Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has been pretty clear that he doesn't like phasing out low-performing schools in favor of new schools as a way to improve academic achievement.
The model is one of the options the State Education Department allows school districts with failing or so-called priority schools to use to turn around low achievement. The failing schools are gradually closed over a four-year period and new schools are opened usually starting with a freshman class.
Vargas doesn't like the approach because it doesn’t work. Students get shuffled from one building to another, and often many of the same people who were teaching in the failing schools end up in the new schools.
Parents aren’t happy about it, either. Frequently they have moved to an apartment or house because it's closer to a certain school, convenient to where they work, or maybe there's a specific school program that appeals to them. Then they learn that their family’s daily routines are being upended. This is extremely stressful for many district families.
But those aren't the only problems. A bigger concern is what happens to students’ motivation when they are in a school that’s being phased out. Motivation plummets, behavior problems rise, and attention to learning becomes difficult. These students become disconnected.
The schools that are being phased out see their resources and amenities dry up. And students literally have one foot in the door and the other out the door — and it shows up in low attendance and low graduation rates.
Vargas says that recent graduation data helps to make his point about these schools. Below are the nine schools that began phasing out under former Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard and their graduation rates for the 2009 cohort. These percentages include students who graduated in August 2013:
Skilled Trades High School 56.10 percent
Business, Finance, and Entrepreneurship High School 53.60 percent
Global Media Arts High School 54.80 percent
School of Imaging and Information Tech 46.80 percent
Bioscience and Health Careers 40.00 percent
School of Engineering and Manufacturing 36.50 percent
John Marshall 28.40 percent
International Finance and Economic Development 26.30 percent
Thomas Jefferson 20.00 percent
Most of the grad rates for the non-phase-out schools were near or above 50 percent, with School of the Arts and School Without Walls above 85 percent. The grad rate for Rochester's 2009 cohort, if you include August graduates, was 48.10 percent.
As bad as some of these numbers are in the phase-out schools, they might have been even worse. Vargas’s rationale for starting the All City High program was to create a safety net to catch some of these kids in schools. The program is intended to offer flexibility and support to students who were at risk of dropping out or had already begun working part-time jobs, but are short of credits to graduate.
District spokesperson Chip Partner says that Vargas believes that the district’s graduation rate should begin to improve because the school closings are complete. The impact the phase in-phase out model had on the system should be diminished, Partner says.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that the district’s backup plan to turn around East High School, should the plan with the University of Rochester not move forward, is to phase in a new school as the old East is phased out.