Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Serious questions about East's potential savior

Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2014 at 5:07 PM

School Turnaround, the organization that may be charged with rehabilitating East High School, has 48 hours to respond to a barrage of questions, says board president Van White. The committee that screened the proposal had numerous questions at a meeting yesterday, White says, and more questions followed the meeting.

click to enlarge City school board president Van White. - FILE PHOTO.
  • City school board president Van White.
“These are really thoughtful questions that should be explored,” he says.

Turnaround’s representatives will also be invited to Rochester to formally present their proposal to the community, White says. Though there is no indication at this point that Turnaround’s proposal will be approved by the board, White says it’s important that the State Education Department recognizes that the proposal was given serious consideration. Turnaround is affiliated with Rensselaerville Institute.

Working with an Educational Partnering Organization is one of the options that the SED will approve to fix persistently failing schools such as East.

The school, which at roughly 1,800 students is the city’s largest high school, has been on the state’s priority list for three years. After East failed to meet improvement goals, the SED told Rochester schools superintendent Bolgen Vargas that he must come up with a plan to fix the ailing school.

Turnaround’s proposal was the only response to Vargas’s request for a partner organization. In an executive summary, Turnaround promised to raise East's graduation rate to 100 percent. The summary also said that East's graduates would be college ready.

As intriguing as that sounds, the proposal also comes with terms that require serious deliberation, such as removing East’s current principal, Anibal Soler, and replacing him with a new principal trained by Turnaround. The proposal also refers to a process requiring the teachers at East to reapply for their jobs.

And Turnaround envisions East as a school of about 1,000 students, which concerned committee members, since there was no explanation of how the students would be selected or what would happen to East’s remaining 800 students.

One of the biggest hurdles the proposal presents is the nearly complete change in staffing and how that would achieved given the current labor agreements protecting teachers and principals. The labor agreements can be renegotiated, says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, but they can’t be nullified.

“The superintendent and I had this conversation and the contracts would continue to apply,” Urbanski says. “A group can’t just come in and do whatever they want.”

Urbanski said he has not read Turnaround’s proposal, “but we should be careful about any proposal that requires that we reduce the number of students in that school by 40 percent or more.”

Urbasnki said that teachers would retain their seniority rights built into the current RTA labor agreement, which means that teachers displaced at East would be able to bump a less senior teachers at different schools. 

And he recommends extending the time frame for finding a partner organization. Some organizations could not respond in time, Urbanski says, but are interested in submitting a proposal.

“With only one proposal to choose from, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is not a choice,” he says. 

During the last 15 years, there’s been a slew of nonprofits and businesses that have jumped on the fixing-bad-schools bandwagon. A 2010 article in the New York Times describes it as a virtual education gold rush with many companies pursuing the billions that the Bush and Obama administrations have been pouring into overhauling failing public schools.

“Many of the new companies seem unprepared for the challenge of making over a public school, yet neither the federal government nor many state governments are organized to offer effective oversight,” says a Times source. Overhauling schools is challenging, and few efforts succeed, according to the Times piece.

One former school consultant who has worked on turnaround projects and asked not to be named, says that turning around a failing school is possible, but several things have to occur. The consultant, who is familiar with Rochester’s schools, says that the most important issue is raising academic standards because low performance is what gets the schools in trouble in the first place.

And excellent, high-quality programs are needed to engage students. Often schools in this situation have students performing at multiple levels, he says, so creating, niche, highly personalized programs to meet the needs of different student groups is necessary. 

“You’ve got to have options that are meaningful to students,” he says.

But with declining enrollment, the Rochester school district is undergoing a major contraction that impacts everything from building space to staffing. For instance, prior to yesterday’s committee meeting to screen the EPO proposal, board members heard from dozens of students, parents, teachers, and non-teaching staff concerned about staffing cuts in the proposed 2014-2015 budget. The event was further evidence that low-performing schools inject the entire system with instability, a condition that feeds on itself.

The board has asked Vargas to present an alternative option to School Turnaround's proposal in early May, and the superintendent has to present the SED with a plan to fix East by mid May. 

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