Earlier this month, the Southwest Tribune, a local community news site, posted a great in-depth interview with Dr. Andrew Ray, an important early Black teacher and administrator in the Rochester City School District. Most notably he was principal at East, then at Madison in its second incarnation in the 1990s. It’s a wonderful read; there are few retired RCSD educators more respected than Dr. Ray.
I spoke with Ray as part of my book research in February 2019. He came to Rochester from Louisiana in 1969 as part of a wave of Black teachers recruited from the South through the federally funded Project UNIQUE. Those teachers were for the most part placed into majority-Black schools or the junior high schools that more experienced teachers had transferred out of. For many of them, coming to Rochester was a culture shock in the classroom as well as in the community. Ray told me:
Most of us grew up in the segregated system. … You knew, when a teacher walked into a classroom in our schools: order. You automatically snapped to attention. Straight face. Basically that was a contract between the parents and the school. It was a famous saying among African-American parents in the South: ‘Don’t make me have to come to that school for you.’
That was not the case in Rochester, but Ray and some of his peers, by the mid-1970s, had restored order and excellence to Madison (at least in Ray’s telling – there was no standardized testing then like we think of it now, and thus no easy way to see in hindsight how students were faring academically at different schools). Then, in 1976, Ray and several others were either laid off or scattered to other schools.
In Ray’s telling, it was retribution. Principal Johnny Wilson and some of the Black teachers had found philanthropic funding for about 75 instruments plus costumes for a marching band and other principals were jealous, he said.
That could very well be true. But there is another factor that led to the dispersal of the Black teachers, one that should remain familiar today. RCSD in 1976 was facing a large budget gap and needed to eliminate 224 teacher positions. Then as now, labor law dictated that they target the most junior teachers first, for layoffs and also for displacement to other schools. Then as now, the junior tier of teachers also happened to contain much of the district’s workforce diversity. At the same time, the district was subject to federal regulations aimed at preventing districts from concentrating all their Black teachers in one school.
Together, the budget situation and the federal standards meant the stable group of Black Madison teachers had to be dispersed.
“It’s just like the plantation,” another Black teacher, Hannah Storrs, said. “When the master says move, you move.” It is worth noting that the public face of the controversial move was Josh Lofton, a longtime respected RCSD administrator in his own right who later had a program named after him.
Rochester by 1980 had about 20% non-white teachers; many of them, like Ray, had been recruited through Project UNIQUE. Once the federal funding for that program disappeared, though, the number of Black teachers plateaued and gradually declined to around 15%. It did not rise again until renewed emphasis on the issue in the 2010s.
Now as in the early 1970s, RCSD is making a concerted effort to increase its number of non-white teachers. Today Black, Latino and Asian teachers make up around 25% of the total, the highest level in district history. But the same factors that hurt Madison in 1976 remain today: last-in, the first-out rule stands to harm non-white teachers disproportionately, and declining enrollment will continue to lead to layoffs for the foreseeable future.