Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Could the city school district be the next Oldsmobile?

Posted By on Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 10:10 AM

There was plenty of brie, sugar cookies, pizza, and beer at two holiday parties I attended last weekend. And there was also a lot of chatter about the city school district.

“Remember General Motors in the 1970’s?” asked one partier. “They built cars and trucks, they weren’t any good, and buyers began looking elsewhere. That’s the city school district.”

It’s not exactly a fair comparison, but there are some similarities.

While schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas promotes his proposal to overhaul the city’s aging schools, he’s also been contemplating what to do about the district’s failing schools.

Out of 60 schools, more than 50 are now on the list of what the State Education Department calls priority and focus schools. The designations are given to the state’s lowest performing schools. And Vargas will soon have to submit plans to Albany on how to improve many of them.

The SED still offers the same group of options on how to go about this: closing the schools, phasing out low-performing schools and phasing in new schools, turning the school’s performance around, or a complete redesign of the school. The latter usually requires partnering with a nonprofit company on the latest program showing promising results.

The SED approves and then funds whatever approach is taken. But the problem is the Rochester school district has tried so many, and it’s difficult for parents to point to one that’s been an overwhelming success.

Just like GM customers found alternatives in the 1980’s and 90’s, district parents are seeking alternatives, too. Stopping the flow of city students to charter schools is hard to imagine. It’s even harder imagining how the district can stop middle-class families from leaving the city. Fewer parents are buying what the district is selling.

And as GM executives learned, once the brand is damaged it’s difficult to woo customers back to the showroom floor.

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