It's been almost two years to the day that the University of Rochester proposed taking over East High School; the State Education Department gave the Rochester school district few options. In a district used to crisis, East, one the lowest performing schools in the state, had become a three-alarm fire.
If the UR didn't step up, East's doors would probably be closed by now.
But the pressure on the UR and the city school board to turn East around is almost palpable. All eyes are on this all-important collaboration and what it could mean to the district, which has more than a dozen schools that need significant academic improvement.
If the partnership succeeds, does that mean that the intensive intervention, resources, and funding that the UR has applied to East is the answer to fixing troubled schools?
On the other side, if the university, with all of its talent, resources, and immense regional clout can't significantly improve East, then that?
District and UR officials are quick to say that East is nowhere near full recovery, but that there are some strong indications that the intervention is making a difference.
"I'm optimistic based on what we're seeing in our preliminary data that we're going to get to a point that people will say this is a model that we should replicate," says Shaun Nelms, East's superintendent.
But East's success isn't determined by Nelms or the city school board; that judgment is up to the State Education Department. Almost as soon as the board and the UR reached their five-year partnership agreement, East fell under the state's receivership law. The designation is typically synonymous with academic failure at virtually every level and the UR became East's receiver sort of by default.
East is meeting most of the incremental goals that the state set for teachers and administrators to turn the school around, Nelms says. For instance, school suspensions decreased sharply in the 2015-2016 school year from 3,000 to 1,000. Daily attendance in grades 6-8 is hovering at 92 percent, and attendance rose from about 65 percent to 82 percent in the upper grades.
East didn't meet its goal of reducing dropout rates below 10 percent, however. But that's because roughly 33 percent of its upper-grade students had already dropped out before the UR took over, Nelms says.
The state is collaborating with East to adjust the goals, however, and says the school has made enough progress to no longer require a permanent receiver.
The UR's partnership with the school board and support from the district's unions gave the UR the space it needed to reshape East's culture, personnel, and systems from the ground up, says Van White, the school board president.
"They've created something homegrown here," he says. And they understand that it will need continuous improvement, White says.
Some of the changes are substantial, such as restructuring East into three smaller groups: the Lower School, which is grades 6-8; the Upper School, which is grades 9-12; and a special intervention program for ninth graders.
Adding sixth graders to East means that teachers can spend more time preparing students for high school, Nelms says.
"We wanted to get the kids earlier because a number of kids were coming in reading and writing well below proficiency," he says. "In math skills, about 98 percent were below grade level."
The ninth-grade intervention is necessary because historically, 52 percent of East's ninth graders have lacked the credits to move to 10th grade, which is a huge indicator of whether they'll graduate, Nelms says.
The school came up with a simple credit-tracking system so that students wouldn't end up in their senior year without the proper credits. A card on the back of all student ID cards tells students which exams they need to take and the credits they still need to graduate.
"Last year, we had about 75 percent of the students move from ninth grade to 10th with the right credits," Nelms says.
The UR also emphasizes a multi-tiered social-emotional support system for East's students. The school added counselors and social workers, but much of the day-to-day support work is done in family groups. Each group has about 10 students and what Nelms calls caring parent figures or "carents" – sometimes two to a group.
"We help them track their own progress, problem-solve, and how to mediate issues they may be having with someone in the building," he says.
For instance, a female student who returned to school after being suspended told Nelms that she was going to get into a fight that day. But Nelms coordinated with staff to defuse tensions and the fight was avoided.
"She didn't really want to fight, but she knew one was coming and she didn't know how to avoid it," he says.
Another significant change involves both staffing and rehabilitating East's broken systems, Nelms says. All of East's employees had to reapply for their jobs, but that surprisingly didn't result in a huge turnover.
But the process did make it clear that standards would be high, starting with a desire to work specifically at East, says Steve Uebbing, a professor with the UR's Warner School of Education. Uebbing, who leads the UR's supervision of East, wasn't just looking for teachers to buy into East's turnaround; he wanted them to own it, he says.
"They've supported East's turnaround plan because they helped to create it," he says.
Firing everybody and starting over with an entirely new staff wouldn't have worked, anyway, Nelms says.
"You had systemic issues that even the best teachers with the best of intentions may not have been able to change," he says.