Surrounded by nearly two dozen community leaders, newly-elected Rochester school board president Van White laid out an ambitious plan yesterday to improve city schools and to stop the steady loss of students to charter schools.
In a press conference that lasted more than an hour, White said he will propose linking board members’ salaries to the board’s goals, and link the superintendent’s evaluation to measurements like improving the district’s graduation rate and reducing the number of schools the state has listed as “priority schools” – those in need of immediate improvement.
White also announced the formation of four citizen committees to tackle what he called the district’s and the community’s most pressing challenges: improving parental engagement, increasing school and community safety, addressing concentrated poverty, and improving student achievement. The committees will have 45 days to come up with workable solutions, which White said will be used to help shape budget priorities for the 2014-2015 school year.
The committee members, many of whom were with White during yesterday’s event, are drawn from a wide cross-section of the health care, law enforcement, faith, and human services communities. White said he also asked the people who ran for the school board and made it to the general election to participate in the committees.
“We don’t want people pontificating about the problems,” White said. “We all know the problems. We need solutions.”
Yesterday’s press conference also set a different tone for the school board — one that seems far more assertive on matters of accountability and more directive toward Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. White, who voted against hiring Vargas, said he and the board strongly support the superintendent. And their work will be focused on helping Vargas achieve the goals he’s envisioned for the district, White said.
White has long pushed for opening new schools that replicate some of the city’s most favored schools, such as School of the Arts – something Vargas has so far resisted. But White said the district must immediately begin to offer parents better options or they will continue to seek alternatives to city schools. And White has made opening a new school in the 2014-2015 school year a high priority.
"We are getting better, but that's not enough,"White said. "Just doing better is not going to convince parents to do this, to choose a city school."
White said he wants board members to take an inventory of district policies, and to more aggressively enforce them. In a phone interview yesterday, White said that many school policies have been ignored for years. If they had been enforced, he said, they might have helped student achievement.
“We have a policy that says we’re supposed to have a small schools progress report and there’s never been a single report,” White said. The same is true of a school safety policy, he said.
White said he has reached out to Mayor Lovely Warren, Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski, and ASAR president Deborah Rider. And he said he wants to meet with State Education Commissioner John King as soon as possible.
"We're looking for common ground, not a battle ground," White said.