After six months of planning, yesterday the University of Rochester presented the Rochester school board with a sweeping proposal to transform
its low-performing East High School into a highly successful learning environment. If the proposal is approved by both the school board and the State Education Department, it will clear the way for the UR to assume full management responsibilities for East starting in July, 2015.
The UR’s proposal identifies key areas in East’s culture, instructional abilities, and support services that it says must change if the school is to achieve an 84 percent graduation rate in about six years. The strategy involves creating a smaller, neighborhood-oriented school environment at East, increasing social-emotional support for students and families, and putting extra emphasis on ninth grade and alternative career programs.
Students who live closer to East will be given higher priority for enrollment, which research has shown helps to improve parent and neighborhood engagement.
Enrollment will be reduced from its current level of about 1,750 to 1,350. And the building will be organized into a Lower School for grades 6 to 8, and an Upper School for grades 9 to 12.
The UR hopes to address East’s high number of ninth graders who repeat the grade, some multiple times, by creating what it’s calling the Freshman Academy. The ninth graders will be housed in a separate wing, where they will be provided with the academic and social support they need.
If some of those students are still doing poorly in school, East will draw upon the services of Big Picture Learning, a non-profit organization that develops special programs for added support.
A longer day, a flexible schedule, and an increased emphasis on reading and math literacy are also components of the proposal, says Steve Uebbing. The UR Warner School of Education professor will become East’s superintendent and report directly to the school board.
Changing East’s student and staff culture is also an important part of the proposal, Uebbing says. The code of conduct policy will emphasize a “restorative justice” approach to discipline that is designed to teach students that they are responsible for helping each other succeed in the new environment, Uebbing says.
The proposal will build on East’s Career and Technical Education program, which will not only include partnerships with local businesses, but will draw on the UR’s resources for students interested in careers in health care. And East’s teachers will be required to participate in ongoing professional training that is geared to the needs of the school.
The cost of the proposal, however, could draw some concern. The UR’s proposal recommends an increase in the school budget for East of about $3.7 million from the current school year to the 2015-2016 school year. It’s unclear at this point whether the state will provide additional funds to cover those costs. If the state doesn’t offer East additional financial support, the proposal could mean pulling funds from other parts of the district’s budget to support East.
And the UR still needs the agreement of the district’s four labor groups before it can move forward. Three have already indicated they approve of the proposal, but the Rochester Teachers Association still needs to sign off on the plan.
Calling the proposal “unprecedented,” Adam Urbanski, president of the RTA, said in an interview earlier today that he didn’t see any insurmountable obstacles to the negotiations. And he would not give details of sticking points in the negotiations.
In most contract negotiations at the school level, 80 percent of teachers must agree to any proposed changes. But the UR agreed to become the EPO at East on the condition that only a 50 percent majority was needed. Uebbing says East’s teacher support for the plan so far has been much higher.
Still, there is some urgency to settle negotiations and get the state’s approval to move forward.
“It is our understanding that unless an EPO agreement can be achieved this month, East High School will likely be closed by the State Department of Education,” UR officials said in a written statement yesterday.