serve as your Mayor. You have blessed me with this opportunity, and I am grateful.
I maintain my enthusiasm thanks to the support of my beautiful wife, Barbara, and my daughters Erin and Shannon, who are in the balcony tonight. These three incredible women are always in my corner, helping me to maintain balance and perspective. I also thank my father, Neil; my two brothers, Gerry and Neil; and Barb’s parents, Bill and Virginia Donahue. They are all wonderfully supportive.
As we begin our second term in office, I remain grateful to the City’s many partners in government.
At the federal level, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, Senator Chuck Schumer, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand are all dependable allies for our city in Washington.
And when it comes to advocating for Rochester in Albany, we must give special thanks to a few individuals. First, Governor David Paterson. From Midtown Plaza, to a variety of other projects, he has been a consistent supporter of Rochester and all of Upstate New York. And when it comes to advocating for Rochester in Albany, we must thank two other individuals. One is the dean of our delegation, the Honorable David Gantt, and the other is Assemblyman Joe Morelle. David and Joe have shown great leadership when it comes to putting our children first.
I appreciate the hard work they do and results they achieve for our city, supported by Assembly Members Susan John and David Koon, as well as our State Senators Joe Robach and Jim Alesi. They all deserve our thanks.
I also must thank our closest partners in government, the members of Rochester City Council. It’s my pleasure to welcome three new members: Matt Haag, Jackie Ortiz, and Loretta Scott. I thank returning members Carolee Conklin; Adam McFadden; Dana Miller; Carla Palumbo; and Elaine Spaull. And I congratulate our new City Council President, Lovely Warren. I appreciate the efforts of President Warren and every member of City Council as we tackle the city’s challenges together.
County Executive Maggie Brooks is also a key partner in government. We both recognize that our city and county are linked together in one community. Maggie, thanks for the work you do to benefit city residents and all citizens of greater Rochester.
I welcome Rochester School Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, School Board President Malik Evans, Cynthia Elliott, Allen Williams and the other board members.
In all the debate about school governance reform, I have not questioned the good intentions and honest efforts of our school board. I appreciate you for being here tonight and for respecting the sincerity of my views as well.
Before I leave that point, I’d like to acknowledge that passions run deep on the issue of school governance. I appreciate our school board members for keeping the debate civil and focused. Others who oppose my views have decided, at other forums, to be disruptive and disrespectful. Tonight, I would appreciate the chance to share my views. We are scheduling many other public forums where I hope to continue a respectful community conversation.
Since my first run for office, I have promised to concentrate on three areas that are essential to our city’s success: public safety, economic development and education. I have asked our citizens to help city government achieve progress. And I have invited you to hold me accountable for results.
Today, more than ever, I am certain that these are the right objectives. And today, more than ever, I know that they are inseparable. Like an athlete in a triathlon, our city must succeed in all three to win overall. Like a stool on three legs, our city will not work if one falls short. Like an airplane with three sets of wheels, we cannot achieve liftoff if one falls flat.
Tonight, I will describe how the city supports these priorities with exceptional customer service. I will report our public safety team’s success in lowering the incidence of crime and fire. I will proudly share our economic development progress.
But unfortunately, despite investing more than 70 percent of the city’s tax dollars, I cannot report similar progress in education. Our graduation rates are still below 50%. Student achievement scores are too low and too many schools are failing.
Ladies and gentlemen, we can no longer settle for two out of three. Our work to improve public safety and strengthen the economy will eventually fail, unless we do more to improve education and do it now. The future of our city depends on its children, and our children deserve better educational opportunities, which means that our community must demand changes.
To make that case, I intend to accomplish three things tonight. First, I will share our Administration’s results in other areas of governance. Before the city takes on a new responsibility, you deserve confidence that we are managing our current jobs well.
Second, I will demonstrate how these areas are linked so closely to education that a more unified approach is essential. Third, I will share my vision for how schools will change under a new form of governance.
Let me begin with customer service. In my mind, the essential question to address is whether the city is a good steward of tax dollars. Are we managing finances well, and using our resources efficiently to get the job done? On behalf of the best senior management team that any Mayor could ask for, I am proud to answer with an emphatic “Yes!”
