Superintendent Bolgen Vargas is focusing on extended school hours and a longer academic year in his attempt to reform the Rochester school district.
The new All City High School, which opens in September, will have a longer, more flexible school day. And it will be open on Saturdays. Now Vargas says he wants longer hours and a longer year in at least eight more schools by the fall of 2013.
Making that work, however, will require the support of the Rochester Teachers Association. And critics doubt that will happen, beyond a possible pilot school or two.
But Vargas says he's confident teachers will agree.
"Teachers want this," he says. "They recognize that our students need this."
The pathway for a deal has been in place for years. A 2005 agreement signed by former Superintendent Manny Rivera and RTA President Adam Urbanski created a mechanism for tweaking the teachers' contract by allowing for the creation of "School Level Living Contract Committees."
The committees would be comprised of teachers and principals at the schools where changes to the existing contract are proposed. Teachers could negotiate to work longer or staggered hours, or maybe a combination of both, Urbanski says. At least 80 percent of the teachers at the school would have to agree to the proposed change.
"It essentially gives teachers the ability to negotiate an agreement for that school that automatically trumps the master plan," Urbanski says. "It's the opposite to a one-size-fits-all approach. It's quite revolutionary."
The concept has gained traction. Teachers at All City High School will work staggered hours. And teachers at Northeast College Prep almost unanimously approved a change in hours.
Vargas says he also wants to implement longer hours at Monroe High School. Monroe, like East and Charlotte, is on the state's list of schools in need of improvement. District officials got state approval to try to improve student performance at those schools instead of phasing them out.
Vargas says his approach to reform starts with extended hours because he agrees with those experts who say that poverty is an obstacle to student performance in urban schools. But it's increasingly clear that those students can reach performance standards if they're given more time to learn, he says.
But city students also need "wraparound" support at the school level, Vargas says. At least some of the added time needs to go to intervention and support services ranging from counseling to help with core subjects, he says.
The third leg of Vargas's reform plan is to make city schools more interesting to students and families. That could include more music, sports, and arts programs. But it could also include a dual language program, depending on the needs of students and families in that school.
Vargas says his reform approach shifts attention away from the district as a whole and emphasizes the unique needs of students in each school.
"Now when people say to me, 'I want to do something to help the district,' I say, 'What can you do to help this particular school?'"