There are a couple of new options on the table to improve East High School. Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas announced today that he wants to create three schools within the East High campus: a middle school foundation academy for seventh and eighth grades; a separate academy dedicated to ninth grade; and an academy for grades 10 to 12 dedicated to creating career pathways.
And it will be revealed at a school board meeting tonight that the University of Rochester has agreed to get involved in the situation at East. The extent of the university's proposed involvement is not yet clear, but the idea is to give the school initial support, and then ask the State Education Department for time to develop a comprehensive plan. The school board and the SED would have to approve both the Vargas and the UR plan.
Vargas is under orders from the SED to come up with a plan to drastically improve academic performance at East. The plan is due by May 15.
Under the Vargas plan, the East schools would operate year-round on an 11-month schedule. And for older, under-credited students who may have other commitments such as working part time, there would be an opportunity to receive instruction on a flexible daily schedule.
Younger students in grades seven to nine would be broken into teams. The same teachers, for the most part, would instruct them through all three grades.
Vargas says East would strengthen its careers in technical education offerings and adopt a program offered by Linked Learning to blend career education with core academics. The program has been successful in Detroit and Houston, and it helps to combine students’ interests with pathways to careers either after graduation or with some additional training. The three programs at East – optics, teaching and learning, and culinary – would be enhanced, Vargas says.
Vargas also envisions East as a neighborhood school, and he wants to reduce transportation costs and the amount of time students spend on buses to give them more time at school.
The plan would require 50 percent of East’s teachers to be transferred out of East and replaced. And the school would get new leadership, too, and there would be one principal for all three East schools.
Vargas defends his recommendation for the phase in-phase out plan, though he says he understands that the public may be skeptical. When he became superintendent, he inherited 10 schools that were being phased out. And about 35 city schools were in some form of major transition, Vargas says.
He says he found that many students were phasing out of school all together and that the transition left many of them disconnected from school.
“Phase in-phase out is not a strategy by itself,” he says. “There needs to something to address the problems. But what can you expect when you’re moving 35 schools all around?”
Though he says he’s not assigning blame, he says he found that 138 students at East had not attended school for one to three years. And no one seemed to notice, Vargas says. “That doesn’t include students with 70 or 80 percent attendance,” he says.
Vargas’s plan and the UR proposal are alternatives to a recent proposal by School Turnaround, which urged dramatically reducing East’s enrollment to a more manageable 700 students from its current 1,600 to 1,800 students.
Turnaround, a nonprofit that specializes in rehabilitating failing schools, would assume full management of East. This model for turning around schools is another approach blessed by the SED, but educational partner organizations are hired by and report to the school board. In the phase in-phase out approach, Vargas would still supervise East.
Vargas says that he received interest from other organizations, too, such as Johns Hopkins University, but they could not prepare a plan given the short response time required by the state. If his plan is ultimately the one chosen, Vargas says he will ask the SED to delay implementation a year.
“We want to have the time to plan and implement it properly,” he says.