Rochester’s educational parks

There are about five weeks left until my book publishes. I’ve got a number of public appearances lined up that I’ll be writing more about soon, including a release party on March 15 at Hipocampo Children’s Books. I can also share that the D&C will publish another excerpt on Feb. 22, this one having to do with the year of attempted desegregation in Rochester in 1971-72. It will be paired with an awesome short documentary video by my colleague Rob Bell.

In the meantime — one of the things I’ve planned to do with this blog is highlight historical episodes relating to school segregation in Rochester that have mostly been forgotten. The first one is the idea of educational parks, raised in 1967 by RCSD Superintendent Herman Goldberg and then pursued on a grander scale by Greece school board member John Woods.

Goldberg in February 1967 shared four distinct desegregation proposals at the request of the school board. One was for “natural educational parks,” and the term was no metaphor. The proposal was to abandon existing elementary school buildings and instead build seven clusters of brand new school facilities in city and county parks, including Highland, Genesee Valley, Seneca, Cobbs Hill and Maplewood parks.

Having fewer locations would make it easier to achieve racial balance and to fund expensive items like science laboratories and auditoriums. The downside, of course, would be the fantastical cost — an estimated $46.6 million, or $389 million in 2022 dollars — and the proposal (in fact, all four of Goldberg’s proposals) failed.

The concept, though, caught the attention of John Woods, a maverick school board member in Greece who was uneasy at the way his district was accepting what he saw as unwarranted federal Title I anti-poverty funding. To assuage his guilt, he came up with an even broader scheme: to pool several districts’ Title I funding together and create one massive educational park, in Genesee Valley Park, that would be a “regional educational research laboratory” serving all their students. It would involve the University of Rochester as well as local industry and would be a magnet for various state and federal funding streams.

“Lest we forget, Rochester is our city,” he wrote in the formal proposal, a copy of which he shared with me when I interviewed him in 2019. “This can be accomplished by proving, in this area of the city, that one large superior educational center is workable and a natural solution to de facto segregation.”

Woods persuaded Greece to set aside temporarily its $50,000 allotment of Title I money in 1967-68 and toured suburban districts to drum up interest, but encountered mostly skeptics. The reception was no better in RCSD, where three of the five board members were already working to defeat even smaller scale desegregation plans. “Let (Woods) propose what he wants to,” one of them, Louis Cerulli, said. “He’s not going to tell us how to solve our problems.” Greece residents, too, opposed the idea; they had vigorously opposed the district joining the Urban-Suburban program, as other districts were doing at the time.

Woods’ proposal languished until April 1968, when Greece redirected its Title I money to a summer school program. He placed most of the blame on RCSD’s elected leaders for failing to mobilize behind the idea. “All that was asked of them was vision and leadership and cooperation,” he lamented. “They could not supply one of these.”

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