Rochester school board President Van White began a town hall-style meeting yesterday with this message: the district is the lowest performing in the state. And he asked the adults in the room to give the nearly 60 students in attendance the front seats because he wanted to hear from the young people.
The students, mostly from city high schools, obliged by showing they had wisdom of their own to share about the schools they attend and the teachers who instruct them.
The meeting was the result of more than a month’s work by parents, community leaders, teachers, and education advocates. They were asked by White to come up with ideas to improve city schools. The result was a relatively short list of strategies that were noticeably student-focused.
Students at the event were engaged and even a little surprised that their opinions and experiences mattered. The recommendations were developed around four main topics: improving student achievement, increasing student and community safety, increasing parent engagement, and reducing the impact of concentrated poverty on city students.
While all the ideas were well-received, students were particularly interested in a recommendation to create a youth council that would weigh in on everything from developing curriculum to offering input on teacher evaluations.
There was also a lot of interest in revising the district’s code of conduct policy and in how suspensions are handled. Carlos Garcia, a former Rochester police officer, said he barely understands the conduct policy. He recommended shifting the policy from punitive measures to a therapeutic and restorative justice approach, where counseling and communication is emphasized.
Students compared in-school suspension to a version of "time out." They said classrooms are overcrowded and students are not receiving instruction in the work they're missing while they’re away from their regular classes. Preventing students from slipping further behind was one of the main reasons for creating in-school suspension classrooms.
Students also offered their own recommendations. For example, one student called for a cultural celebration day to learn more about the district’s many foreign-born students. Another said that the district puts most of its resources into working with students with behavior and academic problems, and that hardly any attention is given to students who are doing the work and excelling.
Students were also critical of the transitions imposed by the district’s massive schools modernization project. Housing students from different schools together while their home schools are under construction is creating tension, they said.
They also said that complaints about incompetent teachers receive little, if any, attention.
Though students are enthusiastic about the recommendations, implementation may be a challenge. Many of the strategies move power away from Superintendent Bolgen Vargas to the school board. For instance, parent engagement and student groups would report to the board. And some of the recommendations would require re-prioritizing some of Vargas’s budget expenditures for the next school year.
Acting on some of the recommendations quickly will be important to both the students and the folks that White enlisted for support. Not doing so will surely foster disappointment and resentment toward both the school board and Vargas.
Draft Presentation - Recommendations of Special Committees - Feb 25 2014 (1) by jmouleatcity