Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said in a presentation last night that the district is beginning to show signs of improvement.
Though much of his presentation was familiar – some of it intentionally designed to serve as a benchmark from when he first took office – the district has made progress in some key areas.
Vargas has drilled into the community's collective consciousness the importance of focusing on fundamentals: a minimum 92 percent attendance rate in every school, reading proficiency by third grade, stopping summer learning loss, and giving students more instruction time.
This is not the time to veer off in a new direction, he said, which would create instability.
And while Vargas's management style is often criticized, he has tightened the district’s often sloppy and inconsistent approach to running an organization. Citing automatic tenure without evaluations; some 4,500 payroll discrepancies — including 400 people receiving health care benefits who weren’t supposed to, including some who are dead – Vargas left some people in the audience at Edison Tech last night chuckling and others shaking their heads.
The update portion of Vargas' presentation was a bit thin. Tensions between Vargas and the school board over leadership and roles came to a head when Vargas threatened to sue the board earlier this year. And RTS threatened to drop its contract with the district following chronic student fighting and disruptions at the new transit center downtown. (The district and RTS settled their differences, but the new agreement will cost the district more for less service.)
And receivership looms over more than a dozen schools. Vargas has a year or two to show significant progress improving the schools before the State Education Department intervenes, similar to the situation in Buffalo.
There are also issues of teacher morale, which has been low for years. And teachers remain wary of evaluations, which many view as unfair and inaccurate.
Student discipline is a problem, too. School officials are in the midst of shifting from a suspension-heavy approach to a restorative justice model.
Graduation rates, though still low, are inching upward. But Vargas is smart to emphasize that beginning the job of improving schools shouldn’t be confused with finishing it.