If someone wants to open a charter school in Rochester, the path is pretty c
lear. You apply to either SUNY or the State Education Department’s Board of Regents. If the founder gets it off the ground and three years later he or she wants to start another school just like it, the process is expedited. Charters can be replicated and they don’t count against the state’s charter cap.
But if you want to open a new school inside the city school system, good luck. The route isn’t so clear.
At a meeting with the city school board’s Excellence in Student Achievement Committee last night, John Bliss, a co-founder of Urban Choice Charter School and a former district teacher, presented some school board members with a proposal for a new school. Bliss recommended opening a school that resembles one of Boston’s Pilot Schools. Those schools are a hybrid of traditional public schools and charters, operating with characteristics of both.
The Pilot Schools were started in the late 1990’s as an experiment, and they operate with considerable autonomy. While the Pilots generally have labor agreements with teachers like most traditional public schools, teachers and parents helped develop the schools’ programs. Some Pilots have performed well, and some haven’t.
Bliss proposed a school that would leave the district’s central office in control of most administrative duties, such as payroll, food service, and facilities maintenance. The school’s teachers and parents would be responsible for the curriculum, teacher development, and student and parent engagement.
The school would have an executive director to handle administrative duties, while the principal would be responsible for academic achievement and coaching teachers. Bliss also proposed making a parent liaison a key position.
But Bliss’s proposal ended on a strange note. While board members Van White, Mary Adams, and Cynthia Elliott expressed interest in the proposal, no one could advise Bliss on what steps to take next. White said he has been trying to get school officials to duplicate some of its most successful schools such as School of the Arts, but he’s been unsuccessful.
White said he would call Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, to solicit his support.
In a phone interview today, Urbanski agreed that the route to opening a district school is unclear. The best route, he said, is through a section of the RTA contract referred to as the Living Contract.
“It allows any city public school to reconstitute itself with a clean slate,” Urbanski said. Salary, benefits, and disciplinary actions against teachers are not negotiable, he said, but everything else is. Eighty percent of that school’s teachers would have to agree to the changes.
And there’s another problem: Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has long resisted proposals for opening new schools and phasing out old schools. That leaves folks like Bliss trying to turn around one of the district’s poor-performing schools. Though not impossible, it’s a tall order.