Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas told parents, teachers, and community leaders in his State of our Schools speech last night that the district can be turned around. But he simultaneously lowered expectations, saying that it will take years, and test scores and the district’s graduation rate could get worse before they improve.
“I want you to know that doesn’t mean our teachers are working less and our students aren’t learning as much,” he said. The state’s academic standards have become more rigorous, he said.
Vargas laid out his priorities, which have become familiar themes: increasing instruction time by expanding the school day in 10 schools in the fall; reaching full reading proficiency by third grade; doubling down on early childhood education; and firmly committing to neighborhood community schools.
“We want neighborhood schools to be our parents’ first choice,” Vargas said. “I want to make it very difficult for parents to want to leave their neighborhood for another school.”
He also revisited his two long-standing concerns: attendance and offering students more music, arts, and sports. The district is aiming for a 93 percent to 95 percent attendance rate. Though some improvements in the district’s attendance record keeping have taken place, the attendance rate is still below 90 percent.
Music, arts, and sports are essential to drawing students to school and increasing parental engagement, Vargas said.
Noting that black and Latino males in city schools have less opportunity to participate in sports than they did 20 years ago, Vargas said, “You will never see a budget while I’m superintendent that cuts music, arts, and physical education activities.”
Though Vargas faces a $50 million budget gap for next year, he is counting on the state to help fund expanded school days and universal pre-K. And two new grants may help him fund some of his other priorities. Governor Andrew Cuomo has awarded the district a $1.5 million grant for three years to find office and operating efficiencies. The money saved from a more streamlined operation would be redirected to open the first pre-K program in the city for 3 year olds.
And the Gates Foundation has awarded the district a $3 million grant to hire a consulting firm to move the district away from short-term, year-by-year budgeting to a more long-term three-to-five-year budget plan.
“We can’t do everything we want, but at least this way we can be sure that our core priorities remain funded, and we don’t get off track,” Vargas said after the presentation.
In a delivery that rambled at times, Vargas profusely thanked members of the audience, which included nearly every local politician from Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and State Senator Joe Robach to Mayor Tom Richards and City Council President Lovely Warren.
But most of Vargas’s personal references went to School Board President Malik Evans, who Vargas said he remembered as a student. The strong working relationship between Vargas and Evans was clear. It was also evident that Evans’s political future is linked to helping Vargas succeed.
In his remarks, Evans said the district had been through years of transition. And Vargas’s well-established roots in the community have been his strongest asset, Evans said.
“I believe, we believe, he has brought stability to the district,” he said.
Vargas’s hometown roots may buy him more leeway than some of his predecessors received. And he’s managed to spread the responsibility for student success beyond his office at 131 West Broad Street to the offices of many of the leaders who attended last night’s event.
Vargas should own the copyright to his trademark message: “We can’t do it alone.”
But last night he added an ominous warning, saying this was the community’s “last chance” to reverse years of decline in the school district. While Vargas said he believes a 70 percent graduation rate is still possible, his statement left some people wanting further explanation.