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City school board seeking change and solutions 

Guest Commentary

It's difficult to read Mary Anna Towler's January 29 Urban Journal and not notice the pessimistic tone expressed throughout the essay. She, understandably, notes that things "just [keep] getting worse" as the district continues its "slide down."

She certainly is not alone in her views. She correctly notes that our own superintendent has described the district's bureaucracy as "overwhelming" and has said that the district is "too badly broken to fix by itself." Moreover, and more importantly, I'm convinced that far too many staff, students, and families have given up all hope as they have come to believe that our district is broken.

But, as Towler states, this is no time to "throw up our hands" and just complain about how broken the system is. Instead, the very people who feel like throwing up their hands in despair are the same individuals who must have a hand in fixing what is broken.

This means that the school board, superintendent, and every teacher, principal, parent, and pupil must work to repair what is broken and replicate those things that we know work. Indeed, as Towler states, "everybody in the community needs to take a good, hard look at themselves and their peers.... What we need right now is for each peer group to come up with solutions...."

Thankfully, that process has already begun. My colleagues on the Board of Education and I recently empaneled four Special Committees. These committees (which are made up parents, students, and other community activists and stake holders) are taking a "good, hard look" at issues like student achievement, school and community safety, concentrated poverty, and parental involvement. I've participated in a number of these meetings, and I think the community will be pleasantly surprised, at the end of the 45-day period, by the solutions these citizens have come up with.

In addition, I recently released my 45-Day Action Plan. You can see the details by going to and clicking on the Commissioners' Corner. Many elements of this plan are already in place. For example, it has come to the attention of the board that, over many decades, past superintendents have routinely ignored very thoughtful and potentially impactful board policies and directives.

For example, in 1997 the Board of Education passed Board Policy Number 0220, which extolled the virtues of having small schools. Everything we knew then and know now tells us that students perform better in small schools and smaller classroom. Policy Number 0220 specifically required that the superintendent "provide periodic updates to the board on the success of small school units, and provide school and student assessments on an annual basis." Notwithstanding that clear mandate, not a single report has ever been issued.

The Small Schools Policy also required that "the superintendent establish a broad-based committee (including administration, teaching staff, parents, students, and community partners) to develop administrative guidelines and fiscal guidelines for small school units." However, I've asked around, and no one can recall, within the last 17 years, when we've had such a committee.

Another very important example of our failure to simply do what we said we were going to do is Board Policy Number 1900: the Parent and Family Engagement Policy. That policy specifically requires that "prior to the end of each academic year, the superintendent will report to the Board of Education on the effectiveness of the implementation of this policy." Despite the importance of parental engagement to our success as a district and the importance of evaluating and monitoring the effectiveness of our parental engagement strategies, our staff has not been able to find a single annual report issued on this important subject since this policy was first passed in 1991.

We have found 23 instances of sound, thoughtful board policies that have been passed over the last two decades and that have been largely ignored. Accordingly, I have asked Superintendent Vargas to conduct an immediate Implementation Review of existing board policies and directives and to design a work plan for bringing Central Office into compliance with all board policies. I have also asked my colleagues on the board to change the format of the superintendent's work performance evaluation so that every year, every superintendent is evaluated on whether he has fully complied with every school board policy.

Moreover, it is important that conversations regarding how to improve our district go beyond what the superintendent and the Board of Education do or do not do. Accordingly, my 45-Day Action Plan also calls for the development of a Parental Engagement-Involvement Report Card, so that parents can also consider how they might become more involved and thereby improve the outcomes of our district.

Finally, there has been (and will continue to be) a concerted effort by members of the Board of Education, the superintendent, Central Office staff, and, of course, our committed core of district social workers, to knock on doors and talk face-to-face with the students who are missing in action. Put more simply, if we want to find our way as a district, we must first find our students and identify meaningful and effective ways for them to return to school.

Indeed, our entire approach to fixing our district and restoring hope is quite simple. Begin by doing the things we said we were going to do; do the things we should be doing; and replicate the things that we know we do well. This is how we will renew the confidence of those we work with and how we will restore the hope of those we work for.

Van White is president of the Rochester Board of Education.

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