School Turnaround has responded to a lengthy list of questions from the Rochester school board regarding its proposal to take control of ailing East High School. But Turnaround’s answers leave many issues up in the air, such as concerns about staffing, student enrollment, discipline, and labor contracts.
Turnaround, an affiliate of Rensselaerville Institute, is the only educational partnering organization that responded to Superintendent Bolgen Vargas’s request for a proposal to help correct academic problems at East. The organization responded to questions from a special committee of the school board responsible for screening Turnaround’s proposal. The committee is holding a meeting this afternoon to review Turnaround’s answers.
Much of Turnaround’s proposal draws from charter school models that emphasize rigor and continuity. So far, we know that Turnaround wants to reduce the student population at East to 700, less than half the school's current enrollment. Parents and students would be required to attend an information session and make a written commitment to higher performance standards.
Turnaround says it would keep East’s program for students with autism. But it also says it wants to work with district officials to reach an agreement on the number of special education and English Language Learners that East would enroll.
Students with attendance issues would be linked to a staff member who would serve as a mentor and academic coach. Parent engagement would be increased through an intensive communications program, Turnaround says, that encourages parenting that makes education a priority in the home, volunteering, and involving parents in school decision-making.
Turnaround would enforce the district’s current code of conduct policies, with discipline administered progressively. And it would still include in-school and out-of-school suspensions. The approach would shift, however, from punitive to more of a restorative justice style of discipline.
Students would also receive increased instruction in math, literacy, and science through roughly two-hour blocks, with assessments and interventions as needed, Turnaround says. And though students would be accepted into East’s seventh grade even if they don't meeting math and English proficiency levels, Turnaround makes it clear that low student performance would not be acceptable moving forward.
It’s hard to argue with some of Turnaround's responses; parents and district officials might even find them refreshingly assertive.
But it’s unclear what would happen to the students who would be forced to leave East. And how bilingual programs and career and technology options for students would be offered is unclear, too.
Questions and answers regarding teaching staff and labor agreements were not addressed in Turnaround's responses, either. Obviously, a smaller East would require fewer teachers. So, what happens to the rest?
And how would a proposal like this impact the district’s multimillion-dollar modernization program? Isn’t East being remodeled as a large high school suitable for 1,800 students?
The biggest concern with the proposal is the timeline. Superintendent Vargas and the school board are facing a difficult task and they don’t have a lot of time to deal with it. In 15 days, Vargas has to sell a plan for fixing East to the State Education Department.
Considering that months and sometimes years are needed to plan the opening of a new charter school, it’s naive to think a plan to dramatically improve one of the worst performing schools in the area can be whipped together in a few days.
It seems that whatever agreement is reached and approved by the State Education Department, that Vargas and the school board – as well as taxpayers — could be well served by an independent audit committee that tracks the entire agreement from beginning to end. Numbers can be easily manipulated. We need to know if the same students entering East’s ninth grade are the same students graduating as seniors before victory is declared on graduation rates.
At least we'd know why the chosen approach works or doesn't.