Thursday, August 22, 2013

King uses Rochester as example in fight with Buffalo school leaders

Posted By on Thu, Aug 22, 2013 at 9:30 AM

President Obama's visit may be enough to temporarily shift Buffalo's attention away from the fairly public brawl between Buffalo schools Superintendent Pamela Brown, the school board, the teachers union, and State Education Commissioner John King.
  • John King.

King hasrejected several attempts that the district has made at coming up with turnaround plans for two of Buffalo's worst performing schools. And King''s been quite public about his anger, most of which is triggered at the notion that Buffalo school officials are being treated unfairly, according to an opinion piece in the Buffalo News. 

King has summoned Buffalo school officials to Albany to co-draft the plans that they can't seem to develop on their own. 

In a strange turn of events, King has apparently publicly praised Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas for being frank with parents and community leaders about the crisis in this city's schools, and the urgent need to get serious about improvements.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

If the Miami school district can do it, can Rochester?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 21, 2013 at 12:24 PM

Though Miami-Dade is a much larger school district, there are plenty of similarities with the Rochester district in that most of Miami is African American and Latino, and the majority of students are poor. 

There was an interesting story on National Public Radio about the remarkable turnaround in that district led by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. Miami-Dade now has an 80 percent graduation rate. But it wasn't always that way.

The district was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2008 when Carvalho took over. The state was threatening to take control of the district because most of the schools were failing, and the school board and the former superintendent were constantly battling. 

What did Carvalho do? He slashed the budget, cutting administration to the bone. He didn't fire a single classroom teacher. Instead, he moved the strongest and most dynamic teachers into the most challenging classrooms. And he made peace with the school board.

While there are still some critics in Miami that dispute the increase in the graduation rate, Carvalho says that the data has been verified by the state.  

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Senecas casino announcement: what was the point?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 21, 2013 at 11:21 AM

Yesterday's announcement that the Seneca Nation of Indians is looking at Henrietta as a possible casino site caught a lot of people by surprise, including town officials. Many people are trying to figure out what the nation's announcement is supposed to accomplish.

Last night, I caught a Twitter conversation between WROC reporter Rachel Barnhart and WHAM reporter Sean Carroll. Carroll and Barnhart, both seasoned local reporters, said that it's likely that "others" are still vying for the casino.

They're probably right. I think the announcement was meant to cause some commotion. And the cynic in me wonders if the Senecas are trying to stir up competition between Rochester-area elected officials and developers; maybe trying to see who, exactly, is interested in getting a casino and who will give the nation the most favorable terms. 

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Old tree reaches the end of its life

Posted By on Wed, Aug 21, 2013 at 7:00 AM

The city plans to cut down this old-growth oak tree in Washington Grove. The tree has been struck by lightning twice and has a rotted core. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • The city plans to cut down this old-growth oak tree in Washington Grove. The tree has been struck by lightning twice and has a rotted core.
Sometime within the next few weeks, the City of Rochester will take down the oldest and largest black oak in Washington Grove, a stand of old-growth trees adjacent to Cobbs Hill Park. The tree is actually one of the largest black oaks in the country.

When a tree like this gets cut down, it can alarm the public. But in this case, the action is necessary, says Peter Debes, a naturalist and member of Friends of Washington Grove. The tree's long history is catching up with it. It's no longer healthy, Debes says, and it poses a danger to neighbors and park visitors. The tree is rotting at its core, he says, which is a particular problem since the tree now leans into Nunda Boulevard.

"It's virtually hollowed out," says city spokesperson Gary Walker.

The city tries to avoid cutting down trees within the grove unless it has to, Walker says. But in this case, if the tree falls it'd probably take out power lines and may damage neighboring property. The city hasn't yet scheduled a date to take the tree down.
The tree owes its current state to a pair of lightning strikes dating back at least 15 years, Debes says. The tree completely healed from the strikes, he says, but during the long healing process, insect and fungal infestations set in, which weakened the tree. 

"This is what happens to older trees and eventually causes their death," Debes says.

The city's forester has promised Friends of Washington Grove that the group will be able to take a slice of the tree trunk, Debes says, which will reveal how old the tree is. And the group wants to match historical information to some of the growth rings, creating a display similar to the tree section shown at the entrance to the Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Black ministers to speak out against city schools

Posted By on Tue, Aug 20, 2013 at 1:46 PM

Updated August 21, 2013 at 9:50 a.m.

Superintendent Vargas understood the ministers' request for a meeting concerned an employee matter, and he cannot legally discuss such issues, according to Chip Partner, the district's spokesperson.

With regards to concerns about the school day scheduling changes, Partner says that parents in some schools were notified well in advance of the scheduling changes. But the state just approved the plans for the schedule changes in another group of schools only days ago. The notification of those changes was included in the district's calendar it mails to parents. The calendar is for the 2013-2014 school year and provides parents with information about events, activities, and important contact information.

The Baptist Ministers Alliance and Rochester Ministers At Large say they are angry over the city school district's plans to extend the school day at some schools. They say that the plans weren't properly explained to parents.“[The district has] a knack for making decisions on behalf of our children that the parents don’t even know anything about,” says the Rev. Willie Harvey, a spokesperson for the ministers. 

