November 21, 2019

Graduation rates are up, parents are more engaged and supportive, third grade English Language Arts proficiency has improved and college financial aid applications are on the rise. But Rochester still lags the rest of the state and nation in many other areas in terms of childhood outcomes.

ROC the Future on Thursday presented its seventh annual “State of our Children Report Card,” which tracks key measures of wellbeing for children and youth. More than 300 community leaders attended the event, which featured keynote speaker Tafona Ervin, who shared how her community in Tacoma, Wash., went from being the “drop-out factory” to achieving one of the highest graduation rates in the country.

ROC the Future Director Jackie Campbell learned of the Tacoma improvements through StriveTogether, a coalition of 70 community partners that helps communities identify and scale what works. The alliance provides coaching, connections and resources to help partnerships share data, align resources and shape policy.

What Campbell learned from Ervin was astounding, she said.

“They went from in 2010 having a 55 percent graduation rate, and by 2015 they were approaching 80 percent. So the question was: how did they do that?” Campbell said, ahead of Thursday’s event. “Now they’re approaching 90 percent graduation rate and they’ve done this for every demographic group. They’ve narrowed the achievement gap between different groups—they have Pacific Islanders, Latino, African American—they’ve narrowed that and all groups are moving forward. But not only for high school graduation, they’ve done it for early grade literacy, they’ve done it for school readiness, they’ve done it for kids going to college. So they have taken this approach of cradle to career.”

But closer to home, the “State of our Children Report Card” shows that while Rochester City School District and community-based pre-K programs are nationally known for their quality, kindergarten readiness falls short. Some 52 percent of kids in RCSD and other pre-K programs are ready for kindergarten, down from 2017.

The Children’s Institute, whose data is used for the report card, has found that students who attend two years of preschool programming are more prepared for kindergarten than those who attend only one year. RtF set a goal that by 2020, 65 percent of all 4-year-olds will be kindergarten ready.

The report card asks the community to help RtF achieve four school readiness outcomes goals that include:

  • Increase the number of children in high-quality education programs;
  • Identify and meet the developmental needs of children 0 to 8 years old;
  • Increase the number of families in evidence-based support programs;
  • Increase the number of families who understand their child’s development;
  • Increase professional learning;
  • Improve human resource/capital initiatives;
  • Strengthen school and center-based climates;
  • Increase number of organizations providing comprehensive developmental screenings;
  • Align existing community resources to promote whole-child health; and
  • Increase number of adequately credentialed child-serving professionals.

In 2018, more than 1,300 families were served through evidence-informed parent education programs, but the stigma of programs as punitive or marginalizing is a barrier to participating, according to the report.

The report found that just 18 percent of RCSD children were proficient in English Language Arts. Although that’s up from last year, it falls far short of the state average of 52 percent. Sixteen percent of kids considered economically disadvantaged are ELA proficient, while 40 percent of children who are not economically disadvantaged are ELA proficient. African American and Hispanic and Latino kids are less ELA proficient than their white classmates.

“Our focus on early grade literacy? We have a long way to go,” Campbell said. “We are making very small gains, but we are moving in the right direction. If we disaggregate by school we see good progress. We have a couple of schools that are doing very well.”

RtF’s goal is a 10-point increase in the percent of third-grades proficient on the state ELA test each year until the district rate meets or exceeds the state rate. RtF reports that children who are not reading proficiently by third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school with their peers. That struggle follows them into adulthood, according to the report, making it harder for them to get hired and stay employed.

The report notes that in order to benefit from classroom learning, kids must be in school. Nearly one-third of RCSD elementary students are chronically absent. On the bright side, students have a bevy of afterschool and support services available in the community. Over the course of a year, students who participate in high-quality afterschool programs strengthen their social-emotional competencies, which can support higher academic achievement.

RCSD’s graduation rate improved to 63 percent from 59 percent in 2018, although categorical data will not be available until December. RtF’s goal is that by August 2022, 80 percent of all high school seniors in Rochester will graduate with their ninth grade cohort.

“When I think about high school graduation I do think that in terms of the city school district we’re headed in the right direction, but there are still a lot of challenges to deal with,” Campbell said. “From when I came on board in 2015, we are 12 percentage points ahead of that.”

RtF in its report notes that schools with higher graduation rates tend to have an engaging school environment with high-quality teaching, positive student-teacher and student-student relationships and a sense of safety and order.

RtF is providing support to Joseph C. Wilson Magnet School and Edison Career and Technology High School as they implement advisory programs that will enable small groups of students to meet regularly with an adviser. The goals of the programs will be to help students adjust to expectations, build community in the schools, provide academic advising, develop social-emotional skills and strengthen relationships between the schools and families.

“Right now we have a lot of individuals who are focused on how do we do this better and everyone is saying that in order to do it better we need to be able to include parents, family and community,” Campbell noted. “We can always do better. I do think that we are making incremental progress in some areas and huge in other areas.”

Although the percentage of federal student aid applications are on the rise, the percentage of high school graduates who enrolled in college immediately following school is down, as is the percentage of students enrolled in college who returned for a second year.

The “State of our Children Report Card” offers a number of ways in which parents, medical professionals, coaches, childcare providers and businesses can help make a difference. RtF suggests that businesses can provide paid time off for parents to attend school conferences; host book drives; require teen employees to attend school and have passing grades; put children’s books in waiting areas; provide on-site childcare, pay livable wages; provide paid time off for children’s medical and dental appointments; and offer high school internships and summer employment.

“There is a change, I believe, in the larger community around being authentic and transparent and fully embracing the whole community,” Campbell said, and it is a phenomenon being seen across the country.

“When we think about how Rochester is doing compared to other communities, we know we’re doing really well, comparatively speaking. We have agreed-upon measures that we’re looking at. We’re looking at the whole child. And we’re tracking our progress overall in terms of our providers. We’re making sure that they have the most up to date information, that they have access to tools and resources. We’re moving the needle forward,” Campbell said. “But we really do have to look at what happened here. What is accounting for this going backward, if you will?”