The City’s financial record tells the story. During the worst economic downturn in 80 years, we are making hard choices and improving efficiency to maintain services with fewer resources. Over the past four years, we have lowered the tax rate on homeowners and businesses by just under seven percent. We reduced the full-time workforce by 144 positions, while increasing the police force by 36 sworn officers to meet public safety priorities.
In the fiscal year that begins July 1, we are facing a potential budget shortfall of $43 million. That is nearly 25% higher than we projected last year, and it’s on top of the staff reductions and efficiencies already in place. In short, it means another tough year for budget balancing in which we face hard choices.
We will trim non-essential services. Our senior managers are starting a third straight year without a pay increase, and I will ask our unions to work with us on fair ways to reduce costs. But one choice I will not make is to raise property taxes on our residents, whose median household income is $29,000 a year.
We will deliver a balanced budget that maintains essential services and holds the line on property taxes. It is this kind of fiscal responsibility that allowed Rochester to maintain its bond rating of “A” with Standard & Poor’s, and “A2” with Moody’s in their most recent reports. That’s the highest rating of any major city in New York State.
It’s the same kind of fiscal responsibility I want to bring to school finances. Earlier this year, the State Comptroller released an audit that found serious lapses in oversight of city school budgets. The report criticized the board’s reluctance to question the authority of district leaders between 2002 and 2008, some of whom ignored board policies or exploited loopholes at taxpayer’s expense. Here’s another way to say it. Most school board members are not expert in public finance. Frankly, neither am I. That work is being done by Brian Roulin, the CPA who directs our Finance Department, Bill Ansbrow, our Budget Director and their teams of financial experts.
My job is to find the right leaders, ensure that they have an effective strategy and provide the necessary resources. I hold the leadership team accountable to me. I hold myself responsible to you for being sure the job gets done right. That is how accountability works.
Our challenge is to deliver the city services people want and need as efficiently as possible. Let me describe how we’re doing that. We consolidated three former departments into one Neighborhood and Business Development office. It runs four outreach locations, one in each city quadrant. These are one-stop shops for many neighborhood needs, reducing costs by more than $1 million each year.
All of the city’s parking lots, garages and enforcement – which used to be spread across six different departments – have been consolidated into one. We have increased revenue while spending less money to manage parking.
Our Office of Public Integrity helps to ensure public confidence, by investigating reports of fraud, corruption or ethical violations. I’m pleased that Jim Sheppard, a former Deputy Police Chief and Security Director for the school district, has joined our team as the head of OPI.
With 3-1-1, One Call to City Hall, we’ve made it easier for residents to get services delivered and questions answered. Last year we logged more than 400,000 calls to our 3-1-1 operators.
Our citizens can also go online to pay water bills, apply for permits and take advantage of other city services. The City’s new website averages 12,000 page views every day.
Behind the scenes, we also have upgraded IT systems to make our internal operations more efficient.
Through changes like these, we have saved more than $24 million annually over the past four years, while maintaining and improving City services.
How do we know that services are improving? By continually measuring customer satisfaction, under the leadership of our Accountability Chief, Dr. Drew Turner. From trash pickup and snow removal to code enforcement and applying for business permits, Rochester residents tell us that we are moving in the right direction.
Let me make two points about how City services relate to education. One is that I’m not the person assigning the routes to trash trucks, inspecting houses for lead paint or signing off on every permit. My job is to find the right leaders, hold them accountable, and make sure the job gets done. A second point is that the school district has its own departments for finance, law and other administrative functions. By integrating these with city operations, we can devote more resources to students and teachers in the classroom. We’ve been successful at streamlining services within City Hall. We plan to deliver the same results on West Broad St.
Now let’s talk about public safety – and salute the Rochester Police Department, the Rochester Fire Department and our 911 Call Center. These are three great teams, and they are improving safety for our citizens. In the fight against crime, I am pleased to tell you this: Crime in the city of Rochester reached a 25-year low during 2009.
In every category we are moving in the right direction. The total number of major crimes was 20% lower than 2005. Violent crime fell 13% from the year before. The number of homicides, at 28, was the lowest in a decade.
Let me be clear about two things. First, no one is or should be resting on these numbers. We can never be satisfied until Rochester’s crime rate is zero. A second is that I do not take credit for these improving statistics. The men and women of the Rochester Police Department and our great community partners do most of the work. They deserve our thanks.
