The State Education Department issued a report last year that identified persistently low-performing schools and school districts. Priority schools are those with the lowest achievement, and focus schools are those at risk of becoming priority schools if preventive measures aren't taken.
The SED ranked Rochester's schools among the worst of the worst. Out of the 60 schools in the district, Rochester has only four that are not priority or focus schools. And the district as a whole is considered a focus district.
Before the month is over, Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has to submit individual plans to the SED for improving most of the district's priority schools — some have plans already in progress — as well as an overall plan for improving the district.
Most of the district's plans will take one of two approaches. The whole school reform model involves an entire redesign that can include changes to a school's leadership and improvements to the quality of instruction.
The transformational approach entails building on the schools' strengths. For example, James Wilson Foundation and Commencement High School, which already offers an International Baccalaureate program, would strengthen that program, says Anita Murphy, the district's deputy superintendent of operations.
Vargas is recommending closing School 30, another SED option. The school's English Language Arts proficiency is 7 percent.
Though the SED gives district leaders several approaches to choose from, Vargas says there is one that he will never pursue: phasing out low-performing schools as new schools are phased in.
"We don't want to be disruptive and do that crazy shuffle-the-deck thing where we change everything around and discover three years later that academically nothing has changed and we're in the same exact place," Murphy says.
Expanding the school day is also a requirement for all priority schools, Murphy says. The district will provide extra instruction time to give students the time they need to learn, she says, instead of relying on intervention at a later time to help students catch up. The latter approach has frozen the district in a permanent mode of remedial instruction, Murphy says.