Putting RCSD’s demographic changes in context

One thing I’ve often found while discussing trends in the Rochester City School District during the Civil Rights era is that people often have a hard time remembering — or perhaps don’t realize at all — that the demographics of the city, and by extension the schools, were very different then. As late as 1950, the population of the city of Rochester was 98% white (including European immigrants). The same was true of RCSD. The first official racial census, in 1961, showed 20% non-white students. That reflects both the furious pace of the Great Migration during the 1950s, and also the fact that demographic change in this case showed up first among children (i.e., students) rather than adults.

A consequence of this different context is that the semantic freight of descriptors like “city” and “urban” has changed. In 2022, referring off-handedly to “city schools” often carries an implicitly negative connotation of underperforming schools full of poor Black and Latino children. That connotation does not fit when one describes the “city schools” of 1962 or 1972.

Here’s a visual aid I thought might be helpful. I plotted the historic growth of RCSD’s non-white population from 1961 until 1980 and then added on the current demographics of each suburban school district. This way you can see, for instance, that RCSD in 1971 looked pretty much like Greece looks today.

If you find this interesting, by the way, also check out my nifty school demographic comparison tool, where you can see what one school or district would look like if it had the demographics of another.

I hope this accomplishes a few things. First, it’s important to add some nuance to the urban versus suburban distinction; East Irondequoit, most notably, is majority-minority, while Honeoye Falls-Lima is below 10% non-white. Second, it provides perspective as we think of the events of the Civil Rights era. It is unfortunate in hindsight that it proved impossible to desegregate RCSD in 1971-72 when we can see that the districtwide racial mix at the time was, from today’s vantage point, unremarkable.

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