While the New York City and Yonkers school districts have seen their graduation rates go up over the last few years, Rochester's rate seems permanently stuck around 50 percent. And 27 of Rochester's 60 city schools are among the lowest performing in the state.
One reason for the gains in New York City and Yonkers, says Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, is the implementation of what educators call the "common core curriculum." Rochester is about four years behind New York City implementing the initiative, he says. It's unclear why it's taken the district so long.
About 45 states have adopted the curriculum, including New York. The premise: a seventh grader in Rochester should be able to move to a public school in Massachusetts and demonstrate the same knowledge in math, for example, as the students in that school.
"It's a clear set of standards," says Anita Murphy, Rochester's deputy superintendent of operations. "The standards say 'This is what children at this grade should know and be able to do.'"
The curriculum gives teachers a road map, Murphy says, but it's not prescriptive; it doesn't tell teachers how to teach.
Just as the states have established common standards, Rochester has created a districtwide common core. For example: ninth-grade algebra will be the same at Monroe and Charlotte high schools. And students in one city school will receive the same level of art and music instruction as students in another.
Murphy says the district's teachers fell into a habit of offering students an assortment of course levels instead of the appropriate level, based on what it seemed like students could handle. For example, students would receive seventh-grade math instead of eighth-grade math, or pre-algebra instead of algebra. Remedial instruction was taking place, Murphy says, instead of the appropriate course work.