My job is to hire the right leadership, which we have in Chief David Moore. It’s to help set an effective strategy and to provide essential resources. We invest in technology and personnel to help our police succeed.
Starting this summer, you will see red-light cameras keeping an eye on busy intersections. They will help us to catch hit and run drivers, and serve as a deterrent to reckless driving. We also have installed a total of 101 high-tech surveillance cameras that extend the eyes of the police, with 40 more coming this year.
This is an actual image from a camera on Jefferson Avenue. It captured a robbery and assault in progress outside a store, during which a gunshot was fired. Shotspotter technology alerted the police, and two squad cars arrived on the scene within 30 seconds. Because of the camera, our officers knew that the suspect had returned to the store – and knew what he was wearing. The suspect was quickly taken into custody and has since pled guilty. Thanks to the quick police response, the victim’s injuries weren’t severe.
Overall, crime was down 60% in the Jefferson Avenue neighborhood last year. Technology played a supporting role, but the heroes are the officers of the RPD and our community – who are the real “eyes and ears” of our public safety effort.
We have cut other areas of the city budget to maintain a fully staffed force. 64 officers have been hired since the beginning of 2009. We are maintaining a force of at least 775 sworn officers. And we have 22 recruits in the Academy right now, part of the ongoing investment in protecting our citizens.
Fighting fires is a second key component of public safety. Here again, the record is strong. Fire calls were down 6% in 2009, due in part to the RFD’s public education and smoke detector program. When fire does strike, the RFD responds quickly, saving lives and keeping property damage to a minimum. As with our work to reduce crime, I do not take credit. My job is to hire the right leadership, which we have in Chief John Caufield.
It’s to provide the necessary resources, and we are doing that despite lean budgets. The brave men and women of Rochester’s Fire Department are ready to put their lives on the line for us, every moment of every day. And they deserve our thanks as do the community members who report these fires.
Our 911 operators are essential members of the public safety team. Under the leadership of John Merklinger, our 911 Call Center has won national awards – and played a key role in supporting our police and firefighters.
These are three great teams – and more often than people may realize, they work together to keep us safe. Let me share two examples.
Last year, just before Thanksgiving, there was a major fire at a Family Dollar store on North Clinton Avenue that spread to several other stores in Ridge Clinton Plaza. But thanks to our fire teams, the damage was kept to a minimum. Our arson unit believed the fire had been set, and began an investigation. They were helped by two RPD investigators and ATF agents. Thanks to this combined public safety team, a suspect is behind bars and will be appearing before Judge Valentino on June 1. Thankfully, no one was injured in the Family Dollar fire.
In a second example from last December, our officers weren’t as lucky. A 911 call reported a home invasion at an apartment on Driving Park Avenue. Responding immediately to the scene, our officers encountered a woman being held at gunpoint. Putting themselves in harm’s way, two RPD officers went through the door and allowed the woman to escape. But shots were fired, and both of our officers were hit.
Officer Daniel Brochu was hit in the leg, bleeding so badly that his life was in danger. Officer Luca Martini was shot in the arm, hand and chest. Thankfully, his protective vest stopped that last bullet. When the call went out that officers were down, the law enforcement response was immediate and professional. Our firefighters and city EMTs were just as fast in tending to the wounded officers. They quickly stabilized the wounds and transported them to Strong.
Thanks to the quick response of our public safety team, I am pleased to report that both suspects were in custody within hours. I am relieved to tell you that both wounded officers are making a full recovery. While the media described these injuries as non-life threatening, I can assure you, they were life altering. We all know how painful it is to get kicked in the shin. Well, try to imagine the pain when a bullet from a .357 Magnum shatters your shin, or your arm, as happened to these officers.
I am honored that both Officers Daniel Brochu and Luca Martini have joined us tonight. On behalf of our city, I would like thank you for exceptional bravery in the line of fire. We appreciate that these are only two of nearly 1,300 officers and firefighters, people who literally put their lives on the line for our public safety.
Economic development is a second essential priority. The most important and exciting change is the level of confidence that investors and developers are demonstrating in our city. Our team is working with great partners in the private sector and government to deliver outstanding results.
