Friday, May 2, 2014

Tough talk from East High's suitor

Posted By on Fri, May 2, 2014 at 3:30 PM

If the Rochester community is serious about giving students a quality education that prepares them for college, then things at East High School must change. 
click to enlarge FILE PHOTO

That was the message from Gillian Williams, president of School Turnaround, at a special meeting yesterday. The Rochester school board is considering hiring the organization to take over East. School Turnaround specializes in improving failing schools. 

Williams and John Taylor, Turnaround’s executive director, met yesterday with the school board committee reviewing Turnaround's proposal. 

In a presentation that lasted over two hours, Williams and Taylor said that East’s biggest problem is size. The school is too large to be managed effectively, they said, and their first recommendation is to create a smaller learning environment.

In a large school setting, students can easily become disconnected from their teachers, they said, and relationships to adults who can help them become strained. 

East has some excellent programs, they said, and creating new ones isn’t necessary. The school’s academic problems, according to Williams and Taylor, have more to do with implementation that lacks focus and intensity. East doesn’t adhere to what they call a “no excuses, no exceptions” commitment.

Williams said she that she wasn't there to fire East’s staff, but that her experience as a principal in a Bronx school taught her that success requires high-energy employees committed to change. And some teachers and staff may not want to be in that kind of working environment, she said. 

Exactly how East’s staff would be selected will clearly require negotiation with the Rochester Teachers Association and it’s president, Adam Urbanski. But yesterday’s presentation was soft on those details.

Similarly, though School Turnaround has called for a significant reduction in East's enrollment, exactly how students would be selected isn't clear, either, except that Williams repeatedly said yesterday that she is not seeking a demographic change in the student body.

Williams also defended a proposed partnership with Empire State College for teacher development. The college, which is part of the SUNY system, has experience with online learning, she said. 

Yesterday’s meeting was sparsely attended; Superintendent Bolgen Vargas didn't attend, even though he was the one who put out the call for an organization to partner with East. But many of those who did attend the presentation were somewhat impressed, particularly by Williams’ confidence and directness.

Next steps: the school board will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 6, at the district’s central office, 131 West Broad Street, to hear a alternate plan to School Turnaround's proposal. The board has to select at least one plan to submit to the State Education Department by Thursday, May 15.

The May 6 meeting is open to the public.

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