I’ll admit it. I can be a bit pretentious in how locally aware and socially conscious I think I am. I have lived in Rochester my entire life. I have gone to school here, volunteered here, and worked here. I like to think I know what I’m talking about. Take, for example, our education system.
We have all heard that graduation rates are FAR below where we should be holding our standards—even after we celebrated a marked increase in the past few years. Few of those who do graduate are adequately prepared for college. (I would like to point out that there are several very successful, and often overlooked, Rochester City schools in this regard. I’m looking at you, School of the Arts.) We have all heard about the youth violence, truancy rate, and teen pregnancy that often accompany these issues.
There hasn’t been too much that has directly surprised me during my VISTA year so far. However, while I recognize and am impassioned by the deficits in the education system, I never realized to what degree these issues interacted with each other or how they impacted the youth the system is meant to serve. 85% of RCSD students qualify for a free or reduced lunch. Students come into school malnourished in a variety of ways (due to income, food deserts, etc.). What I never realized, until working alongside the 4H staff at my RYY placement, is how far reaching the results of these food deserts may be. There are first graders who have never eaten apples and are unable to identify them. The Democrat and Chronicle recently reported that the RCSD might have a truancy rate of as high as 50% on certain days. Before (and actually still throughout) my placement, I would not have been surprised. What does shock me, though, is how a few RCSD teachers have been altering attendance records so as to gain from district incentives. While the idea behind these incentives is incredibly positive, the ease of circumnavigating what is necessary in order to receive them is shocking.
Despite the hardships and struggles we face as a city, though, I fully maintain the fact that Rochester is a strong, vibrant, and beautiful place to live. While our big businesses may be failing, our non-profits and small businesses seem to boom. Take a stroll around Neighborhood of the Arts, the South Wedge, or Park Ave. Ride your bike by Gibbs or down Main. Music, art, and culture surround us, with or without Kodak. Even as you drive through Rochester’s toughest areas, street art screams creativity and ethnic foods beckon with sweet scents. But as much as I love this aspect of our city, it is the people that truly make it one of “America’s10 Best Cities for Families” and rank it among “America’s Friendliest Cities”… twice. Although aspects of our education system are flawed, there are countless youth development and/or after school programs and professionals that attempt to fill in the gap. Some of the best and most influential teachers I have had, I have had through Rochester public schools. Their encouragement and energy are slowly, but surely, fighting the anti-school culture that exists among students. Adults and youth alike are involving themselves in their communities to actively create positive change. Ultimately, it’s notthe business or the system that builds and breaks a town, but the people and their involvement. And, I think, Rochester has the people it needs.