For one example, travel with me about 40 miles south of the city, to the watershed area of Canadice and Hemlock Lakes. We have made arrangements to sell this beautiful property to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The land will stay forever wild. The City’s primary sources of drinking water will be environmentally protected and the cash we received is helping to fund waterfront development at the Port of Rochester.
We’re continuing our focused investment in neighborhoods. Instead of spreading development dollars a mile wide and an inch deep, we are targeting four areas – neighborhoods where residents and private investors are working together on turnaround plans. Marketview Heights in northeast Rochester. Jefferson Avenue in the southwest quadrant. The Beechwood neighborhood in the southeast. And the Dewey-Driving Park area in the northwest.
Those investments are starting to pay off – in new green spaces, improved infrastructure and private development. City government lives the motto that Danny Wegman has used to lead his family's company: Focus and Finish. We will help these four areas turn themselves around and target others until every neighborhood in our city is a great place to live.
One of those great residential neighborhoods, I’m proud to say, is our center city. We have 2,700 apartments and condominiums downtown, with about 4,000 residents. More than 600 new units are in the pipeline, bringing a thousand more residents downtown. Attracting and retaining jobs is a development priority. I would like to thank Ursula Burns and the executives of Xerox and Chase Bank, who collectively brought more than 500 employees to their center-city offices in the past year.
And despite the Great Recession, our economic development team is helping employers to boost jobs in our city. North American Breweries has added a third shift and 50 more employees on St. Paul St. – building on the deal last year that saved 375 jobs. Spinergy, a company that makes digital media, moved to the Canalside Business Center on Lyell Avenue. That brings 47 jobs to the city. Upstate Niagara Cooperative received city help to expand its milk processing facility on Fulton Avenue. They retained 150 jobs and will add a handful more. Stantec is renovating the old Trolley Barn in High Falls. They are on schedule to move in this fall with about 130 jobs. Nothnagle Realty is moving downtown, using federal stimulus funds to help finance a new headquarters on West Main Street, bringing 75 jobs.
Our economic development team also helps small businesses to start up or expand operations. One example is the Hose 22 Restaurant on Stutson Street, which opened last October with 30 new jobs. Savoia Pastry Shop on Clifford Avenue expanded its bakery. And we’re all delighted that the former Donuts Delite store has reopened on Culver Road. It’s now a donut shop and a Salvatore’s Pizza franchise. Is anyone else feeling hungry right now?
I want to be clear that the City is not financing all of these projects. We are making investments that bring jobs and financial returns over time. Altogether, we’ve spent about $38 million in city funding sources and used it to leverage over $1 billion in private investment. This investment has helped to attract or retain employers that represent more than 35,000 jobs in our city.
Downtown development is especially exciting. The Democrat & Chronicle said it well: Cue the cranes, because we are embarking on a journey of transformational change – literally rebuilding major parts of downtown on a scale not seen here in 50 years.
Just five years ago, there were projects in the works that represented a total investment of $500 million. Nearly half of that was for Renaissance Square. Today, the total investment for projects in the pipeline will be more than $750 million in downtown development. Not many of these projects are visible yet. But cue the cranes, because soon our center city will transform itself before your eyes.
Midtown is a great example. Every day, 200 construction workers are inside, working on the asbestos removal project. A majority are city residents. Thanks to Bergman Associates, we have a virtual software picture of what the site could look like. The Midtown tower itself is going to stay, but as the other buildings are demolished, we open up more than eight acres of prime real estate in the heart of downtown. The new PAETEC headquarters will be the first new tenant – and I’ll be there to welcome every other private developer with a proposal for our planning team to review.
There’s one public organization we hope to be welcoming downtown soon. Monroe Community College has a great new leader in President Anne Kress. Thank you for joining us tonight, and we look forward to helping you find a perfect center-city location for your downtown campus.
There is simply too much activity going on downtown for me to spend time detailing all the projects here tonight. That’s a nice kind of trouble to have.
I do want to mention one very visible change, the new ESL Federal Credit Union headquarters. It is a beautiful addition to our skyline, and I am pleased to say that nearly 300 ESL employees are already working downtown. I'd like to thank Dave Fiedler and the ESL family for investing in Rochester.
Making Rochester a great place to visit also boosts our economy. The Lilac Festival, Corn Hill, Park Avenue, the Puerto Rican Festival – I’m pleased to say that virtually all of our signature events are growing.