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Music teachers fight for time

Posted By on Tue, Aug 20, 2013 at 11:19 AM

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas promised city students and parents that he would increase the district’s offerings in arts, music, and sports. How well that is working depends on who you ask.

District officials say that programs in arts and music in particular are more widely and evenly distributed to all schools than they used to be. But some music teachers addressing the school board last night described a time erosion that they say leaves them with hardly enough time to teach.

For example, kindergarten through fourth graders had 60 minutes of instruction per week last year in some schools. But in the fall they’ll have roughly 35 minutes. That includes transition time — the time it takes students to get from one class to the next.

“Have you ever tried moving kindergartners to another floor?” one teacher said. “It’s like herding cats.”And some music teachers split their schedule with art teachers with 10 weeks on and 10 weeks off. Music teachers say that kind of schedule works well for art, but it isn't enough time to prepare for many of the music events that students like to participate in like band or choir. 

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Monday, August 19, 2013

More questions on solitary confinement and inmate mental health

Posted By on Mon, Aug 19, 2013 at 12:22 PM

Last year, a pair of publications criticized the use of solitary confinement in New York's prisons. A report from the New York Civil Liberties Union and an article in The Nation said that officials' often impose the punishment arbitrarily and excessively.

A new article, published last week by ProPublica, questions state prisons' use of solitary confinement on inmates that may have mental health issues. The story sums up the problem this way:
A 2007 federal court order required New York to provide inmates with "serious" mental illness more treatment while in solitary. And a follow-up law enacted in 2011 all but bans such inmates from being put there altogether.

But something odd has happened: Since protections were first added, the number of inmates diagnosed with severe mental illness has dropped. The number of inmates diagnosed with "serious" mental illness is down 33 percent since 2007, compared to a 13 percent decrease in the state's prison population.

A larger portion of inmates flagged for mental issues are now being given more modest diagnoses, such as adjustment disorders or minor mood disorders.

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WEEK AHEAD: Rochester school district meetings

Posted By on Mon, Aug 19, 2013 at 9:41 AM

The Rochester school board’s financial committee will hold a meeting at 5:30 p.m. today, with the full school board present. That meeting will be followed by the school board's regular monthly meeting at 6 p.m. The majority of resolutions involve approvals for hiring full- and part-time staff before school begins. Both meetings will be held at the board’s central office, 131 West Broad Street.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Albany is going to fix urban schools

Posted By on Fri, Aug 16, 2013 at 10:13 AM

First it was mayoral control; now we may be looking at Albany control of some urban school districts. The very idea is almost laughable. We’re talking about Albany, New York, frequently described as the most dysfunctional state government in the country.

But New York Education Commissioner John King is pushing for a bill that would allow the Board of Regents to take over school districts with histories of low academic performance or financial problems.

Emily Richmond, a blogger for the National Education Writers Association, makes a couple of interesting observations in a recent article about state takeovers of schools. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is pushing to take over Camden’s school district. And the Jersey City, Paterson, and Newark districts are already under the state’s control. The latter has been under state control since 1995, and it continues to struggle, writes Richmond.

The Jersey districts are predominantly high poverty and high minority districts, which could describe school districts in many urban areas, including Rochester. Advocates for state control use many of the same reasons as advocates for mayoral control: low test scores, low graduation rates, and union resistance to change.

And the problems with state control have a familiar ring, too. It’s a dramatic change that doesn’t produce immediate results, and may not improve student achievement at all. State control often injects political mayhem into districts, particularly when it comes to choosing new leadership.

Out go elected boards and in come appointees, often cronies and loyalists.

Wiping the slate clean and creating an entirely new school system seems to have a little more promise, writes Richmond. That’s what happened in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.

Parents and voters should think about letting legislators give King and the Board of Regents any more power. New York isn’t flourishing with solutions from Albany.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Westport Crossing developer sues Village of Pittsford

Posted By on Thu, Aug 15, 2013 at 12:56 PM

The developer of the proposed Westport Crossing project in Pittsford — better known as 75 Monroe Avenue — is now suing the Village of Pittsford to stop it from applying a section of its local laws. Although the suit deals only with this development, it could ultimately have a broader effect, preventing village residents from appealing Planning Board decisions through the village Board of Trustees.

The village has a law on the books that lets any "applicant or interested person" appeal a Planning Board decision via the village board. And that's just what the Friends of Pittsford Village and two village residents, Justin Vlietstra and Michael Reynolds, did on July 17, challenging the Planning Board's July 10 preliminary approval of the project's site plan.

Vlietstra, Reynolds, and the Friends group said that the site plan failed to meet criteria set by the village board in a regulating plan. That plan, which the village board approved in December, basically sketches out the allowed number and size of the buildings as well as the approved footprint of the project.

Earlier this week, the project's developer, Pittsford Canalside Properties LLC — an affiliate of Mark IV Enterprises — filed suit against the village challenging the law that permits the appeal by Vlietstra, Reynolds, and the Friends.

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