For music lovers, the Xerox Rochester International Jazz festival happens next month – bigger and better than ever in its ninth year. This has become one of the top jazz festivals in the world. And MusicFest has expanded to a five-day event in July, with more big-name acts.
Athletes also have more opportunities to enjoy our city. Last weekend was the first Unity Health System Flower City Challenge, which drew more than 2,200 athletes to the city for three events over two days. In August, we’ll be a host city for the first Tour de New York, a five-day series of competitive cycling events
We are making Rochester a great city to live, work and play. But guess what? I’m not the guy negotiating all the deals, creating the neighborhood plans or booking the festival acts. My job is to pick the right leaders, approve the right strategy and deliver the resources. Focus. And finish.
Education is essential to a strong economy. Our businesses need skilled workers, and our neighborhoods need families who choose to live in the city. As we think about how to improve our schools, let me share this observation. Quote: “If the district demonstrates no will to reform itself, the Governor and legislature will have no choice but to transfer its control to City Hall.”
Sound familiar? That wasn’t me – it was Mayor Bill Johnson, in a State of the City address seven years ago. Let me explain why those of us who’ve occupied the Mayor’s office have come to this conclusion.
Under the Maintenance of Effort law, city taxpayers are required to give $119 million to the school district each year. That is nearly three quarters of the total property tax levy. Our taxpayers invest $50 million more in education each year than Buffalo, which has a larger district with more students. There was no public input on that law, which passed in 2007, and no referendum. Just a binding commitment on city taxpayers that gives the Mayor and City Council no say on how the money is spent.
Instead, the money is controlled by the city school board – and when combined with state and federal support, the district spends $18,000-$20,000 dollars per student. It’s fair for taxpayers to ask what kind of returns we are getting for that investment.
The answers are alarming. Our graduation rate has dropped to 46% this year, the second lowest of any district in the state. Too many students who do graduate are not well prepared for college. Of 346 city graduates who enrolled in MCC four years ago, less than 9 percent received their degree or certificate in the standard two years. Half of the city’s high schools are failing to meet basic standards established under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Our city’s eighth-grade achievement scores are too low – 14% lower than New York City in English, and 18% lower in math. In some Rochester schools, more than 80% of the students are failing to attain even basic skills.
No one looking at these numbers can suggest that our schools are doing well. We need to face the fact that our current education system is broken. No one part is to blame, but it has been failing for decades. We’ve had plenty of studies and recommendations. Twenty years ago, we tried the great Rochester experiment, attempting to use higher teacher pay to drive higher student performance. But we haven’t seen real change in the way the district operates.
It’s been said that cultures rarely change unless they are threatened. Since I came into office, we have raised the issues of graduation rates and educational outcomes for our children. There wasn’t much focus on these before. Now, with the threat of a change in governance, some people are saying that improvements can be made by working within the present education system. I believe this is a case of too little, too late.
To be clear, City Hall has no control over whether school governance reform will be enacted. This is a decision that will be made in Albany, after a thorough community discussion. I’m proud that City Hall has been driving this conversation. Working together, our community must end the silent acceptance of failure...once and for all.
Imagine that you saw a school bus full of children in trouble. There is not an adult in this room who wouldn’t stop, call 911, and do anything they could to help. Well our children are in trouble and have been for decades. But we as a community have not done what’s needed to help. The cruel pain of educational failure occurs slowly. One child at a time is allowed to be truant … gets promoted without learning basic skills … takes to the streets after school … decides to drop out. It isn’t as easy to see, but it’s just as real. It’s happening before our eyes, in the performance numbers I showed you. And too many adults are standing by and saying that nothing can be done.
Ladies and gentlemen, something can and must be done. More than half of our city’s children are being allowed to fail, and we must make major changes in our schools and our systems to help them. It is no less a moral imperative than helping that school bus.
The reform I’ve supported is a five-year experiment with mayoral accountability. The superintendent would report to the Mayor, and City Council would provide oversight. The Mayor would be accountable to you, the citizens of Rochester, for making sure the job gets done.
This idea has ignited a firestorm of opposition and a flood of misinformation, largely driven by people who benefit from the current status quo.
Let me summarize the arguments against a change in school governance and share my response. One is that the Mayor is not an educational expert. That is true, and I’ve never stated that I am. The Mayor’s job, again, is to find the right leaders – and I think we already have one in Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard. The Mayor’s job is to approve an effective strategy -- and he is working on one, built on the philosophy that “Every child is a work of art. Create a masterpiece.” The Mayor's job is it to provide the necessary resources – which includes money, supporting services and good decisions. Joining with the district, city government can do all of these more effectively than the current system.
A second criticism is that parents will lose their influence and input in school governance. That’s false. In fact, our goal is to ensure much more parental involvement. We’ll establish a Rochester Parent University to teach parents and guardians how to help their children succeed. We’ll ask every parent to volunteer at least 40 hours per year at their children’s schools. And school-based planning teams, which are mostly staff members today, will be restructured so that parents make up at least 50 percent of the team. I'm very fortunate to have a Mayor's Youth Advisory Council, to ensure that students will also have a voice.
A third criticism is that this change is undemocratic. And it’s true that the elected school board would be eliminated for this five-year trial. But unlike suburban districts, the city school board does not present its budget to the voters. I believe that the change would be more democratic in many ways. The elected members of City Council would have oversight. An advisory board of education experts and parents would independently review the Superintendent’s strategies. There would be more public and media attention on school performance and more pressure to improve. The school board approach spreads accountability among seven people. This change in governance gives you one person to hold accountable, and I am fully aware that voters will show me or my successors the door if we can’t get the job done.
A fourth criticism is that it doesn’t make a difference in school performance. That’s also false. And to prove it, look down the Thruway to New York City. Mayor Bloomberg was given authority over the failing city school system in 2002. This chart shows that New York City has improved every measure of graduation performance. Test scores have also improved steadily, in elementary and middle schools. When we add Rochester, you see that New York City is outperforming our school district in every measure.
Consider also what a professional educator who studies mayoral control nationwide has found. Dr. Kenneth Wong is an author and professor of education at Brown University. His overwhelming conclusion is that it can make a significant positive impact on student achievement.
I respect the fact that people have different views, but there is one criticism I simply cannot tolerate. At its essence, this argument is that children impacted by poverty can’t learn – and because of our city’s tragically high poverty rate, we simply shouldn’t expect the schools to do better.
I could not disagree more. Educating low-income students presents special challenges, to be sure. But look up the Thruway to Buffalo – a larger district with greater poverty issues than Rochester and an 11% higher graduation rate.
Or look closer to home, at a public school in Rochester that is trying a new approach. True North Rochester Prep is a charter school educating students in grades 5 through 8. It’s on Brooks Avenue in the 19th Ward and the student body is similar to the district as a whole – the same racial composition, the same percentage of low-income students. Students are chosen by lottery, and many come to the school performing below grade level.
From the outside, Rochester Prep could be any other public school. But inside, things are different. The students are in uniform. The school day lasts longer, from 7:40 in the morning until 4:40 in the afternoon. Students only have about 90 seconds to move between classes, saving more than an hour per week in teaching time. College banners hang on the walls. Academically, the students are challenged to work hard so that they can go to one of those colleges. It’s an environment of high expectations.
How does this formula work? One measure is the 2009 achievement tests for seventh graders. Comparing districts as a whole, city seventh graders had the lowest scores, with suburban districts doing far better – the pattern we’re used to seeing. But there’s one school where the seventh graders did better than any other. In fact, 100 percent of the students performed at grade level for both math and English.
These high achievers aren’t from Brighton or Pittsford – they are city school students in Rochester Prep’s first graduating class. I’ve invited these eighth graders to join us tonight, along with their parents, because this is a success we need to celebrate. I congratulate Founding Principal Stacey Shells, Principal David McBride, all the teachers, and True North Chief Operating Officer, Dan Deckman. But most of all, kids, I congratulate you for proving every day that every child in Rochester is full of potential. Let’s have a standing ovation for the first graduating class at Rochester Prep!
Success stories like these are not limited to charter schools. Our district has many good schools and great teachers. But far too many students are failing. Superintendent Brizard has proposed changes designed to replicate the successes. You’d think everyone involved in education would want that. But he is opposed by a system that defends the status quo. And the potential for progress is slowed by the unfortunate politics of education in our city.
Ladies and gentlemen, too many adults are benefiting from a school system that is failing our children. We need to act now. The changes I’m proposing are not a silver bullet, but I believe they offer a better option than the current system. I pledge to do everything in our power to make the system work for our children.
I'm told that legislation that would lead to governance change could be introduced any day in the State Legislature, at the recommendation of Governor Paterson. The leaders of our Assembly delegation, David Gantt and Joe Morelle, have pledged their support. I hope others will as well, after the legislation is introduced.
Some of our proposed changes are detailed in three reports to the community. Once we see the legislation, we will work quickly to develop and share the first draft of our implementation plan. You will find all of these documents on the city website, or by calling 3-1-1.
Let me share some of the key changes that students and families can expect. First, we’re going to make school operations more efficient. We’ll provide professional financial oversight, so that future audits won’t find that spending was out of control. And we’ll consolidate many back-office operations with City departments, eliminating the waste of duplicated services. The goal is not to cut funds – it’s to use money more wisely.
One way we’ll spend that money is on proper textbooks for every child. Too many students today are sharing books that stay in the classroom, and too many of the books are out of date.
Schools will be safer, for students and teachers. We’ll enlist the help of parent volunteers to help maintain order and discipline. School administrators will work with the police to ensure the safest possible environment in and around school. We will restore a strict and effective anti-truancy program. Truancy teams will visit the homes of children who skip school and bring them to class. Parents will be notified in live conversations, not voice-mails.
We will guarantee a place for elementary school children at their nearest neighborhood school, if that is what the family wants. There will be choices of other schools with special programs and services, but every young child will be able to attend a neighborhood school if their parents choose. That will reduce transportation costs overall, and allow us to provide transportation for all families that need it.
To support working parents, we will work to keep schools open longer each day, and create the best after-school programs in the country. We’ll provide a “family navigator” at every school to help parents and guardians access wrap-around services for their children.
High school students will have an “office of post-secondary education” that guides them to find a college option and be placed there. We will create this in partnership with area colleges, which have endorsed my plan. Working with partners in the business community and organized labor, we also will expand vocational options for students who aren’t college bound.
The school buildings themselves will become bridges to neighborhood-based services – instead of islands that sit vacant every afternoon, weekend and over the summer.
All of these things will make it easier for our city’s talented teachers to do their jobs. That will lead to the most important change: Student performance will improve. You’ll see it in rising test scores and graduation rates. I believe that we can raise the graduation rate from the current 46 percent to 65 percent within five years, and I’m willing to be held accountable to that goal.
Walk by the playground at any elementary school in our city, at recess time, and what will you see? A playground full of wonderful kids, with faces full of promise. Their futures should be bright. But statistics tell us that the future won’t live up to the bright promise in their faces. More than half of them won’t graduate, which leads to economic failure.
High school graduates earn 56% more than dropouts and college graduates earn 127% more. It’s also a public safety issue. 70% of prison inmates are high school dropouts.
You can’t look in the faces of Rochester’s school children and say that it’s okay to let half of them fail. You can’t look in the faces of the eighth graders at Rochester Prep and tell me that city children can’t learn. We need to be a community that puts children first.
Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our city is strong. Look around and you can see the positive changes that are happening. Our streets are cleaner and they are safer, with the lowest crime rate in 25 years. We are helping troubled neighborhoods to turn themselves around. Construction cranes are coming back to downtown, with more than $750 million in new development. We are creating more opportunities to find a good job in Rochester, whether you wear a hard hat or a restaurant apron or a business suit. Our city is coming alive with more investment, bigger festivals, more sporting events and plenty of fun things to do, day or night.
But too many of Rochester’s children are not sharing in this success. Too few of them are graduating school with the skills to find a job or go to college. We must put children first. In actions – and not just rhetoric. Our economy, our public safety, and our city’s future depend on improving educational outcomes for our children. We must summon the courage to see that the system has failed. We need to make a change, it needs to happen now, and we need to do it together.
So let’s agree to put children first. Let’s make teachers proud of their students, students proud of their achievements, neighborhoods proud of their schools. Communities can and should be judged by how they treat their children. Rochester has the ability to compete with any city in this area. Together, we will make Rochester the best mid-sized city in America in which to live, raise a family, grow a business – and to educate a child.
God bless America, God bless our children and God bless Rochester, New York. Thank you.